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'Digital Resistance': Siberian Game Racks Up Political Points

Barnaul-based Dagestan Technology has found its niche producing computer games with a distinctly political or topical flavor.
Barnaul-based Dagestan Technology has found its niche producing computer games with a distinctly political or topical flavor.

BARNAUL, Russia -- Many in Russia and around the world were appalled when 23-year-old Barnaul resident Maria Motuznaya was put on trial last month for posting on social media memes that prosecutors argued contained hate speech and insulted the feelings of religious believers.

But for local computer-game developer Roman Lakrua, the case was just fodder for his latest brainchild, a game that would come to be called Digital Resistance. In the game, an evil corporation called RKM, with a logo strongly reminiscent of the logo of the state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor (RKN), has established totalitarian control over the Internet in a dystopic world similar to that of the film series The Matrix.

"According to the plot of the game, [RKM] underwent certain changes after it took over the whole world -- and that is why there are changes in the [logo] design and the name of the controlling organ," Lakrua tells RFE/RL's Siberia Desk. "I don't think it will cause any problems, since it is just a slight reference, but we all know how these things sometimes end up."

He says 15 percent of the profits from Digital Resistance will go to help Motuznaya's legal defense. Motuznaya is just one of several Russians who have ended up in legal hot water because of things they liked, shared, or posted on social media in recent months, at least three of them in the Siberian city of Barnaul.

'Hot Topics'

Lakrua's company, Barnaul-based Dagestan Technology, has found its niche producing computer games with a distinctly political or topical flavor. Some of the company's current titles include Navalny 2018: The Rise Of Evil; Bloodbath Kavkaz, a reference to violence in Russia's southern Caucasus region; and Dungeons Of The Kremlin.

"From time to time we create projects on hot topics," he says. "Usually these games are created at our request and using our resources because of our personal interest, in order to enliven society, make a name for ourselves, and stimulate a discussion. Sometimes they become something of a statement on our part, a certain expression of our position, although we try to be ironic and to relieve tension in society."

Roman Lakrua
Roman Lakrua

The political overtones of the games have been good for business so far, Lakrua adds. Bloodbath Kavkaz and Navalny 2018 are two of the firm's most successful endeavors.

In Navalny 2018, which refers to opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's thwarted attempt to run in the March presidential election, players send drones over the "dangerous" estates of corrupt officials, navigate their way through Russian jails thronging with thugs and abusive cops, and avoid being dosed in zelyonka antisceptic, a liquid that has been used in attacks on Navalny and other political opposition targets.

Explaining the Rise Of Evil subtitle to the Navalny game, Lakrua says it is a reference to the image of Navalny disseminated by Russian state media, as well as to a viral video that compares the anticorruption fighter with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

Lakrua describes the company's audience as largely males aged 14 to 35 with "liberal views." "Our creations might create an unsettling impression on 'patriots,'" he says.

Lakrua says his company has been following the prosecutions for social-media posts closely. "Barnaul has become 'famous' as the global capital of extremism and, of course, that doesn't make us happy," he says. "We can understand the security forces. They also want to live well. They need bonuses too."

'Hope For The Future' Or Just Distraction?

Peter Pomerantsev, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and author of the 2014 memoir Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible, tells RFE/RL that the emergence of computer games as an informational medium is a logical development that shows "how creative the Russian resistance can be."

"It gives a lot of hope for the future," Pomerantsev says.

At the same time, however, he sees a danger that such games, with their focus on entertainment, could "become a sublimation of political activism instead of a support for it."

"Instead of doing real activism, people just get rid of their stress in the virtual world -- which his fine for the government," Pomerantsev says.

For his part, Lakrua also stresses the divide between virtual resistance and real-world activism. "We are just a publisher of computer games," he says. "We are just a publisher of computer games."

"We are not a rights organization or a political movement. I think Masha [Motuznaya] has everything that it takes to become a political figure, a sort of Russian Joan of Arc of the era of 'late stability.' I think she is the person who can organize and head a rights organization capable of taking up this cause."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Ksenia Smolyakova of RFE/RL's Siberia Desk