“Get in the ditch! Get in the ditch! The enemy is there, 200 meters from you, in the bush,” says a voice, as a soldier runs, trying not to get shot.
“He fell. The sniper seems to be chasing us out of that bush. Cover me when I run over and drop the bomb,” the voice says. After a few seconds, an explosion is heard, but the bursts continue.
These are not scenes from a war movie but a conversation between a group of players immersed in a video game in which one of the missions is to stop Operation Storm, which took place in real life in August 1995, when Croatian forces retook the self-proclaimed republic of Srpska Krajina from rebel Serbs in a military offensive.
In addition to many hundreds of civilian deaths, some 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee their homes as a result of the operation, in what was described as the war’s largest exodus of Serbs.
Several video games can be found on the Internet that simulate military conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and some of the missions take place in locations where war crimes were committed. The most popular game platform in Serbia is Arma Srbija, where users gather to play simultaneously in real time on the Internet.
It is a so-called first-person shooter game, in which players fight together as soldiers from one side against enemy forces. They publish recordings of their games on the YouTube platform of the same name, which has about 2,400 followers.
One of the Arma Srbija videos is called Operation Jashari, which simulates actions by Serbian forces from March 1998, when one of the commanders of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), Adem Jashari, was killed in a three-day siege along with more than 50 members of his family. Only a 10-year-old niece survived.
“Our task is to liquidate Adem Jashari,” reads the description of the video, which was published in March 2019 and has almost 135,000 views to date.
In February 2019, a video of game play titled Operation Racak was published and has received almost 70,000 views. In real life, 45 ethnic Albanian civilians were killed by Serbian-led security forces in the Kosovar village of Racak. The massacre sparked international outrage and was one of the factors that led to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that ended the bloody two-year war of Kosovar independence. The massacre is not mentioned in the video game.
The games are player-produced modifications — or “mods” — of Arma, a series of tactical military games produced by Bohemia Interactive, based in the Czech Republic.
A spokesman told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that “we’re not specifically aware that there is a mod based on conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but we’d also not be surprised if it exists.”
As the popularity of such mods increases, and as extremists increasingly incorporate elements of video games into their propaganda (and even into their attacks), the trend has left some wondering whether gaming that attempts to rewrite history should be banned.
“As for mods that have a controversial story setting, we see that they are usually created by users who feel the desire to learn more about certain historical events. They are curious and want to experience how it was. If that’s really the motivation, then we think video games can play a very powerful role in the way we look back at past conflicts — complementing the stories told in books, movies, and other media,” Bohemia International spokesman Korneel van ‘t Land said.
However, he adds, if someone creates a mod with the idea of spreading hatred or inciting violence, “then we consider it very worrying.”
On its Facebook page, Arma Srbija offers users “great joint games with Russian, Greek, and other fraternal communities,” adding: “What neither the best servers, nor the most beautiful mods, nor the largest white world communities can offer you is a unique experience of virtual warfare side by side with Serbian soldiers…many years of experience, and quality of play, of which only our community can boast.”
A Tool For Extremists
So-called “gamification” has emerged recently as a topic of discussion concerning extremist violence and online propaganda. The term came into wider use after the terrorist attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany, on October 9, 2019, in which the attacker broadcast the assault live via a camera attached to his arm in the style of a first-person shooter game.
CNN called it “the gamification of terror,” drawing parallels with other far-right attacks.
“Even people criticizing the attacker shows how these attacks have become gamified — their criticism was that his ‘score’ wasn’t high enough. That’s the way these people think, that these attacks are to be consumed, scored, and dissected like a video game,” Jacob Davey, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a U.K.-based counter-extremist organization, told CNN.
The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has been particularly proactive in using elements from Western popular culture — especially video games — to lure potential recruits. One of IS’s main propagandists, Junaid Hussein, once tweeted: “You can sit at home and play Call Of Duty or you can come here and respond to the real call of duty…the choice is yours.”
Many extremist organizations have developed games or modified and adapted existing ones for their needs, writes Linda Schlegel, a PhD student at Goethe University in Frankfurt who researches online radicalization, in an article for European Eye On Radicalization, incuding Lebanon’s Hizballah and the U.S. far-right website The Daily Stormer.
Schlegel told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. They can also encourage those who are prone to violence, she says, but notes that such cases are rare.
“Many may talk big, but it will only be a small minority that is inspired by the game and, especially, the social environment surrounding the gaming experience, and exhibit a change in real-world behavior,” she said.
Djordje Krivokapic, co-founder of the SHARE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that monitors the state of human rights and freedom on the Internet, told RFE/RL that he believes video games — as a type of contemporary art — have the freedom to interpret certain events, as long as such interpretations do not go beyond legal frameworks.
“If someone makes a mod for a video game that gives an interpretation of a war crime, it should be viewed, in my opinion, the same as if someone published a book in which he gives an interpretation of that same war crime,” Krivokapic said. “If such an interpretation is contrary to positive legal regulations, if it calls for the spread of racial or religious hatred, then such a book or game must be banned in the way that such acts are prohibited.”
According to Maja Zilic, a program assistant at the nongovernmental Youth Initiative for Human Rights, the denial of war crimes committed during the wars of the 1990s has existed in various art forms in Serbia for years, so it’s not surprising that such denial also exists in video games.
“I played Call Of Duty and many other games and it didn’t make me a worse person,” Zilic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “But if there is denial and hate speech that are not condemned in public, then how can we expect them to be condemned in a game that is not so well-known to the public?”
As one person commented on one of the gaming videos on YouTube: “I spent 15 months in the war in Kosovo. I don’t think it’s like a game.”
Written by Dan Wisniewski, based on reporting by Dusan Komarcevic, Maja Zivanovic, and Asja Hafner of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service
This post was originally published on Radio Free.