Like almost everything great in the world, video games originated in America. And, like almost everything American, Russia had a singularly Slavic take on them that’s truly uncanny—strangely familiar, yet also totally foreign. In the Cold War era, no less.
Yes, that’s right. The country that had lines for toilet paper, where people would give you their car for a decent pair of jeans, somehow managed to make video games. And speaking of lines, when Soviet video games were unveiled, the lines were some of the longest in the country’s nearly 70-year history of standing around in the cold waiting for things.
If you find yourself in the Moscow or St. Petersburg, you can now check them out at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines. Some are completely recognizable, like Battleship and Dogfight. Others don’t require a lot of imagination to envision, like Highway and Sniper. Still others are completely bizarre. Seriously, what is Turnip? Some kind of weird socialist version of BurgerTime?
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Soviet video games stems from the planned economy. Unlike in America, where we probably spend more money on video games than education because that’s where the money is, the Soviet economy reacted not to the market, but to Communist Party bureaucrats. For video games, this meant that defense plants made video games. They were the only ones with access to the right technology. Perhaps that explains the existence of Morskoy Boy (“Sea Battle’), a submarine warfare game you can actually play online.
Some games are still in working order, and visitors are welcome to grab a joystick and see if they can break a record. Thirsty? You can also indulge in all the beverage choices the Russian people enjoyed under Communist rule, from carbonated water to regular water to something called kvas, which is some kind of bread water.
They’re kind of cool and everything, but contemporary gamers will be left with little doubt that the right side won the Cold War.