Video games depicting armed military combat have come a long way from the rudimentary, textureless early iterations of Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. But what happens when graphics and gameplay collide and progress to a point where they can fool casual observers into mistaking gameplay for reality? While Fox News and company would like to use realistic games as a scapegoat for mass murders, there’s a far more real and present danger already occurring: countries and state actors are using game footage to spread misinformation. Now, one major game developer is calling on users and media outlets to cut it out.
Bohemia Interactive, the Prague-based developers behind the hyper-realistic military simulation Arma 3 released a blog post this week addressing the growing trend. The developers cited examples of their games being mistakenly cited in news coverage supposedly depicting scenes of war in Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and increasingly, the Russian war in Ukraine.
“While it’s flattering that Arma 3 simulates modern war conflicts in such a realistic way, we are certainly not pleased that it can be mistaken for real-life combat footage and used as war propaganda,” Bohemia Interactive PR Manager Pavel Křižka said in a statement.
The developers say Arma’s open “sandbox” approach to level design and extreme modability by its community makes it a uniquely immersive experience but also some with the downside of being attractive to bad actors looking to misrepresent the images for nefarious reasons. Bohemia says it initially attempted to respond to examples of their game images being used incorrectly by flagging respective social media platforms where they proliferate but said those efforts were usually futile.
“With every video taken down, ten more are uploaded each day,” Křižka added. “We found the best way to tackle this is to actively cooperate with leading media outlets and fact-checkers (such as AFP, Reuters, and others), who have better reach and the capacity to fight the spreading of fake news footage effectively.”
Still, the developers said there are some telltale signs internet users and members of the media can look for to determine if a seemingly authentic war image came from one of their games. For starters, observers should watch out for unusually low quality images with poor resolution. Most phones in 2022 are capable of taking HD photographs and the developers say obfuscators will often intentionally pixelate still images pulled from video games to confuse viewers. Bad actors may also film footage of the game with another camera to make the image appear shaky for dramatic effect.
Additionally, images pulled from games will often appear during night sequences in an effort to hide the game’s lack of detail. Odd particle effects and waverly robotic looking character models should also raise red flags. Oh, and if you can see an ammo counter or health bar in the bottom corner of the screen, it’s probably fair to assume that’s a game too. Despite what Microsoft might want you to believe, metaverse warfare isn’t quite here yet.
“Lastly, we would like to ask the players and content creators of Arma 3 to use their game footage responsibly,” the developers said. “When sharing such materials, please refrain from using ‘clickbait’ video titles, and always state clearly that the video originated from a video game and is not depicting real-life events.”
Russian government and state media impulses to misrepresent video game footage dates back prior to the county’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2018, Kremlin control Channel One TV aired a brief, second long clip of gameplay where a sniper zooms in on a target during a segment honoring a soldier killed in Syria. Prior to that, Russia’s Ministry of Defense used still images from a game called, C-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron in social media posts accusing the United States of refusing to carry out airstrikes against ISIS. A year before that, the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom used a hilariously bad image of truck convoys pulled from Command & Conquer as evidence suggesting extremist forces were moving truckloads of chemical annunciation near Aleppo.
Why exactly the pro-Russian entities continue to use these images remains baffling, particularly during the Ukraine conflict. Since Russia began its invasion in late February, the internet’s been awash with images and videos documenting every step of the conflict. This glut of content has even led some commenters to dub the conflict the world’s first viral war. At the same time, acknowledging the war is, ahem, actually a war, could lead to a prison sentence in Russia.
The fake war images aren’t limited to video games either. Videos depicting apartment fires in China, free falling aircraft from 2017, ammonium nitrate explosions in Beirut, and footage of American-made F-16 fighter jets have all been misattributed as scenes from the Ukrainian battlefront.