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Even in war, Ukrainian soldiers find time for the video game World of Tanks

In Battle of Tanks, there is a world of tanks.

Several hundred miles into the front line in Ukraine, a Ukrainian soldier is probably playing World of Tanks – Video game, A war hero recently admitted to gaming, though lost his login information and had to open a new account. During training in June, outside Bakhmut, where one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought, border guards were found at play. And last year a tank crew was spotted having lunch with the World of Tanks logo on the hull of their T-80 main battle tank.

“I play from time to time when I have a little free time,” said Lieutenant Nazar Vernihora, who last year attracted public attention for his command of a real tank. armored personnel carriers destroyed and one Russian tank damaged During a battle outside Kiev.

Starlink satellite internet is prevalent in Ukraine’s battlefields, and soldiers have smartphones. The allure of mobile video games is obvious. War is often marked by long periods of boredom, so why turn to soldiers’ enduring favorite pastime – throwing small rocks at large ones – when there’s World of Tanks?

The desire to play a violent video game in the midst of the most brutal land war in Europe since World War II may seem shocking, but it represents an important way soldiers deal with the bloodshed around them: isolation.

But the multiplayer game – with two teams of tanks and other killing machines blasting each other on a virtual battlefield – is an eerie echo of the real war taking place around its uniformed player base. Ukrainian tanks and other armored vehicles can sometimes find themselves drawn into bloody duels, which their crews are also experiencing virtually.

There are two entries in the World of Tanks universe available to players in Ukraine: World of Tanks and World of Tanks Blitz. Both require an internet connection, but the latter is available to play on mobile devices. It’s hard to tell exactly how popular the game is in Ukrainian Battlegrounds, and broadly throughout Ukraine, given the different platforms for the game: PC, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, and Mac computers.

Nevertheless, in visits to the front lines of Ukraine by The New York Times, the game was frequently seen and talked about. Various explanations for the game’s draw came from discussions with Ukrainian soldiers about their World of Tanks hobby.

However, soldiers from a drone unit outside Ukraine’s troubled eastern city of Siversk balked at the idea of ​​playing such a violent game given the circumstances.

“Why would we play World of Tanks while it’s right here?” a soldier asked, referring to the actual war. Instead, they play FIFA, another soldier said, pointing to a popular football video game.

Many Ukrainian soldiers feel differently. During a recent visit to his front-line position, Anton, a commander of a Ukrainian tank company stationed outside the beleaguered town of Avdievka, showed footage of recent fighting on his computer. His favorite clip was of a Russian tank being destroyed, its hull on fire and the turret propelled into the air.

When he minimized the video, there was a World of Tanks program icon in the corner of his screen.

“I like World of Tanks,” he said with a shrug.

Sergeant Silver, a Ukrainian soldier in an artillery unit near the eastern city of Siversk who, like others, is known by his call sign or first name for security reasons, knew of the game’s popularity among the ranks. But he felt it was a pastime that had begun for many before the war and just kept going.

“On the other hand, it’s kind of an addiction,” he said, as he walked back from a yard where a Russian kamikaze drone nearly destroyed one of the brigade’s rocket artillery trucks a few weeks earlier.

Wargaming Group, the company that created World of Tanks, Half of its servers support the Russian region, spread to the rest of the United States, Europe, Australia and China. Top The two highest earning players in World of Tanks The e-sports competition from 2011 to 2021 was between Kirill Ponomarev, a Russian, and Dmytro Frishman, a Ukrainian. Both men were once on the same World of Tanks e-sports team.

World of Tanks Blitz users peaked in mid-December 2021, with over 50,000 people playing simultaneously. according to steamdb, a publicly available service that tracks users playing video games using the Steam application. In February 2022, a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, that number dropped to around 31,000.

Mr. Frishman, 27, who now runs Game Club in Kharkiv, Ukraine stated that the game’s popularity declined the most because the Wargaming group was originally from Belarus and therefore pro-Russia. Following the invasion last year, Wargaming Group, based in Cyprus since 2011, announced it would close its studio in Minsk, Belarus, and transfer operations there and in Russia to a separate company.

A portion of Mr. Frishman’s customer base at the game club quickly became wounded soldiers who went away from the front playing violent games like PUBG, Counter-Strike and, of course, World of Tanks.

“It was really difficult for me to understand why they were playing this game,” Mr. Frishman said on Wednesday. “But then I realized they were just relaxing, playing with their friends.”

Outside the eastern city of Bakhmut, about 120 miles from the club, digital explosions and the crackle of tank gunfire rang out from a tree line. There, border guard-turned-foot-soldier Hani and his companion were sitting in the middle of the bushes. They were both playing World of Tanks on their phones. His unit had just finished training after coming out of the front line.

When approached, they behaved like two raccoons caught in a trash can and put their phones on silent. He said, yes, some soldiers also play World of Tanks near the front.

When asked about the similarities between World of War and Tanks, Haney said that both rely on teamwork.

Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, Lieutenant Vernihora, who was 21 when his tank was captured on video last year fighting a Russian enemy that far outnumbered him, echoed Haney’s view.

“You’re learning to work in a team and develop strategy in the game,” he added.

“I’m trying to use the same maneuvers as in real life,” said Lt. Vernihora, sitting on top of one of his unit’s T-72 tanks hidden under dense trees.

His World of Tanks habit failed when he lost his login information, and with it access to his account. He also lost all the tanks he had opened in the game. Running into a well-armed Russian platoon was bad enough, but his failure in the game, he joked, “was a disaster.”

Much of World of Tanks’ strategy relies on driving a tank around battlefields that seem to have been chosen for World War II and other conflicts. Players rely on how fast, strong, and well-armed their tanks are compared to those of other players, and, as in real tank battles, they use terrain to hide and protect their armored sprites. Can be used.

But even devotees of the game like Haney will tell that in real life—particularly in the shell-fired trenches of Ukraine’s eastern front—they have a different strategy: survival.

“The closer you get to the firepower, even if there’s internet, you don’t really want to play,” Haney said.

Natalia Yermak, Dmitry Yatsenko And dzvinka pinchuk Contributed reporting from the front lines.

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