Why are War Thunder images appearing in the background of Russian propaganda clips?

War Thunder
(Image credit: Gaijin Entertainment)

Update 03/06/2023: The original version of this article listed Gaijin Entertainment's current studios as including one in Moscow. Though the developer was founded in Moscow it no longer has a studio there and this has been amended. 

With regards to the allegation of sponsoring video adverts in the Donetsk People's Republic, Gaijin Entertainment's Konstantin Govorun writes: "Basically, we never 'bought' any advertisement on that channel. We are not purchasing anything directly from YouTube channels except a handful of extremely big ones. We either pay YouTube itself, or we pay advertisement agencies in order to get advertisements in bulk and all over the world. The agency that ordered an ad in the video in question took it down when they realized they might drag us into a political discussion. So it was not us who ordered the ad, and neither agency nor we paid for it, and the ad was cancelled, and no sponsorship happened."

Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing conflict in the region has had knock-on effects all over the world. It's crossed-over into gaming from the start, with Ukraine's foreign minister calling for various big publishers and platform-holders to boycott Russia (most of which have), and most recently a controversy over Atomic Heart, a game of Russian origin that, say detractors, ultimately helps fuel the Russian war machine.

A new and confusing front opened up over the weekend. War Thunder, a game best-known for its fans' habit of leaking classified military documents to win arguments (over and over again), has turned up in the background of a Russian propaganda video. The clip, circulated widely on social media by eastern European media outlet Nexta.tv, features various shots of Russian troops doing Russian troop things, being inspected, awarded medals and so on. It's fairly standard patriotic fare for the home crowd.

Around 15 seconds into the clip, however, there is a shot of Sergei Shoigu, Russia's minister of defence (the figure on the left), and colonel general Rustam Muradov (right), sitting in front of at least two propaganda-style posters that prominently feature official War Thunder art.

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War Thunder's developer, Gaijin Entertainment, has its headquarters in Hungary and offices in Germany, Latvia, Cyprus, Armenia and UAE. Its founding in Russia in 2002 has however led to the claim it is somehow participating in or supporting Russian propaganda. An additional piece of context here is that Gaijin Entertainment sponsored YouTube videos two years agomade in a military training camp in the Donetsk People's Republic (a region of Ukraine that became a breakaway state in 2014, and was annexed by Russia in 2022). Gaijin says this was a mistake outside of its control.

There are still those that will say one Russian link may be a mistake: Two looks like carelessness. However, Gaijin Entertainment tells PC Gamer that it wasn't even aware its imagery was being used in this way until the above clip began circulating.

"We were not even aware of this usage before we saw it on social media," said Anton Yudintsev, founder of Gaijin Entertainment. "So we can only guess who and why did that. Some lazy 'designers' tend to download random pictures from the internet, without any respect to copyright, instead of actually creating something. This happens to many pictures and videos from games, including War Thunder, and was probably the case here as well."

Call me Mr. Credulous but that explanation has at least an air of plausibility to it (and Gaijin of course could have chosen to not say anything). What this reminds me of is when a picture of a murdered Russian diplomat turned up in a Telltale game, an incident subsequently used as propaganda by Russia, where the most likely explanation was that a stressed Telltale artist had google image searched 'assassination' and grabbed one of the first images they found.

Whatever explanation we go with, this is another of the unsettling ways that the Russo-Ukraine conflict has become one of the first real social media wars, with its effect being felt across all spheres. With games it's sometimes been bizarre, such as when copies of the Sims turned up in a propaganda video, but also downright tragic, such as an incident where individuals were shot and killed by Russian security forces, but were likely Stalker larp-ers rather than terrorists. Within Russia itself, the country's government is panicking about the collapse of outside investment in its tech industries, including games, and is embarking on numerous nationalist schemes to build its own from the ground-up: Which so far is going about as well as you'd expect.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."