Ukraine calls to ban ‘Atomic Heart’

Ashley Hall, Editor-in-Chief

Ukraine has called to ban “Atomic Heart,” a decopunk first-person shooter, due to its pro-Soviet themes and fears of sales furthering Russia in the Russia-Ukraine war. (Art by Patrick Daniel)

The release of a new video game is usually met with excitement and positive apprehension within the gaming community, but this particular release was met with skepticism and pushback of a political nature.

On Feb. 21, Mundfish, a Russian game developer based in Cyprus, released “Atomic Heart,” a game set in an alternative 1955 Soviet Union. Players jump into the shoes of KGB agent and WWII veteran, Major Sergey Nechaev, as he wades through a technological utopia, Chelomey, where the AI robots have gone rogue.

Ukraine Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation, Alex Bornyakov, has called to ban the digital release from Ukraine and limit its distribution to other countries prior to its release. He cited concerns of data collection, the game’s pro-Soviet themes, allocation of the game’s profits and Mundfish’s possible ties to the Russian government.

On March 3, Ukraine Vice Prime Minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, sent official letters to Microsoft, Sony and Valve requesting “Atomic Heart” be banned on the PlayStation, Xbox and Steam digital platforms over these fears.

Even though Mundfish is based in Cyprus, the game developer has ties to the Russian government and has Russian investors. According to Ed Power, writer for The Telegraph, the funding and distribution of “Atomic Heart” is tied to figures from Russian-owned companies, such as Mail.RU, GEM Capital and VK Play. There are widespread concerns of the game’s profits being used to fund the Russia-Ukraine war.

“That’s a valid concern, because if you look at this scale of economic freedom, it shows that Russia is not very free at all,” Division Chair of the School of Business and Professional Studies, Joy Hambrick, said. “Most of the money that anybody will make in industry, in business, in Russia, it goes to the government.”

Russia has a freedom score of 125 on the 2023 Index of Economic Freedom Hambrick referenced, found under “mostly unfree.” The index states that Russia has “Pervasive corruption, the lack of judicial independence and disrespect for private property rights…” However, Cyprus has a score of 18 under “mostly free,” notably higher than the US score of 25.

Professor of Political Science, Teresa Hutchins, said the usage of Cyprus as Mundfish’s base of operations could be similar to US banks using Delaware and South Dakota for their head offices. An article by the Washington Post says that Cyprus is a haven for Russian technical companies wanting to escape Russia’s financial shackles.

Assistant Professor of Business and Economics, Oris Guillaume, said the sales of the game could be more important to Russia than people realize due to the current sanctions, and that the game could be used to gather information about players like any other communication medium.

Data collection is another major concern, as video games have and continue to collect player data for game development purposes. According to AIN, the privacy policy on the Russian version of Mundfish’s company website previously stated that they did collect user data and that it may be provided to Russia’s tax office and Federal Security Service.

Professor of History, Steve Blankenship, drew similarities between the alleged data collection to the way Russian spies operate.

“Their job is to understand the psychology of the American people, so that the Russians can use this information in times of conflict to attack, say, our electrical grids and computer networks,” Blankenship said. “The Russians want to know as much as they possibly can about the American people, our culture and psychology, so they know where our weaknesses are.”

AIN goes on to say that the authors of the privacy policy cite Russian mobilization laws as one of the legislatures the data is being collected under, which are used for the drafting of Russian soldiers for the war against Ukraine. It was not only for consumers and business dealers of Mundfish, but for people that did as little as visit the company website as well.

“It is… a kind of insidious little way of creeping into another culture and gathering information about consumers,” Blankenship said. “So, this could, in fact, be a part of that ongoing effort to collect information and then use this information to sow discord in this country.”

The privacy policy has been updated as of March 13 to omit the data collection clause. In an interview with GamesRadar+, a Mundfish spokesperson said, “’The website’s privacy statement is outdated and wrong, and should have been removed years ago.’”

There are many other concerns surrounding Mundfish’s intentions and the content of “Atomic Heart.” Mundfish has been criticized for not openly condemning the Russian-Ukraine war in a Twitter statement about being pro-peace, against violence and non-political. There are also alleged negative Ukrainian references in the game.

None of the accusations have been confirmed, but the coincidental connections have been a cause for concern. Critics have called for others to donate money to Ukrainian relief efforts instead of buying the game, and to support Ukrainian game developers such as GSC Game World, Vostok Games and Red Beat Studios.

Mundfish’s vision of “creating an original, captivating and unique gaming experience with their first title” will continue to be hampered by the circumstances surrounding the development of “Atomic Heart” and the political message the alternative Soviet Union seems to send.

Gamers will have to decide if a fictional power trip is worth the possibility of their money and personal data being sent to the Russian government. Wars are not only fought on the battlefield.

Guillaume said, “I would say everything we need to approach with this war will be very cautious, because nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, if it’s going to turn into World War III or not.”