Back in October, a video clip started doing the rounds on social media, showing what appeared to be the Ukrainian artillery attacking Russian tanks. The footage was shared thousands of times across social media platforms.
There was just one small problem; the footage in question was not real.
It was, in fact, a video of gameplay from Arma 3, a military simulation title made by Czech studio Bohemia Interactive.
This is far from the first time the game has been used to fake footage of warzones. In the past, Arma 3 has been used to spoof videos of conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria, as well as military action between Israel and Palestine. It’s even been used to fake videos of a fictional war between India and Pakistan. This isn’t even the first time that footage of the Ukrainian war has actually turned out to be Arma 3 footage.
Bohemia decided enough was enough. In November, the studio decided to publish a blog post outlining how the general public and media could tell whether warzone footage was real or whether it had been created in a game. This was the first time the studio had publicly addressed Arma 3 being used in this way.
“We've been dealing with these videos for a very long time,” PR lead Pavel Křižka tells GamesIndustry.biz. “They’ve mostly been from Arma 3 and previously from Arma 2. Arma 3 has been heavily used, mostly on social networks, to make videos that look like footage from real-life combat situations. We've been dealing with that very often.
“But nowadays, of course, because of the war in Ukraine, these videos are gaining huge traction. We felt like we needed to react officially to show that we knew about the problem, and that we are dealing with it. We also wanted to educate the general public and even the media, which sometimes take this footage as real as well.
“The blog post was mostly to show that we are aware of the problem and we are not happy that our game is used to spread fake news and is used in war propaganda. Some people might think it's a big promotion for the game, which is true, but certainly, it's mostly negative for us.
“No developer wants their game to be used in such a way.”
Despite this footage being used to spread fake news on social platforms – often fooling huge media institutions, too – Křižka says that the origin of these videos is generally far more innocent in nature. Overall, they’re just people trying to get attention on social media.
“These originate over on YouTube from various people trying to get views,” he explains.
“They mostly don’t intend to spread propaganda; they just want their YouTube channel to be huge, so they use clickbait titles in their videos. When it becomes a problem is when it goes viral, or when media and state organizations take the videos as representing supposed real-life combat with it.”
This has been going on for a long time now. For almost ten years, Bohemia says it has been trying to work with platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, flagging these videos in the hopes that they are taken down.
"No developer wants their game to be used in such a way"
“This process was never-ending and very ineffective,” Křižka says. “It takes a lot of time and communication with the platform owners, and in the end a particular video might be removed – but by then another 10 videos are uploaded.”
As a result, Bohemia has started reaching out to fact-checking organisations, as well as media like Reuters and AFP, in recent years to try to fight this misinformation.
“This way of combating these videos is the best from our point of view,” Křižka says. “These organizations and media have much better tools and reach to effectively fight with. At least once or twice a week, I'm in touch with such fact-checkers – generally, they just send a video and ask for us to confirm whether it is from Arma 3 or another game. This proves to be quite effective. But we definitely can't remove every video that is being uploaded. It's a never-ending process even now.”
Given how quickly companies like Take-Two and Konami can take down footage of leaked gameplay or trailers from platforms like YouTube, one would assume that the same would be true of Arma 3 footage being portrayed as footage of real wars. The problem, Křižka explains, isn’t necessarily the videos themselves but rather the sheer volume of them.
“We are still flagging the biggest ones in this case, but over the entire internet these days there are hundreds, maybe thousands of videos like that. It's very, very hard for us. We don't have enough capacity to go through all the videos on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and so on, and try to flag them down.
"First of all, we are game devs. We need to concentrate on our job. And also, sometimes it’s hard because – for example – on YouTube, the video can have a clickbait title, but then deep in the description of the video or at the end of the video, they write that the video is actually recorded from a game. Most people don’t read video descriptions. So, we can't even do anything with that. It's a very delicate process in this case.”
There’s an argument to be made that Arma 3 being used in this manner is the result of the way it is designed. It’s meant to be a realistic simulation of modern warfare, with users having the ability to change and tweak the game to their heart’s content via mods. But at the same time, this is what allows it to be used to fake videos of war footage.
“We are very unhappy about the situation,” Křižka says. “There's probably not much more I can say because it's not possible to stop this. It is, however, possible to fight it. We are trying our best. For developers, the game is their baby, and no one wants to see the product of their hard work to be abused in this nefarious way.”
Currently, Bohemia is working on Arma 4 and Arma Reforger, a ‘stepping stone’ game between the third and fourth iterations of its military sim. Given how the issue of Arma being used to spoof war footage, we have to ask whether the studio is changing its approach to the game. The short answer is no.
"It's not possible to stop this. It is, however, possible to fight it. We are trying our best"
“We can't say much about Arma 4 at the moment, but it definitely will still be an open and creative platform for people to modify their liking,” Křižka says. “It's being powered by our new Enfusion engine, which is even more open for modability. With Enfusion and games that will be powered by Enfusion, we are giving users what we call Enfusion Workbench. This is a set of tools that even our developers are using. We will give our communities very strong tools with which they can change the game to be how they want. Arma 4 differently will be open for modding, but it's still some years away.”
He continues: “We will think about how to make it as hard as possible for people to misuse our products for spreading fake news and making propaganda videos. With Steam Workshop now, when there are illegal mods, they are removed. But if the mods are legal, we definitely don't want to remove them just because they were used in some propaganda video. We value the creative freedom of the people. And it's really a shame when it's misused.”
Bohemia is far from the only games company whose products have been used like this. As the Russian war against Ukraine began in February, footage of a Ukrainian MiG-29 taking out invading planes was widely shared on social media. The pilot – dubbed the Ghost of Kyiv – was quickly credited with shooting down at least six Russian aircraft and served as a morale booster for Ukrainian forces. They also didn’t exist. The footage was from 2013 video game Digital Combat Simulator.
Bohemia has probably been fighting one of the longest battles against its game being misrepresented as real-life footage, so we have to ask what advice the studio has for companies who are going through the same thing.
“Well, it depends,” Křižka says. “Some games are not that easy to mod. So if the game's vanilla content is used in war propaganda, it's likely against the end user's license agreement, and legally it might be easier to remove anything nefarious. It's much more difficult when your game is open to modifications.
"We can't remove every video that is being uploaded. It's a never-ending process"
“In this case, it's harder. But our way of working with media and fact-checkers seems to be the best way when there are a huge amount of videos popping up all over the place. If it's like tens of videos, then it's definitely within the game studio’s capacity to fight it one by one. But in our case, that's not possible.”
Though the misuse of Arma gameplay footage is clearly something that bothers the studio a great deal, there isn’t a specific team at Bohemia tasked with combating this. Rather it’s a responsibility spread across the entire company.
“Basically, everybody in the studio is fighting this,” Křižka explains. “We watch a lot of videos about our game, so whenever someone sees such a video – whether they’re devs or in marketing or whatever – are flagging it down to us. We, of course, have a legal department but they are dealing more with the consequences of this, but there's no one here that browses the internet all day every day whose job is solely to do such a thing. We are concentrating more on our work in game development.”
Křižka admits that Bohemia could hire some staff or even a team to handle this, but says that like most companies in games, it doesn’t have enough workers and needs to focus on the battles it can win.
"We could, but you know how it is,” he says. “These days, like a lot of game studios, we don't have enough people. And need to hire some expert developers. And it's a big fight to sign some workers for us. There will be fighting on too many fronts.”
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