Columns, Opinion

Gaming the System: The games industry also feels the cruelty of economic sanctions

Economic restrictions have been a tool in nations’ diplomatic arsenals for a long time. In the case of the United States, for instance, its sanctions on Cuba began as far back as 1960, and it also used them on Iraq prior to invading. The sanctions it applied to Iran and North Korea even persist to this day.

Sanctions are a common foreign policy tool, perceived as more civilized and less harmful than true combat, and were therefore one of the first levers the West pulled after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Assets belonging to the Central Bank of Russia were frozen, other Russian banks and companies were stopped from making transactions with American or European clients, Western exports of technology to the country were shut down and so on. 

Retaliation from online services has also been swift and devastating. Major social media platforms have almost unanimously ducked out, with TikTok suspending its service to Russians, Twitter adding partial restrictions and Facebook being blocked in the country.

Most relevant to my column are video game sales, which have also changed accordingly. Individual publishers like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts have blocked digital sales of their games in Russia, and similar restrictions have come to online marketplaces belonging to Valve, Microsoft and Activision Blizzard, among others.

Kacper Bazan / DFP Staff

It is no secret that old-fashioned sanctions — those directly on the economy rather than on Internet services — have disastrous effects on a country. The CIA openly admitted that their blockade caused malnutrition in Cuba in the 1990s, and the sanctions currently squeezing Afghanistan are depriving hospitals of basic supplies such as dressings for wounds. 

All of this punishment inflicted on civilians is of course not felt by the rich and powerful in foreign countries — the ones who actually bear responsibility for missile tests and invasions. Studies regularly show that sanctions only increase income inequality in victim countries. They aren’t all that effective at changing policy or deposing governments either. 

Video games are obviously not necessities for those who play them, but even in their production and sale we see the innocent being punished for the misdeeds of their governments. This doesn’t just refer to people barred from buying them. Game developers, who make their living by selling games, are unable to get paid right now if they collect paychecks through Russian or Ukrainian state-owned banks. 

Those who work on other online services are also being hit hard. People who make their living posting on YouTube are in trouble as Google blocks all monetization for Russian accounts. 

We can imagine how this would affect content creators for every conceivable topic. For example, Aleksei Pivovarov, profiled in the New York Times, made news videos on topics ignored by Russian government media, but his livelihood is now in limbo. 

My discussion of the cruelty of sanctions is not an apology for the military actions of Russia or Ukraine. War is hell, and an unmitigated tragedy. The fact that it is already so terrible, though, is precisely why sanctions are even worse. 

They only twist the knife jabbed into civilians who didn’t instigate the war. Further, they don’t even achieve the diplomatic goals that justify their use in the first place.

The gaming sphere and the internet are some of the many places where the negative impacts of sanctions on working people are felt. So why do we continue to do them? Perhaps because a foreign policy that actually targets the oligarchs in Russia would also be a threat to the oligarchs at home.

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