Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

"Playable" Nationalism: Nusantara Online and the "Gamic" Reconstructions of National History

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

"Playable" Nationalism: Nusantara Online and the "Gamic" Reconstructions of National History

Article excerpt

In the beginning "Nusantara" was a peaceful country. Its people lived a peaceful rural life. Suddenly, invaders from many directions came rampaging through the country, causing bloodshed and havoc. Many people in the country were killed. Homes and temples were destroyed. Seeing his country's devastated condition, a soldier scarred by war cried out in frustration and anger.

The above narrative is a brief summary of the opening "cutscene", or opening movie, from Nusantara Online, an Indonesian-made 3D massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) first launched in June 2011. (1) The game, on whose development Sangkuriang Internasional and Telegraph Studio began collaborating in 2006, uses the history of three kingdoms in the Indonesian archipelago--Majapahit, Sriwijaya, and Pajajaran--as material for its in-game background stories. (2) Gamers can design avatars based on one of five characters (3)--warrior (makadga), priest (janggan), archer (mamanah), magician (walyan), and assassin (astadipati)--and engage in a series of quests or missions drawn from the history of the three represented kingdoms. The use of Indonesian history in Nusantara Online suggests its emphasis on the promotion of nationalistic fervour in digital format, outweighing the game's commercial interest. Scholars and journalists have variously called this type of nationalistic expression "online nationalism" or "digital nationalism" to suggest a new mode of expressing national consciousness through the mediation of digital technologies (Chopra 2008, p. 155; Krismantari 2010).

This article examines the development and distribution of Nusantara Online as a particular model of digital nationalism. Analysis of the game's software mechanism, visual representation, narrative construction and genre makes clear that it suggests a model here dubbed "playable" nationalism. This model takes into account the formulation of "Nusantara" as an idealized yet playful version of the Indonesian archipelago, a version that emphasizes the principle of digital collaboration. The game attempts to create an immersive setting in which a player's nationalistic experience is both "open-ended" and "programmed". At first sight, Nusantara Online's model of "playable" nationalism gives the impression of an alternative expression of nationalism, emerging from outside official state discourses. Yet closer consideration of the game exposes the limitations of the game's model of nationalism, which constrains players' experience with its software mechanism, represents a conventional version of national history and offers perplexing images of racial classification. Critical attention to the "playable" nationalism of Nusantara Online can shed light on the ways in which technological and political imaginings are deeply intertwined and mutually constitutive, even in such a popular entertainment form as video games.

Video Games and National Identity

Video games have grown into a serious medium of cultural expression. Various studies have contended that video games are not merely a medium of entertainment; they function as a contemporary cultural artefact, which we may analyse to learn about various facets of our lives. Some scholars (Castronova 2005; Dibbell 2006), for instance, have illuminated the political and economic dimensions of video games, revealing the relationships between "in-game" and "off-game" monetary currencies. (4) Furthermore, anthropologists (Boellstorff 2008; Malaby 2009; Nardi 2010) have explored video games as virtual worlds and viewed their cultural significance as distinct domains of human life, from the perspectives of both their designers and their players or "residents". Numerous other studies in the last two decades have shed light on the cultural, political and ideological --as well as artistic--dimensions of video games (Nitsche 2008; Wark 2007; Gee 2008).

Nonetheless, while Hjorth and Chan (2009) and Jin (2010) are exceptions, few studies have focused on video games in Asia, let alone Southeast Asia, or on their sociocultural ramifications. …

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