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significant number of game studios in Indonesia have developed games in B2B (Business to Business) model, meaning they do not publish their games to the public, only for exhibition or their client’s events/programs.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.
This is the first post related to my current research project on Indonesian videogames history (Disclaimer: thoughts are still scattered and disjointed):
As Inaya Rakhmani and Hikmat Darmawan (2015: 250) assert in their chapter about videogames culture in Indonesia, the exact history of videogames in the country is difficult to trace due to a variety of reasons. Archival awareness was not, and perhaps still not, high among Indonesians, especially for things considered trivial such as videogames. There aren’t really any exact record of what videogame titles first introduced to the country, or when. Statistical data on gaming is almost nonexistent, particularly during the early years. So, most narratives about Indonesian videogames history depend on the memories of people who participated or are still participating in the culture, i.e. gamers. Based on this collective memory, Rakhmani and Darmawan suggest that the development of videogames in Indonesia can be traced as far back as the mid-1980s.
While I cherish Rakhmani and Darmawan’s oral history/interview approach, I am interested in examining the scarcity of record about Indonesian videogames history, specially by means of popular distribution. My goal is not to provide the ultimate history of Indonesian videogames (that would be a rather foolish and impossible task), but to offer glimpses of what videogames discourse looked like (if there was such a thing) back in the early days. I think by doing this type of research, it will enrich our understanding of contemporary videogames culture in the country.
So, the first thing I did is to look for popular periodicals that were around during the estimated period that Rakhmani and Darmawan suggest. In this case, I examined two periodicals, Intisari and Variasi Putra Indonesia, from late 70s to late 80s. These two periodicals are by no means the representation of Indonesian popular culture back then. They are just ones among many, and they are, in this case, accessible to me.
Perusing these two periodicals, the first thing that I stumbled upon is this Graffiti jeans ad:
The ads show three hip-looking youths (by 80s fashion standard), posing next to what looks like a coin-op pinball machine. I am intrigued by the fashion and the machine. Well, mostly the machine.
The machine maybe just a prop for the ad. Yet, associating the aura of “hipness” that the ad promotes, the pinball machine may also suggest that it was part of a trendy youth culture back then. This may not be surprising if we connect it to the history of videogames in the US, especially coin-operated arcade. Coin-operated machines were already part of popular culture dating back to the Victorian-era amusements like the Kinetoscope.
However, 1981 was the heyday of videogame arcades in the US. As Carly A. Kocurek (2015) points out, “[b]y the early 1980s, mainstream media outlets from Life magazine to the New York Times were reporting on the youth trend, and arcades had become mainstays in shopping malls, strip malls, and small-town storefronts across the Unites States” (2). If we were to align the youth trend in the US with that in Indonesia, then the more appropriate background prop for the Graffiti ad would be a Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) arcade machine, or perhaps Sea Wolf (Midway, 1976). But what we see here is a much older coin-op machine (by the US standard).
Then perhaps videogame arcades were not yet popular in Indonesia back then (I rather doubt it). Perhaps arcades were still a novelty for upper-middle class youth as Rakhmani and Darmawan suggest. Yet, if they were a novelty, where did they play them? At home? (I also doubt it)
It is also interesting to note that this ad was the only non-game ad that used game-related background (at least in the two periodicals). And the appearance of this ad is very rare. From 1979 to 1990, it only showed up twice in Variasi Putra and once in Intisari (there are of course other Graffiti Jeans ads, but they did not use the pinball machine as a background prop anymore).
Kocurek, Carly A. Coin-Operated Americans (Univ. Minnesota Press, 2015)
Rakhmani, Inaya and Hikmat Darmawan. “Indonesia.” In Mark J. P. Wolf (Ed.). Video Games Around the World (The MIT Press, 2015)