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Finland’s largest newspaper sheds light on Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine inside CS:GO video game to dodge censorship

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Finland's largest daily newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, has attempted to bring independent information about the war in Ukraine to the Russian audience with the help of the cult online shooter Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). The newspaper created its own map for the game, called «de_voyna” (“voyna” is the Russian word for “war”). Players use the map, which resembles a small Eastern European city, attempting to lay a bomb in one of two locations: a warehouse or by a monument in the town’s central square.

The map has received mostly positive reviews, with 5 out of 5 stars based on 1,071 ratings as of May 4. “On the surface, it seems like a normal Slavic city. However, there might be something hidden underneath,” says the description of the map on video game distribution service Steam. The map contains a “secret room,” which Finnish journalists used to hide information about the losses of Russian troops in the war with Ukraine, along with their war crimes: the shelling of civilian structures, the shooting of ordinary citizens, and mass graves. The walls of the secret room contain a map of the shelling, images of mass graves and damaged homes, and photographs of the graves of Russian soldiers.

Helsingin Sanomat editor-in-chief Antero Mukka said the idea of creating a map in the popular shooter was sparked by Russian censorship, since most independent media inside Russia are blocked and inaccessible without VPN services. CS:GO remains one of the most popular online shooter games in the world – including Russia – which is why the move seemed interesting to the publication. The release of the map was timed to coincide with World Press Freedom Day, celebrated on May 3.

“As we have been widely concerned about the press freedom situation and freedom of speech in Russia, we decided that maybe it's possible to find some new channels to provide [the] Russian audience with some reliable, independent journalism for example about the situations in Ukraine,” Mukka told Reuters.

He also noted that the publication did not ask Valve, the owner of the game and the Steam platform, for permission to create a map for CS:GO. The game's rules allow for the addition of user-generated content, including the maps themselves. Steam users, however, disagreed with Mukka – in the comments on the map, many pointed out that the game’s content has to be apolitical, meaning the Finnish daily violated the rules outlined by Valve. However, as of May 4, comments on the map have disappeared, and the location is still available to play.

“If some young men in Russia, just because of this game, happen to think for a couple of seconds what is going on in Ukraine then it's worth it,” Mukka concluded.

The reaction to the map from the Russian-speaking audience has been extremely negative. Multiple comments hurled insults against the map developers, Valve, and Ukraine. Some users assured that “Russia will get to the authors and those who sit in Washington.”

Online games have become one of the platforms for ideological competition between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces. Pro-Ukrainian activists recently attempted to disrupt an online rally at a monument to right-wing populist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky built in Minecraft, causing its server to crash. A representative of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) – which Zhirinovsky led until his death in 2022 – later explained that about 12,000 people had allegedly come to the rally, while the server was originally designed for only 100 people. The users were forbidden to mine or build anything, as the organizers feared the monument would use the occasion to destroy the monument.

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