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Game developers help evacuate Ukrainian families as Russian siege sets in

Others walk away from their work, volunteering to help their neighbors

Aftermath of the Russian attack Retroville Mall
A view of the aftermath of the Retroville shopping mall following a Russian shelling attack which killed Eight people on March 21, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Photo: Andriy Dubchak and dia images/Getty Images
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The war in Ukraine has devolved into a bloody siege. After 26 days of fighting, the United Nations reports that more than 3.5 million refugees have fled the country. One quarter of Ukraine’s population of 44 million people have been displaced, driven from their homes by the unprovoked Russian invasion. Outside the country, game developers are doing what they can to help individuals get out alive. Inside Ukraine, they’re walking away from their work to volunteer with their neighbors.

Last week Polygon spoke with Viktorija Trofimova, CEO of Lithuania-based Nordcurrent. The Ukrainian-born executive employs more than 120 people across two studios in Ukraine, one in the central city of Dnipro and another in the coastal city of Odessa. So far she has helped 18 employees escape the country, providing transportation, temporary housing, and employment for them and at least 23 family members and friends. Primarily women and children, they range in age from infants to the elderly. More are expected to make their way to the company’s headquarters in Vilnius, Lithuania if Russian forces push further north and west.

“City from city, the situation is very different,” Trofimova said. “Both our studios in Odessa and Dnipro have not been directly affected or hit. Both cities have been relatively calm; Dnipro more calm than Odessa.”

The resort city of Odessa, positioned along the northern coast of the Black Sea, has been heavily fortified over the last few weeks. A city known for its cultural centers and its vibrant nightlife is said to be bristling with anti-tank defenses. To the east, Ukrainians see the coastal city of Mariupol as a grim warning. It was fully encircled by Russian forces, with 80% of its buildings destroyed by shelling. Reports seem to indicate that civilians are being forcibly detained and shipped into the Russian heartland without their passports. Russian warships, including amphibious landing craft, have been seen off the coast. NPR reports that small Russian amphibious raiding parties have been repelled.

“Odessa has seen more bombings,” Trofimova said, “but there is no sort of activity on the ground, like you see in Kyiv or Kharkiv. To some extent, the studios operate. People do work. But this varies from day to day and it is definitely not regular, or normal. In Odessa there is always this threat that [the] next day there will be sort of a direct attack, and that has been going on since day one.”

Meanwhile, in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, normal day-to-day operations have given way to volunteerism.

“Suburban areas of Kyiv are total war zone,” Yaroslav Singaevskiy, lead game designer at Red Beat, told Polygon via email. “The central and western parts of our country are relatively safe (Russia can deliver missiles anywhere still).”

“For our team actual gamedev work [is] still a secondary priority,” he continued, “because our main efforts aimed at defensive needs — volunteer work mostly. We still hope that [the] war could end in upcoming weeks, not months, and we make all efforts for it.”

Wael Amr, CEO of Kyiv-based developer Frogwares, is somewhat less hopeful.

“The city is holding strong but when you look at what the Russians did to places like Mariupol, it’s harrowing,” he told Polygon in an email. “Just this weekend they hit a major shopping mall in the heart of Kyiv with long-range cruise missiles. A target of no military value whatsoever. Just more of an attempt to try [to] starve and break people. [...] We’re also starting to see early signs of what could be called [post-traumatic stress disorder] among some of our team who fled from the worst hit regions.”

Humanitarian aid continues to flow into the country, with other game developers around the world doing what they can to support the people of Ukraine. On Monday, Polygon reported that two game bundles — the Ukraine Humble Bundle, and a bundle on — had collectively raised more than $17 million. Epic Games, makers of Fortnite, says it has raised more than $36 million.

Though it’s a lot of money, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the destruction in the country. A Ukrainian official estimated several weeks ago that the Russian invasion had caused $100 billion in damaged infrastructure alone.

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