(Post) Colonialism

Playing Indonesia: The (anti)-Case for Majapahit

Around six hundred years after his death, Gajah Mada, a mahapatih (prime minister) of the Majapahit kingdom, became one of the first precolonial figures that rose to prominence in early postcolonial Indonesia. His popularity continued during the Sukarno and Suharto regime, and was reinvigorated in the early 21st century by the writer Langit Kresna Hariadi through a series of novels (Syahreza 2012, 122-123). Yet the representation of both Gajah Mada and Majapahit in digital form occurred in 2011 with the launch of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called Nusantara Online, made by the Indonesian developers Sangkuriang Internasional and Telegraph Studio (Zulkarnain 2014, 37).

Despite this, the video game that catapulted both subjects to international gaming fame is Sid Meier’s Civilization V(Firaxis, 2013; Civ V), and its latest major DLC Brave New WorldCiv V was released in the same year as another major historical game, Europa Universalis IV (EU IV), but the two games treat Indonesia very differently. Civ V uses Majapahit alone to depict Indonesia, in contrast to EU IV, which incorporates the multiple kingdoms that exist within the territory of modern-day Indonesia. This is due to the mechanics of both games: whereas in Civ V players can progress through history from ancient societies to post-internet ones, EU IV only let players play between the years 1444 and 1821 CE (Bugnr01)

This murky representation of complicated historical facts can also be found in a DLC to Age of Empires II HD (abbreviated as AoE II), the Rise of the Rajas. Focusing on kingdoms in pre-colonial South East Asia, the DLC introduced four new playable factions, with the Malay faction as an agglomeration of kingdoms that had existed in modern day Malaysia-Indonesia, such as Srivijaya and Majapahit. Similar but still different to EU IVAoE II uses game mechanics of limited technological progression as a means of limiting the timeframe of the game.

Another important game mechanic in Civ V, and its successor Civilization VI (abbreviated as Civ VI), is the presence of singular in-game factions as representation of real-world political states, from different periods of time but from the same or a similar geographical area, through which players might be able to probe multiple history-inspired narratives. Despite this, work in game studies has explored the problem of using Civ V as a medium for postcolonial learning, or a way of viewing cultures from a non-western perspective. For example, Dom Ford connects this problem with the game’s underlying narrative of western imperialism:

The game exposes a different problem which pertains to how players engage with a version of history that is presented from a limited and limiting Western perspective and the structure that […] silence voices and histories that run counter to the Western narrative of progress and modernity linked to imperialist notions of civilization and conquest. 

(Ford 2016)

Despite this, Ford also notes the usefulness of using Civ V as a medium for historical learning by engaging students and dissecting the contents and mechanisms of the game as a product of a certain (in this case, western) historiography. Here, Ford cites Adam Chapman’s argument that

approaching the historical videogame from the historian’s perspective allows us to allay many concerns and criticisms by showing that these are epistemic issues that are inherent to history rather than the videogame

(Chapman 2013, 327)

This reading of epistemic issues in video games as inherent to history, rather than to video games, has been followed by other scholars such as Souvik Mukherjee. One of the interesting points Mukherjee makes is the connection between ‘Orientalism’ (Said 1985) and video games, quoting the problems of depicting the Indian civilization in games such as Age of Empires III (Mukherjee 2018, 516). Although these criticisms are valid, they remain in the same vein as Ford’s. Both criticise an overtly western hegemony in video games: in Ford’s case, the creation of a western-influenced imperium as a goal; and in Mukherjee’s work the gross over-simplification of Indian culture. These problems are also visible in Civ V and Civ VI’s usage of Majapahit to depict Indonesia. But to investigate this issue further, one has to go first into the country’s history.

Indonesia and Majapahit: a short historiographical perspective

The formal history of the country begins on August 17th, 1945, with a declaration of independence delivered by Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. Its proto-nationalist history, however, began as early as May 20th, 1908, with the founding of the local Javanese students’ union Budi Utomo (Cribb and Kahin 2004, 64). More student unions followed suit, leading to the 1928 sumpah pemuda (youth pledge) conference in which three ideals were proclaimed as a nationalistic base for Indonesia: one fatherland, one nation and one language (Ricklefs 1981, 177). Here, Rickfles saw the construction of an Indonesian identity that lies above regional and religious identity, two important aspects in the building of local institutions in protonationalist Indonesia.

Fast forward to the context of the Second World War, wherein Japanese victories in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, heralded a new colonial presence and agenda. Economically, Japan had dire need of war resources such as food, rubber, and oil, which were secured by means of forced labour and food rationing (Ibid., 188-189; Vickers 89-90). Politically, the Japanese bolstered an Indonesian cultural and political identity by establishing local (para)military forces such as the Pembela Tanah Air, Protectors of the Fatherland, and through actively engaging on the promise of Indonesian independence (Ricklefs 1981, 189-198). Though these efforts could be read as an attempt to appease locals through politics, it irreversibly prepared the base for the soon-to-be Republic.

Educated to western standards by the Dutch, and politically bolstered by the Japanese, Indonesian independence was both made in mere decades and affected by colonial decisions. These aspects posed a problem for the founding fathers: how should Indonesian identity and history be written?

Sukarno, among others, decided to refer to pre-colonial kingdoms in his speeches, one of which was Majapahit, whose history came mainly from two sources. The Nagarakertagama (1365 CE) lists Majapahit’s territory, or rather its vassal kingdoms, outside Java, and kingdoms with which Majapahit maintained relationships. The Kitab Pararaton (1481 CE), translatable as The Book of Kings (Noorduyn 1978. 209), is the main biographical source for multiple figures such as Gajah Mada. Most important for him is the written record of his Sumpah Palapa, the Palapa Oath, to bring the states of nusantara (nusa = islands, antara = in between; Evers 2016, 4) under Majapahit rule (Sastrawan 2018).

Despite its downfall around 1527 CE, Majapahit’s importance has reverberations today. Islamic states which replaced Hindu-Buddhist ones traced their legitimacy back to Majapahit (Hall 2001, 99-101); Dutch colonialists saw in the similarity of their and Majapahit’s territory a revival of an old power; and early proto-nationalists saw in the kingdom a glorious, pre-colonial past (Ricklefs 1981, 166). As Indonesia’s second president, Suharto followed this tradition, culminating with Indonesia’s first extra-orbital satellite, Palapa I (Wiener 2017, 239).

Despite their importance, Majapahit’s legacy is not without blemish. Muslim separatist figures such as the Acehnese Daud Beureu’eh and the South Sulawesi Kahar Muzakar reframed the term “Majapahit” with anti-Islamic, imperialist notions, pointing to the early Indonesian government’s reliance on (and legitimisation through) the kingdom (Van Dijk 1981, 314). More recent authors shared this opinion, with Michael Wood going as far noting that “[f]or many outside of Java, Gajah Mada, the ‘hero of national unity’, could never really be anything but a Javanese aggressor” (Wood 2005).

Playing pre-colonial Indonesia?

The perspective offered by Wood epitomises the problem of using Majapahit as a substitute for Indonesia in both Civilization V and VI. This design decision not only fails to recognise Indonesia as a historical product that was influenced by more than Majapahit, but also ignores Indonesia’s colonial past, and the multitude of cultures and histories spread around the modern territory of Indonesia, in favour of a centralised, government-approved historiography. The same opinion has been put forward by Zulkarnain in his research on the (now seemingly defunct) Nusantara Online

Even more problematic, the contents of the encyclopedic information in Nusantara Online do not reflect a critical approach to history; they only offer a monolithic perspective. For instance, the information about Gajah Mada only emphasizes his role in unifying the Indonesian nationalism without scrutinizing his action as a form of local imperialism. 

(Zulkarnain 2014, 52)

Returning specifically to Chapman’s argument, the usage of Majapahit to depict Indonesia in Civilization V and VI in itself is not a problem of a game. Rather, this could be read as a problem of Indonesian historiography, with its obsession with a pre-colonial state. Following this, therefore, it is also necessary to examine critiques of pre-colonial readings of postcolonial states, as mentioned by Gayatri Spivak and Ania Loomba. In Colonialism/Post-Colonialism, Loomba cited Spivak’s caution in recovering pre-colonial cultures as “a nostalgia for lost origins” that “can be detrimental to the exploration of social realities within the critique of imperialism” (Spivak 1988, 271-313; in Loomba 2005, 21). In this case, the search for a common, unifying root by proto-Indonesian political movements, and later by the republic of Indonesia itself (at least until the end of Suharto’s New Order), often puts aside the historiography of Gajah Mada and Majapahit as a local imperial power. This historiographical perspective was then adopted by the two latest Civilization games.

If Chapman saw in Civilization the problematic symptoms of modern historiography, be it a local one or a western-influenced one, it should also be fair to say that player feedback in the form of player-created mods is a way of dealing with said problems. In the case of Indonesia’s (and South East Asia’s) history, this could be done by using mods to imagine multiple perspective of pre-Indonesian and Indonesian history. A mod series called Monsoon Season allows players to play as other kingdoms that both precede and succeed Majapahit, from both Java and other islands that became modern Indonesia, such as the Sunda kingdom (Sunda or Sundanese refers to both the area and population of West Java), Aceh and Mataram (a Muslim kingdom around the 16th to 18th century in middle-Java). Whilst these mods tried to represent the multitude of perspectives on pre-national Indonesia, other mods put players into the perspectives of the first two Indonesian presidents, Sukarno and Suharto.

From “Lordie’s Indonesia (Sukarno)

The history of Majapahit is undeniably linked with the history of Indonesia. Despite this, reflecting the history of the modern political country of Indonesia through its supposed pre-colonial ancestor Majapahit only realized Loomba and Spivaks warning of side-lining the social realities of modern Indonesia, including a rethinking of Majapahit as a local imperialist power. Whilst Civilization V‘s inclusion of Majapahit as Indonesia in its roster of playable civilizations shows a growing appreciation of insular Southeast Asia, it still offers a poor reflection of the long history and changes in the area. Although the representation of the histories of Southeast Asia is neither the problem nor responsibility of Civilization V alone, a critical perspective to it in video games has been realised at least by players of the game. Mods that allows players to play other civilizations or even modern Indonesia might not be the best solution to take a deep dive into the history and historiography of Indonesia, but it shows that there are alternatives to an Indonesian Majapahit.

Laurentius Alvin is a recent graduate from the University of Bonn, Germany in European and Asian history of art and a member of the German-speaking AKGWDS (Working Group Historical Science and Digital Games). His interests include East- and Southeastasian cultures and arts, specifically from Indonesia, and their receptions in video games.


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Cited Games

Firaxis Games (2013) Civilization V: Brave New World. Aspyr, 2K Games (PC)

Forgotten Empires/SkyBox Labs (2016) Age of Empires II  HD: Rise of the Rajas. Xbox Game Studios (PC)

Paradox Development Studio (2013) Europa Universalis IV. Paradox Interactive (PC)

Sangkuriang Internasional (2011) Nusantara Online. Telegraph Studio (PC)

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