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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.