The Gamification and Domestication of Slum Voyeurism: From Poverty Porn to Aesthetics of Precarity

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
In the second part of our Slum series, Elmo Gonzaga probes the ethics of journalistic, cinematic, and gamified images of informal settlements in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
[Ed. note: This piece is the second of a three-part series on the representation of slums on screen.]

Empty, predawn streets marked by cracked pavements, tangled wires, blackened walls, and cluttered interiors frame a lifeless, bloodied body. This seemingly unflinching panorama forms the backdrop of pervasive poverty in photo essays that have appeared in the international editions of news publications Time, The New York Times, and The Guardian. In documenting the extrajudicial killings that characterize Philippine President Duterte’s drug war, such representations strive to illustrate its uncountable, routinized violence. Although their urban tableaux dramatically humanize the residents of nearby informal settlements by depicting their faces wrenched in sorrow and anguish, they simultaneously emphasize the aestheticized scarcity of makeshift shanties of wood and zinc suffused with a harsh police spotlight. While these gripping images are driven by an ethical imperative to protect human dignity through their accounting of the social milieu, they reproduce dominant global tropes of poverty and suffering, which recur across a range of audiovisual genres including news reportage, action thrillers, domestic melodramas, crime noir, and third-person shooters.

Due to the speed of turnover of social media content in the 24/7 news cycle, ethical images of systematic oppression that demand intervention must be made easily consumable and highly striking for them to become indelible and potent in the collective memory. Perpetrated with menacing secrecy, state-sponsored atrocities like extrajudicial kidnappings, detentions, and killings are difficult to visualize in the news media or popular culture as they operate through a logic of disappearance and impunity. Entailing the covert detention or destruction of human bodies, these atrocities are further erased from public consciousness when evidence of their existence is prohibited or devalued as “fake news.” As such, publicizing atrocities defined by their logic of disappearance often means reclaiming their materiality and existence. Photojournalists, artists, and filmmakers have advocated for the need to create realistic depictions that are palpably immersive in their presentation of the local environment to permit audiences to viscerally experience its inner depths. In their effort to legibly communicate despair, however, such representations verge on sensationalism and gratuitousness with excessive, lingering portrayals of sites and practices of squalor, torture, and murder that contravene the bounds of narrative necessity and moral taste.

My research on the global culture industry of slum voyeurismexamines the conditions of production, distribution, exhibition, and consumption that impact transmedia representations of urban poverty. Many artists in the Global South describe how they are moved to record and expose injustices against marginalized communities. However, to be appreciated by international critics and audiences, their works must rely on autoethnographic self-representations that reiterate legible iconographies of cities and populations in the Global South as being sordid, listless, and despondent, trapped in a perpetual cycle of poverty and underdevelopment. As a corollary, such imaginaries typically include visions of agency and transcendence that highlight the determination and resourcefulness of individuals to circumvent their debilitating conditions by resorting to illegal activities for livelihood. The multimodal, transborder circulation of these iconographies seems less likely to propagate democratic ideals of cosmopolitan diversity than dominant standards of material progress, whose inescapable allure can obscure the widening impoverishment of communities in North America, Western Europe, and Northeast Asia that had been defined by economic growth and social mobility.

The iconographies of urban poverty in photo essays of extrajudicial killings pervade genre movies from Southeast Asia that are globally distributed through digital streaming services such as Netflix, which champion international diversity. Distinguished by spectacular fight scenes that transcend linguistic barriers, action thrillers The Raid (Gareth Evans, 2011) and Buy Bust (Erik Matti, 2018) feature cross-culturally resonant scenarios of institutional corruption and personal betrayal. Influenced by The Raid, Buy Bust was celebrated as a landmark critique of Duterte’s drug war despite its repetition of dominant tropes of destitution, violence, and impunity. Set in the sordidly rendered milieus of Manila and Jakarta, the two films unfold in the interiorized, criminal enclosure of an informal settlement, which elite police agents must forcefully penetrate and navigate akin to a third-person shooter. The immersive game-like environment of these productions signals the transmedia extension of the database logic of action-adventure video game series Resident Evil (1996-), Grand Theft Auto (1997-), Diablo 2 and it’s active Diablo 2 items marketplace, and Sleeping Dogs (2012-), whose open-world interfaces provide voyeuristic experiences of commonly inaccessible zones of illegality, vice, and depravity. Instead of focusing on the narrative of a murder mystery or the dramaturgy of urban pathos as would be the case with noir or melodrama, these video games are built around an immersive spatial environment that players must explore to advance by accomplishing tasks that unlock new areas for further exploration.1Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, eds.,First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 118-130.The spatial environments of GTA and Sleeping Dogs are closely patterned after cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong with popular iconographies of gangster capitalism.2Jason G. Coe, “Gamifying Hong Kong action cinema in Sleeping Dogs,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 13 (2019): 26-41. In Resident Evil, players explore the inner depths of multi-level structures that contain corporate secrets of illicit biomedical mutation. Instead of merely reproducing global tropes of poverty for a detached gaze, these videos games and action thrillers emulate the logics of slum voyeurism by presenting an immersive environment whose inner depths their spectators must intimately interact with in order to conquer and colonize.

Buy Bust (Erik Matti, 2018)

Similar iconographies of asphyxiatingly insurmountable poverty and suffering are deployed in Southeast Asian crime noir to emphasize the gritty, desperate inhospitableness and depravity of the metropolis. Internationally acclaimed films Dead Time: Kala(Joko Anwar, Indonesia, 2007),On the Job(Erik Matti, Philippines, 2013),Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013), Jagat (Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, Malaysia, 2015), One Two Jaga (Nam Ron, Malaysia, 2018), and The Night Comes for Us (Timo Tjahjanto, Indonesia, 2019) all highlight in diverse ways the ruthless greed of gangsterism and corruption of the police, which stifle the life possibilities of innocent convicts and aspiring migrants who inevitably succumb to the logics of violence and disappearance. Contrary to the prevailing assumption that their urban representations reveal the entrenched poverty and underdevelopment of their local milieus, they instead hint at an emergent consciousness and critique of material overdevelopment and governmental ineptness. Whereas global news organizations and policy institutes continue to be voyeuristically fascinated by their slum aesthetics, these geographic areas are rapidly undergoing economic growth but with material benefits that are acutely unequal in distribution.

One Two Jaga (Nam Ron, 2018)

Even Hong Kong cinema, which became famous for its exhilarating martial arts movies, is today permeated by an intense mood of claustrophobia and despair about insurmountable social realities. Diverging from the prevailing co-production model, award-winning independent films Port of Call (Philip Yung, 2015), Mad World (Chun Wong, 2016), and Somewhere Beyond the Mist (Cheung King-wai, 2018) dwell on controversial issues of public housing, mental healthcare, and illegal migration, which shape the milieu of pro-democracy protests amid the failure of post-industrial state institutions to furnish humane living conditions. Instead of being characterized by sublime, neon-lit skyscrapers as in earlier techno-orientalist imaginaries, recent films from Northeast Asia share the post-industrial spatial iconographies of Hong Kong cinema, which resonate with tropes of precarity recurrent in works from North America and Western Europe. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2008), Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010),Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2015), and I, Daniel Blake(Ken Loach, United Kingdom, 2016) are several examples that elaborate on the debilitating experience of individuals who strive to subsist materially and emotionally after having been divested of the longstanding mythic certainties of financial security and social mobility.3Lauren Berlant,Cruel Optimism(Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2011).Set in Tokyo and Seoul, the bustling capitals of Northeast Asia’s top economies, Tokyo Sonata(Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2008), Shoplifters(Kore-eda Hirokazu, 2018), Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018), Parasite(Bong Joon-ho, 2019) are domestic melodramas that unveil simmering class tensions amid intensifying income inequality. Formerly guaranteed lifelong career stability and advancement, its highly educated protagonists are forced to take on contractual jobs and turn to illegal activities while confronted with an uncertain economic future. Featuring contradictory spatial environments that sprawl away from city centers with towering skyscrapers and cavernous malls toward peri-urban outskirts with cramped apartments and abandoned lots, such cinematic representations vividly paint the landscape of precarity in the Global North, which increasingly resembles the situation of development in the South.4Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa (New York: Routledge, 2012).

Mad World (Chun Wong, 2016)

Their mise-en-scène of derelict structures and stifling interiors map the bleak, post-industrial milieu that people must navigate in an inescapably changing world. Bearing traces of poverty porn but with a more implicit aesthetics of violence and disappearance, such transmedia imaginaries form part of an extensive network of neoliberal sovereignty that is furtively shifting the geographic centers of economic production.


1 Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, eds.,First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 118-130.
2 Jason G. Coe, “Gamifying Hong Kong action cinema in Sleeping Dogs,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 13 (2019): 26-41.
3 Lauren Berlant,Cruel Optimism(Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
4 Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa (New York: Routledge, 2012).
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