The movers and shakers of the video game industry in the Balkans say they are helping to bridge ethnic divides. But what about players in the neon-lit gaming lounges of Belgrade, Pristina and Sarajevo?
By Amalia Koleka
K.,a Kosovo Albanian video gamer, savours his encounters with Serb players in the online world of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the hit first-person shooter game known to tens of millions of aficionados simply as PUBG.
He likes to upload these multi-player fights to Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, where some have been watched as many as 200,000 times.
The thrill, says K., is in getting ‘virtual’ revenge for the 1998-99 Kosovo war, when Serb forces massacred and expelled Kosovo Albanian civilians in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that ended only when NATO intervened with 11 weeks of air strikes.
K. was born after the war ended, but so what?
“For us it’s like real war; it’s a chance to redeem our name and intimidate them, show them we are strong,” he told BIRN, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Writing in The Guardian in 2018, the author and journalist Keith Stewart described PUBG as “all rage and death”. The player descends into a large area, locates weapons and tries to kill everyone else, i.e. other people playing the game. The last player – or team – standing is the winner. As of June last year, it had been downloaded 236 million times. It’s particularly popular in Afghanistan.
The Balkans even has its own official PUBG league where players like K. can compete for prizes.
Critics of such violent video games, however, say they can enhance aggressive feelings and actions, a potentially worrying effect in a region still coming to terms with the bloody demise of socialist Yugoslavia, where narratives of what went on during the fighting vary wildly.
Young people, with only an inherited understanding of the wars, are particularly vulnerable.
But though K’s example is a worrying one, what if it wasn’t all ‘us against them’?
Just like travelling?
The academic research indicating a link between violent video games and aggressive behaviour offline is extensive.
But some members of the Balkans gaming community argue they are doing more good than harm.
“What I like about gaming in the Balkans is that it brings people together, the community is always a Balkan community – there is no Bosnian community, no Croatian community, no Serbian community. It’s a Balkans community, a mix… Let’s say the level of tolerance is much higher than usual in games,” said Mihajlo Jovanović-Džaril, co-founder of Belgrade-based Fortuna Esports, where the best players from the region go head-to-head in the Esports Balkan League, EBL, across three shooter titles.
“It’s similar to travelling,” Jovanović-Džaril told BIRN, speaking in English. “People come back more open-minded… and realise these ‘others’ are not some fantasy but real people, like them.”
Ethnic hostility is “punished hard and fast,” he insisted. “In other areas you will see people even encouraging those kinds of fights or rivalries, or ways to spark emotion and drama, but in gaming it’s something that is really frowned upon.”
With their intricate ‘lingo’ and social codes, the gaming community takes to gaming social media channels such as Discord and Twitch to stream, watch and comment on matches.
Jovanović-Džaril cited the case of a professional player from Brcko, an autonomous, multiethnic city in northeastern Bosnia. “Whenever he plays it’s something people fight on – is he Bosnian? Is he Serbian? Which passport does he have? Which flag does he play under? It’s something we try to ban as fast as possible,” he said.
“You can all cheer for him; we can agree he is ‘ours’. But please, if you start fighting on if he will declare himself a Bosnian or Serb you will get banned and we won’t have you here anymore… If players are not making that differentiation for themselves, why should we make it for them?”
‘Something to bond over’
Serbians, Bosnians and Croatians have the benefit of – more or less – a shared language. But Kosovo Albanians of K’s generation are now far less likely to speak the language of Kosovo’s former master, Serbia.
Besnik Thaqi, a Kosovo Albanian former professional gamer and now CEO of Xportal Esports, said he always spoke English with his fellow competitors from around the region. “I had lots of fun with them,” he said. “Our communication was great.”
According to Thaqi, in the early days of esports, when playing rooms were divided according to language, when Kosovar players joined Serbo-Croatian rooms they would be told to “go back to their own rooms”. But on the organisation level, Thaqi said he never encountered any pushback.
“I remember there was a Serbian organiser for a CS GO [Counter-Strike: Global Offensive] tournament who helped out our Kosovar duo,” he recalled. “He supported us so much and went out of his way to promote us.”
Jovanović-Džaril told BIRN: “It means a lot for younger generations to have something to bond over, and something that they all feel much more emotional about than anything that happened in the past. I think it will be a great natural way to bring our region closer together.”
Some academics have suggested that, because video games are more interactive than typical visual media such as television, they may be well-suited to reduce prejudice and bias.
The potential, however, appears to vary between violent and non-violent video games and the context in which they are played.
“If you are playing a violent video game and you are playing it with friends, might be in the same room or might be online, it might enhance the aggression effect because you are getting approval from people you care about for behaving aggressively,” said Dr. Douglas Gentile, professor of developmental psychology at Iowa State University.
“Or, it might actually mitigate the aggression because you enter it with the prosocial motivation to help your team.”
Priming ‘already-existing biases’
While the best players, competing at the highest level for sometimes significant prize-money, may benefit from interaction with other top players from across the Balkans, academics have long been concerned about the impact of such violent games on young people knocking back energy drinks in the dark, smoke-filled gaming lounges of Pristina, Belgrade and Sarajevo.
Thirty years of research have taught Dr. Brad Bushman of Ohio State University that violent video games make aggressive ideas more accessible. If you play repeatedly, they are always accessible, and if you play enough, aggressive thoughts can become chronically accessible.
“I have friends who are medical students, for example, and the first time they do an autopsy maybe they throw up or pass out, but after they do it over and over and over again they tell me it’s like cutting through clay,” said Bushman. “It’s the same for exposure to violence.”
Gentile gives the example of a child getting “bumped by a school mate”.
“Because he has been practicing an expectation of others being aggressive, he stops thinking it was an accident and assumes the other kid meant to do it,” he told BIRN.
“That tiny change in perception changes everything. So the child will most likely react aggressively. But the interesting thing is, if a fight breaks out, it’s going to look nothing like what he/she practiced in games. They are not copying games. That’s not how it works. The effect works at a much subtler psychological level.”
“The list of American medical associations on record as saying violent video games cause aggression goes on and on,” Gentile told BIRN. “It doesn’t mean that if you play it you will go shoot up a school… It means it changes the way you see the world and the way you think. It shifts the odds in a way that over time you will end up getting involved in more aggressive encounters.”
There are examples, however, of games that appear to have a more ‘prosocial’ character, requiring the player to inhabit a character whose sole purpose is not simply to kill.
According to ‘Proteus Effect’ theory, “inhabiting an avatar changes a player’s attitudes and behaviour in the real world… and causes media users to shift their self-perception by adhering to a new identity,” Dr. Priska Breves, Assistant Professor at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, wrote in a research paper published last year when she was a research fellow at the University of Wurzburg, Germany.
Possible examples are the Polish-created ‘This War of Mine’, in which a player adopts the role of a civilian trying to survive the siege of Sarajevo during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. In ‘Attentat 1942’, developed by Charles University in Prague and the Czech Academy of Sciences, the plot revolves around a young boy trying to find a relative who has been arrested through navigating survivor testimonies.
Taking the idea further, in the Balkans, for example, players could be asked to take on a digital identity from another ethnic group. But examples of such ‘prosocial’ games are hard to come by.
“The one thing with violent video games is that they force you to adopt the perspective of the killer, not the victims,” said Bushman.
‘‘Others’ are not others’
A quarter of a century since fighting ended in Croatia and Bosnia and just over 20 years since the war in Kosovo, many gamers in the Balkans have no personal recollection of the collapse of the Yugoslav federation.
So what possible influence do games based on the Yugoslav wars have on young Balkan players?
“I’m sceptical about recreating these things and if it would actually help,” said Gentile.
“For it to help, what it would need to do is not glamourise. It would need not to reinforce, it would need to show that ‘others’ are not others, they are no different from you and me. It would need to show that violence is never the solution, that it is damaging not only to the victim but also the perpetrator and his family and the victim’s family.”
“Very few media do that and certainly no games do that,” he told BIRN.
Gentile said violent games need not be modelled precisely on local contexts; they just need to be similar and have telling marks of ‘others’ to reinforce existing hostility.
“If a game came along that just happened to be like one of these groups, similar in some way, it would prime already-existing biases” that a person may have tried to get rid of, he said. “It would reinforce them; it would bring them back to be more available.”
Games also tend to rewrite history. Arma Srbija, for example, offers scenarios based on the 1991 siege of the Croatian town of Vukovar by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army and another called Operation Racak based on the actions of Serb security forces in Kosovo in 1998-99.
In the real world, Vukovar was reduced to rubble during the 87-day siege and more than 200 Croatian prisoners of war and civilians taken from a hospital and executed; forty-four Kosovo Albanian civilians were massacred in the village of Racak in January 1999.
In the game, the player takes on the perspective of a Serbian soldier taking on the enemy.
Poised to join the pantheon of Balkan war games is Kosovo War: 2033.
Adrian Krasniqi and Muhamed Nanovqe, both 21, were still in school when they first imagined designing a video game based in their hometown of Prizren, southern Kosovo. It took the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic for them to get serious.
A multi-player shooter, Kosovo War: 2033 pits hardened soldiers against heavily-armed guerrillas battling for control of Prizren, arguably Kosovo’s most charming town best known these days for hosting the well-regarded documentary film festival DokuFest.
But barely two decades ago, Kosovo was the backdrop for fighting between Serbian forces and the ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.
Krasniqi said they had “modelled the city centimetre by centimetre.”
They deny ‘replaying’ the war, saying neither the soldiers nor the guerrillas are strictly “good or bad” and that players will have to switch sides.
But, admitted Krasniqi, they risk being accused of trying to demonise the Serb side, which was vanquished by NATO air strikes to halt the massacre and expulsion of civilians.
“We anticipate a lot of criticism,” he said, though the release date is still not set. “People will think we’ve created something to put down the other side, but that’s not the case… We just want everyone to have fun.”