A plucky Russian non-profit is fighting violence with videogames

In February 2017, Russian president Vladimir Putin decriminalised “moderate” violence that doesn’t cause serious injury. As a result, beatings that leave bruises, scratches or bleeding – but which don’t cause broken bones or concussion – are now not considered to be a criminal offence in Russia. This means that, in many cases of domestic violence, police are no longer obliged to start an investigation.

In a country where domestic abuse is endemic, “a bad situation has only become worse”, says Yulia Gorbunova, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. It is estimated that more than 600 women are killed in their own homes each month in Russia, and only around three per cent of domestic violence cases make it to court. “Russia’s law enforcement, judiciary or social systems more often than not completely fail to protect victims of domestic violence,” Gorbunova says.

Civil society initiatives are turning to digital tools to limit the damage. Team 29 is an association of St Petersburg-based journalists and lawyers set up to defend people accused of espionage or treason, often on evidence fabricated by the state. It created online tools to educate Russians on legal abuses carried out by the authorities – but found the material was not reaching people below the age of 24, particularly women.
“It was clear that traditional methods weren’t working,” says Nikolay Ovchinnikov, Team 29’s gaming manager.

That is why, when the domestic violence law was changed, they began to work on a video game. Where Can Couplehood Lead?, due for release in March 2020 for both Android and iOS devices, gives advice to women who are experiencing domestic violence, stalking and cyberbullying. Players navigate plots which have been designed to help them recognise abuse, build personal boundaries, and learn about legal and psychological defence tools and support centres.

“Our goal is to make an exciting game that will increase public awareness of the problem, both among girls and among young people,” says Igor Dorfman, chief technology officer of the gaming project. “We want to show which actions and behaviours work to counter the aggressor.”

Helping victims to recognise domestic violence is perhaps the game’s core value. Victim-blaming and misconceptions that violence is a family matter are rife in Russia. The age-old proverb “If he beats you, it means he loves you” is persistent, and often abetted by the Kremlin. The result of this, says Gorbunova, is that “Families shield abusers.”

This is Team 29’s second foray into gaming. Gebnya – a Russian slang term for secret police such as the KGB – was launched in 2017, building on the group’s experience in challenging police abuse. The aim, Ovchinnikov says, was to bridge the “enormous gap” between young people and knowledge of the law. The game (available in English) guides players through three scenarios – a house search, interrogation, and arrest in a pre-trial detention centre – with multiple-choice responses to each. To date, Gebnya has been downloaded from the Google Play Store more than 100,000 times.

“Young people don’t know their rights and tend to see human rights as an alien world,” Ovchinnikov says. Yet this demographic is also the most willing to take part in protests – and place themselves at risk of state harassment.

The mass demonstrations in Moscow in July and August 2019, triggered by the government’s refusal to let opposition candidates stand in municipal elections, were largely led by students. More than a thousand protesters were arrested, and dozens are now facing several years in jail on rioting charges. “They were not allowed access to lawyers, they were not given water and food, and they were forcibly fingerprinted,” Team 29 reported. None of this was lawful.

One hour spent gaming in a simulated human rights infraction might mean the difference between going home and unjustly spending time in jail.

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