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Games history ezine

Volume two

Issue one Asian histories and games May 2014

Asian Issue one May 2014 histories and games Volume two

Contents Editorial Krish Raghav “Gaming histories from this region are not partial, provincial, belated or ‘emerging’.” Singapore Story Adrianna Tan “How did video games form the overarching basis for my political beliefs, if any at all?” Fun in Port Malaya? Mel G. Cabral “Is Port Malaya a vision of the Philippines free from colonial rule? Is it truly free after the implied wars it has seen?” Random Access Reetika Joshi “The state of technology in India in the early 90’s was a bit…sketchy. Especially for us in glamourous fishing villages.” Pirated Games Taufik Indrakesuma “As the price of the games fell, so did their value in my eyes.” Japanese playing cards Zoya Street “Karuta could be cheap toys or art objects.”

Edited Krish Raghav by and Zoya Street

Editorial Krish Raghav


Krish Raghav is a journalist and policy wonk based in New Delhi and Singapore. He draws comics about Asian indie music, and has a particular fondness for Beijing punk rock.

In 2005,

with World of Warcraft on the ascendant, a group of 12 Indians decided to find a way to get in on the game. There were two problems: it was impossible to buy a WoW subscription without an international credit card (a privilege few enjoyed), and even with one, impossible to find a server without crippling latency issues.

The solution: pirate servers. Through some process of technical wizardry that I could scarcely understand, someone managed to reverse-engineer WoW to run on a local server. This conversion process, however, produced a glitch that culled out all the game’s ene-

mies, monsters and NPCs. So when my Night Elf spawned into Azeroth, she was the only person for miles. The cities were abandoned. The grasslands desolate. There were no quests, no incidental dialogue, and no way to level up. We soon realized that the entire continent had only us 12 players, and we set out to find each other across the vast wastes, coordinating offline via telephone.

It was Azeroth as post-apocalypse. World of Warcraft as DayZ. It was brilliant. If there is a common language to gaming across South and Southeast Asia, it is this constant sense of improvisation, of bending games software and hardware to one’s own will. Most of this region has gamed outside of ‘normal’ gaming history. Until recently, the so-called ‘developing countries’ — India in the 90s, Myanmar today — operated as second-hand hubs for discarded PlayStations and old graphics cards, feeding off the detritus of western gaming markets and scavenging through its remains. Nintendo never released the NES or SNES in India, as Reetika Joshi notes in her piece on three generations of gaming — instead we had such engineering marvels as the Samurai Game Master system, which could play both NES and SNES games, and created its own ecosystem of ‘10,000 Games in 1’ cartridges. This appropriation and remixing, which many would merely call ‘piracy’, is a consistent theme of gaming histories in this part of the world, creating what Taufik Indrakesuma calls a ‘complicated relationship’ with the informal markets that spring up around them. Even when formal markets exist, they suffer from a significant lag period, a sort of economic latency. Even today, in small towns across Indonesia, it’s not unusual to see Dreamcasts being

peddled as cutting-edge entertainment extravaganzas. On a trip to Myanmar earlier in 2014, Yangon’s Pansoedan Street was piled high with ‘brand new’ Playstation 2s.

But gaming histories from this region are not partial, provincial, belated or ‘emerging’. One needs to look no further than the extraordinary history of abandonware site ‘Home of the Underdogs’, started by Thai political activist Sarinee Achavanuntakul, to understand that that gamers in this region have long sidestepped economic and technical deficiencies to stay abreast of contemporary trends and author their own conceptions and theories of what videogames mean. Which is why, as Adrianna Tan and Mel Cabral note, it’s frustrating when the ‘Asia’ refracted back to us via modern games is filled with cliche and stereotype. Or when games marketers refer to the region as a ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ opportunity. Part of the problem, of course, is that so little is written about the particular gaming histories of countries in the region.The recent kerfuffle over Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen’s ‘Flappy Bird’ is indicative of this amnesia. I loved Flappy Bird precisely because it seemed to tap into the inherently playful sense of remixing and appropriation that gamers here grew up with. Where many saw something ‘derivative’, I saw as part of a long creative tradition.

It looked and played, and I mean this as praise, like one of those gleefully modded games I would have enjoyed on my Samurai Game System. Last week, the People’s Republic of China lifted a long-standing ban on the sale of videogame

consoles, bringing another ‘new, exciting’ market into the standardized landscape of the global videogame industry. Some analysts, though, predict that this legalization is too little, too late. Two decades of a console black market have produced a sophisticated network of buyers, sellers, modders and refurbishers in China, and formal marketplaces like Xbox Live or the Playstation Store are less efficient, and more expensive. It’s a fascinating issue for some, frustrating for others, and just bewildering for most. But whatever happens to videogames in China, or Indonesia or India - there’s just so much left to write about.

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Singapore Story

Video games and political consciousness Adrianna Tan

culturekitchens.sg @skinnylatte An entrepreneur and writer from Singapore, Adrianna is the founder of The Gyanada Foundation and Culture Kitchens. When not travelling, she enjoys video games and sci-fi.

I’ve spent

the last couple of nights binge-playing through the Mass Effect trilogy, which reminds me a little bit too much of the late nights I’ve pulled working on political campaigns and social causes in the past. The setup is about the same: all of the above require a single-minded approach to The Goal. Total dedication is best. Showers can be skipped. So can sustenance. The Goal can be anything: win an election, stay out of trouble, vanquish aliens or make some connections. All other objectives, like rescuing civilians or being a decent person, are often secondary. The joy you feel from completing a mission on a planet feels as real as

any real life political victory you’ve ever thrown your weight behind. One day you’re editing a speech for a politician, the next you’re fighting a fire — in the hull of the ship, or on Twitter. It’s all interconnected. I’m an avid gamer, political otaku and all around nerd, so perhaps I feel that way because my favourite games are the ones that include, even combine, some elements of all of the above. Just like history, games — and their plotlines and characters — are written by the victors: those who control the battlefield. Some gamers like to believe that the game worlds we so love are or should be free of the influence of politics and ideology; that they exist as works of art alone in a vacuum and should be appreciated as such. Others have written volumes about identity politics and video games (and indeed there are many problematic aspects associated with being a female, Asian and gay gamer).

Political capital is often spent by the ones who don’t know they possess it. Games are often presented as being mere works of fiction. Some of them, like Assassin’s Creed, even tell you as much, by starting off with a disclaimer calling it a work of fiction inspired by historical events. Yet being the nerdy amateur writer and political historian that I am, I’m more keen to line up the story they don’t tell you — in-between the cutscenes, behind the storyboard and everywhere except onscreen. When you make a decision to assume a character or interact with one, how much of it was already made for you? Let’s start from the beginning. The first game I ever loved was Street Fighter II. We played it religiously in the Singapore arcades first, then at home when we got a console. As a six year old at the time, the game was straightforward and compelling. Yet a few questions have always lingered in my mind, and still do: of all the races, personalities and other caricatures to pick from, why would CAPCOM pick a Japanese and an American guy to look, dress and act like each other (Ken and Ryu), a Chinese femme fatale with buns for hair, a Japanese

sumo wrestler, a Soviet bear-like wrestler, a yogi who looks like a levitating Gandhi, a hairy Brazilian beast, and an American special forces operative with a bad haircut? Also, that even though bosses are meant to be evil villains in any movie, game or story, the Street Fighter baddies had a characteristically ‘different’ edge about them? It’s not that they were unsavoury, that’s what villains are about, it’s that they are just so inscrutable — perhaps even deliberately. I concluded — rightly or wrongly — that Ken was a clone of Ryu with a badly fleshed out back story because they wanted to make the game more accessible to an international (largely American) audience. That I will never see an Asian female video game character in my life time who is capable of speaking in a normal voice. To lower the bar a little further — an Asian female video game character who dresses in normal clothes and doesn’t have to spread her legs while executing men-killing moves would be an upgrade with 1000XP. That you have to be of indeterminate race with obscure skills — a Spanish cage fighter, African-American boxer or world dictator in order to be villainous. Why weren’t there any villains that looked more like Guile or even Zangief? Caricatures serve a purpose, and for good reason: you can explain a lot about a character without overwhelming anyone with back story. You understand at first glance that Tanya (from the Red Alert games) is capable of blowing up entire Soviet units and completing missions on her own because a) she is white and b) she is Allied Forces, Tesla coils be damned. You’re not surprised at Red Alert’s Soviet ending because Nadia is just not as awesome as Tanya. Even if “they” win, she is still going to stab her own people in her back and poison Stalin — something the Allies would never do. You would never begrudge or demand more justification for the Allies raining death upon the Soviet base, but any assault they wreaked on you must be avenged.

It is even easier to caricature an entire concept, especially when it’s not a popular one: Politics.

Politics, when it overtly shows its hand in a game, tends to become wrapped into the idea of The Council or The Committee. Sometimes it is a deep booming voice or character you never quite meet or hear. In the rebooted XCOM, the Council has a mysterious, shadowy spokesperson who speaks in absolutes: “Good job, Commander. We will be watching.” When you assume the role of a politician — SimCity comes to mind — your omniscience is unquestionable. Do you build this city on rock and roll, or on cancerous factories and no public transportation to speak of? In Mass Effect, the Council is less omnipresent but still very much a part of your life. Even though you can play a female Shepard and customize your character right down to what you look like, all Shepards hold all the political capital — and he or she is in turn serving the interests of, depending on how you play it, him or herself, the Council or humanity. All of the decisions you pick on the radial wheel are your political capital to spend, three or more at a time; all of those have far-reaching decisions for the next couple of years in real life and in video game lives.

The Council gives and takes away. Great games — the XCOM and Mass Effect games are all fangirl-level personal favourites — but the most frustrating thing for me as a political nerd is how two of the smartest games in the world have also reduced all politics into mysterious unknown quantities. You know which countries make up the XCOM Council, and you know when they leave; you know the Citadel Council has various beings representing various intergalactic interests, but you never know how any of them got to where they are. In Grand Theft Auto IV, the talk show radio in the characters’ cars yammer on cynically about politics — about would-be politicians (“I hate cripples, cops, old ladies, immigrants… we’ve cared about people for far too long”) and the electorate (“Once you see Hitler portrayed as a gorilla, it’ll explain the war in a way you never imagined. It is truly shocking!”). Are politics really that faraway, distant and inaccessible? Is it all to be sneered at? If so — who are these people who show up from time to time, and who put them in charge?

I don’t believe all characters or gameplay elements are mere caricatures. All of those decisions were made for a reason. World Wars 1, 2 and the Cold War inspired an entire generation of video games and pop culture, for good reason. I think games like Street Fighter and the characters in them only exist because of the events of the Pacific theatre of World War 2. The continued involvement of American forces in Japan’s security formed a large part of Japanese cultural and urban consciousness — perhaps Guile’s bad haircut and dress sense is more fact than fiction? — while the bizarre Orientalism of Chun-Li’s character by a Japanese company is understandable when you take into account that she is female first, Chinese second. Red Alert, along with all other war games that came before and after it, evidently considers only the victor’s point of view — but was revolutionary in that it allowed you to play “the other side” with equal force and superior arms, yet somehow it always came down to how “their people” had something suspect about their moral character. We won the Soviets despite the odds, it seemed to say, because we are just better and they’re just not good enough. Lately, we’ve seen a surge in games which have made conscious decisions around the narrative. Gone Home deserved to be the hit that it was because it not only took apart the tropes of a horror game set, it also brought in music (from a genre I’m very fond of), awkward adolescence emotions, squirreled away personal pain, and gawky young love with lesbian undertones. You could beat the game in a few minutes and play it that way if you liked, or you could treat yourself to a leisurely few hours reconnecting with your adolescent heartbreak again. The politics in this is clear: it doesn’t matter. At the end of it was such fun and raw beauty that you were forced to consider that perhaps we have finally arrived at that point in the world where our teenagers falling in love with other teenagers of the same gender is No Big Deal, because It’s Gotten Better. The running away and heartbreak part was not because, gasp, I’m lesbian and I can’t deal with it (certainly what would have happened when I was growing up a lesbian teenager), but because of life decisions we have to make. In Papers, Please, the other indie darling of the past year,

it’s clear the dystopia is modelled after parts of Eastern Europe.

Yet there is no overwhelming sense of “Us vs Them”. It’s just you against the bureaucracy. Which is, I suspect, far more accurate to the actual Soviet citizen’s experience than any America Saves Us game could have ever been. Since my primary interests are in how video games reflect political capital, I’m curious as well to any correlational influence they may have on the political belief systems of gamers as well. What did all of this do for me? Like gamers everywhere, they challenged and entertained me for hours, offering me an immersive getaway for when books and movies alone were no longer sufficient. They taught me about storytelling through moving sound and pictures, illustrations and voice-acting — skills I may never get to utilize myself, but which definitely come in handy in my career as a writer and storyteller through other means. Growing up in Singapore in the late eighties, an era where we still detained people without trial for alleged “Marxist leanings”, meant I distinctly remember forming my nascent political beliefs in a climate where it was thought you would be imprisoned for possessing any kind of political belief at all, which was not and still is not true. It was not with great irony that I played SimCity without feeling like each click I took on the mouse, as a little girl, brought me closer to what I felt at the time to be the strong arm of the state, intervening strongly in everything from urban planning to probably monster defence if so required. As an amateur historian with a keen interest in Southeast Asian history, I am disappointed whenever liberties are taken with Malaysian, Singapore and Thai histories especially when it relates to World War 2. We are, at best, a brief mission in games I detest like Medal of Honor where The Americans Liberate Everyone. At worst, we are an exaggerated accent in Just Cause 2 in the form of the ever-hilarious Bolo Santosi meme.

But how did video games form the overarching basis for my political beliefs, if any at all? If SimCity taught me my citizens were numbers, The Sims demonstrated one should never have an intimate interest in the private lives of your citizens. Assassin’s Creed showed me shady religiously-inspired political orders, which I spend time and money fighting today, not as an Assassin but as a progressively-inclined secularist with strong views on personal and civil liberties. Civilization illustrated the importance of not missing the forest for the trees. To wait and to build something which will stand the test of time. Whereas FarmVille convinces me that the urban class should ditch any aspirations for agriculture, now (truth is sometimes stranger than fiction: a real headline last year, “Are NYC’s Hipster Farms Abandoning Their Chickens?”). Rebooted XCOM and Mass Effect show anyone who aspires to leadership that your actions depend on the moods of a few, even if you hardly know them. Video games are a reflection of the generation in which they were born. Some can persist in a vacuum of their own, but by and large they exist in the state they are because those caricatures, systems and expectations were the status quo at the time. In imaginary game universes set in the future, like the bars in Mass Effect, even with Krogans around and all sorts of technological developments, you still cannot interrupt some of the male aliens at the bar, the ones who are fixated by well-endowed gyrating dancers. They inspire us towards great leaps in technological change, and at the same time show us up to be who we really are: flawed humans with worse systems who will always be fighting someone, or something, in order to become better, sometimes doing worse in nett terms, but always trying anyway. Strong will we have in abundance, since that’s the only thing you have to run on. But sometimes even that can be bought. Image credit: Screenshot from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, 2012 2K Games

Fun in Port Malaya? Philippine representation in Ragnarok online Mel G. Cabral

patreon.com/melgcabral @melgcabral Mel is a Filipina artist and writer who loves to create and experiment. She loves to come up with new ideas and see them come to fruition.


Online (or RO) is a Korean Massive Multiplayer Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) created by Gravity Ltd. Level Up! Games (LUG) first brought Ragnarok Online to the Philippines during its beta trial in June 2003. Philippine Ragnarok Online (pRO) became the Philippines’ first MMORPG, colloquially called “RO” or “Ragna”. It became one of the most popular MMORPGs in the country, boasting at least 3.6 million players and subscribers during 2004-2005. However, in recent years, player numbers have declined. Though up to speculation, this may be because the game creators seemingly forgot the existence of its Philippines fan base. This was, at

the time, proven by the Global Project, where the game creators created new in-game towns based on the cultures and traditions of countries with officially licensed RO servers. Despite much success and a loyal fan following in the Philippines, it took eight years before Port Malaya was officially released on the pRO servers on May 9, 2012 as the game’s Episode 25 update. The decision to create a Philippine-inspired map was “because the Philippines remains to be a very important market for Ragnarok Online” and to convince players who have quit the game to come back for the new map.

Is Ragnarok Online’s Port Malaya a satisfactory representation of Philippine culture? All images from Otakultura. Port Malaya view of the docks.

We first arrive at Port Malaya by walking off of the big wooden trade ship from Alberta loaded with barrels of sea food: fish, lobsters, clams, etc. We encounter a Port Guard standing in front of more boxes and barrels of seafood, some nets laid out and on top of each other along the harbor. The Port Guard is dressed somewhat like a cowboy but not - donning a smart straw hat with a wide brim, white pants and shoes, a blue and red jacket with a belt with a gold buckle. He sweats, saying “The village is chaotic these days. Is it okay for me to be off like this?” The locals are frightened and refuse to talk or let you through their doors, even described as ‘eyeing you suspiciously’ when you attempt to enter any of their homes or stores. This is in direct contrast to the description of Malayans (and, in effect, Filipinos) as hospitable and friendly. A few feet away from the docks, close to a tall vibrant coconut tree, stands another port guard, named Rodel. He tells you to talk to Phong the Mumbaki, their version of a shaman. After venturing north in order to track the shaman down, Phong explains that for mysterious reasons, dark spirits have been roaming the village, hence why they were so wary of your character. The narra-

tive then says your character approaches the spirits despite Phong’s warnings, only for you to find that the spirits back away from fear of you.

Phong says they are afraid of you, a foreigner with a pure soul.

Phong the Mumbaki. Quest images before and after the player character approaches the evil spirits. Curiously, they used humans and typical ghost visuals for the representation rather than any of the mythological creatures.

Phong encourages you to try talking to the locals again, assuring you they will no longer be afraid of you. The locals hear about the ghosts’ fear of you and proceed to ask for a piece of you: a button of your shirt, anything to keep with them to ward off the spirits. It is implied though not shown through the character sprites that they have been grabbing at you and your clothes in a desperate attempt to get a piece of your holiness. Phong asks you what items you could give the locals to ease their worries. Your characters’ suggestions are Holy Water and Blue Gemstones, both items commonly associated with the Priest characters of the game. It is not entirely clear what the religion of the Malayans are, but there does not appear to be a Catholic church anywhere in sight. Does this also imply that whatever their own faith is, even Phong could not ward off the spirits on his own, and that only religious items from another culture were effective enough to save their village? Once you distribute the holy items to the NPCs, the town is now free for the player character to explore. This obligatory quest to access the entirety of Port Malaya is troubling, as it implies that none of the locals are pure enough to fend off the spirits on their own. It reeks of the ‘holy foreign savior god to the unknowing, uneducated, uncivilized people’, more commonly called the ‘Mighty Whitey’ trope in popular culture. This is further problematic considering every single player will do this quest and have the exact same dialogue with Phong. Every single player begins their RO life in the same newbie map, and hence every single player is told by the NPCs they are not a local. Therefore, no playable character is Filipino or Malayan. Apparently Pure Foreign Saviors are in huge demand in Port Malaya.

However, Port Malaya apparently has a savior, or hero, of its own. Up north, at the far end of the map, there is a mini Luneta park, with a crude 3D recreation of the Rizal monument, complete with two honor guards standing stock still in front of it. Though the game itself only refers to it as “Park”, the official Level-Up Games Port Malaya trailer clearly calls it Luneta Park.

One then has to wonder where exactly in the timeline this version of the Philippines exist, or for that matter, how it exists in conjunction with the rest of the Ragnarok time and space.

Corredigor Ruins.

It references our National Hero, implying that perhaps he, or a version of him, also lived in this virtual world at one point in time. What could his role have been in this version of the Philippines that seems to now be free from colonial rule and yet retains not only a Spanish influence in its architecture, but also retains the American jeepneys? Could this virtual representation break the space and time continuum, or perhaps has become a rift in it where all elements have come together into a melting pot of culture? Or was the inclusion of this park merely a gimmick with no real afterthought? Luneta Park is not the only real-life location in the game. There is also a crude virtual recreation of the Corregidor Ruins teeming with monsters. This suggests that the game occurs, should we consider it a parallel of reality’s timeline, at least in the year 1945, clearly showing us that unlike the other Global Project cultural areas, Port Malaya is not based on Ancient Philippines. Both inclusions of these virtual recreations imply deeper meanings, even if they may have only been conceived by the game developers as gimmicky virtual postcards and shout-outs to the Filipino gaming audience. This supposed attempt

to make the game more relevant to its players appears disrespectful since it simply inserts these locations loaded with historical significance about our colonial history. This could have been avoided had these locations been more loosely based, and had not been named exactly as “Luneta Park” and “Corregidor Ruins” but rather something else in its advertisements. These areas were also not integrated into Port Malaya’s mythos, much less RO’s general mythos. Even the name Malaya, meaning ‘free’ in Filipino, is an interesting name for the company to have used for a country that has been colonized for over 300 years.

Is Port Malaya a vision of the Philippines free from colonial rule? Is it truly free after the implied wars it has seen?

The first jeepney the player character can see upon arriving.

The town is also littered with something left behind from previous wars: huge jeepneys. They look boxy and colossal compared to the characters. One of the designs appears as follows: its front is decorated with a big red heart with wings, alongside several other hearts. It is complete with a windshield and wipers. The top of the engine is grey, with light grey swirls on top, bordered with red. There is rope tied in the front bumper of the vehicle. Many bundled packages lie on top of the roof of the jeepney. It also has wings on either side of the roof, rendering it an angelic vehicle ready to fly off at any moment. A spare tire is tied to the driver’s side. The back entrance is sparse but appears very wide, whereas in actual jeepneys it makes for a tight fit. On the outside, it looks like this is a fairly close depiction of the jeepney we see in the real world’s streets, save for its huge size. However, one will be disappointed once they see the inaccurate interiors. The player character cannot even clamber onto the jeepney directly, but has to talk to an NPC - The Jeepney Driver - to get inside.

The inside of RO jeepneys.

Mangkukulam sprite.

Inside, the jeepney looks more like a spacious train. The floor is tiled, and the walls appear to be made of wood. There are restaurant-like tables and chairs on either side of the vehicle with ample space in the middle aisle to walk around. This is unlike the real conventional jeepney where there is a bench on either side and the passengers are seated facing the windows. One is not sure whether this was done on purpose because the game’s creators found the real jeepney’s interiors distasteful. If so, that is also disrespectful to the Filipino players. Many monsters based on Philippine mythology wander the farther Malaya fields. One of these monsters is the Mangkukulam. The Philippines’ version of witches or sorcerers has been turned into a killable monster in RO. They are hunched over and wear tattered clothing while holding a giant needle.

A strange, huge doll rides on their back, possibly a voodoo doll. Their hood cloaks their eyes in complete darkness.

Padiernos, Noriel. “'Mangkukulam' shot dead in Pangasinan.” ABS-CBN News. 10 October 2013. Web (link)

Unlike the tikbalang, tiyanak, or manananggal, which were some of the monsters created for the Philippine map, a mangkukulam in the offline world is an actual human being, not a mythical monster. Mangkukulams are killed the same way a player would kill other monsters: without any remorse expected. However, this others and dehumanizes real people in order to justify killing them. Video game developers should consider when to cross the line, especially as impressionable children and teenagers will be playing their games. There have been reports of real people who have been killed because they were accused of practicing witchcraft in the Philippines, some as recent as October 2013. The only monster that deviates from the Philippine Mythology theme is the jejeling. It is a Por-

On left: Poring. On right: Jejeling.

Port Malaya’s Kafra Employee.

ing, a pink tear-drop shaped jelly monster that servers as RO’s official cute mascot, wearing a cap that has a rainbow-striped back, the signature accessory of the jejemon. Jejemon is slang for a cultural phenomenon that gained widespread attention in 2010. It referred to Filipinos who texted in a unique language that deliberately strings together misspelled words without syntax, sprinkled liberally with quotation marks. These people were looked down upon by ‘proper grammar advocates’ called ‘jejebusters’, who claimed jejemon was proof of the deteriorating ability of Filipinos to speak English. Often, jejemons were looked down upon as a lower class because of the way they texted and clothed themselves. It appears it was meant as a light-hearted joke meant for the Filipino people about the subculture, for many Porings inhabit RO as one of its most common, weakest — and fastest re-spawning — monsters. Porings are generally found to be annoying, for they like to steal items dropped by monsters you have killed. Porings can be killed in one hit by most decently leveled player characters, thus allowing one to reclaim their rightful loot. It appears that Jejeings are a reference to jejemons as such: annoyances that flood the area and steal from those who are richer than them — annoyances that can be done away with easily. This is classist and elitist for the game’s creators to make a joke out of this Filipino subculture of people, people who could very well be playing the game themselves. But of course, jejemons are not the only Filipinos playing pRO — pRO is, supposedly, for everyone (who can afford a computer and internet access.) Thus, it is disturbing that most of Port Malaya’s NPCs, while colored slightly browner compared to the player characters, are still quite fair-skinned. Even the Kafra Employee, the most useful and most used NPC due to her ability to store the player character’s items and save the player’s game, is fair-skinned in her rendered close-up art

despite being tanned in her full-body pixel sprite. Even if these NPCs do wear colorful clothes reminiscent of Philippine indigenous clothes, there is no sign of any character with dark skin. This is made worse by the fact that the player character’s skin tone cannot be changed at all, which is one of the most vocal complaints of RO players. There is no option to choose a skin color; every player character comes built-in with fair white skin. Hence, one would have no idea that the player behind the character they have bonded with could actually be a black man. One instantly assumes the player behind the character is Caucasian, or perhaps a mestiza. The same complaint about skin color continues into the game’s sequel, Ragnarok Online 2. During a Question & Answer Livestream on June 28, 2013, iRO players asked about the lack of skin color options. WarpPortal staff stated they will not implement this due to two reasons: 1) they believe there is no such thing as racism in the game because there is only one race in the game, and; 2) they do not want to deal with any cases of in-game racism due to a player character’s skin tone.

Excluding other races from the game in the guise of “preventing racism” is racist in itself. There is also no in-game implication that the characters you create in RO are Filipino - they seem Caucasian, perhaps fair-skinned Korean at best, from the land which the game originated. However, if we go back to the fact that Luneta Park and Corregidor Ruins were included in the game, their very existence actually declares that there should be more than one human race in-game, especially with the political and colonial battles both locations memorialize. In-game must exist Americans, Japanese, Filipinos, Germans, et. al., or at least representations of them, in order for the inclusion of these landmarks to make sense. They did not transform these areas into RO-specific

The refreshments stand

homages — they referred to them by their actual names. While this may be an oversight on the part of the creators in regards to coherence, this shakes the claim of the developers that “there is only one race”. At the very least, this shows that the game’s creators have not thought this out, nor taken these opportunities to expand the mythos and character races of their game. Opportunities to ‘Filipinize’ various visual aspects of Port Malaya were also not taken advantage of. There is an item shop in the lower right of the map with a giant Western Fantasy-looking corked potion containing translucent blue-green liquid as its giant sign. The Weapons shop is similarly Western-looking as well, a giant metal Medieval Knight’s Helmet with gold swirling decorations its signage, the visor moving up and down to attract attention. A shield with gold linings and medieval sword emblems is hung by the entrance. It is disappointing that instead of attempting to turn these shops’ banners into something that draws from visual cues of the Philippine’s rich culture manggagamots, local herbal concoctions , Filipino warriors, weapons, and superstitions included the game’s creators opted to go with Western Fantasy motifs that already litter most of the game. This takes away another chance for Port Malaya’s culture to stand out from all the other default RO towns and Global Project cultural maps. There is a refreshments stand with coconuts and a bahay kubo/nipa hut which, at first glance, seem like a huge improvement from the previous two shops mentioned. There is a Fruit Gardener nearby selling fruit. Despite displaying mangoes and what appear to be tomatoes in crates, the only ‘fruits’ she sells are Banana, Mastela Fruit (a fictional fruit in-game), Apple (which is not native to the Philippines), Carrot (which isn’t even a fruit but a root vegetable), and Pumpkin (or rather, Pumkin, as it is misspelled in the item menu). It is, again, disappointing that they didn’t take this chance to integrate some aspects native to the Philippines — in this case, local fruits — into

the game’s mechanics. Again, despite the amount of research that seems to have been done in other aspects of the game (such as the mythological monsters), this shows that they did not do enough research, even with aspects not regarding Philippine culture (i.e. labeling vegetables as fruits, and misspelling items) and that the game creators haphazardly threw in whatever seemed convenient to them at the time. Though one may become lost in the baffling inaccuracies and decisions the game creators have made, player characters will never get lost because of the existence of the Port Malaya Guide, a woman who shows you where to go on the map as she greets you: Where cultures and legends come to life! At the Breathing Village, Port Malaya We welcome you. I will show you around the village. Please ask me anything you want.

Port Malaya appears peaceful, not in terms of the absence of colonial forces, but because of how quiet and unmoving it is. One realizes this upon reflecting on its recreation of a jeepney: it is static, it does not move. The jeepney’s engine is not revving, there is no exhaust from the pipe. While it is there, it is not alive. This extends to the rest of the area: there are no bustling crowds in the markets, no taho or balut vendors calling out loud, no tricycles squeezing their way through the road, none of the chaos nor bursts of color of the Philippines we know now. It now makes sense for the Port Malaya Guide to call it a Breathing rather than a Living Village, because it is existing, but not brimming over with life as the real Philippines would. Even local reviewers expressed surprise when they saw the vil-

‘Touring Ragnarok Online’s Port Malaya.’ Otakultura. 16 Aug. 2012. Web (link)

lage, expecting the area to have “[...] banderitas here and there, tables and tables of local Filipino cuisine, native and decorative costumes, and people dancing in the streets. Instead, the whole town is surrounded with supernatural beings and ghost stories.” While Port Malaya is a valiant and much overdue effort on the part of the game’s creators to acknowledge and give something back to its Filipino fan base, Ragnarok Online’s representation of Philippine culture through Port Malaya lacks polish and respect. Rather than becoming a virtual safe space for Filipinos to temporarily escape from the cruelties of the offline reality, it exploits, disrespects, and underestimates rather than celebrates its Filipino fan base. Although the Optamara Crew NPC insisted that Port Malaya was comfortable and cozy, it is not the same for those who actually live the culture that it supposed to represent. Indeed, it is not more fun in Port Malaya.

Resources Eloisa May P. Hernandez Korean Ragnarok and its Impact on Philippine Contemporary Culture UP Diliman Department of Art Studies, 2005. ‘Mighty Whitey’ TV Tropes ‘Touring Ragnarok Online’s Port Malaya’ Otakultura Image credit: Otakultura

Random Access

Memories of gaming in 1990s india Reetika Joshi Reetika Joshi is a research analyst who spends her days writing and her evenings playing video/board games or starting to explore the wonderful nerdiness of Cambridge, MA.

The summer of 1993

pretty much changed the life of six-year old me. My family lived in Karanja, India, which is an Indian naval base in New Bombay. For some reason only military folks have ever heard of it. It was a remote fishing village, except for naval cadets that would come in for naval warfare training and other things that didn’t concern child-me. My elder sister Pia (eleven at the time) and I would run amok‌ swinging from banyan trees onto oncoming traffic, playing in acid rain puddles, picking suspicious berries in the hills and sneaking past the fences around the rocky beaches

to poke at crabs with sticks. You know, like kids in the old days, before Happy Meals and violent video games ruined us all for life (more on this soon). We had family in the U.S, two doting older cousin brothers in their late teens. Note, in India, you don’t just have cousins. You establish immediate sibling status to them, for better or worse. Anyway, it’s these generous relatives (every middle-class Indian family has one) that would visit some summers, bringing us fascinating curios from their world travels, along with toys, games, clothes and other trendy things that American kids were probably already growing out of. Only this summer, my cousin brothers brought us, wait for it…the almighty 16-bit Super Nintendo System and the original black and white Nintendo Game boy! The SNES came with two games — Super Mario All-Stars (a compilation of 4 great Mario games) and Double Dragon (a 1987 beat-em-up) and the Game Boy had 5-6 popular titles (some Egyptiany Mario game, Tetris, The Punisher, Spiderman and Marble Madness).

The state of technology in India in the early 90’s was a bit…sketchy. Especially for us in glamourous fishing villages. We had a 12 inch black and white ‘portable ‘ TV, which meant that it had a pull-out handle at the top. This ‘backup’ television (the house also had a “gigantic”, cutting-edge 26 inch colour television for soap opera purposes) had been entrusted to us kids, and was our primary gaming screen. Even when on occasion we were allowed to hook up the SNES to the big TV, NTSC/PAL format issues meant that we always played in greyscale, often with no sound. And yet, we lost days in front of this thing. My older sister would play a lot of the solo missions while I watched (some things are universal). I most

enjoyed the two player battles on the Super Mario All-Stars game and the co-op playthrough on Double Dragon — when I got to play (ha). I feel like I had all the trappings of a game designer, because between 1993-1995, I spent a lot of my time daydreaming about alternate gaming experiences.

Nintendo didn’t officially market any of its consoles, games or accessories in India at the time. You could find some games in imported goods shops in upmarket Bombay, but they were way too expensive for your average gamer. So I was left to my imagination, gladly re-re-re-re-replaying our two precious SNES games, or trying to fit Gameboy cartridges into the SNES slot (this does not work). My family moved to the sleepy but growing city of Pune in 1995. In the next few years, we were exposed to city life — new school friends, new 40” TV, new computer and an introduction to my true, life teacher — the internet. But this isn’t a segue into my flirtations with Dangerous Dave, Doom and Diablo. Kids in school, finally, like us, played video games! Only this was gaming on a whole new level…a stormy sea of cheap, unbranded consoles and interchangeable cartridges ripe for the baiting of virgin gamers. You could rent one of these things from a ‘video parlour’ along with a VCR if you felt like splurging. We bought a console immediately of course, and it came with a “1001+ Gamez Universe” cartridge. We discovered that everyone was still living 8-bit gaming lives in India, and we soon adapted. Strangely, it felt like an upgrade since we didn’t face NTSC/PAL format issues anymore, and we now had colour and sound. Pia and I could finally have friends over that would play with us, exchange games and talk about them in school. It opened up a whole new community activity for us that previously existed only within the family with our cousins. Games we loved in this generation include Circus Charlie,

Super Mario World, Contra, Galaxian, Tank, Bomberman and something called Ice-Man. Apart from your usual 8-bit sophistication (which I still love), I always thought things were a bit…off with these gaming experiences.

There’d be frequent glitches, sound effects and music would go off, side-scrollers wouldn’t scroll. But we’d shrug it off and soldier on. It was only years later that I realized that the shady, awesome games that we all had been playing were actually pirated versions of old 80’s NES games. Often the names would be changed, so I don’t actually know some of the real NES titles. I’m not entirely sure why pirates got creative with these names, but we unquestionably accepted this as normal at the time. Oh, right, “Ice-Man” is SnowDream is Ice Climbers, whatever, just stay away from the polar bear in raybans and pink shorts. Anyway, the gaming generation gap is quite amusing. Ask any 20 something Indian today if they know what Contra is, and they’ll (hopefully) slip into all sorts of nostalgic ruminations. I suspect you’d get a similar reaction from the original NES kids that are now in their late 30s. Cut to the pre-millenial era; TV consoles dolefully gathered dust in dark cupboards. It was the age of computers. Groups of boys would huddle around our computer screen everyday, mashing keys fervently to evade the law and defeat enemies in Need For Speed II and Mortal Kombat 3. Left to own own devices though, Pia and I would play leisurely (read: sneakily stay up all night playing on mute). We enjoyed strategy and simulation games the most, including Age of Empires II (you had to), The Sims, Zeus and the first generation of online multiplayer games (Microsoft Ants anyone?). At this time, I also caught up on all those years of missed SNES titles. I discovered emulators for my

PC and felt I didn’t have enough time in the day to get through all those titles! My inner SNES game designer was not disappointed. We kept up our PC gaming activities well into 2003, when my dad finally got us a Sony Playstation 2 from Singapore. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our console had been sold pre-modded (able to run pirated titles). On long distance phone calls to our dad (who travels for work), Pia and I would read through long lists of games for him to hunt for in other parts of Asia. Some of our favourites over time were Final Fantasy X-2, the Ratchet & Clank series, the Sly Cooper series and Gladius. But when we’d have company over, the button bashers would come out again… Crazy Taxi, Gran Turismo 4 and Tekken.

2005 onwards, we could finally find games in Pune, and cheap. Small retailers began to sell hundreds of PS2 titles at $2 a pop — all pirated and presumably coming in from China. We weren’t complaining, because the official distribution channels didn’t consider us a market anyway (cue anti-capitalist rationalization). You’d only find mainstream titles (e.g. GTA Vice City) but not some of the lovely, obscure, artistic or experimental stuff (e.g. Ico, Okami). Thankfully, this isn’t the case today. The kids have it easy these days… Whenever I have a conversation with a retro gaming enthusiast now, I can relate to all the old games and the subculture in general. I have a Nintendo DS Lite (mod-chipped, of course) so I’m still connected to the old ROMs. But my eyes sparkle if someone brings up Super Mario All-Stars or Double Dragon…my first loves! As for Sony…even as college, jobs and life in general took us across the globe, every time Pia and I are at my parents’

home together, we bust out the PS2 and play Sly 2. I suppose many gamers in India, and other countries outside the big gaming markets, have their own strange journeys to gaming present. It was some anomalous luck of the draw that introduced me to Super Mario All-Stars and Double Dragon — setting all these dominos in motion. Who knows what would have happened if the two SNES games I received as a six-year old were Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Chrono Trigger? I’m sure there’s someone out there with that story to tell, and regardless of the path they may have taken — I’m sure it was circuitous, improvised and eclectic. In the US, we’re now obsessed with LA Noire, Journey and Far Cry 3 on the PS3 — with LED colour, surround sound and three dimensions.

I miss the warm comforting glow of pinstriped static lines across my screen before a game boots up. It’s just not the same. Image credit: Karanja jetty, 2013, shared on a creative commons license by user vijayansrinivasan on Panoramio

My complicated relationship with

pirated games Taufik Indrakesuma @fikkyfikky

Taufik Indrakesuma loves Magic: the Gathering, League of Legends, and J-RPGs. When he isn’t playing games (or working 9-to-5 to pay for them) he sometimes dabbles in their creation.


isn’t a simple matter of choosing a side, like Mass Effect’s Paragon or Renegade paths. It’s a far more complicated issue, where even renegades can feel like paragons. Allow me to tell you a few stories. The first story takes us back to when I was living in New York circa 1998. It was a very happy day for me, as I had just discovered, upon visiting Toys ‘R Us (which should have been reason enough for it to be a happy day, now that I think about it), that Crash Bandicoot for the original PlayStation was on sale for $19.99, which meant I would finally be allowed to buy and play the game that so many people had raved about. I had waited for an entire year since I first saw the game, and now

I finally had it.

The line at the check-out counter and the long ride home had me brimming with anticipation. When I finally got home, put the disc in, and got past the classic but oh-my-god-why-is-this-takingso-long loading screen: total bliss. I played that game every chance I got until I beat it: after school, before bed, early in the morning (before either of my parents could wake up and stop me), and most of my weekends. To ensure that the fun could continue, I had to handle the disc very carefully to make sure that it never got scratched up. In hindsight, it was probably the combination of all of those experiences - bargain-hunting and research, buying the game after so long, caring for the disc, and of course actually playing the game - that led to such fond memories. The second story flashes us forward to 2001, when I had just returned to my hometown of Jakarta. After school one day, my new friends asked me if I wanted to go shopping for Playstation games with them. I told them I didn’t have nearly enough money to buy any Playstation games, but they just chuckled and told me to come along. We went to a shopping center near the school and headed straight for the shop where my friend usually bought his games. That was when I first heard the words “mod chip”. That Crash Bandicoot game I bought for $20? After the one-time payment of $20 for a mod chip, I could now buy a pirated copy for 50 cents. That copy of Final Fantasy VIII I never got around to buying because it was too expensive? Four discs for a total of $2. So, I did what anyone would do after their favorite things in the world suddenly became dirt cheap: I binged. I bought over one hundred games that year, purchasing every single game that caught my eye. It definitely was one of life’s happier times.

But as the price of the games fell, so did their value in my eyes.

The act of buying games no longer triggered any excitement. Game discs became disposable: why take care of it if I could just spend another 50 cents if the disc broke? That the point when I realized that having access to cheap pirated games killed a part of the gaming experience for me. The third story takes us to 2005, to my first semester of college, and my first trip to a “Playstation Rental Shop”. My friends and I decided to skip class for the afternoon, and one of us had the brilliant idea to go play some soccer games at the rental shop. After lunch, we left the campus and walked over to a poor neighborhood just outside the campus grounds. This was a neighborhood with dirt roads, graffiti all over fences and walls, and stalls peddling street foods of questionable hygiene. The rental shop stood just 200 meters away from a local elementary school, a long, narrow room with a row of maybe eight TVs and Playstation consoles. Rates were 40 US cents to rent a station for an hour, or $1 for three.

This business model was clearly only made possible through second-hand consoles and, again, pirated game discs. More interesting to me than the shop itself was its clientele. The room was half-full of small children that should’ve been studying in that nearby school building. Some of them were playing soccer games, others were playing games based on popular cartoons like Naruto or Spongebob Squarepants. They, like many gamers in the ‘developing world’, probably would not have been able to afford their own consoles, not even the second hand ones. They definitely would not have been able to play any of those Playstation games if they sold for the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. And yet, there they were, enjoying the same Pro Evolution Soccer game as their counterparts in Europe and the US, at the low, low price of 40 US cents per hour. And that price is the only reason they were able to do it.

The fourth and final story begins with my purchase of a Playstation 3 in 2007. The Playstation 3 was reportedly “un-pirate-able�. No mod chips, no pirated games, nothing. So, it was back to the days of saving up, being picky, and thoroughly researching games before purchase. The console came with a couple of crappy freebie games that I never really played that much, but my first real purchase was Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune for the princely sum of 500,000 Indonesian Rupiah (i.e. $50). I made the buy after careful research: reading reviews, watching Youtube videos, and asking trusted friends for advice. After all, 500,000 is a lot of money. I drove to the store, hesitated as I picked up the game, read the back cover one last time, lingered a little bit, then finally decided to make the purchase. On the drive home, a familiar feeling of anticipation returned. I was super excited about playing this new game, partially because I had invested a significant amount of time, effort, and money on the decision to buy it. And, yet again, total bliss.

But this time, a stray thought entered my mind for just a second: those poor kids will never be able to play this at the rental shops. And that sucks. Image credit: Xenium ice xbox mod chip, creative commons license through wikimedia

from Visual Images the British Museum, essay Columbia University,

Wikimedia commons and David Bull

A quick glimpse at some

Japanese playing cards Zoya Street


Zoya Street is a historian of games. His time is split between writing about the business of games from 2008-today, and writing about critical and social issues throughout gaming history.

For over 1000 years of Japanese history, printed and painted images have playfully tested people’s general knowledge. Images and fragments of poetry serve as clues, and players demonstrate their superior knowledge by using those clues to guess a poem or story. Originally, these images were painted onto the inside of shells, but the game was adapted to printed media after tarot cards were imported by the Portuguese. Games of this sort are now known as karuta. Karuta could be cheap toys or precious art objects. They covered a range of topics, from the high-brow cultural classics to spooky folk tales. Monster-related karuta are even said to have evolved into the trading card games of today.

These karuta sets from the British Museum were produced in the 18th and 19th centuries in Japan, and acquired by a wealthy British collector in the late 19th century when Japanese decorative arts were reaching the height of their popularity in Europe. They depict poems from the hyakunin isshu, a classic collection of 31-syllable poems compiled in the early 13th century (top) and scenes from classic literature (middle). The use of brocade, gold and lacquer in these card sets made the objects themselves markers of class status, reflecting the higher social status associated with having the kind of education required to play the game successfully. Even though the cards are small and compact, the object as a whole still incorporates lots of empty space: huge panels of perfectly smooth, black lacquer, and empty backgrounds filled with gold leaf.

The hyakunin isshu karuta sets show portraits of each of the 100 poets represented in the collection. The examples on this page all show the poet Izumi Shikibu, accompanied by the following poem: Soon my life will close. When I am beyond this world And have forgotten it, Let me remember only this: One final meeting with you. The cards below are original prints from 18th and 19th centuries, and the one to the right is a reproduction that was carved and printed by David Bull. The middle bottom image is an answer card, showing the final lines of the poem that players had to recall from memory.

These karuta are a little bit different. Instead of depicting poets, they depict ghosts and ghouls. Displayed in an exhibition at Columbia University about Godzilla, they demonstrate that the commodification of Japanese folklore about monsters has been going on for a very long time. Curator Gregory M. Pflegfelder explains in the accompanying text, “A taxonomic knowledge of monsterdom can itself become a form of commodity. It is a marketable asset that many generations of Japanese children, as well as adults, have prized, and that entrepreneurs have been quick to capitalize on.� Turning spooky stories into a tradeable commodity reflected wider social changes in Japanese society, as a merchant class became increasingly wealthy and influential toward the beginning of the 19th century. While merchants were often keen to educate themselves in the classical knowledge prized by the aristocracy, they also changed the aesthetic tastes of society around their own interests. This card set reskins the austere poem karuta with dramatic close-up images of monsters and ghosts. It suggests a change in pace as well as content, with characters depicted in mid-action or with snarling facial expressions. Pflegfelder also suggests that producing monsters in card format implies that they have a certain value as commodities themselves. Perhaps not the same

value as the gold and lacquer art objects shown at the start of this essay, but a value that sits in parallel to them. The structure of the game has also been changed to make it more accessible: instead of opening with the start of a poem and challenging the player to remember the rest, the front of the card simply shows a single syllable and challenges the player to recall the ghost story depicted in the image. Pflegfelder suggests that in these cards we can see a precedent for tradable monsters as imaginative objects that children can play with; a kind of proto-Pokemon. The drive to taxonomise an enormous imaginary world can seem like a contemporary phenomenon, reflective of the fact that we live among databases every moment of our lives. Karuta teach us that similar structures for accessing cultural knowledge have existed in a playful context for hundreds of years. Trading card games today may play very differently to the karuta of the past, but they share a common interest in making knowledge commodifiable, and making learning playful.

Resources Playing cards British Museum Collections Ogura Hyakunin Isshu Wikimedia Commons David Bull Hyakunin Isshu prints Woodblock.com Gregory M. Pflugfelder Godzilla conquers the globe: Japanese movie monsters in international film art Columbia University, Donald Keene Center Website



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Asian histories and games  

Memory Insufficient volume two issue one

Asian histories and games  

Memory Insufficient volume two issue one