1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

War games: Is Ukraine video game exploitative or positive?

Roman Goncharenko
May 29, 2023

A new video game in which users attack Russian forces with drones has triggered a debate about ethics. The German developer says he just wants to fight back in some way and that he will donate some of his profits.

Screenshot of a drone in a forest from the videogame "Death From Above"
Fighting with drones in the video game, "Death from Above"Image: Hendrik Lesser

A company from Germany has developed a video game called "Death From Above" based on the war in Ukraine. The game, which simulates a drone attack, was launched Thursday on the online distribution platform Steam in "early access" mode — that is, it is still in development.

Even before the game's release, there was discussion about the ethics of such a game given the ongoing war in Ukraine. Some considered it tasteless while others praised the satirical approach and even compared the game to Charlie Chaplin films; Chaplin made a Hitler parody, "The Great Dictator," in 1940. 

"It's a propaganda game," said Hendrik Lesser, a gamer and owner of the Munich-based company Remote Control Productions, which brings together more than a dozen smaller gaming companies in six countries. His company developed "Death From Above."

"We deliberately made a simple game that anyone can play, and in which we take a clear position," Lesser said. "To a certain extent, we deal with the subject humorously."

The game's plot: A player takes on the role of a Ukrainian soldier who pilots a drone, bombs Russian war machinery and fighters, and in the end restores radio communication.

'Holy Javelina' from the US

The first version of the game is bilingual and comes in English and Ukrainian. You play a Ukrainian soldier for 90 minutes and drop bombs on Russian tanks marked with the letters "V" and "Z", but also on people called "Russian occupation forces." 

The action takes place in fictional locations. The game is peppered with Ukrainian symbols. There is a sunflower field and the drone leaves a trail in colors of the Ukrainian flag.

There's also plenty of what Lesser calls "humor," for example a meme of the "Holy Javelina," which is what the US anti-tank weapon Javelin is nicknamed in Ukraine, or a wanted poster for the International Criminal Court with the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The developer sees his game as part of the so-called NAFO tradition, a pro-Ukrainian internet community that fights Russian propaganda online and is known for its viral memes. The acronym stands for "North Atlantic Fellas Organization" and is a loose association of thousands of Internet users all over the world. 

Donations for Ukrainian army

Ukrainians have collaborated on the game too. The most famous contributor is the band Antytila (Ukrainian for antibodies), whose war songs like "Fortress Bakhmut" are very popular in Ukraine. In May 2022, the band performed in the Kyiv subway with Irish rock legends U2.

For the game Antytila wrote the song "My Falcon" ― that is the name of the Ukrainian version of the game. Singer Taras Topolia told DW that the most important thing for them was that the game would generate donations for the Ukrainian army.

U2 Bono Ukraine U-Bahn-Station Konzert
U2 frontman Bono (left) with Antytila singer Taras Topolia at their concert in May 2022Image: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS

The developer promises to initially donate 30% of profits and then after they have recouped thier costs, as much as 70% of the profits, to two Ukrainian initiatives that provide "non-offensive assistance" to the Ukrainian army. The initiatives in question are the Ukrainian "Come Back Alive" foundation and the "Army of Drones" project.

Lesser said he has been assured that the money will be used to buy reconnaissance drones but not fighter drones. But, he admitted, he can't be completely certain of that. 

Taking part in the 'infomration war'

" It's perhaps a bit tasteless to depict an ongoing war in a relatively trivial game," Benjamin Strobel, a German psychologist who focuses on digital games, told DW. "Death From Above" could also be accused of mixing political activism with economic interests, he said.

Still, Strobel praises the developers for openly professing to engage in pro-Ukrainian propaganda and considers the game part of the information war raging around the conflict in Europe.

"We as a society have to answer the question of whether we want to be part of this information war," he said.

"If the game reflects the situation on the battlefield, where militaries fight militaries, it is justifiable," said Diana Dutsyk, head of the Ukrainian Media and Communications Institute, and a member of Ukraine's Commission on Journalistic Ethics. 

However, she would be disturbed "if the game provoked violence against civilians on ethnic grounds," she said. That would be just as bad as calls on Russian television to kill Ukrainians.

Screenshot of a tank from the videogame "Death From Above"
Drone perspective: A tank seen in "Death From Above"Image: Hendrik Lesser

Raising money for drones

Antytila singer Topolia believes the discussion on ethics is something best left to those not involved with the war. He and his bandmates fought in Ukraine's territorial defense during the first months of the war. "In our battalion, 45 children were left without fathers," he said.

Topolia said he was sure the game would "inspire people to donate [money] for drones" and perhaps motivate some to "join the army and learn aerial reconnaissance."

Meanwhile game producer Lesser wants to develop the game further. He'd like it to be able to eventually be played in pairs. His main motivation, he says, is the desire to "fight back," even if that is not on a real battlefield.

This article was adapted from German.