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Tsardom 3.10.

Artist Blog by Maxim Zmeyev

Hello everyone!

In the third and final part of my blog, I want to present the project I am currently working on. The photographs you see might not even be included in the final project, or they might change. The project is still in progress and evolving! If you have any comments about it, you can contact me on Instagram or write to me on my website. Thank you for spending this time with me. Peace to all.

2024 - …

Virtual Photography

Game Boy Camera

“Tsardom 3.10.” is an artistic project created through in-game photography that explores colonial and imperial narratives actively promoted in Russian video games. This project uses pixelated photographic images to visually emphasize the decay of vivid and propagandistic representations, highlighting and critically analyzing the cultural and ideological aspects permeating Russia's gaming industry.

Games are a powerful medium capable not only of entertaining but also of shaping worldviews. In the Russian context, video games are often used as a tool of propaganda, supporting ideas of national superiority and historical revisionism. “Tsardom 3.10.” investigates how these ideas are embodied in the gaming world and how they influence the perception of history and contemporary reality.

The Russian video game market in the 21st century has developed unevenly. Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, most international game developers, distributors, publishers, and console manufacturers left the Russian market. Simultaneously, the Russian government began drafting new laws aimed at promoting "traditional Russian values" in domestic video games and funding games that present the “correct representation of events in national and world history, as well as the place and role of Russia in the world.” The average development cycle for an expensive video game is about five years. However, games reflecting contemporary Russian policies promoting an imperial perspective, colonialism, and the greatness of Russia have already begun to emerge.

Even before recent events, propaganda in video games developed in Russia since the early 21st century played a significant role. In shooters, protagonists - whom players had to embody - included SMERSH officers, KGB agents, and special forces soldiers who defended Russia's interests and saved the world. One of the most popular settings in strategy and tactical simulation games was World War II, where players fought on the Soviet side to save the world. The most famous flight simulator created in Russia is dedicated to the IL-2 aircraft, the most mass-produced combat aircraft in aviation history, produced since 1941.

Over a quarter of a century, many Russian players, playing domestic games, fought for their country's interests in virtual worlds - conquering new territories and killing foreigners, defending the idea of exceptionalism.

Visually, “Tsardom 3.10.” consists of photographs taken inside video games created in the Russian Federation. All photographs were taken on a portable Game Boy gaming console using a Game Boy Camera cartridge. This gaming device's feature is the low resolution of the resulting image, equal to 128x112 pixels, and exclusively black-and-white photography. To obtain each colour photograph, the same scene in the video game was photographed three times - through red, green, and blue filters - and later combined into one colour photograph. This method of obtaining colour photographs from black-and-white negatives became widespread in Russia thanks to photographer and pioneer of colour photography, Prokudin-Gorsky, who created his main project “The Russian Empire in Color” at the beginning of the 20th century, in which he photographed the Russian Empire and colonies for the last Tsar Nicholas II.

The project's title “Tsardom 3.10.” refers to the ‘Thrice-tenth Tsardom’ (or ‘Thrice-Tenth Kingdom’ or ‘Faraway Tsardom’) - an ‘other’ or ‘unreal’ country in Russian folklore, into which the hero ventures, separated from the ordinary world by an impenetrable dense forest, an abyss, a sea, or another obstacle. According to folklorists, including V. Y. Propp, the Thrice-tenth Tsardom is associated with Slavic ideas about the afterlife as a land of abundance, where a person seeks to obtain what they lack in earthly life. The hero's journey to the Thrice-tenth Tsardom often aims to obtain or reclaim a bride. On his path, the hero almost always encounters an obstacle in the form of a ‘dark, dense’ forest, symbolizing the boundary between the real and the otherworldly. In many tales, the forest contains a hut on chicken legs, symbolizing the entrance to the other world. Sometimes the Thrice-tenth Tsardom is separated from the familiar world by a fiery river with a bridge, a sea, or an abyss.

Most of the photographs in this project were taken in games published over the past 20 years. According to the independent Russian website specializing in investigative journalism Important Stories and independent investigative organization CIT, the average age of a Russian mobilized soldier killed in the war with Ukraine is 33, which is almost the same as the average age of video game players in Russia.

“Tsardom 3.10.” aims to provoke critical reflection on how video games can shape public perception and support certain ideological structures. It calls for awareness and reevaluation of the narratives we take for granted and stimulates discussions about the role of media in the modern world. This project is not just about video games; it is an exploration of how media can be used to reinforce specific views and beliefs. It urges viewers to think about their perceptions and be more critical of what they see and play.

Maxim Zmeyev is part of »Guest Room: Varun Gupta & Arpan Mukherjee«.

Check out his Artist Feature “Type 1.5.11.”.