Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Russian government has blocked almost 500 websites in an effort to suppress independent reporting. Among them are news outlets, including Deutsche Welle or the BBC, as well as social media networks like Instagram and Soundcloud, and even the websites of human rights organizations.
To evade this new digital firewall, some media have come up with creative solutions to smuggle in information about Russia's war in Ukraine available to people in Russia. In the first weeks of the war, Google reviews or rating portals like Tripadvisor were used to relay messages until the US companies put a stop to it.
Now, the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat has developed a map for the popular computer game "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive," which has around four million users in Russia.
In multiplayer games, a map is a level, i.e. where the game takes place. In the online tactical shooter game, players compete against each other as terrorist or anti-terrorist units. The Finnish newspaper recreated a Slavic city for the game and named the map "de_voyna." "Voyna" translates to "war" in Russian and is a word that Russian media are not allowed to use.
Online games are still allowed
Antero Mukka is editor-in-chief of Helsingin Sanomat. The newspaper has been reporting the developments since the beginning of the war, publishing news in Russian on its website. Helsingin Sanomat has long been banned in Russia and its website is blocked there too.
"At the end of last year, we started discussing what our next step could be. Then we suddenly got the idea that they haven't banned online games yet in Russia — and we knew 'Counter-Strike' was enormously popular in Russia," he told DW.
The Finnish media company then hired professional game designers who developed the map in six months — but stayed anonymous for their own protection.
The map was released on May 3, International Press Freedom Day.
In the game, players fight their way through streets lined with gray, prefabricated buildings. In a virtual cellar, indicated by a large monument and a burning car, players find a hidden room.
Inside is news in Russian about the war against Ukraine, gathered by Finnish war reporters. The messages deposited in the virtual basement include texts and pictures about the massacre in Bucha, as well as personal stories, like that of a father whose baby, wife and mother-in-law were killed by a Russian cruise missile in Odesa while he was out shopping. There are also stories about the 70,000 Russian soldiers who have died in battle.
Using eyewitness accounts to expose fake news
"We wanted to show something that our reporters and photographers in Ukraine saw with their own eyes and documented," explained Mukka. The idea was that the brutality of the war should be in plain view, and the truth should be brought to light. "Officially, Russia claims that the massacres in Bucha and Irpin are fictitious and the product of fake news. We want to tell the players that unfortunately, they are true," he added.
Mukka is aware that the game will not change the world: "Of course, it's just a drop in the bucket. Still, we want to do our part and support independent journalism in Russia. We also believe that there are people in Russia who are ready to take a different position to support the free world's efforts to keep Ukraine an independent country," he explained.
Not all of the Russian population is behind the war, he said: "To counter the state media propaganda, we think it is very important to provide Russians with reliable information about what is happening in Ukraine. They also have the right to know in order to make their own decision about what kind of country they want to live in."
Among the four million "Counter-Strike" players are many young men who have a direct connection to the war. Many are at an age when they could be drafted by the Russian army and lose their own lives in battle.
Video games reach broad target groups
It's not the first time a game like this has been used to combat censorship.
In 2020, the NGO Reporters Without Borders, which campaigns for press freedom worldwide, set up the Uncensored Library in the computer game "Minecraft." Each of its rooms is dedicated to a country, including Russia, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, and contains journalistic texts in both English and the local language about censorship and authoritarian politics.
Mukka didn't say how often their game's map has been downloaded and played in Russia so far. But it has attracted attention in the country and has been shared on Telegram channels.
Putting an end to censorship
It's possible that games used to circumvent state censorship will become more commonplace in the future. But Mukka emphasizes that there are many ways to break through censorship and convey important information.
For example, to get around blocked websites, people connect to the internet via a VPN, a virtual private network that hides an internet user's location so that they can still access blocked sites in Russia.
Some gamers have criticized the arrogance of Western countries in the online forum Reddit, which is popular among gamers. They say people in Russia and other countries with heavy censorship don't need help from the West to inform themselves.
Mukka sees things differently.
"Every new leak in the closed world of censorship is important," he said. "There are many intelligent people in Russia who understand exactly what is going on. We don't want to be arrogant or teach them anything. We just want to give them the opportunity to receive information and keep those lines open."
This article was translated from German.