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Online gamers are posting classified documents online to settle arguments over military hardware. good

The video game players sharing secrets online

The news that a US serviceman allegedly leaked classified information on a video game forum came as a surprise to many - but experts say it highlights an increasingly common new challenge for security services.

Jack Texeira was enlisted in the Air National Guard - where he had access to top secret material. He has been accused of leaking sensitive documents about the war in Ukraine and other issues, allegedly to impress his friends on the Discord group where he spent much of his time.

In fact, posting classified material in video game chat groups is becoming increasingly common, and the people leaking it often have very different motivations to traditional whistleblowers.

War Thunder is a free-to-play vehicle combat simulator made by Gaijin Entertainment, a Russian founded company now based in Budapest. Players use jets, attack helicopters, tanks, artillery, and other weapons to battle opponents.

Fans of the video game have long been sharing classified documents, including user manuals for American fighter jets.

"There isn't really another game like War Thunder," says one player who gave his name as Lukas.

He is, in his own words, a nerd who loves military equipment, and an avid player of the game.

"For many of us players, talking about tanks in the forums or on Reddit is like old gentlemen talking about their favourite old timers," Lukas said.

"But some idiots take stuff like this way too seriously and if they have access to classified documents that prove their point in a discussion they will leak it."

War Thunder prides itself on the realism of its weapons, but just how realistic they are is a matter of debate.

In an effort to prove strangers on the internet wrong and convince developers to update weapons in the game, players have repeatedly leaked classified technical documents and user manuals.

In January, military documents relating to the American F-16 were posted online by a War Thunder player in the midst of a debate on the capabilities of the jet.

When discussing the plane's flight and weapon control systems, one forum member posted details about a system known as the Stores Control Panel (SCP) and supported their argument with more documents, including the pilot's user handbook.

"War Thunder is a video game," warned one game forum moderator. "Stop committing federal crimes over internet arguments about it."

But for some players with a security clearance, posting online trumps the potential consequences of breaching security laws.

"People think the online and offline worlds have separate, different relationships. But both create friendships with a sense of community and belonging," says Rachel Kowert.

She is the research director of Take This, a non-profit focused on mental health and gaming, and says that desire to impress along with the "online disinhibition effect" can be a toxic combination.

"Behind a keyboard people are brazen and feel there are far fewer consequences. So they take things further than they would in person."

"So to win an argument or to impress people they've developed a friendship with online, they take things further. One way to do that? Posting classified documents."

Many players of the combat simulator are serving personnel with access to the documents - but they should know better, warns defence industry consultant Nicholas Drummond.

"There is a very clear line between information that you can share and that you can't," he says.

Despite this, military documents have been leaked by War Thunder players at least seven times. Details about American, Chinese, British and French military equipment have all appeared in the last few years.

In July 2021, classified details from the Army Equipment Support Publication - a user manual of the British Challenger 2 main battle tank were leaked.

Later, similar information about the French Leclerc tank and the Franco-German Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter also appeared.

In June 2022 Chinese military secrets made it online, in this case a type of anti-tank ammunition used by China's army.

The documents leaked by players of the game are at the lower levels of classification. But they're still secret - and publishing them could be risky.

Weapon designs are often sought after by hostile states seeking to get an edge on opponents. Some suggest that baiting people into revealing secrets is just another, more modern version of a honey trap.

All documents have now been taken down from the forum.

"Our players are very passionate about War Thunder and military vehicles, and sometimes they're too passionate," says Anton Yudintsev, founder of Gaijin Entertainment, the maker of War Thunder.

But he says players shouldn't bother leaking if they want developers to update the game.

"Our policy is and was always clear: we'll never make changes to the game based on documents without a clear and legal source."

But given the growing trend for video game players to leak classified material online - that warning may fall on deaf ears.

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