Category: digital cultures

Banner of PSN Indonesia 2023 conference

Punkfluencer (PSN Indonesia Conference 2023)

Will be presenting this topic at PSN Indonesia Conference 2023 in the coming weeks. My idea is still not fully formed yet, but what the hey.

Register here if you want to attend the conference (Note: it’s an in-person conference and the language is Indonesian)

The Discourse of Banning PUBG in Indonesia: The Conversation Podcast Interview (2021)

This video is from a podcast interview that I did for The Conversation Indonesia podcast show, SuarAkademia, in 2021. I was invited by Luthfi Dzulfikar, the producer of the podcast program, to discuss about the discourse of “fatwa haram” on video games like PUBG in Indonesia, which I personally think is ridiculous and historically clueless.

I gave my two cents about the long history of moral panic about video games, which usually revolves around the rising popularity of a new genre, or a new mechanic system (e.g. battle royale), and also briefly touched upon my current research on the early history of Indonesian video games culture. You can watch the full interview (in Indonesian) below, or listen to it here.

FLEFF Conversations Across Screen Cultures (2021)

This one here is a video from the Conversations Across Screen Cultures event that’s part of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) in 2021. I am very humbled and honored to be invited by the organizers of this event to talk about my personal trajectory as a scholar in global digital humanities. Big thanks again to the organizers of the event: Patty Zimmermann, Leah Shafer, Enrique González-Conty, and Jiangtao “Harry” Gu, as well as everyone who came to the event.

Hashtag Activism: A Conversation with Moya Bailey (2021)

This one is a video from the Global Digital Humanities event in February 2021 that I moderated. Our guest speaker was Moya Bailey, co-author of the #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice (MIT Press, 2020). I really enjoyed moderating this event. Among other things, Moya and I discussed about the position of hashtag activism as a new form of digital activism, especially for people of color and people with disability, and the accusation of hashtag activism as a lazy form of activism, or what they called “slacktivism.” The video is “unlisted,” so it can only be watched directly on YouTube.

Locating Cultures in Video Games and Interactive Fiction: Keynote Talk

So last summer I was invited by a dear friend of mine, Puji Astuti Kasprabowo, to give a keynote talk at her institution, Universitas Negeri Semarang (UNNES). I was honored and excited to give this talk since this is my first proper talk about video game cultures at an Indonesian institution. Plus there is the University of Rochester connection.

However, I was also aware that academic/critical studies of video games are still in its nascent stage in my home country. So I had to make sure that my talk was as accessible as possible to those who are not familiar with video game studies, while still having enough substance for those already familiar with it. So below is my attempt to do so.

So, I would like to start this talk with a statement, that video games are a cultural artifact in the same way as literature, film, and any other expressive forms are. And as a cultural artifact, video games are a medium worthy of rigorous study beyond the influence of mainstream marketing and entertainment discourse. As Clara Fernandez-Vara states, “there is so much more that game analysis can talk about beyond the quality of the graphics or the difficulty curve.”

With this statement in mind, today I will be talking about the concept of global video game cultures. I envision this talk as one of many ways to discuss video games critically. And here, instead of discussing about global video game cultures from the perspective of conventional centers for the production and consumption of games, this talk will focus mainly on what Phillip Penix-Tadsen refers to as game cultures in the global south. The reason of this focus is because often times video game scholarship makes universal claims about global gaming cultures when in fact they talk mostly about Anglo-American, or to a certain extent, Japanese gaming practices. These biases leave the global south regions such as Southeast Asia or Latin America as “the Other” of global gaming culture, while in reality they are integral parts of it. So here a more heterogeneous and nuanced model of global gaming culture is needed.

To discuss about global gaming cultures, I will be dividing my talk into two parts. The first part will examine three main elements of video games, namely game development, in-game worlds, and play experience, to illustrate how culture is incorporated in these elements as well as how it can dynamically emerge from their interconnections. The second part of the talk will discuss about my experience teaching an undergraduate seminar on global video games at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, highlighting several assignments that are designed to develop students’ ability to recognize and situate the cultural impacts of video games globally, and to contextualize how video games can shape our perception, conception, and interaction with our contemporary cultures both at local and global scales. My hope is with this talk we could have a discussion that would enrich and expand our understanding about video games as a medium and as a culture.

And before I go further, I would like to clarify that in the title of this talk I included the phrase interactive fiction. In this case, I will use it interchangeably with video games because I would argue that any narrative-based video game is essentially interactive fiction, even though some scholars may argue differently.

I have to confess that my three categorizations of video game elements are a bit of oversimplification. Elements of video games are much more complex than just these three.

Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort, for instance, distinguish five elements that form a flat ontology of video games.

Meanwhile, Fernandez-Vara in her proposition for textual analysis of video games offers a model of nested building blocks that can be dynamically modified and deconstructed. In my case, my rationale for organizing the elements of video games into three is because I think it will be easy to follow and fits nicely with the triad of production, text, and consumption of video games.

And I also would like to clarify that these three elements are not mutually exclusive. Instead, most of the time they are interconnected with each other. So here we go.

In examining about how game development is inflected with cultural factors, I am going to first introduce a theoretical concept formulated by Bogost called “procedural rhetoric.” In brief, this concept explains how a video game can uniquely express an argument/meaning not through visual or verbal rhetoric, but through the game’s system of rules and mechanics. And this is where game developers/designers can incorporate certain cultural argument/belief into game design/development practices. Let me give you two game examples on how this works in terms of global video game cultures.

Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th

The first one is September 12th: A Toy World, a game created in 2003 by Gonzalo Frasca, an Uruguayan video game designer and scholar. The game lets the player control and target a missile strike with your mouse to kill terrorist in a bustling town in the Middle East. The objective seems simple enough. Yet, the rules and mechanism of the game make it so that for every terrorist the player kills, many more rise to fill their place. The player will notice that the targeting circle is relatively large. And unlike many war or military games, there is a significant delay from when the player clicks the mouse to the launch of the missile itself. So the likelihood of missing the player’s target and killing civilians are really high. And when the player kills the civilians, others will mourn their deaths and morph into new figures of terrorist. So soon enough, the player’s game screen will be full of terrorists and there is nothing that they can do about it.

Frasca’s September 12th is a game that cannot be won. The only winning scenario is to not play it in the first place. And here the rhetorical argument of the game is quite clear, that the US-lead war on terror campaign after the September 11 tragic event is not working, that violence will only beget violence. And this argument is conveyed mainly through the procedural mechanism of the game that is simple yet elegant. Instead of telling the players its message outright, it allows them to simulate the process and come to their conclusion, perhaps through frustration.

Frasca’s game is part of his life-long project of creating “video games of the oppressed,” using the medium as a tool for education, socio-political awareness, and consciousness-raising. To quote Phillip Penix-Tadsen’s observation about Frasca’s project, “Frasca advocated for the appropriation of the means of game production by actors in the global south, and the repurposing of these technologies in ways that would benefit the region’s inhabitants.” And we can definitely see this in the case of the September 12th game.  

My second game example is Thunderbird Strike, a game designed in 2017 by Elizabeth LaPensée, an Anishinaabe and Métis game designer, as part of her activism against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline that threatens the environmental ecology of Indigenous land in North America. In the game, the player controls an Anishinaabe thunderbird that protects the Great Lakes of North America waterways from the oil pipeline. The game is strongly imbued with Anishinaabe’s visual aesthetics, but here I would like to discuss on elements of its procedural rhetoric.

Elizabeth LaPensée’s Thunderbird Strike

As the thunderbird, the player uses lightning energy from the clouds to either destroy pipeline materials, or to energize the fossilized animals and humans. The game mechanic is interesting here because it both describes the act of the thunderbird as an act of destruction and restoration. And this is reflected in the scoring system at the end of each level.

Furthermore, if September 12th is a game that you can’t win, then Thunderbird Strike is the opposite. There is no really losing state in this game, i.e. the player always wins. But winning in this game is not similar to winning in a game like say Fortnite or PUBG. There is not really a reward system for destroying the pipelines materials, or for bringing the fossilized animals to life. And there is not really a punishment system as well. In fact, the player can perhaps let the thunderbird flies without doing anything and they will still complete the level. So winning and losing are not really part of the procedural point of the game here. Instead, the gameplay highlights that the thunderbird’s journey focuses as much on cultural and ecological resurgence within a polluted ecosystem as it does about destroying the oil pipeline. The game here, as Stina Attebery argues, promotes a type of Indigenous posthumanism, which incorporates technologically hybrid posthumans alongside the toxic nonhuman kin that intermingle living and dead matter in our moment of late capitalism and environmental degradation.  

With both September 12th and Thunderbird Strike we can see how culture is inflected through the procedural design of video games. And before I move on to the second element, I want to clarify that procedural rhetoric is not only the domain of the so-called “serious games” like the two I just described here. All video games arguably have their own procedural rhetoric through their rule-based representation and manipulation. In fact, Bogost argues that procedural rhetoric can also be applied to other “play” like environment such as board games or traditional games.

In-game worlds, or the fictional worlds of video games, are probably one of the obvious ways to see how a certain culture is represented in games. And in the context of the global south, it is also where we can see a shared history of reductive and stereotypical representations of the cultures of the region by the developers in the global north. Most audiences in the global south grew accustomed to seeing their cultures depicted in games from outsiders’ perspective, one that shows in many instances the legacy of colonialism, orientalism, and imperialism. See for instance this screenshot from Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction (2010) game.

The two bilingual road signs that you see in this image highlights a kind of ignorance in depicting the Middle East as a region, or in this case Iraq. The sign on the right is written proper Arabic, while what’s supposed to be Arabic on the left sign is just squiggly pseudo-Arabic doodle with no meaning. And you see other instances like this in many games such as Call of Duty franchise, where countries in the global south are depicted merely as a location for the use of the western outsider, and not as sovereign nations with agency of their own.

Because of this shared history, many games developed in the global south, particularly those that deal with national or regional history, try to challenge the global north’s hegemonic and stereotypical portrayal of their nations/regions. Or, to borrow Souvik Mukherjee’s words, to “play back” to the discourses of empire.

One such game that I would like to discuss today is Nusantara Online, a now-defunct Indonesian massively multiplayer online role-playing game/MMORPG. The game was developed by Sangkuriang Internasional and Telegraph Studio in 2006, and was playable until 2013. Nusantara Online/Nusol used the history of three kingdoms in the Indonesian archipelago—Majapahit, Pajajaran, and Sriwijaya—as material for its in-game stories. In the game, players engage in a series of quests and missions drawn from the history of the three represented kingdoms.

Nusol’s use of Indonesian pre-colonial history as its narrative background is what I depicted elsewhere as “playable nationalism,” a ludic construction of digital nationalism that considers the “worlding” of Nusantara as idealized, yet playable environment. And it also highlights the principle of digital collaboration.

In building its nationalistic game, Nusol developers aimed to provide “authentic” illustration of the Indonesian archipelago’s pre-colonial past in visual and narrative forms. They did meticulous research to offer realistic modeling of its game-world and provide an immersive setting in which players can experience. (The game developers actually went to several archaeological sites such as Trowulan for the purpose of this realistic modeling, something that is actually quite rare for a local game development at the time) In the game, players also had a chance to encounter historical figures—both real and fictional—as non-playable characters (NPCs).

Sangkuriang Studio office

Situating the game within the larger framework of Southeast Asian gaming culture, Nusol was also part of the developing trend of networked localism that global blockbuster game developers rarely explore when they produce games that include Southeast Asia. There are other games in the region that adopt narratives of national identity building similar to Nusol, such as King Naresuan Online and 400 Online from Thailand.

Now, Nusol may be a reaction to the global north games’ stereotypical representation of the global south. Yet, I want to argue that it is perhaps too hasty to portray Nusol as a decolonial game project since there are elements in the game that complicate its postcolonial expression. There was a clear sign of idealization in the portrayal of Nusantara as the once-glorious past of Indonesia as a nation, as if the geopolitical concept of Indonesia itself was already there during the historical time period. And if you juxtapose Nusol’s in-game worlding with its procedural elements you find even more contradictions. The game’s racial classification based-on skin color, for instance, reveals a problematic classification. It can be said that there is a discrepancy between Nusol’s representation of its historical in-game world with the procedural elements of the game.

The second game that I will discuss here offers a much more successful combination of in-game world representation and procedural elements compared to Nusol. It is also the subject of my current research. The game is Never Alone/Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, a side-scrolling adventure-puzzle game developed by Upper One Games and first released in 2014.

The game came out of a collaboration between the iñupiat’s Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Alaska and E-Line Media, a New York-based video game education company. It is dubbed as belonging to a new genre of “world games” that intends to empower indigenous community around the world to share their stories in an authentic and engaging way.

The in-game narrative world of Never Alone tells a story about Nuna, a young Iñupiat girl, and an arctic fox, as they embark in an adventure to solve the mystery of the destruction of Nuna’s village. This game narrative is based on the popular traditional Iñupiat tale, “Kunuuksaayuka.”

The focus on the narrative world-building perhaps makes Never Alone less explicitly political as LaPensee’s Thunderbird Strike, the other indigenous video games that I discussed previously. Yet, it does not mean that it follows the same narrative and representational approach as mainstream AAA games produced in the global north.

Never Alone actually represents a distinct view of non-western approach in portraying culture in in-game world. The game’s heavy focus on storytelling is intentional, since storytelling is a medium of cultural transmission and a critical part of Iñupiat culture and many other Indigenous peoples. So the in-game story-building here is not merely a simple act of refashioning the Iñupiat traditional story for the postmodern age. Instead, it functions as an act of survivance, a critical concept in Native American studies. Referring to the works of indigenous scholars such as Anishinaabe’s cultural theorist Gerard Vizenor and LaPensee herself, survivance can be described as Indigenous self-expression in any medium that tells a story about their active presence in the contemporary world and that challenges the discourse of Indigenous victimry or tragedy.

Here, the element of survivance can be identified in how Never Alone focuses its story theme on the communal and collaborative aspect between human, nature, and spiritual being. Throughout the development of the game’s plot, the player will learn how the game is about developing respectful relations with non-human entities such as animals, the Aurora Borealis spirits, the Blizzard man, in short it is about developing respectful relations with nature. The English title itself suggests the theme of the game, that human beings are intimately enmeshed in webs of relationship with each other and with the other entities that inhabit the world.

And this narrative theme is also neatly incorporated in the procedural elements of the game. In the game, the player both plays as Nuna and the fox and work together to solve puzzles. The game mechanic also makes the player aware that they are part of a network of relations within the game environment. For instance, they learn that the blizzard wind can knock them over, but also can be used to aid their jump. They also learn that the bear can kill them but it is also an important part in completing the player’s final adventure quests. So here, the procedural elements of the game suggest that we humans should not fight against or try to conquer nature but instead respectfully engaging with it for our own survival. In this way, as Kateryna Barnes suggests, the game becomes a pedagogy of relationality with the environment or land through an indigenous lens, as opposed to a western colonial perspective which sees nature as a threat to be harnessed.

So, with the examples of Nusol and Never Alone, we can see how culture can be represented in in-game worlds of video games from the global south’s perspective with plurality of approaches and varying success.

Okay, now we have come to the last part of my first section, which is about locating cultures in play experience. Play experience here is having to do with the agency of the player in video games. As scholars such as Alex Galloway and Fernandez-Vara assert, the figure of the player is a necessary and integral part of video games. Without player input, video games are not complete, and this is what makes it unique as an expressive medium. Often times in their interaction with system of rules in games, players also try to break these rules and create goals for themselves. Players can also communicate and relate to each other through the game, and this is what turns the activity of game-playing into social activities. So here you can see how, as Fernandez-Vara argues, by necessity video games are a medium that establishes a dialogue between the game and the players, and amongst players.

I would also like to point out that scholars who are more interested in player experience, or who adopt a play-centric approach in examining video games, have frequently criticized the procedural rhetoric approach that I discussed in the first part of this section. According to the play-centric scholars such as Miguel Sicart, proceduralism marginalizes the ways in which people play by stipulating that meaning largely precedes the act of play and that proceduralism grants power and influence, perhaps too much, to the game designer and developer.

For the play-centric scholars, thus, actions and meanings cannot prefigure play. Different players may have distinct experiences in playing games, and thus making sense of them differently as well. It is the unfolding of meaningful experience through the process of play that is the emphasis of the play-centric game scholarship. Now, I myself think that the play-centric criticism towards procedural rhetoric is quite valid in many ways. Yet, I think a rigorous study of video games should pay equal attention towards the three elements that I discuss here.

And in terms of locating cultures in play experience, I would like to focus on one phenomenon in the context of the global south gaming cultures. That phenomenon is modding.

Modding is an umbrella term that encompasses a large number of practices of customizing, tailoring, or remixing games or game contents by players, in order to suit their desires and interests. It is perhaps the type of play practice that challenges the concept of procedural rhetoric the most, because it demonstrates how players can have the control to significantly alter the systems of rule of a game beyond what the game designers have programmed it to do. That is why in some cases modding practice is actually heavily regulated and sometimes even forbidden. Nonetheless, there are games like Minecraft or Europa Universalis series that are deliberately designed to be modified by their players.

Modding can also be utilized by players, particularly from the global south, to represent their own cultures. For instance, a group of Indonesian players developed a mod of a historical real-time strategy game Rome: Total War-Barbarian Invasion, which they call Nusantara: Total War.

In this mod, they strive to accurately represent the history of military invasions in Nusantara region from the time of the first Portuguese invasion of Malacca in 16th century, to the conclusion the Dutch-Portuguese wars in 17th century. What is also interesting about this mod is that the modder group promotes a pan-Southeast Asian perspective rather than a strictly nationalist Indonesian one like we see in Nusantara Online game. They are aware that the geopolitical concept of Nusantara is not limited to just Indonesia only, but also covers region such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. That is also the reason why they were actively seeking modders from other Southeast Asian countries to collaborate. This type of modding practice can be seen as a response to the hegemonic and Eurocentric perspective of historical games made in the global north, which as I mentioned before usually place non-western peoples and cultures outside of history.

However, here I would still be cautious in characterizing modding as a wholly progressive approach to play back against the hegemonic discourse of the global north in terms of play experience. As Rhett Loban and Thomas Apperley discover in their study of Europa Universalis IV modding practice by Indigenous player from Oceania, portraying the perspective of Indigenous people, or in other words marginalized communities, through modding is difficult. Particularly because of the centrality of very Eurocentric elements that are embedded in the game software. Thus, unless these communities of players create entirely new games, they still have to deal with the hegemonic procedural elements of these games in their modding practices.    

Okay, so after learning about global video game cultures, comes a question for an educator like me: how can you teach it in a college setting? In this section, I am going to tell a little a bit of story about my experience teaching a global video games seminar at my current institution.

I have the opportunity to teach a seminar course called Global Video Games: Cultures, Aesthetics, Politics. In this course we mainly discuss the things that I just described throughout my talk today. And here I would also like to share with you that most of my students are either only familiar with mainstream and US-centered AAA games such as Call of Duty, NFL Madden, or Mario Kart, or they are interested in video games but would not really call themselves gamers. Very few of them are familiar with indie gaming, let alone global gaming cultures. So for most of them, the course was their first experience in learning about video games seriously and critically.

So the first thing I did was to tell them the same statement that I made at the beginning of this talk, that video games are cultural artifact and I want them to treat it as such. And I also assured them that it’s okay if they are not familiar with global gaming cultures because that is actually what we’re going to learn in the course. There’s actually no requirement that you have to be a gamer in taking this course. And I also made them aware from the very beginning, especially to those who are familiar with mainstream AAA games, that the games we’re going to play and study in this seminar are probably the ones they have never heard of/played before. And that’s intentional, because again I want them to expand their knowledge about video games from a global perspective.       

To engage my students with the material, I organized my course so that in our twice a week meeting we first discuss about video game theories and general concepts such as procedural rhetoric and play-centric approach. And then in the second meeting, we would focus on a specific game or a case study. This way they would be familiar in the way scholars talk about video games and examine them critically, and also have the opportunity to apply the theoretical concepts they have learned from the first meeting.

I also asked my students to play the games we discussed every week. In this case, we normally play one or two games a week. This game session is a crucial part in my course because just like a close-reading is necessary in analyzing literature, close-playing a game will also give students a chance to explore elements in a video game that would help them in expanding their interpretation and analysis of it.

And to enhance my students’ understanding about global gaming cultures, I designed several assignments that would help them develop nuanced perspectives on video games. And I am going to briefly talk about two of them.

So, one of the assignments that I asked my students to do is a video essay assignment. This assignment is designed as a substitute for a formal term paper. Here, I encouraged my students to provide a critical analysis of a video game in the style that is already popular in global gaming cultures, a video format. I also let them adopt a fictional persona in making their video essay if they were comfortable with it. With this assignment, I wanted my students to practice their medium-specific analysis of video games and applying critical theories and methods that we had covered throughout the course.

One of my students’ video essay

The other assignment that I developed in my course is a collaborative game project. Here, I asked my students to work in a small group to develop a simple game that creatively demonstrates their engagement with the course material that they have explored throughout the semester. This hands-on experience is an integral part of my pedagogical approach in all the courses that I teach, because I believe that students would gain a much better understanding about media cultures when they shift their position from being passive media interpreters into engaged participant-observers.

Since my course is not a technical game development course, I emphasized to my students that I did not expect them to create a technically-sophisticated game. Especially since most, if not all of them did not have any game design/development experience before taking the course. Rather, I challenged them to engage in a process called “theory by design” developed by Walter Holland, Henry Jenkins, and Kurt Squire, where instead of working through ideas in an expository fashion, they would do so through creative development, putting themselves in game developers’ shoes.

It’s also because of this reason that I chose two simple platforms, Scratch and Twine, for students to utilize. Scratch is a simple programming platform developed by MIT for the purpose of teaching kids how to code. While Twine is a free and open source tool to create interactive fiction developed by Chris Klimas. So I asked my students to explore these two platforms in a workshop and pick the one they are most comfortable with for their project. As a side note, I highly recommend Twine here for those of you who study literature and want to delve into interactive fiction. It is a simple yet robust platform for making text-based games or interactive fiction, with a relatively low barrier of learning curve.

One of my students’ game project

So, throughout my talk today, I have tried to illustrate how video games can be a medium that offers people ways to understand the world, as well as how the ways people understand the world can shape the production, circulation, and consumption of video games. I approach this through the framework of global gaming cultures with the emphasis from the global south perspective, because I believe that this perspective can enrich our viewpoints about the role of video games in culture, and provide a more nuanced understanding of games as a truly global phenomenon. I have to admit that there are still many elements that I neglected in my exploration of global gaming cultures here. But I hope that it can be a starting point in thinking about what and how video games can mean to our society.

Global Video Game Cultures’ Strong Museum of Play Field Trip

This semester, I had the opportunity to take my Global Video Game Cultures seminar to visit the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong Museum of Play. I had actually planned this trip since last year, but due to unforeseen circumstances I did not get a chance to teach the seminar until this semester. So this time I made sure my class get a chance to visit the Museum as I believe it would provide my students with a hands-on experience to explore the broad and global history of video games and learn about the cultures that emerge from and around their worldwide circulation.

As part of the class trip, we went to see the World Video Game Hall of Fame, experienced the eGame Revolution interactive exhibit, perused some of the rare archives on Atari, and went for a behind the scene tour to see the Center’s collection storage rooms. All in all, I think my students enjoyed the trip and it was also recently covered by the HWS Update.

PUBG cosplay

A short commentary on “fatwa haram” for PUBG in Indonesia

PUBG cosplay

“PUBG – PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds”by timz2011 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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!

Traces of Play Pt. 2: Game Prime 2019

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.

Agate’s Smart Bike game for AXA

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.

Teamless’s Loveless demo

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.

Ginvo Studio’s promotional material for their tabloid newsgames’ ecosystem, Gemvi

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.

4Happy’s WhoIsHe: Let Me Out demo

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.

Bluffing Billionaires and Circus Politicus

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.

Indonesia’s “digital wallet” ecosystem and socio-technical change

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.

Even traditional food stalls such as this one are conditioned to employ digital wallet method for transaction

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.

Global Video Games: Cultures, Aesthetics, Politics

Kicking off 2017 by drafting syllabus for my spring course on global video game cultures. Excited to teach this course for the third time.

I did a major overhaul of the material since there are several new works that came out recently, which I think should be included in the syllabus, like Philip Penix-Tadsen’s Cultural Code, Mia Consalvo’s Atari to Zelda, and Henry Lowood and Raiford Guins’s edited volume, Debugging Game History.

You can check the draft here. Do share your feedback with me if you have any!

RE-ENVISIONING JAPAN: Recuperating Ephemeral Histories through Collaborative Digital Curation, DH Pedagogy, and Web-based Publication

Last month I went with Joanne Bernardi, a professor of Japanese here at University of Rochester, and Nora Dimmock, my supervisor, to Bucknell University Digital Scholarship Conference.

It was by far the best conference I went to this year. The keynote talks by Tressie McMillan Cottom and Safiya Noble were great and really relevant to our current digitally-mediated culture (I will try to write a short review of their talks in a different post). We also went to see several engaging panels, among them were compelling presentations about digital humanities projects done by undergraduates at Lafayette College and Gettysburg College.

Our team gave a presentation on Re-Envisioning Japan (REJ) project, a collaborative project that we are involved in. As the principal researcher, Joanne gave a brief background history about the project, which is a public archive of digital surrogates of an original physical collection of travel and educational ephemera about Japan during the early to mid 20th century, and its significance in terms of research and pedagogy. She also explained the challenges that have driven the project’s initiative to migrate the contents from WordPress to Omeka platform. Then Nora explained how the project has opened the way for close collaboration between library and faculty here at U of R. The project has not only bridged the gap between scholarship and teaching, but also introduced new critical practices in the library in terms of participatory curation, metadata structure, technology framework, and team-building. Following up Nora’s explanation, I explained my roles as a newly-joined member of the project, which include collaborating with the team to create a sustainable and transportable data model that will create a much stronger archive platform both in the front-end and the back-end, and creating an interactive timeline for REJ‘s film collection. At the end of our presentation, Joanne gave a brief showcase of two things that the REJ group is currently working on as “future directions” of the project: “Encounters” and “Routes.” The group has developed the “Encounters” since the previous CLIR Postdoc fellow was here. It is basically an interactive tool that will enable users of the REJ archive to dynamically curate the objects in the collection in a real-time. Meanwhile, “Routes” will be a multimodal web-publishing platform embedded in the REJ archive that will accommodate academic scholarship about the collection. These two tools will reflect REJ‘s main objective: to create an online archival platform that is organic, creative, and collaborative.

You can check out our presentation slide deck here. And if you want to see REJ’s “old” look, click here.

Inspiring Quote # 1

“Once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is–that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open.”

– Neil Postman, Technopoly

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (danah boyd) – Collaborative Book Engagement

Around five or six months ago I volunteered to co-direct a collaborative book review project as a HASTAC scholar. It’s a kind of “crowdsourced” book reviews where you invite people to review sections of a book instead of the whole thing. This is actually the second project of its kind launched by HASTAC (I also participated in the first one). This time we choose It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens by danah boyd. It’s a really good book if you want to learn about youth engagement with social media from the perspectives of the youth themselves, and it’s highly readable. I’d have still recommended it even if I didn’t get involved in this project.

In this project, I partner up with another HASTAC scholar Megan Farnel and we work together with the HASTAC Scholars Director, Fiona Barnett. And couple days ago we finally launched the finished version of this project. We’ve gotten twenty-two people writing nineteen reviews and one pedagogical resources (excluding Megan who also wrote the review for the book’s intro). They all come from various academic backgrounds and have taken diverse approaches in writing their reviews.

For me, to be involved in this project is a really rewarding experience, both personally and professionally. And I’m really happy with how it turns out.

You can check the project here!

Theorizing the Web 2014: A Personal Report

So this is my attempt to re-boost my adventure in the academic blogosphere. I really am having a hard time maintaining my personal blog this year despite my aspiration to do so due to several interrupting life events. Now that I have relieved myself from most of my commitments as a grad student (it’s about time!) and that life is less stressful at the moment, I figure I need to start revamping this blog again as a space for my personal ramblings and musings about media technologies.

So as my first post-hiatus post I choose to write about my experience attending the latest Theorizing the Web (TtW) conference in Brooklyn, NY, last April. I’ve heard about this conference for a while during my involvement as HASTAC Scholar so I was excited when the organizers of TtW accepted my presentation abstract on videogames and nationalism in Indonesia. This is the kind of conference that I really want to go to learn about critical perspectives about the internet and/or digital media cultures both from academics and tech journalists/insiders. Plus, it’s a “pay-what-you-can” conference, so no worries about those steep conference registration and membership fees. And I can’t say I’m not glad that I finally participated in it. It was a really enriching two-day experience.

In this conference, I presented my paper in a really cool panel titled “Consensual Hallucination: Fantasy in a Public Life.” But I’m not going to talk solely about my panel in this post. Rather, I’m going to highlight several presentations that caught my attention during the conference. On the first day I had to move back and forth in between “Tales from the Script: Infrastructures and Design” and “World Wide Web(s): Theorizing the Non-Western Web” panels. This is always my problem whenever I attend conferences and I’m sure I’m not the only one. There are always interesting panels that happen at the same time!

From the “Tales from the Script” panel I learned about the idea of end-users as networks in Karen Levy’s presentation The Myth of the End User. In the presentation, Levy reminded us that rather than thinking of end-users as individuals we have to start to think of them as a constellation of power relations and institutional entanglements, mediated through technologies. With this framework, we will be able to see and think about the role of technological infrastructures and social motivations (like mistrust, gossips, etc) in the promotion/distribution of not only technological products but also things like Nexafed and fertilizers. I missed seeing David Peter Simon’s The Do-Gooder Industrial Complex presentation, but still enjoyed Jason Q. Ng’s, Tolu Odumosu’s, and Dalia Othman’s presentations in the “World Wide Web(s)” panel that look at various aspects of digital cultures in China, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Middle East. They discussed topics like censorship, infrastructure, and activism in non-western contexts, which I think is really important to talk about to avoid the tendency of western-centric attitude in talking about new media technologies.

In the next session, I sat on the “Screenplay: Nation, Ideologies, and the Games They Play” panel. This is the panel right before mine and it’s about video games, so I sat through the whole thing. There were three presenters in this panel, Cameron Kunzelman, Daniel Joseph, and Catherine Goodfellow. They all brought up interesting arguments about videogame cultures, but the one that’s more memorable to me was Goodfellow’s presentation about Russian gaming cultures and its relation to videogame ideology in Eastern Europe. To certain extent, I felt like we should’ve been in the same panel since we’re talking about videogames and national identities.

In my panel, Lauren Burr presented a paper on the creative misuse of social media with examples like @TheoryBear twitter bot account (which I also follow by the way!) and the #OccupyMLA “netprov” movement. There was also Amy Papaelias and Aaron Knochel who gave a presentation on a collaborative project they’re doing together to explore the notion of “transformative play,” especially on the issue of race. The last one was Molly Sauter who talked about the concepts of “civic fiction” and “bridge blogger” along with their complexities, giving an example of the elaborative hoax of Tom MacMaster with his fictional “A Gay Girl in Damascus” weblog that has caused quite a backlash after gaining mainstream media attention. Despite my wish to be in a videogame panel, I think the TtW organizer did a great job putting us in the same panel.

There we two plenary sessions on the first day of TtW: “Sex Work and the Web” and “Theorizing Big Data,” but the highlight of my first day was the second one with Zeynep Tufecki, Kate Crawford, Janet Vertesi, and Winter Mason as the panelists. Tufecki talked about the limits of big data analysis that relies too much on algorithmic method and data visualization. For her, which I totally agree, we should resist looking at only one method of big data and start to closely read it. With this kind of approach we could see where culture comes in big data analysis, or in her words this is when big data turns into “ground data.” She uses the example of twitter feed activity during Gezi Park protests in Turkey, where people just drop hashtag because the topic is so dominant. Meanwhile, Crawford discussed about the affects of big data, talking things like the Squeaky Dolphin surveillance program and the surveillance anxiety, where anxiety affects not only those being surveiled but also those who surveil. Her talk reminded me of Foucault’s elaboration of Bentham’s panopticon concept and disciplinary society. Vertesi’s presentation is similar to that of Crawford’s but with a more concrete and personal case, i.e. her own experience. She talked about how it was so hard for her to hide her pregnancy from the eyes of big data both online and offline and pointed out how pregnant women are actually incredible values for marketers. You could also read her post-conference interview here. Mason’s talk was actually the most controversial in the plenary session since he represented the side of big data, or Facebook to be exact. His presentation on targeted advertising drew quite a stir among the audience, both offline and online. I could observe how some if not many people among the audience (myself included!) criticized his take on big data and this was also apparent during the Q&A session. Despite my disagreement with his take, I have to admit that Mason’s presence in the panel was necessary to create a dialogue (however intense) between big data industries and people like me who are concerned with issues like surveillance and targeted marketing strategies and I applaud the TtW organizers for the decision. I also can’t imagine how the audience would react to his talk had they already been aware about Facebook’s emotional contagion experiment at that time.

On the second day, I regretted that I did not get to see Patrick Sharbaugh’s presentation on meme culture and civic engagement in Vietnam at the first panel on internet memes, “Gone Viral: All Watched Over by Memes of Loving Grace” because I woke up late. I was also late to see Joel Penney’s presentation on memes and the persuasive political power of the web. The only full presentation I saw in this panel was Robert Horning’s talk on the idea of the “viral self” and “post-authentic” culture, which was quite intriguing for me.

The second panel I went to was “Streetview: Space, Place, and Geography,” which was pretty interesting. The highlights of this panel include Mathias Crawford’s elaboration on the concept of “procedural communities,” which I love to learn more since in his presentation he juxtaposed it against Anderson’s “imagined communities” and Jay Springett’s exploration of the “stacks” and “stacktivism” as geopolitically dominant power.

I had to skip the next two sessions because I had to meet my friends from Indonesia who I have not seen for years. But I was glad I was not late for the last keynote session, “Race and Social Media.” I was excited to see Lisa Nakamura, André Brock, Jenna Wortham, Latoya Peterson, and Ayesha Siddiqi presenting various cases, from personal to general, around the issues of race and social media such as the #NotYourAsianSidekick on Twitter. Nakamura’s astute statement in this panel that algorithm is ideology in executable form became my fave quote from this conference. I think it really hits the spot and represents the spirit of TtW (IMHO) as one of the venues where we try to disentangle the somewhat mystifying operation of this executable ideology.


P.S. Most of my reports of the panels here are based on my scribbles during the conference. So do excuse me of glossing over. I also learned that the TtW organizers have uploaded the complete video archive of the conference panels on Youtube, so I do encourage you to watch them through this link here so that you get to see the whole conference panels (I’m actually going to watch all the panels I have missed!).

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