This summer, I was one of thousands of Americans visiting St. Petersburg, Russia.  Which may not seem like a big deal, except growing up it was something I never thought I would do.

During the 1970s and 80s, the specter of the Soviet Union still cast a cold shadow over Western Europe and American foreign policy.  There’s nothing today – even the threat of terrorism – to compare it to, so it’s hard to explain what life was like to someone who didn’t live it, just as it was hard for my parents to explain it to me.  My time was nothing compared to what they went through.  My grandfather came of age during the Battle of Britain.  My granny watched the planes of Hitler’s Luftwaffe fly over her home on their way to bomb London.  In the late 1950s they brought my mother to the United States aboard the Queen Mary, trying to get as far as possible from the Soviet Union’s reach.  The Berlin Airlift wasn’t just an event to be yawned over while trying to stay awake in history class, it was something that dominated an entire year of their lives and epitomized the struggle between the ideologies of western democracy and Stalinism.  My family’s experience and appreciation for their new home were just a couple of reasons I was inspired to serve in the Navy and protect our new home from the communist menace.

So here we are in the 21st Century, 23 years after the Berlin Wall was torn down and 21 years after Russia’s first ever free elections.  Russia and the United States have a temperate, if not warm, relationship.  Russia and the U.S. have even engaged in an equal trade partnership.  We give them billions in economic aid, our latest missile technology and “Everybody Loves Raymond.”  In return they give us organized crime, wives and smoking-hot tennis players. (Love me some Igor Andreev.)  Since the lifting of the Iron Curtain, Russia’s political and economic influence has spread farther into the western hemisphere in the last decade and a half then it did the previous 45 years.

Increasingly, Russia’s presence is being felt throughout the video game industry.  Unless you’ve been living behind your own personal iron curtain, you’ve probably heard of, if not played, Russia’s first defector, Tetris.  Created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov, Tetris (actually pronounced tyet-tree-s) hit the streets of America in 1987.  Since then its addictiveness has earned it top awards from the gaming industry.  It’s been played across every platform, mimicked and re-envisioned many times, over the decades.  Of course our good comrade didn’t earn any money for this creation because it belonged to the State.  War communism.

Tetris for the iPad. Tetris has been recreated and re-imagined on every gaming platform for nearly 30 years, but the basic concept has remained unchanged.

That’s a hard act to follow. But since 1990, Russia has been embracing the video game medium and their new-found voice for creative expression, with the creation of more than two dozen publishing and developing firms.  Leading the Russian rush to take advantage of this burgeoning market is 1C Company.  1C was established in 1991 as a software company and quickly became known as the “Microsoft of Russia.”  By 1996 they were developing and publishing video games.  Its most famous and most praised games to date come from the IL-2 Sturmovik combat simulator line.  Shortly after entering the video game market, 1C started buying out its competition and has become the publisher for more than 30 independent development companies.  It also owns more than 1,000 company stores throughout Europe.  It could be argued they’re now the “Electronic Arts of Russia.”  Oh, yes, speaking of EA, 1C also has the rights to publish EA games in Russia.  Talk about your Evil Empires.

1C is not without competition though.  In April, Russian multi-media powerhouse, Mail.Ru Group, launched the MMOFPS Warface in Russia.  Developed by Crytek (the creators of Crysis), the game shattered Russian records with more than 1 million subscribers in the first four weeks.  Mail.Ru Group plans on expanding access to other countries.

Developed by Crytek for Group, Warface quickly became one of the most popular online games in Russia.

There’s still plenty of room to fight over, too.  According to a report by the research firm DFC Intelligence, the Russian game market is the fastest growing online market with an expected growth from $500 million last year to $1.5 billion by 2016. In September 2011, Amsterdam based research firm, Newzoo, estimated that by the end of that year, Russian spending on video games (across all platforms) would grow to $1.5 billion.  Not sure how precise an estimate coming from Amsterdam can be.  Who knows what they’ve been smoking in their free time.  But I think the point is clear – Russia is a growing market.  What’s amazing about these numbers is that they’re being accomplished with a near 75 percent piracy rate and only 42 percent of its 139,082,178 people being connected to the internet.  With the increasing number of platforms such as smart phones (they love the Android) and consoles, this gaming this market is continuing to expand.  This brief report from Cursor in February 2012 clearly illustrates Russian market potential.  But not as entertainingly as me.

EA has already gotten itself a piece of that economic pie and, according to the DFC Intelligence report, Korean game publishers have recently been enjoying some success with their games, while Russian game developers have begun mimicking Korean business models.  And why not?  Koreans play their games to death.

Russians also have an advantage – one that every American gamer geek would die for – in that they have a large number of female video game enthusiasts.  The audience for games in Russia is split almost evenly between male and female users compared to 26 percent female users in the U.S.   That doesn’t seem very fair.  I guess living with bitterly cold 10-month winters does have its advantages.  Who the hell wants to go outside in that?

Professional gaming in Russia is also on the rise. Since no one cares about the male teams, pictured here is the Moscow Five female Counterstrike team. From the left: Thais Efimova, Veronica Albasheeva, Sofiko Tsaava, Christina Vilyamovskaya and Alla Kurysheva. It’s a proven fact there are no unattractive female gamers. Anywhere.

Even the Russian government has gotten involved with the video game industry. Not like the U.S. government, which holds congressional dog and pony shows berating developers for their game content, instead of berating parents for their crappy parenting judgment.

In June 2010, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev said, “There is a gaming industry in Russia that I believe can be very significant for the upbringing of our children. Russian game development exists and we have to support it. We can’t rely on foreign publishers alone.”

To this end, Russia’s Ministry of Communications requested nearly $11 million to fund the development of six games focusing on the Soviet Union’s Red Army. And for education.  Little Ivan should be learning to kill Nazis in no time.  No, seriously.

“It would be interesting to have Lenin, for example, in a game. Also to play as Stalin. I would want to manage the history of the war, making everything better,” 10-year-old gamer Ilya Nikiforov, who likes killing Nazis in video games.  I find it comforting that crappy-parenting judgment crosses all cultures.  But hey, it is killing Nazis.  Why should we deny our youth the simpler pleasures in life?  At least Ilya takes his education seriously. “These games help us to learn more about our history. I learned about the tanks, planes and weapons that were used during World War II. It’s better than history textbooks, because you can learn in more detail.”

I knew it!  Take that Jack Thomspon!  Killing Nazis is learnin’!

War games are also popular in Russia. Developed by 1C Company and Best Way, the “Men of War” series offers players a chance to battle Nazis in World War II.   You know you’re the bottom feeder of humanity when even commies love killing you.

There are plenty of events in Russian history to choose from.  There are games re-creating wars with Sweden and battles in Afghanistan.  There’s even a video game depicting how in August 2008, Russia freed poor South Ossetia from their Georgian tyrants.  Though I was in theater working as an analyst at the time, and I don’t quite remember it that way.  But I’m old. You know they say the first thing to go is… Well I forget.  (Just to clarify for the geographically challenged, that’s Georgia the country in Eastern Europe, not the U.S. state. Which should also be considered armed and dangerous.)

It also seems Russia is not pleased with their depiction in American video games.  Other than a couple of games with renegade Russian terrorists, I don’t’ really recall a lot of games hating on the Russians.  Specifically, their government took issue with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and removed the level where the player can assist terrorists in massacring civilians at a Moscow airport. (In January 2011, Russian media blamed MW2 for an attack in Moscow’s airport.)  Hardly a damning portrayal of Russian life or its people.  Though I could understand how 200 years of being ruled by crazy inbred nobles, paranoid and ruthless dictators and continually re-electing a KGB agent as presidents does leave a certain image in one’s mind.  Not mine, of course.

While Russia’s domestic gaming market is booming, and Russian developers are making steady inroads into the European market, they are still an outsider in the U.S., barely making a ripple in the $16.6 billion U.S. market. (Holy crap, people.  Get outside more.)  While IL-2 Sturmovik was a critical success, games like You Are Empty were panned by critics and users.  Other games such as Red Orchestra, Kings Bounty and Stalin vs. Martians all encountered mixed receptions.  But they are making a good effort.  To expand their U.S presence, 1C has has distribution deals with companies which have already had success in America, like Ubisoft and Atari, and their games are now available on Origin.  Russian developers should also be helped by their concentration on PC gaming, as more U.S. developers focus less on PC gaming and more on console gaming.

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia. A big country like Russia needs big paintings.

The world keeps turning and changing.  Friends become enemies.  Enemies become friends.  Video games amaze us with a single white bar batting a square dot against a white wall, then offer us jaw dropping 3D graphics.  Mobile phones the size of lunch pails barely get reception one year, the next year you’re watching porn – um, playing Angry Birds on them.  After more than 50 years of Cold War, and two decades after Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev declared glasnost (openness), Russia has finally started its march across Western Europe and is landing on U.S. shores in force.

And I’m glad they’re here.

Yes, there have been some protests against government control in Moscow recently.  Yes, the continuous re-election of Vladimir Putin is a source of fatalistic humor even among Russians.  But it seems a long way removed from the days when the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers controlled every aspect of literature, attacking and vilifying brilliant writers like Yevgeny Zamyatin whose written works did not toe the Stalinism party line, questioned the wisdom of unanimity and attacked his critics who demanded a writer’s total subservience to party dogma.  Until now we have only tasted a small sample of the creativity of the Russian people through artists such as Zamyatin, Joseph Brodsky, Dmitri Shostakovich and – yes – even Pajitnov.  Today, after centuries of being stymied beneath the heavy boots of oppressive nobles and ruthless dictators, the dam is broken, and Russia is a country overflowing with voices in all forms of art (even video games) which have only just begun to be heard.

But now, a former commie fighter is left wondering what to do with his self.

I guess I’ll go watch Red Dawn.

Until next time,