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In the representation of national identity, might the “soft” in “soft power” ever imply software? Art has acted as a profound interpretive medium for human thought—including that on statehood. Video games, as creative design, can be particularly salient tools for nation-building. The creators of such games have the ability and authority to construct new paradigms—they’re able to reclaim, rebrand, and reinforce national realities and aspirations.

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Iskander Zulkarnain analyzes this idea by looking critically at “playable nationalism”—wherein video games and national identity intersect as a vehicle for state-specific ideologies. For Zulkarnain, writing history is not just a Churchillian recording of winners and losers, but also an act that brings a new lens to observing cultural expressions around the world. To demonstrate this,  he examines Nusantara Online, a massive(ly) multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) based on the history and potential of Nusantara, the Indonesian archipelago.

The development, production, and play of Nusantara Online reveals a number of patterns that game-makers might use to redeem a pre-colonial history and shape a post-colonial outcome. The game itself “imaginatively reconstructs the history of the archipelago,” writes Zulkarnain. In cutscenes (non-interactive video sequences that introduce or interrupt the game), the player is presented with a pre-modern Indonesia as a “once-peaceful place fallen into a state of war as a result of invasions by foreign forces.” The gameplay itself has little to do with fending off these foreign invasions and intrusions by overseas powers. Instead, players pursue quests “loosely related” to the virtual kingdom realm.

Zulkarnain argues that the narrative discontinuity between cutscenes and gameplay “metaphorically indicates the colonial domination that threatens the formation of an ideal Nusantara in the game realm.” In other words, in the contemporary political context of Indonesia, the cutscene gestures toward the influence of foreign cultures that worries “nationalistic programmers” who see the game as an investment in Indonesia’s sovereignty. Gameplay “serves as a call to ‘reconstruct’ the nation…so that it can achieve its ideal form.”

The game development was indeed self-consciously patriotic, “made by Indonesians for Indonesians.” The creators not only developed the engines themselves, but they also steered clear of “global game industry players, such as the Korean game companies that have come to exercise hegemony over the Indonesian MMORPG market.” The globalized game market has generally tilted in favor of large economies—mostly reinforcing an existing economic world order—and the creators of Nusantara Online “promised themselves that…they [would] release the source code of the game engine to the Indonesian public for free, so that the Indonesian programming community can use it.”

Scholars who connect nationalism and video games often highlight the role of military gameplay, such as that of the popular Call of Duty series. Many military games are linked to state defense departments and are supported by some sort of public funding. The United States, for one, has committed public funding to military-themed video games like America’s Army for optics, training accuracy, and recruitment. Nusantara Online offers an alternative angle on nationalist video gaming—it wasn’t sponsored by government money, and it delivers a model of identity formation from a decolonial perspective.

Gamic ideology is not a force to be ignored, argues Zulkarnain. While the relationship between video games and behavior has long been the topic of analysis, what remains overlooked are the cultural assumptions that sit, concealed, in the folds of technical artworks like Nusantara Online. To look at these coded (pun intended) sentiments could reveal a number of ideological constructs, the spread of which is facilitated by contemporary media—such as MMORPGs. The use of such works might be more than just a simple game.

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Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March 2014), pp. 31–62
ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute
Media, War & Conflict, Vol. 5, No. 3 (December 2012), pp. 269–283
Sage Publications, Ltd.
Contexts, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter 2007), pp. 13–17
Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the American Sociological Association