Counter-Strike is a video game which contains custom maps, including one made by a Finnish newspaper to combat Russian disinformation. Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western televisions and news outlets have flooded the public with information about the horrific cases of abuse and violence that are ongoing. European and American authorities have both expressed support for Ukraine and agree that the actions of the Russian army must be stopped (source).
However, citizens in Russia are facing a different viewpoint, partly because they are receiving different information. The Russian government have gone to great effort to limit the flow of international news to domestic citizens, shutting down independent news outlets and banning foreign social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Russian citizens are therefore receiving one (distorted) side of the story.
A Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat (HS), came up with the idea to deliver information to Russians via a conventional means: video games. Online gaming is still accessible to Russians and the game ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’ is particularly popular. The game also allows for users to create their own custom maps. HS, along with creative agency Milton, therefore designed a map which features verified information about the war in Ukraine. This map has so far received 100,000 subscribers according to Steam (source). We must ask questions about the success of this initiative. Will it help to spread the truth? Or will it fall on deaf ears?
2.0. Russian News Censorship
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has consistently blocked the truth about Ukraine that the media is revealing to Russian citizens (source). Instead, they have spread their own truth. Their version of events states that the invasion of Ukraine is a “special military operation” which is fighting the spread of Nazi ideology in Ukraine (source). Russian authorities have shut down several news outlets via a ‘foreign agents’ law implemented last year.
Surveys show that most Russians get their news from Kremlin-controlled state television which reinforces the narrative that the Ukraine operation is a ‘peacekeeping’ measure. For example, TV channels Zvezda and Izvestia both featured a news item from the city of Bucha. However, instead of showing the violence perpetrated by Russian forces, the news bulletin claimed that the Ukrainian army had brought dead bodies to the cities. It then goes on the assert that Russia is fighting a heroic battle against terrorism (source). Putin’s government has additionally blocked foreign social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to limit information being delivered to Russians.
2.1. Russian Laws Against the Truth
The Russian government have passed a series of laws which forbid the dissemination of ‘false information’ about Russian armed forces or regarding their operations in Ukraine (source). Therefore, even online forums available in Russia are not safe from government scrutiny. This leaves very limited space for news medias to share information about what is happening in Ukraine.
2.2. The Effects of Censorship
It is difficult to completely ascertain the effects that censorship is having on the war in Ukraine. Protests in Russia suggest that the truth is still getting through to Russian citizens and that Russian authorities are not deceiving the public with propaganda. However, a study has shown that the older generation is still likely to believe in the state media and resist information from digital media (source). This study also showed that those who held a strong national identity, were more trusting of Russia propaganda. Furthermore, statistics suggest that 50% of Russians support the army’s actions in Ukraine – or at least the actions that they are led to believe (source).
3.0. CounterStrike: Global Offensive
The video game ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’ is a tactical first-person shooter game and was first released in 2012 (source). The concept is that the game divides players into teams of terrorists and counter-terrorists. There are a series of maps on the games, but users have the option to create their own maps and share them on the ‘Steam’ workshop website (source). The game is particularly popular amongst young men.
Russian players make up a huge proportion of world-wide Counter-strike players. Reports estimate that 4 million Russians play the game, which is roughly one-tenth of the total player base (source). This large population is what makes the Counter-Strike initiative such a clever idea. If media could share information to 4 million individuals in Russia, this population could then further spread the news through word-of-mouth. All would know soon enough, news about the Russian offensive in Ukraine.
4.0. Helsingin Sanomat
Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (HS) came up with the idea of using a video-game to get information to Russian players. Their aim was to inform players about the truth behind the invasion, and in particular, the targeting of civilians by Russian forces (source). The newspaper hopes that the information will reach the 4 million Russians who play Counter-Strike. HS stated that, by inserting news information into the game, they will force Russian players to see the truth.
Of course, it is rare for journalists to have extensive experience in gaming design. Therefore, the newspaper collaborated with creative agency Milton to design and create the map. Milton then outsourced the job of mapmaking to two specialised Counter-Strike mapmakers from Australia and Denmark (source). The mapmakers have made several maps in the past but they insisted that their identities remain anonymous. This is perhaps to limit any negative backlash that may affect their previous and future work.
5.0. The Map: de_voyna
Russian players have been able to download a map called ‘de_voyna’. Steam made the map available on the 3rd May 2023 (source). HS chose the date specifically to align with World Press Freedom Day. Gamers can download De_Voyna for free from ‘Steam’ and is available in the database of user-created maps.
5.1. The Layout of de_voyna on Counter Strike
The designer made the layout of the map comparative to a Slavic city which conflict has devastated (source). The creators designed it to resemble a Ukrainian, or a Russian, city in order to peak the interest of Russians playing the game. The map also contains a monument of an Eternal Flame. This kind of monument has a significant meaning for many Russians and serves as a memorial of WWII. These kinds of familiarities are aimed at grabbing the attention of Russian players who may be curious about the setting.
5.2. The Hidden Room
The information about the Ukrainian war can be found in a secret hidden room underneath the town. Criticisms have been put forward by players who state that the door to the room is locked and thus hard to access without a cheat code. Accordingly, locked doors in CS usually just points to a dead-end (source). However, according to the map-creators, the secret room is supposed to be discovered once the player’s avatar has been killed. This results in a different game mode which can allow the players to easily discover the secret room (source).
Once inside the room, players are faced with the following:
- Images from the War in Ukraine
- Civilian death toll statistics
- Russian death toll statistics
Furthermore, once players come close to an image, they hear a Russian voice-over on the radio explaining to them what the images are about. For example, one voice-over describes the Ukrainian civilians murdered by Russian soldiers. All the information provided has been independently verified by Helsingin Sanomat (source).
6.0. Is it Going to Work?
There is no denying that the initiative by HS is creative. However, there are a number of challenges that present themselves which may hinder the success of the mission:
- Popularity of the Map
- Growing publicity of HS’s mission
6.1. De_voyna’s popularity
One of the main challenges, according to Gaming Youtuber ‘3kliksphilip’, is getting the map played (source). Right now there are over 133,693 user-made maps for Counter-Strike and the market is therefore extremely saturated. Those who do search for this specific map are likely doing so because they know about the information included, thus reducing the chances of ‘unknowing’ Russians coming across the content.
6.2. Growing Publicity of Helsingin Sanomat and the Counter-Strike Map
Another challenge that will likely face the HS initiative is that with the growing publicity, comes the probability that Russia will discover the plan and ban Counter-Strike completely. Russia has already considered a new law banning LGBTQ+ video games (source). It would therefore not be too far-fetched to consider that Putin might impose restrictions on a game which exposes their actions in Ukraine. There would likely be negative backlash from the game’s 4 million Russian players but this would not necessarily stop Putin from taking such measures.
In conclusion, Helsingin Sanomat has made a strong attempt at thinking outside the box to spread information to Russian citizens. This kind of innovative journalism is going to be needed to combat widespread censorship. However, this particular case is not a full-proof plan. In a saturated market of Counter-strike maps, the chances of a Russian player coming across this particular map may be low. Or, if by chance the map becomes popular, the Russian government are more likely to catch wind of it and ban the game completely. Either way, it is a lose-lose. Furthermore, Helsingin Sanomat publicly declaring their ideas also increases the chance that the game will be blocked, or that such online features will be taken away from Russian players.