Pacmania Live

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The comment about Pacman in my previous post reminded me of this fab video that I found on the Ludologist.


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Of Hindus and Their Ludic Epics

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Once again, Hinduism makes its way into 'Ludus Ex' but this time in a full-blown post devoted to it. The reason for writing this is that I recently read two rather conflicting views on the first game blockbuster in the Indian market: a game called Hanuman. A few days back, Edge reported a 300 % growth in the profits of Sony Playstation India and judging from the words of Atindriya Bose, the country manager, India's somnolent gaming industry seems to have stirred a bit. Hanuman is even supposed to ship to the UK (good news although I'm not a console gamer) and South Africa. This is a proud moment for any Indian gamer, I'm sure. Not for all Indians, though. The second news clipping that I came across told me that a Hindu group wanted the game withdrawn because it apparently offends the Hindu religion. I saw a number of comments on various forums branding these people 'fundamentalists' and one person even facetiously comments that Indians need to 'stick to Pacman'. The cloud, however, remains and the Indian gamer is at risk of being ignored altogether. Let me try to voice his or her thoughts, here.

First, the group concerned is more keen on publicity than in practising religion. If they have read even a tiny bit of the Hindu scriptures, this self-taught Hindutva will sound very hollow indeed. Mind you, these people are based in the US and are not really connected to the Indian scenario. Hanuman, the game concerned, is about a Hindu God - the super-powerful monkey-god who moved an entire mountain and flew across the country (much before anyone ever thought of Krypton). Hanuman is a major character in the Hindu epic, The Ramayan (he also makes a cameo appearance in the Mahabharat). I can understand the umbrage of people who cannot imagine how their god can be put in the hands of reckless children wielding their joypads and insulting the power of their god. After all, one hasn't made a videogame on Jesus, Jehovah or the Islamic heroes.

There is, however, a subtle difference that is missed in such simplistic conclusions. What is missed, however, is of great import: the entire ethos of Hinduism (the problem of using this term is something I shan't go into, here) is missed here. In Hindu literature, the importance of play is paramount. The gods themselves indulge in leela or 'divine play'. Strangely enough, the hardcore critics of the game have forgotten that leela is characteristic of festivals related to the Ramayan. Ram-leela as it is called is an important part of festivals and if you go to the holy cities like Benares, many a roadside trader will try to sell you dolls of the characters from the Ramayan. Needless to say, Hanuman is a prominent attraction. Indian kids have played with Hanuman for millennia because Hindu culture has constantly highlighted the relationship between the ludic and the divine. With the new Hanuman videogame, therefore, they will not be doing anything to insult a god; rather in an ancient culture whose values are being eroded by 'Westernisation', this symbolises the power that Hindu texts have of rejuvenating themselves generation after generation. Moreover, the rich narrative of the Ramayan can now be explored again and again even in places where people do not know anything about the richness of the Indian epics.

Such anti-videogame reactions are not new and neither are they restricted to Hindus or even to religion. As in most cases, the ignorance about videogames and the problem in recognising them as texts gives rise to such ignorant comments. The first thing that we need to learn, whether from Western scholars such as Huizinga or from the ancient Hindu scriptures, is that play is serious and that mistaking the ludic for the ludicrous can lead to very grave consequences.

Finally, all the best, therefore, to Hanuman and to Indian gaming.

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Reading Games and Playing Books in the Press

There's been a lot to write about but I have been lazy. Lazy? Well, not really ... besides being busy with millions of emails and job application letters, I have managed to finally conquer the Egyptians, the ever-truculent Scipii and even the indefatigable Britons with my Roman legions (all this in Rome: Total War, of course). Only two cities in Parthia stand against me but it's not too long before my legions will lay siege and conquer. Great as this achievement may be and worthy of being chronicled by none less than Livy the 2nd, it is not why I return to Ludus Ex today. A few days back, the Nottingham Trent University's press office showed interest in my research and asked me if I would agree to a press release. Being busy in my quotidian battles - in the world of applications by day and in fighting the Parthian horse archers by night - I agreed without entirely realising the importance of this. Now I know and I would really like to thank them for their interest.

The Guardian Gamesblog has now written about my research. They have even included a picture of the Inferno videogame and I'm chuffed (I was once unceremoniously ejected for suggesting that Dante's Divina Commedia was very like a videogame). I have always been a serious reader of the Gamesblog - I like its style and range. Many a time, have I wished to respond to Keith Stuart's or Alex Krotoski's posts but have always been too shy. In fact, I even met Keith at GameCity last year in the videogame quiz that he conducted ( a great quiz despite the sad memory of being totally outshone by our betters, despite Andrew and co.'s valiant efforts). Anyway, as I read the GamesBlog today, I'm having a think about Keith's comment in today's posting. The title 'Games As Valuable As Books in Terms of Literary Worth' is a comparison that is not mine - however, the fact that videogames provide a vital and much neglected perspective on our reading experience certainly is. For myself, I'd rather not go into 'value' as literary worth (which would be making a 'grandiose' claim) but rather focus on the importance of deeper readings of videogame narratives. The comment on the Gamesblog goes thus:

Hmm, I think it's rather an analytical leap to compare the provision of multiple story endings with a fully interactive experience. It's also a difficult sell in terms of the quality of video game story telling. The examples he provides are Half-Life 2, Bioshock and Assassin's Creed - all credible narrative experiences sure enough, but will we ever be dissecting a videogame plot, or its underlying meaning, with the same voracity that we approach a novel by Dickens, or George Elliot, or Stephen King?

Will we indeed? The 'analytical leap' is one that has been the bone of contention between ludologists and 'narratologists' (as the ludologists call them - they need not necessarily be clubbed with Gerard Genette etc). Multiplicity, when understood in the framework employed by the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, does show significant similarities between literature and videogames. Deleuze points to Kafka's stories form an 'assemblage' --- with themselves as well as with other assemblages and also how they form an assemblage in terms of time and endings. I have earlier commented on the classic example from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the Prince says, 'no no , that is not how it happened at all' thus highlighting the (non)negation of a perfectly legitimate ending. Think of a Dickens novel now (let's not go into more obviously ludic literature such as Cortazar's Hopscotch). Great Expectations originally ended with Pip and Estella not getting married but, on the suggestion of Bulwyer-Lytton, Dickens revised it giving it a happier ending - 'no no, that is not how it happened at all'. As we traverse the plot to unravel 'meaning' in a novel, there is interaction certainly (albeit of a different media-specificity, it needs to be emphasised) and there are many more temporal schemes and endings than are apparent. The videogame narrative points this out even more clearly than earlier media and instead of letting us rest content with quick conclusions like 'this is a story about Pip's love for Estella', it further problematises the very idea of narrative by pointing out the multiplicity in what is apparently single and obvious.

Whether this means that games should be taught for A-levels and GCSE I honestly do not know (would be fun though). What concerns me, however, is the academic negligence of a narrative medium (yes, the ludology-narratology debate is history) that tells us more not only about our reading experience today but also about how we have always been reading. This will change, hopefully. After all, a few years ago many institutions that now specialise in Film Studies would have been sniffy even at the very name. Mind you, even English Literature wasn't a university subject until the twentieth century despite its long and rich history.

Besides the GamesBlog, some other gaming websites have reported on my research. Some of the ones that I picked out are Gamer's Daily News and Thanks a lot - it feels good to know that there is a significantly high level of interest in issues related to videogames.


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A Stretch of Imagination

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Has anyone of you played Noby Noby Boy ('stretchy stretchy boy' in Japanese)? I haven't and there is little likelihood that I will - it's made solely for PS3 and I don't see myself ever possessing one (I don't even have a tv). Despite no familiarity with the gameplay, I can safely say that one of my most unforgettable gaming experiences is connected to this game. I saw the game being demo-ed on a large screen by the designer Keita Takahashi who was delivering the GameCity 2007 vision statement. I can't describe the game - it's too bizarre for words: effectively, it's got a couple of stretchy characters that stretch from planet to planet, winding themselves around creatures. Do wikipedia it to learn more about what happens in it ... I'm not even going to attempt a description. By the way, the designer's the same guy who made Katamari Damacy.

It's because of him that I can't forget this game. He stood in front of us, barefoot, on the podium and said the only words he knew in English: 'I don't speak English.' The conversation that followed was in Japanese with the interpreter struggling to translate the world of Takahashi into English. I don't think he was speaking and us listening --- rather, it was some weird sort of collective imagination. He drew houses, lorries with smiling faces and showed us his house on Google Earth. He also said that he would grow weeds upward from his balcony so that they would reach the flat of the noisy couple upstairs. Then someone asked him what games he would make next and what games he played. 'None', he answered for both questions. He wants to build playgrounds for children and he wanted us to see Noby Noby Boy. Suddenly two stretchy characters were wriggling around each other and entwining themselves around random objects onscreen. It was a trance-like feeling. Recently, after the game was released, Takahashi was asked if he was high on drugs when he conceived the game, an allegation he was quick to deny. Keita Takahashi, I believe you. One only needs to have seen the man to know.

I can see the Noby Noby game as a game-design metaphor. Imagination. Limitlessly stretching, entwining and more forming complex patterns that are deceptively simple. I wonder what Takahashi's imaginative playgrounds will contain, if he ever gets to build them.

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Today, I handed in the final version of my PhD thesis and I've been informed that its fine. Basically, it means that I have no hesitation in calling myself 'Dr Mukherjee'. I wish I were the other kind of doctor though (the NHS kind I mean) because I have an eye infection and my GP does not seem to know what to do. Anyway, I'd rather speak of happier things.

My viva, as ''Ludus ex' readers will remember, took place about two months ago. Before that, I almost went crazy with fear. Mostly, because I was seeing mistakes everywhere in my thesis, pretty much like Lady Macbeth saw blood. A few things helped me retain my sanity. My incessant involvement in the world of Rome: Total War was one. The poetry of Mahendra Solanki, an assortment of pages from randomly picked up novels, vacantly staring at my videogame collection and thinking about whether the passing plane would take me home were among my other distractions. However, the thing to which I owe my sanity the most is QBlog. I'm not sure whether any of you know QBlog (Andrew does, I suspect) but anyone with an interest in videogames should read it. It's Richard Bartle's blog (if you don't know who Richard Bartle is, look him up quickly on google ... otherwise, you might end up being like my GP, which isn't really very nice). I think QBlog is very important for videogame researchers. It talks about Richard's workplace, strange signs in different places, weird experiences in aircrafts, boxes and places he visits. Some of these relate to virtual worlds while some don't; not all of these are connected to videogames. Which is precisely why QBlog is important for videogame researchers: it talks about other things and it finds the fun in even the most humdrum. When, for the umpteenth time you are reading the 88,000 words that you have written on videogames, believe me, a look inside Richard's strangely ordinary world can be the most relaxing of experiences. Even Rome: Total War would put me off if I kept losing territory; QBlog always got me to laugh.

In some ways I feel that if Richard was writing in the time of Dr Johnson, he'd probably be his own Boswell. The academic in me (with my colonial education and Brit Lit background) is usually quite happy when I am reading Bartle's Life of Bartle (To Say Nothing of the Many Other Lives Besides); the prose is lucid and the humour excellent. A few months ago, I commented on the 'style' of game designers and commentators - QBlog definitely scores a lot on this scale. Anyway, I like reading about random boxes, strange hotels in Berlin and how huge ant sculptures will be eating huge ladybird sculptures. Or if you want to know about a certain naughty word that the WoW filters haven't managed to check, QBlog will tell you all about it.

Anyway, have a look for yourself and let me know what you think. Especially if you've read too much theory and want to lighten up. This post has been long overdue but I must say 'thank you QBlog' for relieving all that pre-viva stress and making reading about games fun again - after being terrified of all the 'serious' stuff on gaming that's out there.


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