Computer game “Death from Above”: What is allowed on the virtual battlefield?


Tasteless or good? A new computer game in which Russian forces are attacked with drones has sparked debate. DW spoke to experts about the ethical limits of the project.

Scene from the new computer game “Death from Above”

A company from Germany has developed a computer game called Death from Above” (Death from Above) about the war in Ukraine. The drone simulation started on Thursday on the Internet sales platform “Steam” in “Early Access” mode, i.e. still in the development phase.

Even before the game was released, there was a discussion in Western media about the ethical issues arising from the game's development given the ongoing war in Ukraine. Some consider it “tasteless”, while others praise the “satirical approach” and compare the game to the Charlie Chaplin film and the Hitler parody.

“It's a propaganda game,” says Hendrik Lesser, gamer and owner of the Munich indie company “Remote Control Productions”, which brings together more than a dozen smaller PC game companies in six countries.

“We deliberately make a simple game that anyone can play and in which we take a clear stance. To a certain extent, we deal with the subject humorously.”

Developer Hendrik Lesser is the owner of the Munich indie company “Remote Control Productions”

The plot: A player slips into the role of a Ukrainian soldier who steers a drone, bombards Russian war technology and fighters and finally restores the radio connection.

The “Holy Javelina” from the USA

< p>The first version of the game is bilingual – 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 those that are called “Russian occupying forces” in the description.

The action takes place in fictional locations. The game is peppered with Ukrainian symbols: there is a field of sunflowers, and the drone leaves a trail in the colors of the national flag.      

There's also a lot of what Lesser calls “humor,” like a “Holy Javelina” meme (that's how the revered US anti-tank weapon Javelin is called in Ukraine – ed.), 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 and is known for its memes.  The acronym stands for “North Atlantic Fellas Organization” and is a loose coalition of thousands of internet users who take to Twitter to fight Russian disinformation campaigns. Her distinguishing mark is a drawn dog.

Donations to Ukrainian Army

Ukrainians contributed to the game, design and music. The best-known performer is the band “Antytila” (Antibodies), whose war songs, such as “Fortress Bakhmut”, are very popular in Ukraine. In May 2022, the band performed in the Kiev metro with Irish rock legend U2.

The Irish singer Bono and the Ukrainian soldier and singer Taras Topolja from the band “Antytila” at a joint performance in a subway station in Kiev in May 2022

For the computer game “Antytila” wrote the Song “My Falcon” – the name of the game in the Ukrainian version. Singer Taras Topolja told DW that they quickly decided to take part. The most important thing is that the game generates donations for the Ukrainian army.

The developer promises to donate an initial 30 percent and after the break-even point 70 percent of the profits to two Ukrainian initiatives that provide “non-offensive assistance” to the Ukrainian army. It's about the Ukrainian foundation “Come back alive” and the project “Army of Drones”.

He was assured that the money could be used to buy reconnaissance drones, but not attack drones, says Lesser admits, “I can't be sure.”

“Part of the information war”?

It was “perhaps a bit tasteless to depict an ongoing war in a relatively trivial game,” says Benjamin Strobel, a psychologist from Kiel and an expert on a computer games project, in an interview with DW. In addition, one could accuse Death from Above of mixing “political activism” with “economic interests”.

Strobel commends the developers for their open commitment to promoting pro-Ukrainian propaganda and sees the game as a “part of the information war”. “As a society, we have to answer the question of whether we want to be part of this information war,” says the psychologist.

Russian tanks in the computer game “Death from Above”

“If the game reflects the situation on the battlefield, where the military are fighting against the military,” that's justifiable,” says Diana Dutsyk, head of the Ukrainian Institute for Media and Communication, and member of the Commission for Journalistic Ethics. 

However, she would be bothered “if the game provoked ethnic violence against civilians”, such as calls on Russian television to “kill Ukrainians”.

Raise money for drones

Singer Taras Topolja from “Antytila” believes that the ethics discussion is something for western experts. He and his bandmates fought in territorial defense in the first months of the war.

“In our battalion, 45 children remained without fathers. These are our comrades who were killed in the war”, he says. Topolya is sure that the game would “inspire people to donate to drones” and maybe motivate some to “join the army and learn aerial reconnaissance”.

Gamer Lesser wants after the release of the first version  develop the game further so that you can also play with two people. His main motive is the desire to “strike back”, but not on a real but on a virtual battlefield.