In the midst of returning to the States, I wrote a short commentary for The Conversation about a religious edict (fatwa) stating a popular game, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), haram in Indonesia. This edict has been issued by the Ulema Consultative Council (MPU) in Aceh. My commentary frames this edict as a case of moral panic surrounding video games circulation in the country. It is also a call for a deeper study of Indonesian video game cultures and their history. If you can read Indonesian, here is the link to the article!
This post is about contemporary game culture and industry in Indonesia rather than its early history.
Last weekend, I went to Game Prime 2019. It’s the biggest annual game exhibition in Indonesia which gathers both major and indie game studios in the country. The event is mainly sponsored by the Creative Economy Agency (Bekraf), government-funded agency that supports the development of creative economy in the country. This is actually my first time attending Game Prime even though the event itself has been held for three years now.
In general, it was a good experience. I learned how rapidly the game industry in Indonesia has evolved in the last ten years. I still remember when I was first researching Nusantara Online game back in 2011, the industry was still sporadic. Now, not only are there many game studios flourishing all over the country, some of them have actually marketed their game internationally, such as Agate Studio with its premium game, Valthirian Arc: Hero School Story, or Digital Happiness’s DreadOut.
I also observed that a significant number of game studios in Indonesia have developed games in B2B (Business to Business) model, meaning they do not publish their games to the public, only for exhibition or their client’s events/programs. For instance, Agate Studio, perhaps the biggest studio that participates in the event given the number of their booths (they had 4 separate booths), made two games (Smart Bike and City Defender) for AXA Indonesia and one for Telkom (Sky Cage). I believe this strategy is pretty common among Indonesian developers since they need to keep their business sustainable.
On the other hand, I also saw (and played) several games made as side projects or prototypes by a small collective of developers or a single individual. I actually find some of these projects much more interesting than games made with B2B model. Because, instead of operating as gimmicky spectacle with little inventiveness in gameplay or narrative development, some of these alpha or beta versions displayed more creative excitement. For instance, I was interested in the game Kirana, an action RPG game developed by Kawarna Studio as a side project. The game uses the history of Singosari during the Mongol invasion as its background narrative and has a female protagonist. There is also Loveless–developed by only one person under the name of Teamless–which is a study of player agency in the form hybrid and non-linear dating sims/adventure game. The game’s visual actually reminded me of Undertale.
Of course there’s a sobering realization in me that many of these alpha or beta version games perhaps will never see the light of day given the developers’ limited resources and market demand. But, it’s still stimulating to see how these studios exhibited their passion project.
Another thing that I observed from the event is how Indonesian mainstream video game industry has started to think forward about platform and game ecosystem. In this case, Telkom Indonesia—the nation’s largest telecommunication service provider—is perhaps the main support engine for this development. The company has supported Gameqoo, a Stadia-like cloud gaming service, offering subscription-based gaming option for Indonesians. According to one of Gameqoo’s staff that I talked to, the company is also planning to bundle its service with Telkom’s Indihome cable and internet services in the near future. In addition to this, Telkom has also partnered with Agate Studio to create an ecosystem for local games called Oolean, which eventually will also be connected to Gameqoo. It looks like the semi state-owned company is now really serious in supporting domestic game industry, which is a good thing considering its half-hearted backing in the past.
At the indie level, a small game developer, Ginvo Studio, is also hoping to create a sustainable ecosystem for their games, which mainly consist of tabloid newsgames about all things viral in Indonesian internetscape. They actually have quite an ambitious plan to develop and sustain their platform by planning to release one newsgame every week, and I am actually interested in this studio and their games for my research. I will probably contact them in the near future.
I also noticed that some companies also utilize real digital currency reward system to attract gamers to use their platform, such as India-based Mobile Premiere League and Amcore’s game Jump,Bunn. I think this is related to the aggressive strategy of Indonesia’s digital wallet services that I wrote in my previous post and the rapid popularity of competitive gaming/e-sports.
In terms of genre, survival horror game seems to be on the rise besides RPG. I believe this happens because of international achievement of DreadOut. Many studios aspire to achieve the same level of success, if not more, with their games. For instance, Storytale Studios has Pamali and Ozysoft has Pulang: Insanity. Personally, I am interested in the development of 4Happy Studio’s game WhoIsHe: Let Me Out. It has the vibe of What Remains of Edith Finch, which I really like, and a touch of Indonesian culture. It’s also developed by a studio not from the island of Java (4Happy Studio is from Batam island), which is refreshing. I hope the studio will complete the game in the near future.
Game Prime also had a section for old arcade games, which brought back nostalgic memories in me (especially of Galaga and Street Fighter!).
It also has a separate section for tabletop/board games. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to visit each booth and talk with the game developers/creators, but I bought two board games, Circus Politicus and Bluffing Billionaires, that I plan on using in my Global Video Game Cultures seminar this fall.
All in all, I am glad that I went to the event and I hope I will get a chance to go to the next one.
Having to go back to my home country, Indonesia, twice in a span of a year have made me realize a significant change in many aspects of life here. Of course changes are expected when you left your country for more than a decade, so I already anticipated that. But one of the most vexing changes for me is this somewhat aggressive shift in the country towards the so-called “cashless society,” where you are made to use digital wallet services even though you do not really want to. Perhaps a couple of personal anecdotes will illustrate why I feel this way:
One time my family and I drove to a mall in Bandung, and this was during the first couple of weeks of our stay. When I tried to get into the paid parking lot (parking is rarely free in my country, especially at malls) I was struck with the sign: “No cash payment, [a digital wallet brand] only.” I asked the parking assistant about the sign and he confirmed it, I couldn’t pay with cash to park there. He told me that I could buy the digital wallet card from him though. I declined his offer and backed my car out of that mall because I did not want to use unfamiliar (at the time) transaction method and also felt that I was forced to use it.
This experience happened after I learned that there is no more cash payment option for toll roads. You have to use digital wallet service to pay for your toll fee, although in this case you have several options to choose. I am not sure if this is a nation-wide practice, but I assume it is. Later on, I also learned that at some malls when you buy food in their food courts you cannot pay with cash nor credit/debit card anymore. You can only use either a certain brand of digital wallet or the mall’s own service. I was annoyed that when I wanted to buy a bottle of water because my son was thirsty, I could not do it right away. I had to opt to use one of the services.
At this point, perhaps you might call me a whiner because digital wallet services are a convenient method for economic transaction. Or perhaps you might think that I am anti-progress because this turn to cashless society is Indonesia’s step towards realizing the so-called “Indonesia 4.0,” embracing economist Klaus Schwab’s conception of “Industrial Revolution 4.0.” However, I want to point out that there is a difference between forced “progress” and a participatory one. And I also think that Indonesians need to discuss socio-cultural implications of this aggressive shift towards cashless society from multiple perspectives, not just from the discourse of technopreneurship.
Here, I am reminded of the classic works by Langdon Winner and Neil Postman. Postman, in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, argued that any technological innovation never has one-sided effect, and that we have to simultaneously consider what new technologies can do and undo to society. Meanwhile, Winner in his seminal essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” explains the political nature of technologies in everyday settings and how the creation and operation of any technology require specific social arrangements. Winner’s most cited example, the height of bridges on the Long Island Expressway in New York, is the one that resonates with me the most in the case of Indonesia’s digital wallet ecosystem. Similar to Winner’s Long Island Expressway example, where its “master builder” Robert Moses deliberately designed the height of the bridges to discourage the presence of buses and consequently limiting access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones Beach, the adoption/enforcement of digital wallet services at some malls or toll roads in Indonesia is a case where technological architectures are being used as a method that constrains certain behavior (cash transaction) while encouraging another (digital wallet transaction).
Unlike the Long Island bridges though, it’s not racist ideology that motivates this “modality of constraint,” to borrow Lawrence Lessig’s term, but it’s market force. In my preliminary research, I learned that Indonesia is a huge untapped market for e-money market. According to one Google/GfK digital wallet study in 2018, despite the rapid growth of digital finance apps since 2010, only fewer than 40% of Indonesians with smartphones have used financial services apps. Even among the minority of e-money app users, only 11% are average daily users according to the same study. So it is understandable that these financial companies are being aggressive in making Indonesians use their service, even if it means forcing them through strategies such as the paid parking scheme that I experienced.
In my opinion, the aggressive strategies of some digital wallet services in Indonesia is somewhat an extension of what Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook have been doing to the internet ecosystem (in fact Facebook will soon join the digital wallet business with their cryptocurrency product, Libra). Some websites today limit how you sign up for their services. They only let you sign up either using Facebook or Google, with no other options (or a tiny-looking option that users often overlook). This strategy has now found its way out of the pure digital realm of the internet and into the daily lives of Indonesians. With the growth of digital wallet/e-money services and their strategies, I am guessing that many Indonesians will probably experience (or perhaps are already experiencing) a divided and sometime exclusive “merchant ecosystem,” where you can only use a certain type of service and not the others.
Of course for many Indonesians, this may be a good thing. Especially with various shopping discounts offered by these digital wallet companies these days. However, we need to also seriously consider how new technologies disentangle the structures of everyday life in the country. There are several lines of inquiry that I think we can consider. For instance, how the digital wallet ecosystem affects the role of malls as commercially-constructed public sphere in the country, or how digital literacy (or a lack thereof)—as related to age, class, and gender—influences the adoption of digital wallet services, or how data mining and tracking used in digital wallet services to build “a single customer view”—as one digital wallet service is planning to do—will shape the life of Indonesians in the future. These are the conversations that should also take place alongside the celebratory remark about cashless society.
So finally my article is out! It’s published by SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. I’m quite happy with it. It’s my first peer-reviewed publication adventure (and I hope it’s not gonna be the last). It’s about an Indonesian MMORPG called Nusantara Online and I discuss it to propose what I call “playable nationalism,” one mode of expressing nationalism in digital forms. I know my discussion is not foolproof to criticism, especially since this is an early version of one of my dissertation chapters. But I hope with it being published I could get constructive criticism from its readers to be able to improve it. If you’re interested in reading it, it’s available as free download here. The other articles in the issue are also interesting, so if you have access to the journal from your academic institution you should check them out! (I know I will)