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War Games

Once a training tool for budding Cold Warriors, Soviet video games are attracting a new breed of player

Author Robin Cherry Illustration Peter Oumanski

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MOSCOW—“Stop, crazy elk!” Anna Pankova, a 40-something tour guide, is trying to shoot the aforementioned animal as it lumbers across the frozen tundra. “Elk can’t run that fast,” she observes. Then, when her quarry pivots, she takes aim and shoots again. “Ha! Got him!”

It should be noted here that no elk were harmed during the making of this article: Pankova is testing her hunting prowess at Moscow’s Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, a collection of “ideologically correct” video games dating back to the 1970s. The machines were originally produced in Soviet military factories to teach children how to go to war. The periscope for a game called Morskoi Boi—or Sea Battle—is identical to the kind once used in the Communist state’s submarines.

The museum was founded in 2007 by three local students who, inspired by a mixture of nostalgia and energy drinks, had acquired a broken Morskoi Boi from an abandoned arcade. They fixed it up and, over time, added more machines, sometimes cobbling them together out of several broken ones. Today they have scores of games, and their museum, once located in a dingy former bomb shelter, has moved to a bright and spacious room in a Moscow suburb.

Not surprisingly, the museum tends to attract 20-somethings who look like extras from “The Big Bang Theory.” Pankova is an exception. Now the mother of a teenage boy, she remembers the games from her Soviet-era childhood. “I was never interested in these things,” she says.

Yet here she is, gleefully shooting pixelated ruminants and blowing up the little ships that pop back and forth across Morskoi Boi’s pea-green sea. “I love this!” she shouts, jingling a handful of 15-kopek coins as she scurries over to a game called Sniper.

Pankova turns out to be a good shot, at one point hitting 20 out of 24 possible bull’s-eyes. Enticed by her success, an American woman steps up to the rifle and fires. Pfft, pfft, pfft. Game over.

Having hit only one target, the American shakes her head and walks away. “Frankly,” she says, “I can’t believe we won the Cold War.”

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