In Singapore, Free Expression in Games Has Become a Lightning Rod Issue

In Singapore, Free Expression in Games Has Become a Lightning Rod Issue

How Singapore's government is worryingly turning its sights to free expression in video games.

In early April 2020, Singaporean journalist and activist Kirsten Han bought a Nintendo Switch Lite, just days before Singapore entered its "circuit breaker" period–a lockdown response to the COVID-19 pandemic. "I started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons because I saw so many people talking about it and posting screenshots and it kind of gave me FOMO," Han writes in an email. "I'm really glad that I did, because it was something really soothing and fun to do while stuck indoors."

Han was not alone. New Horizons has been a godsend during the pandemic, offering a calm environment to interact with friends, a creative outlet in the illusion of physical space, and cheery moments of respite. But New Horizons's popularity has also revealed how it can be used as a tool to express political ideas. In countries with more liberal laws on free speech and expression, this would be a non-issue. Singapore is a different story.

Like many others across the world, Singaporeans embraced New Horizons so enthusiastically that it became a marketing gimmick. Local resort island Sentosa created a corporate brand campaign around an ACNH version of itself, and the country's only independent cinema used the game to make cute Instagram promotions. On Facebook, Singaporeans posted replicas of iconic outfits from national pop culture, including the '90s superhero VR Man and the Singapore Tourism Board's Merli mascot.

Kirsten Han's simple, yet effective, protest design made in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. | Kirsten Han, Nintendo

Han soon became a fan of the game's creative tools, which Hong Kong protesters had notably used to continue their pro-democracy art. One of her attempts was a simple black sweatshirt that expressed opposition to Singapore's Internal Security Act, an executive order to protect the country from national security threats. In 1966, the ISA was most famously used against Chia Thye Poh, a former member of Parliament who was imprisoned for 23 years under suspicion of communism. Earlier this year, the ISA was used to detain a 17-year-old student who was reportedly radicalized through social media and a "foreign online contact." The act also applies to national security threats in the form of publications, entertainment, and exhibitions.

Already considered a radical voice in Singapore's tightly controlled media landscape, Han has developed a sense of humor around her activism. "I thought it would be fun to share what I'd done, and I joked that on my island there isn't a Public Order Act to keep us from assembling. So why not, right?" she says, referring to the 2018 Public Order Act that forbids public assembly without a police permit. And so, she invited friends over to her island and posted screenshots on social media.

"I didn't see it as serious activism," Han says. "I mean, how much impact can a few avatars running around a virtual island really have on politics and human rights in Singapore—but I think it's important to be able to have fun with activism and politics too, and to normalize expression in all aspects of life."

Singapore's general election in July may have been the most online election that the nation-state has ever seen, with an unprecedented number of election memes, as well as virtual recreations of party logos and campaign material in New Horizons. The outcome was historic–the opposition Workers' Party gained a record 10 seats in parliament, the most opposition seats since the first general election in 1968. And while the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) still won a parliamentary supermajority, it experienced an all-time historical low in popular support.

Singapore's general election in July was historic. | Lily Banse, Unsplash

In the wake of the election, the government expressed concern about the possibility of "foreign interference" and the danger of misinformation in elections, especially in an age of new media and video games. The Ministry of Home Affairs reported that no cases of such interference had taken place, but cautioned against future incidents. Nonetheless, Kirsten Han's New Horizons ISA sweatshirt was trotted out by local press as an example of a slippery slope to unchecked activism in games.

One article in The New Paper, a Singaporean tabloid newspaper, included expert commentary from Eugene Tan, a constitutional law professor at Singapore Management University and a former Nominated Member of Parliament. Tan speaks of "subliminal messaging" in online games, where he claims that "hardly anyone expects [a game] to be a tool."

When we reached out to Tan for elaboration, he clarifies that he doesn't play video games, but watches his son play. "[Online games] certainly have the potential to influence and shape political discourse in very subtle ways, especially to an impressionable group," he says. "Overall... online games as a tool of foreign interference can sound far-fetched. But this is what subliminal messaging is about: Influencing people's views, assessments, and values in subtle ways when people least expect it."

Nonetheless, Tan is hesitant to jump to conclusions about legislation on video games as "it's still early days and we should not get ahead of ourselves." He adds that "perception-wise, it would not create a good impression of Singapore if the authorities crack down hard on such games and platforms. It could easily come across as being high-handed and curtailing free speech. On the other hand, how do [we] enforce any ban on such games and platforms?"

He also elaborated on "sentiment amplification," which the government describes as "the deliberate attempt to artificially inflate the spread and prominence of narratives which are useful for the foreign actor's agenda." Tan claims that "by the clever use of an appealing narrative, online games lend themselves to a foreign actor's nefarious agenda. Such amplification could include the use of disinformation, the creation of a false impression of public opinion, the spread of inflammatory material to sow social discord."

The America's Army series is controversially developed and published by the U.S. Army. | U.S. Army

Fear of games as vehicles for spycraft goes hand-in-hand with the historical militarization of games. The U.S. has been at this for a long time: the America's Army series was explicitly designed as a recruitment tool. The U.S. Army has been using insidious outreach programs to recruit esports players via Twitch. Games like ARMA, Call of Duty, and the Rainbow Six series give players a taste of combat in a military setting, but the connection between real-world violence and shooters remains a contentious point of discussion. In America, the cry of "violence in games" remains popular rhetoric for politicians who want to avoid constructively addressing the "gun" part of gun violence. Israel's Defense Forces just revealed a new tank that runs on Microsoft's "friendly and familiar" Xbox technology and features an AI trained on games.

It is rather ironic, then, that video games have served Singapore's national security goals for years, reflecting a common worldwide trend of military and police agencies using games for recruitment, and training. A 2005 Singapore Air Force paper details how military game mods were developed by students at Nanyang Polytechnic. Just this April, the Defense Science and Technology Agency announced a new navy facility based on "esports platforms, complete with video games, discussion forums and analytics," with the latter functioning like a World of Warcraft raid postmortem. There is nothing subtle or subliminal about how the state uses games, which includes "Total Defense" card games distributed to Secondary 2 (9th grade) students.

Of course, Singapore isn't alone when it comes to fears of foreign election interference, especially since the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. Ultimately, it is an issue that affects all nations who want to maintain free and fair elections. But it seems that the mainstream Singapore establishment still subscribes to a painfully archaic, limited view of what games are, and what games can do.

"What has concerned me over the years... is that a lot of [government] localized examples of foreign interference tend to point to Singaporean activists and critics of the PAP, rather than any clear efforts by other state actors to disrupt and influence Singaporean politics," says Kirsten Han. "We've heard much more about how particular Singaporeans, including myself, could potentially be agents of foreign influence."

Players are more at risk in Singapore for just expressing themselves in online games than ever before. | Kirsten Han, Nintendo

Tan's explanation also invites further scrutiny on the obtuse conflation of designed game narratives and in-game player expressions. World of Warcraft quests have nothing to do with what players discuss in trade chat. "If I share a screenshot of my ACNH avatar supporting climate strikes, how different is that from me tweeting in support of climate strikes?" asks Han.

There's also the fact that games aren't a monolith–there are as many different genres and forms of games as there films, books, and art. Indie games are critical forms of expression for vulnerable communities. A game can be made in Twine, Twitter, or a Google document. Games can exist as site-specific installations or on a piece of paper. In recent years, we've seen games that invite players to interact with marginalized genders, identities, and people from different cultures. Games can be thoughtful, empathetic explorations of what it means to be human.

Charles Yeo, the chairman of the Singapore Reform Party, is a defense lawyer and an avid Dota 2 and World of Warcraft player—he became so popular during the 2020 election that he has a fan-run subreddit. Yeo, who clocks about four hours of gametime a day, has 17 max-level characters in WoW; when we spoke on the evening of Singapore's National Day, he was just leaving a cybercafe.

"I think Eugene Tan is actually talking a lot of rubbish," Yeo says, referring to The New Paper article. "We could explain it not on the basis that he's pro-establishment, but... that due to his age, he may not have played any games, and does not play any games, on a regular basis. So he's out of his depth."

Yeo believes that politically-inclined gamers wouldn't consider gaming influencers as a credible source of political messaging, and that it would be very difficult to embed political messages in the games cited. "In Dota 2, the only way we can put a political message is through your username," he laughs. As for games like Animal Crossing, most people play them to relieve stress. Overall, Yeo finds gamers to be generally politically apathetic, and points out that those interested in politics "would not view gamers as an authoritative source [of political information]."

The most glaring problem is the government's association of "sentiment amplification" with foreign interference, which diminishes the legitimate concerns of young Singaporeans and minority groups. There is a flawed perception that "woke" concern for gender equality, intersectional cultural critiques, and universal basic income (which Singapore doesn't have) are Western sentiments. Understanding "sentiment amplification" in a Singaporean context means examining what the government considers undesirable or subversive. For instance, homosexuality in Singapore is still illegal, and Netflix fare with LGBTQ+ representation is rated R21 because of its impact on "community values."

"I did a writeup recently where I said that foreign influence was used to rubbish a lot of claims, like protests for LGBT rights and many other issues," says Yeo. "[This discussion] needs to be seen in the wider sociopolitical history of Singapore, where the claim of foreign influence has been used... the idea that when anyone tries to stand up for the persons that are not exalted by the PAP state ideology, then the state ideology would respond with this tag of foreign influence."

Ultimately, Yeo feels that the government's out-of-touch concern over games is exaggerated and "laughable." USgamer's attempts to invite Redditors to share their opinions on the issue were, indeed, laughed off. One response to our post assumed that we were from the Internal Security Department. Yeo believes that this sort of apathy and readiness to ridicule is more prevalent in Singapore, "but it's probably true all around the world as well."

"[The New Paper] article was the first indication I'd seen of the government turning its attention to games, but I'd like to see what they're actually going to propose," says Kirsten Han. | Bady Abbas, Unsplash

This isn't the first time that politics and games have crossed paths in Singapore. In a 2014 issue of the Arcade Review, writer and artist Krish Raghav discussed the indie game PAP 2048 and its place in Singaporean cultural and political context. PAP 2048 was a short-lived mod of the popular puzzle game 2048, but instead of shifting around numbered tiles, players had to combine tiles with pictures of PAP politicians. Raghav recalls that it was made anonymously using the 2048 custom game generator and shared on the local online forum HardwareZone.

Raghav, who ran a zine called e:\> on Southeast Asian gaming history, believes that the finest examples of new media–including books, movies and games–is "necessarily, fiercely local." He adds that, "A game like PAP 2048 showed nothing more than a deep, playful love for the politics of its home. It's a shame that governmental interest might drive local developers away from addressing local themes or, worse, even considering them as possibilities to address."

Playfulness, which can manifest in satire and tongue-in-cheek parody, can be dangerous in sociopolitical paradigms that restrict free speech and expression. Perhaps satire is still seen as a threat, either because people don't understand it, or because of its uncomfortable but critical role in a healthy democracy. Paranoia over the effects of both satire and subliminal messaging isn't new. We already live with subliminal messaging in advertising, television, film, and algorithmic bias, and its expansion to games is simply a new form of moral panic.

Games in Singapore aren't going anywhere, but the pandemic has brought more focus onto online activities as we increasingly move into virtual spaces. Singapore is home to a strong history of LAN gaming that continues to define formative experiences for local gamers, including the impact of its mandatory military conscription on men's gaming careers. Esports is a particularly lucrative industry–one that the government is finally interested in supporting. Yet with any enterprise in Singapore comes a firm awareness of the country's views on censorship and free speech.

What is clear is that the government sees online games as ominously opaque and full of potential security threats without fully understanding gaming culture. Right now, legislation is still hypothetical. Given how swiftly and unilaterally laws are passed in the city-state, it's hard to say if, how, and when potential video game laws could come into being, especially in a country already criticized for its suppression of free expression. "[The New Paper] article was the first indication I'd seen of the government turning its attention to games," says Han, "but I'd like to see what they're actually going to propose."

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