After its full-scale invasion in Ukraine over a year ago, the Russian government has systematically blocked its citizens from accessing independent sources of information. One media left unchecked is online gaming. That’s why Finland’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat decided to build a map of a war-torn Slavic city in Counter-Strike, a popular online shooter game with a large following in Russia. Within the map, a secret room was constructed where Russian players could find information in Russian, relayed by Helsingin Sanomat’s war correspondents in Ukraine.
The campaign, launched on the international World Press Freedom Day on 3rd of May, aims to distribute independent journalism on the war in Ukraine – a subject forbidden in Russia – to as many Russian gamers as possible. It is estimated that over 4 million Russians* play Counter-Strike – a large portion of these are young men living in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
“Russians have very little chance to receive independent information about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the gaming world and gamers themselves are still left unchecked. That’s why we decided to hide a newspaper inside the world’s most popular war game. We built a map of a Slavic city devastated by a war, inside the game, with a secret room that offers Russian gamers an uncensored access to the horrors of the war in Ukraine in their native language”, explains Antero Mukka, Editor in Chief of Helsingin Sanomat.
de_voyna, a map in the video game Counter-Strike, resembles a Slavic city devastated by an invasion. A secret room near the Statue of Eternal Fire holds independent information related to the war in Ukraine.
According to Mukka, audiences typically do not expect to see journalistic content within video games, which might explain why the Russian administration hasn’t prevented Russians from accessing European Counter-Strike servers.
“As the Russian government has de facto suppressed its national press and blocked access to foreign media, Counter-Strike has remained as one of the rare channels that allows us to communicate independent information to Russians about real events from the war”, Mukka continues.
The map was named de_voyna. Voyna means war in Russian. In Russia, it’s forbidden to use the word voyna when talking about the war in Ukraine.
A secret room confronts Russian gamers with the truth about the war in Ukraine
Hidden images and texts in the secret room detail the cruelties witnessed by Helsingin Sanomat’s reporters and photographers in Ukraine during the war. The editorial staff of Helsingin Sanomat has gathered information on civilian casualties, human suffering, the mass murders committed by Russian troops and the amount lives lost on the front to display in the secret room, in both Russian and in English. According to Mukka, none of these have been touched upon in Russian media.
“Ordinary Russians know practically nothing about the war crimes and atrocities toward civilians committed by the Russian army. One of the most touching stories in the secret room is about a Ukrainian man that went to the store. While he was there, Russian troops killed his family with a missile strike. The secret room built into the game is meant to force Russian gamers to face what’s really going on in the war in Ukraine”, Mukka says.
The secret room resembles an underground newsroom. Helsingin Sanomat has brought independent information and images there, captured by its reporters and photographers in Ukraine during the war. For example, the secret room is equipped with a map that details the number of bombings conducted by Russians at civilian targets in Ukraine.
The map, called de_voyna, is found within the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The more the map is played, the wider it spreads within the Counter-Strike community.
*Source: Leetify, certified software platform that analyses the Counter-Strike playerbase, read more here.
The Finnish Helsingin Sanomat is the largest daily newspaper in the Nordics, founded in 1889. It is part of the Sanomat corporation. Advancing freedom of the press and distributing independent information have always been the most important values of Helsingin Sanomat, as well as its mission. After the war in Ukraine started, Helsingin Sanomat began, together with the Swedish Dagens Nyheter and Danish Politiken, to publish news from the war in Russian. Read more at HS.fi.
Counter-Strike, developed by Valve Corporation, is the world’s best-known first-person-shooter. It was first launched in the year 2000 and has since become a world-wide phenomenon: a competitive multi-player game with approximately 37 million players a month (activeplayer.io/counter-strike-global-offensive/). The core gameplay revolves around the combat between terrorists and counter-terrorists. A level in the game is called a map. Anyone can make one, with the most popular being a map called Dust 2 – a dusty vista resembling Morocco.