On Fallout 4: My Article in The Times of India

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So here's my take of Fallout 4 from my column in the Times of India. The title is the handiwork of my friend and editor Subhayu Mazumder and I like it a lot. There is, of course, a lot more that I could have said about the choice mechanisms and the context of the videogame. In response to some of the comments I received on my statement that the game involves the player making choices that shape his/her identity in the game, I have a few points to add:

Returning to the choice issue, when we see it in terms of formal gameplay construction, you have a point. However, the game is premised on a typical branching of ethical positions - almost too clear-cut although you could move back-and-forth a bit. So if you stick to the mission sequences (I don't), it boils down to Army / Government, Academia / Science , Resistance / Left-wing and Citizens / Commonwealth. Of course, you can't play as a super-mutant or a ghoul or a synth although you can have people of these 'races' / social groups as your partner. Nevertheless, making decisions like having to fight the son you were seeking (or not) are difficult ones. Absalom, Absalom! methinks. Likewise, the decision to side with any faction is one of taking a moral position and at the same time accepting the constraints of gameplay associated with this.
Anyway, after starting in medias res, here's my article:

2277: An Apocalyptic Odyssey

War never changes. A previous article in this column had reviewed Fallout 3 and promised a further visit to the war-ravaged post-apocalyptic America that is featured in the series.  In Fallout 4, we are in Boston, known as the Commonwealth in 2277, where the few survivors of nuclear war have set up their homes in what remains of the once famous metropolis – some now live inside a former baseball stadium and others live in scattered settlements that grow irradiated crops and are constantly under threat from raiders, supermutants and animals that live in the wasteland around them. Besides these, there are ghouls, described as ‘necrotic posthumans’ by the Fallout wiki, the reminders of what excessive radiation can do to humans. Some of them have lost their abilities to reason and turned ‘feral’ or zombie-like. Besides the usual denizens of the Fallout world Fallout 4 is a fitting sequel to the former games and the journey from the Capital Wasteland (erstwhile Washington) and New Vegas seems another worthwhile venture in reflecting on the horrors of what nuclear war can do while having another go at saving humankind in this alternate-reality universe.

The Commonwealth is a huge world to explore and can easily provide over a week’s gameplay if not more, depending on which faction you join and what you do in the game. The Karma system from the earlier game is missing although your companions change their attitude towards you depending on how you act. The factions in the game have obvious intended present-day parallels. The Brotherhood of Steel is what remains of the army and they return from the earlier games with their crusade against the misuse of technology and their goal of establishing peace among humanity. Woven into their plans, however, is their clear rhetoric of racial cleansing – mutants, ghouls, androids and indeed anyone who is ‘other’ than ‘human’ needs to be eliminated. They possess state-of-art pre-apocalypse military technology including a giant robot called Liberty Prime, which destroys everything in its path while alternately spewing anti-communist slogans and lines from Robert Frost. Opposed to them is the Institute, whose resemblance to MIT is easy to spot (it is located underneath the Commonwealth Institute of Technology) and who are committed to improving the world by building ‘synths’ or synthetic humans. Despite their purportedly glorious aims, they are a terror to the Commonwealth residents and their synths are often used against humans rather than to aid them. Among the other factions, the most prominent are the Minutemen, so named after their historical antecedents who fought against the British in the American War of Independence and whose stories, like the poetry of Frost, are deeply connected with the local lore of New England, where the game is set.

As with its predecessors, Fallout 4 is not just about playing a shooter game  - it is also about who you are and wish to be. A web of moral choices determines your path towards the many possible endings and some of them are fairly difficult to make. For example, when you find out that the Director of the Institute is none other than your son whom you have been looking for since the game started. Or when you realise that the easiest and quickest way to finish the game is to side with the Brotherhood of Steel and ‘save’ the world from their problematic perspective and racial agenda. Also, personally speaking, having to witness a nuclear explosion conducted for the ‘noble’ cause of destroying the Institute was less than comfortable.

This does not mean any less of the usual though – boss fights are as challenging and the player will have a hard time fighting the legendary Deathclaw,  the Mirelurk Queen or the Legendary Sentinel Robot. The game also allows you to craft your own weapons and build settlements so if you see junk around you in your many travels, be sure to pick it up for future use. The missions around protecting the settlements tend to get repetitive after a time. Other than that the heavy system requirements (needs high-end graphic cards on PCs and does not play on the older consoles such as PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) and the high price for all the platforms will surely dampen the enthusiasm of many Indian gamers. All said though, a trip to the Commonwealth is not to be missed -  the system upgrade that you had been putting off and the wait until prices come down, notwithstanding.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Genre: First / third-person shooter, role-playing game (RPG), open-world game
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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An Encounter with Tipoo’s Tiger: A Post-colonial Toy

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I have, of late, been thinking a lot about games and post-colonialism. JGVW (Journal of Games and Virtual Worlds) very kindly published one of my articles on cartography and empire in videogames. This isn’t a new thing for me, though. Anybody who cared to listen would have heard me harp on about how Bhagat Singh is the world’s first postcolonial videogame. Recently, however, with the release of Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry and some other titles, I’ve been thinking more about this. This post is, however, not about videogames per se. It is about a very famous toy. One that led me to think about the postcolonial and videogames. During my recent visit to London, I managed to run away for a bit to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the object that has fascinated me for years. It is called Tipu’s Tiger.

Tipu Sultan or ‘The Tipoo’, who was the cause of much worry for the East India Company and was defeated in the famous Siege of Seringapatnam, where Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) was one of the commanders, is now a controversial figure in India. When I was a kid, the Indian national TV channel showed a multi-part TV-series called the Sword of Tipu Sultan that portrayed the Sultan as a national hero who fought the evils of colonialism and was a popular ruler among his subjects, both Hindu and Muslim. 

The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultan by Henry Singleton

It was here that I learnt that ‘the Tippoo’, as the British called him, had taken the title of the ‘Tiger of Mysore’. The French called him Citoyen Tipu and the new Republic (and later Napoleon) were allies in his battles with the British. For the British, Tippoo Sahib was a formidable enemy and the London papers often voiced panic about the potential dangers of a liaison between Napoleon and the Tipu. Until his defeat in 1799, Tipu had formed alliances with and against the neighbouring kingdoms, both Hindu and Muslim, to fight the British. He was accused of barbarism by the British and is now claimed by some as the champion of Islam. Bernard Cornwell’s hero, Richard Sharpe, is depicted as killing the barbaric and pudgy Tipu Sultan and then looting his treasures. Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone is about a cursed gem that was part of the British loot after Tipu’s fort fell. The looting of Seringapatnam resulted in the East India Company gaining around a billion pounds in today’s currency and as historian Maya Jasanoff comments, the plunder and rape that followed exceeded imagination. To view Tipu a supporter of radical Islam too does not sit very easily as while he carried out forced conversions of Hindus, he also endowed Hindu temples and employed Hindus among his chief courtiers. While his politics and his religious bent are clearly more complex than they are made out to be, what is quite undoubtedly evident is his legacy in British colonial memory as the dangerous ‘other’ of colonialism. 

Tipu’s toy tiger, described as ‘man-tyger-organ’ by the poet John Keats who portrayed it as the plaything of an Eastern despot, was one of the first objects exported from India to England for public display. While Tipu’s swords, books and jewels ended up with private collectors (including Sir Walter Scott), the toy Tiger  was exhibited at the East India Museum. As Jonathan Jones writes in his article in the Guardian:

The most famous exhibit was the most macabre. It is still the most popular Indian artefact in London, and the very quintessence of a “curiosity". In 1814 a young woman from the provinces visited London. She went to the museum at East India House, one of the capital's attractions. There she shuddered to hear a dreadful moan, as of a man dying. She came face to face with a painted wooden tiger in the act of devouring its white-faced, red-coated victim. As the curator worked it, she had to be escorted from the museum "pale and trembling".

This toy that the frightened woman must have encountered is described in the V & A website as a life-size 18th century semi-automaton of a tiger devouring a prostrate British soldier. The website goes on to describe the Tiger thus:

Concealed in the bodywork is a mechanical pipe-organ with several parts, all operated simultaneously by a crank-handle emerging from the tiger's shoulder. Inside the tiger and the man are weighted bellows with pipes attached. Turning the handle pumps the bellows and controls the air-flow to simulate the growls of the tiger and cries of the victim. The cries are varied by the approach of the hand towards the mouth and away, as the left arm - the only moving part - is raised and lowered. […] Another pair of bellows, linked to the same handle, supplies wind for a miniature organ of 18 pipes built into the tiger, with stops under the tail. Its structure is like that of European mechanical organs, but adapted for hand operation by a set of ivory button keys reached through a flap in the animal's side. The mechanism has been repaired several times and altered from its original state. It is now too fragile to be operated regularly.

The exhibition of the Tiger, argue historians, was more a matter of propaganda for the Company - making it a symbol of power over subject nations that would replace its earlier image of a trader in indigo and spices. The Seringapatna Medal, to commemorate the victory, was cast in the image of Tipu's Tiger - only this time, the British lion is rampant over the tiger. If Tipu had ever played with the idea of a triumph over British imperialism was, the story now was reversed and only his toy tiger remains one of the few symbols of his political ambitions. The toy contains a further level of complexity: the wooden tiger might have been crafted in India but the mechanism inside is French. Then again, the exhibition of the tiger in the East India Museum (and later as the prize object of the V & A) must have been absolutely fundamental to the metaphorical establishment of victory over both of these threats to the Honourable Company: the combined bogeys of Napoleon and Tippoo Sahib.

The Tiger, however, seems to have fought back for centuries. Now placed among thousands of extremely valuable objects brought to Britain from its former colonial possessions, the Tiger rampant on a British soldier still challenges the ideal of British colonialism and fragile as its condition may be, the appeal of winding up the automaton is much too strong still. The video, above, of the V & A staff shows the toy in action. In a country where much of the tiger population now graces the colonial trophy rooms and where entire jungles have been replaced by a colonial apparatus of human settlements, the toy tiger, nevertheless, embodies the dangers faced by the colonial mechanism. Tigers are dangerous creatures after all and Tipu’s Tiger is modelled on a real-life incident - the death of a Lieutenant Hugh Munro who had gone out shooting in the forests of Bengal. The young Munro was the son of the hero of Buxar, Sir Hector Munro. The victory at Buxar brought almost the whole of North India under the Company’s rule.   Sir Hector was, however, defeated by Tipu’s father, Hyder Ali, and in Tipu’s toy tiger, the unfortunate death of Munrow junior was used as a metaphor for a possible reconquering of lands and the expulsion of a foreign power. One crucial detail about the tiger, however, remains unknown: whether Tipu himself ever played with the tiger is not mentioned by the historians and how important it might have ever been to him is not clear. To me, therefore, what gives the tiger its unique role as a post-colonial toy is, ironically, the status accorded to it in British India and in England even today. 

The Tipu's iTiger app is available for iPhone and iPod Touch

Most people in India, even the many who revere the complex and controversial Sultan as a national hero, do not know about the toy tiger and they certainly haven't seen it in its home in faraway London. As a toy, its appeal is that it allows us to play with an alternate reality to that of British colonialism. I suspect that same appeal could not have escaped the would-be colonial masters of India when they brought it over to London. For them, here was a powerful emblem of anti-British sentiment to be played against itself. However, the tiger itself remains - a constant replaying of an alternate history to colonialism. In fact, even for the Company, despite its attempt to 'replay' as their symbol of victory, the toy tiger was a dangerous plaything - Lord Wellesley is said to have wanted it locked up the Tower of London. From John Keats to Richard Sharpe, iconic Britishers, whether real or fictional, highbrow or otherwise, have stood in awe of the tiger-toy. In fact, even the experts who demonstrate how to use the tiny organ inside the tiger seem to need to impress on us its colonial predicament: at the end of the video (see above) you hear them playing 'Rule Britannia'! *

Indeed, it is because of this colonial obsession with the tiger that I am intrigued by it. There have been many copies of the tiger-toy - a ceramic version (called The Death of Munrow) can be found in the V & A itself.  The many copies and inversions of the tiger image symbolise for me the colonial power’s struggle to come to grips with its ‘other’ possible alternate realities and meanwhile, the original remains where it is - both a disturbing reminder of colonialism and a threat. That dangerous supplement - moved outside the borders of the Indian empire but into the heart of colonial London. 

Death of Munrow and its many iterations (Source: Google Image search)

For those who are interested, Susan Stronge’s authoritative book, Tipu’s Tigers, is available on Amazon Prime. Richard Davis in his Lives of Indian Images describes how the choice of the tiger image would have resonated well with both Hindus (whose gods have tigers as their vahanas or ‘vehicles’) and Muslims. He also discusses other important aspects of the tiger image in Tipu’s court. Maya Jasanoff’s Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850 contains a detailed discussion of Tipu’s Tiger and the aftermath of the siege of Seringapatna. Jonathan James article in The Guardian can be found here: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2003/sep/25/heritage.art and there are a couple more interesting blog posts on the Tiger that I found online.

* I am grateful to Dr Amrita Sen for having pointed out the 'Rule Britannia' part.

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My Book Is Out at Last!

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As some of you know already, my book Videogames and Storytelling: Reading Games and Playing Books was published in September 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan. Here is the blurb from the publisher’s website:

Grand Theft Auto IV saw more copies being sold than the latest superhero blockbusters or the last Harry Potter novel. Most of its players and critics commend its storytelling experience; however, when it comes to academic analysis, mainstream humanities research seems confused about what to do with such a phenomena. The problem is one of classification, in the first instance: 'is it a story, is it a game, or is it a machine?' Consequently, it also becomes a problem of methodology – which traditional discipline, if any, should lay claim to video game studies becoming the moot question. After weathering many controversies with regards to their cultural status, video games are now widely accepted as a new textual form that requires its own media-specific analysis. Despite the rapid rise in research and academic recognition, video game studies has seldom attempted to connect with older media and to locate itself within broader substantive discourses of the earlier and more established disciplines, especially those in the humanities. Video Games and Storytelling aims to readdress this gap and to bring video games to mainstream humanities research and teaching. In the process, it is also a rethinking story versus game debate as well as other key issues in game studies such as time, agency, involvement and textuality in video game-narratives.

(For more info, such as the Table of Contents and ordering, see the publisher's website: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/Video-Games-and-Storytelling/?sf1=barcode&st1=9781137525048)

For those inclined towards electronic editions, a Kindle version is also available now. Here’s the link: http://www.amazon.com/Video-Games-Storytelling-Reading-Playing-ebook/dp/B017DQ7J3E/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1/276-1064401-1083624

What I don’t say in the blurb but feel I should here is that the book comes with a few warnings. There’s quite a bit of Deleuze in there (as there has been and will be in my work) and there’s my obsession with the now extinct THQ Studio’s hallmark game  series STALKER. Predictably, of course, there’s Tarkovsky, Lewis Carroll and PKD rubbing shoulders inside discussions on videogames. My interest in paratexts and walkthroughs takes the form of a chapter-length discussion and of course, time, agency and involvement (called ‘immersion’ by some) figure importantly in what I have to say. Finally, I end with a discussion of eggs and which end to break them on. Ludology vs. Narratology has turned into the egg-endian debate that the Lilliputs in Gulliver’s Travels consider so sacrosanct.

Here's the email address for those wishing to request a review copy: reviews@palgrave.com

Finally, I love the book cover. Thanks especially to Palgrave Macmillan for all their help and patience. 

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Shush! A Hushed Note on Postcolonialism and Diversity

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Again, regarding postcolonialism, some of the things I heard around me (besides much enthusiasm  for having it in game studies) were rather worrying.  The broad concerns that I have are that postcolonialism does not seem to be researched beyond the older theories of Said, Bhabha and Fanon. people believe that these do not apply to nations such as China and to world literature. Here is, I think, a great deal to be done in terms of increasing the awareness of games researchers to how notions of post colonialism remain current. Also I need to do a lot more reading for my own upcoming book on the subject.  More recent work by Pheng Cheah, David Damrosch, Emily Apter, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Spivak herself is important in countering views that we are now post-race and that post-colonialism is a thing of the nineties. It’s not like that the problems of empire have all said goodbye (even with Hardt and Negri’s grand hope in the potential of the multitude). Videogames and games research have had a longish disconnect with scenarios of post colonialism (despite early work by some scholars such as Barry Atkins and Sybille Lammes) and this needs to be addressed.

I am also part of the diversity committee for DiGRA and on a happier note, I was part of a meeting where much fruitful discussion took place. The recommendation of lower fees for delegates and especially students from lower-income countries is extremely welcome. As is the survey of people coming from various diversity groups.  I strongly believe, though, that diversity goes far beyond ticking boxes - all the many levels of exclusive discourse need to be thought through and given due recognition. And it doesn’t hurt to try; it has hurt for long because I haven’t tried - again, I’m speaking for myself. Next DiGRA will see a diversity workshop happen and I’m looking forward to it. I also spoke to a promising young scholar on Gamergate on how some women also adopt the Gamergaters’ avatar Vivian James and play out their discourse. So in thinking about diversity, one needs to be wary of falling into stereotypes. Here’s an example. I was horribly treated by the immigration officer at Heathrow  this time and my Facebook post had many people commenting on it with the assumption that that person were a white male. She was most probably Asian - hailing (an earlier generation of hers did) from my own country or our neighbours. It’s complex and it hurts but there is so much more to be done. A book that is on the top of my reading list is Adrienne’s Gaming at the Edges - I think it will teach me a lot and I’m super-disappointed that I missed her book launch event in Dundee. 

DiGRA 2015 started us off on diversity in games and the diversity committee has been very actively working on some of the key issues that have been relevant in the community. DiGRA 2016 has seen a greater interest in diversity and 2017 promises a workshop to bring the key problems to the table for a discussion amongst the community. 

(The inspiration for the title is Barry Atkins's blog 'Shush! Speaking Quietly about Videogames')

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Times of India Article on Reviving Gyan Chaupar and Golok Dham

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It was a whim that I pursued about finding storytelling elements in ancient games - just to prove that the point I was making in my book was vindicated by aeons of human history. It was Jesper Juul who put me on to it - he asked me at a conference (where I was presenting on Karma in videogames) what ancient Indian games and game theory had to say about play cultures. Jesper knew about the khel / lila concepts and I wasn't surprised given the thorough scholar that he is. However, what he set me thinking about was Pacheesi or Chaupar and Chaturanga. Now, as many know, I'm a Deleuzian at heart and although my attempts to connect Deleuze with Indian philosophy have been resisted by some, I couldn't help connecting the Deleuzian notion of the 'Divine Game' (see Difference and Repetition) to Indian philosophy. Somewhere from my childhood, I remembered tales of Shiva and Parvati playing a divine game of dice.  As I was writing my book (Videogames and Storytelling to be published by Palgrave Macmillan this year), I thought I simply had to find out. With my research, I stumbled on Gyan Chaupar. I also found scholars who had already worked on it. Typically, videogame studies does not seem to have connected with them.

Gyan Chaupar board in the National Museum, New Delhi

My friend, Subhayu Mazumder, of Times of India said he liked the idea. And off I went to do more research. The first fruits of this has appeared in an article in ToI and I have plans to do more with this. Here's an excerpt of the article:

Imagine being told that whatever happens in your life is the result of a game that you have been playing. This is not the plot of a Hollywood thriller but rather the now much-neglected wisdom of ancient India. As you try to contain your incredulity, what if I tell you that this is no rare artefact that has been unearthed by archaeologists but that you probably even have it at home as you read this.  The game being referred to here is Snakes and Ladders, commonly translated as ‘Shap Ludo’ or Snake-Ludo in Bengali. Unknown to many of us, Snakes and Ladders is not a game that Indians learnt from the West; in fact, it is quite the other way round. Known variously as Gyan Chaupar, Gyan Bazi or Moksha Pat, the game with snakes and stairs (rather than ladders) was popular all over ancient India and even survives in various forms in Nepal and Tibet. Exported into England first in 1892, this complex and intricate game of moral teaching ended up as a childishly simple racing game that removed the element of learning and introduced competition. More research into this game revealed articles by a handful of scholars from the United Kingdom and Scandinavia and references to game-boards scattered across the world, only a few of them in different parts of India. Even Reverend Lal Behari De’s 1851 article on Bengali games and pastimes had nothing to say about games such as Gyan Chaupar. Strangely though, there is now much more hope for the revival of this ancient Indian tradition of play than one could ever expect and the story begins with an industrialist in Calcutta who quite accidentally stumbled upon this lost gem and since then, has been working non-stop to bring back Gyan Chaupar to our homes and our minds. 

Aman Gopal Sureka, one of the city’s information technology entrepreneurs, came upon Gyan Chaupar while looking for interesting Diwali gifts for his clients. In the process, he fell in love with the game and this has taken him around the world in his quest for Gyan Chaupar. 

For the rest of the article, click here: http://epaperbeta.timesofindia.com/Article.aspx?eid=31812...

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As the Indian summer raged at its worst in Calcutta and the monsoons were somewhere down South still and tantalisingly close but not yet there, I received a more than welcome invitation that was to take me to Bombay to participate in a discussion on the scope of fiction. As I stepped out of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport and climbed into the waiting taxi, the driver told me that I was in luck. The rains came pouring down soon enough and shortly afterwards, I met my hosts Jyothi and Rajat in their flat. I was here to be part of Syntalk, a weekly talk show based on themes and notions of all kinds where speakers with very disparate perspectives to offer on a topic are brought together to participate in an unrehearsed discussion. What you say (then and there) is what you get. To give you an idea as to the diversity of the topics, the one prior to ours was on poison and the next week, we were told would be the episode on water. Just water. Well, water fascinates me (as readers of an earlier post on Fallout 3 might remember) and I must listen to that episode soon. All the episodes are available for free as podcasts on Soundcloud; the aim that the couple have is ambitious - they wish to record as many aspects of human thought as they can, for the future. 

Ask me to speak on the scope of fiction and I can go on for weeks on end. Fortunately, the other speakers were the eminent authority on narrative theory, Professor Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Anjum Rajabali, Bollywood scriptwriter of Rajneeti and Satyagraha fame and they had their unique takes on fiction. I have worked under Professor Nair at IIT Delhi and there is much that I agree with in her book, Narrative Gravity. She started the conversation with Daniel Dennett’s comment that human beings build stories as birds build nests and then raised the question of narrative versus fiction as well as how the individual related to narratives. Anjum is the first film scriptwriter whom I have met and it was indeed very interesting to hear him speak about how he constructs his stories and to compare in my head the storyboards for games with the scripts that he writes for films. 

The SynTalk organisers have already summarised our discussion so I shall content myself with a copy-paste from their web space. The talk itself is on SoundCloud and is a free podcast.  Do have a listen. I am sure you will have as much fun as I had in being a part of it. As the reader, are you also not the writer … and the player? Well, here’s what the three of us had to say:

And here's a fun summary from the hosts:

SynTalk thinks about narratives & stories, while constantly wondering whether it is the stories that ‘make us up’ and give us our self-hood. We delve into the worlds of literature, film making, video games, philosophy, cognitive sciences, and linguistics to explore why & how we tell & understand stories. The concepts are derived off / from Aristotle, Coleridge, Diderot, Georges Polti, Hitchcock, Labov, E M Forster, Lumière brothers, de Beauvoir, Augusto Boal, Chomsky, Salim-Javed, David Lodge, & Dennett, among others. How identity, time, memory, & emotions are knotted together by fiction. Is story telling like a flight simulator, with most of the rewards but none of the risk? How narratives however, are not synonymous with fiction and, cover both fact & fiction. Do we remember narratively, & create causal links (with mnemonic durability) between the past, present and the possible futures? The difference of a story from a (film) script, & the importance of the dramatic centre? Is narrative experience a (playful) exploration of the space of possibilities – i.e., is all fiction a game? How incompleteness is also a valid possibility in narratives. Why are morals so critical in any satisfying story? How important is it to have a sense of the ending, & how can one return the narrative time to the present? And, in the face of the crisis of our death, is our life more like episodic TV serials, rather than a Greek tragedy? Is lying or cheating a related ability to telling stories? Are stories (video games) more about tying (dying) and untying (undying)? Are there cultures without stories? How there are real physiological reactions and a willing suspension of disbelief on seeing (say) a film in a dark theatre. How can a screenwriter be moved to tears by her own story? Why can’t there be stories without characters or emotions? Are there only a finite number of plots or narratives? What do you see when you look into the mirror in a first-person shooter game? Is there a serial killer inside you? The links between ‘queen died’, 36, spect-actor, chaos, Gilgamesh, Spiderman, Flower, Lagaan, Alzheimer’s, Max Payne, jumping over the chair, alienation, Psycho Mantis, & cheat codes. How are we able to create stories, but are not able to count the number of words in our head? Is social reality the most fictionalized, & is monologue always secondary to collaborative dialogue in story telling? Why aren’t video games laugh-out-aloud funny, & does it have anything to do with the fact that you can’t tickle yourself? Is the future of fiction likely to involve a range of affects & small scale emotions? Can the story strike back at the player (or the reader)? The SynTalkrs are: Dr. Souvik Mukherjee (game studies, literature, Presidency University, Kolkata), Prof. Rukmini Bhaya Nair (linguistics, narrative theory, IIT Delhi, New Delhi), & Anjum Rajabali (screenwriting, Mumbai).

So what do you think? In case you are interested, here's SynTalk's channel: https://soundcloud.com/syntalk. I'm about to listen to the latest episode on 'The Meanings of Information'.

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No Women Police Officers in Videogames?

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As Aiden Pearce in that irritatingly repetitive but nevertheless entertaining game called Watch-Dogs, I have killed many policemen and escaped from many others. In squad cars, helicopters and motor-boats they came after me and either shot me dead or got punished big time. But they were all men! As far as I know, women police officers are not that uncommon in the United States. Indeed, I see many of them even on Calcutta streets and certainly loads more at the airport here  than I did back in them days. I trained a group of policemen in English language skills quite a while ago and as I hung around with them quite a bit, so I should know. Strangely, however, there are no women police officers in Watch Dogs. Or GTA or Mafia 2 and you will certainly struggle to find me a name. No women police officers in videogames? Why, I wonder.

Maybe, in  games like Mafia: City of Lost Heaven or L.A. Noire that are set in the late 40s and early 50s, there would be less of a chance of expecting them but by and large, the police in videogames are male. Obviously, this is a stark contrast to films. Hollywood movies are full of them and I remember Rani Mukherjee as a police officer in Mardaani (which received mixed reviews from feminists in India) and Tabu is all set to star as a tough cop in the forthcoming film, Drishyam. While I was writing all this, I've had a couple of people correct me on Facebook: Shantam Basu reminds me of Mia in Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Arno Görgen  says that the 'only one I remember is a undervover cop in Deus Ex: Human Revolution'.  So there.

Bollywood film star Tabu as a police officer in the film Drishyam

Undercover, yes, but what's the problem with depicting women police officers in uniform. Is it discrimination or just a sense of bad form (which, for me, might be a similar thing)? Arno suggests in his Facebook comment that 'it seems easier to implement women as soldiers than as police officers. Maybe the morality of police work in games is related to 'masculine' values like honour or 'heroism' while military shooters are amoral and therefore more open to female characters?' Maybe so. But then it is a privileging of 'honour' and 'heroism' that is reversed in movies such as the ones I've mentioned. So if we can have a female archaeologist (Lara Croft is that and much else) and a female spy (Cate Archer of No One Lives Forever) kick ass, then why not have women police officers?

Well,  just a thought developers ... In any case, this could be seen as symptomatic of a broader (and more serious) issue. 

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DiGRA 2015 in Lueneberg

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Much has happened in these many days when I have been away from ‘Ludus Ex’. I write a (fairly) regular column in the Times of India, Kolkata edition and that has given me another non-academic outlet for my thoughts. A blog, however, has its own sense of freedom and flow. So here I am.

Here I am sitting on the upper floor of a cafe in Luneberg in Germany and telling you about it. Luneberg is a fairy-tale town with its houses seemingly made of chocolate and liquorice. Medieval German houses dating back to the 12th century and two huge solid churches that were ringing their bells when I entered the cafeteria. The many towers and turrets of these old houses are proper Assassin’s Creed territory and one expects that Ezio or Altair will be leaping off them and hiding in the haystack below. It is 10:30 a.m now and the streets are still empty. Germany is on holiday today - not sure, why. I am here for DiGRA 2015. By a quite strange quirk of fate, I have three presentations to make here. DiGRA begins this afternoon and I will be part of Mark Wolf’s panel on Videogames across the World. Mark himself is not here and the panel will be led by the eminent Dutch videogames scholar, Joost Raessens. 

I arrived yesterday and as I was taking in the sights and sounds of this very pretty toy-town and trying to survive conversations with my now very rusty German, a bunch of very varied English accents greeted me: DiGRA early arrivals had hit town. They had also hit the local brew - Heidegeist. With its deceptively After-Eightish taste, the minty Heidegeist was mighty enough to fell a couple of conference participants. Amongst the survivors and abstainers, too, one could feel that the DiGRA spirit was equally potent. 

[The organisers of DiGRA pulled off their game with so much poise and balance. Back centre:Mathias, the magister ludi, in front of him: Sonia Fizek, in that athletic position: Niklas Schrape and far to the left: Nina Cerezo]

Just before I met the others, Matthias (Fuchs), the main organiser of this DiGRA, popped out of one of those toy houses and said hello. The last time I had met him was in Calcutta when he visited in 2011.  I also met Tanya Krzywinska and Doug Brown shortly afterwards - I had last seen them in 2006 at Brunel University, I think.This DiGRA looks like its going to be one for reunions and I’m already walking down a mesh of many memory lanes and by-lanes.

Being at heart always the flaneur, I had signed up for a city tour organised by the hosts, Leuphana University. Bylanes again.  This time, however, these were real lanes through which we were taken around by our very capable student-guide, Ann-Kathrin Wagner. Excessive salt-mining in the Middle Ages had caused random subsidences in the town and the houses looked like prototypes for Hundertwasser’s designs. Apparently Heinrich Heine had lived here, Bach had practised on the organ at St. Johannes Kirche and the composer of a very famous German song (something with the moon in it) was born here. After an hour of time-travel around horse-drawn carriages, medieval cranes and a fascinating board-games shop, it was time for DiGRA 2015.

[The Johannis Kirche: Bach learnt to play here (the organ and not videogames!)]

DiGRA Day One

I started DiGRA with a panel on the present and future of Game Studies consisting of Frans Mayra, Sebastian Deterding, Joost Raessens and other Game Studies luminaries. The debate was around whether Game Studies could be expanded to include everything. The Humanities focus of Games Studies was duly noted (‘Does that make Game Studies a Humanities discipline? Should universities award a B.A in Games Studies?’ - these were the questions that came to mind then) and someone compared it to early media studies. There was a claim that gamification could be seen as exploding that temporal dispositif. Instead of focusing on the versus, as in choice versus play, rails versus sandbox, new ways to future-proof games research were called for. Someone used that magic word ‘assemblage’ and although I’m not sure whether it was used in the Deleuzoguattarian sense, I couldn’t help feeling smug.

The ‘Videogames around the World’ panel went well although I wish there were more people attending.  I learnt a lot about the gaming situation in Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and Venezuela. What I missed was more on how the local culture influenced the game design as this is something that I am interested in  given the Indian context (as I said in my own presentation). Frans Mayra did mention how the Norse legends were used in some Finnish games and how an Americanised version of the Norse legends was used in Max Payne (remember the Ragnarok Club). Tom Apperley gave a very lucid account of the scenario in Australia and Venezuela - apparently, in the latter, videogames are mostly only available through torrents. Especially, if they show the same weapons that are used by the army and the police. Another, albeit slightly lesser, surprise came when Joost (Raessens) exclaimed ‘Shah Rukh Khan’ when I showed an image from Ra-One. Bollywood and its ubiquitous fame. 

The first keynote was next. Tanya was at her best and the Gothic in gaming came alive again. As she linked up the Gothic in gaming to the history of the genre in ‘Monk’ Lewis, Radcliffe and later writers and moviemakers, she identified the five coordinates of the genre as: character / story-patterns, mise-en-scene and style, emotional modality, function and entropy (and the sublime). She describes the Gothic as a ‘grammar … and too complicated to call a genre.’ In a much-tweeted about academic twist, she redefined gamification as a form of genre remediation as she examined the links between Gothic videogames and their generic ancestors in earlier media.

DiGRA Day Two

Day One ended with a Gothic descent into the cellars of Lueneburg’s Maelzer pub where keeping one’s head unbumped against the low medieval ceilings was the ultimate test of sobriety. Despite the adventures that ensued, I was up early and ready for Astrid Ensslin’s talk on ‘Unnatural Narratology’. After this, more on lit and gaming in Inderst and Goergen’s talk on utopia and Feng Zhu on the ‘Implied Player’. Had a fairly long conversation with Feng on ‘minor literature’ and also my problems with Iser and reader-response. Bear in mind though that this was how I came to Game Studies in the first place! Because of my clumsiness with finding things, I missed part of Rudolf’s presentation which he co-authored with Arno Groegen. Have much to discuss re: utopia with Rudolf. However, we missed each other again this time as he is in faraway Canada.

[I used the example of Thralled -  game based on slavery that Shailesh Prabhu told me about. A Brazilian delegate at the conference told me that Isaura is based on a real-life character]

Then there was my own paper on slavery in videogames. Kind of in the spirit of Tanya’s use of ‘gamification’, I had framed it as a remediation of the slave narrative via the computer game medium. In the paper, albeit still in its early stages, I stress the ambiguity of the slave-narrative - that is the experience of the total lack of agency and the simultaneous ‘illusion of agency’. This, according to me, emerges even more clearly in the videogame than in earlier media. The other point that I half-raised but that was taken up by Sonia Fizek (postdoc at Gamification lab and a longtime friend) was regarding how the slave’s non-agency and trauma could be seen as a metaphor for rethinking agency in games. She mentioned Stefano Gualeni’s game (Stefano was there in the audience, by the way!), Necessary Evil, as an illustrative example. I’ll have to play it to know. However, all thanks to Sonia, I will now explore the agency/ illusion of agency from the point of unfreedom and ambiguity. 

Sonia’s own paper followed mine. Presented together with CERN anthropologist Ann Dippel's paper, her work looks at using games to make people perform scientific work (especially involving participation in experiments) and then analysing the big data. Sonia and Anne came up with the concept of ‘labourisation’ instead of gamification in an article they wrote together. The following two papers were on videogames in Eastern Europe. Jaroslav Svelch presented on how videogames were used for subversive protest against the repressive Communist regime. Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square is one of the games that I remember from this presentation. Svelch’s earlier work on adventure games that address problems in Czech history an be found here (http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/mit7/papers/Svelch_MiT7.pdf). Pyotr Sterczeweski, another new face at DiGRA, presented on construction of the notion of the political in Polish board games using Chantal Mouffe’s theory of the agonistic versus the antagonistic. I was surprised and impressed to learn that board-games in Poland are so deeply connected to their national history. 

[Wenceslas Square: Indiana Jones cometh!]

From history board-games, I moved to an entire panel on games and history with Adam Chapman, Esther Macallum-Stewart and Tom Apperley. This was one of the highlights of the conference for me. The opportunity to hear Esther meld her knowledge of the First World War and videogames through her analysis of Valiant Hearts was pure pleasure. She argued that there has been a certain stereotypical representation of the war in European historiography and that videogames too have taken that on. In contrast the comic / graphic novel such as Charley’s War are perhaps more realistic models that any such presentation of history could consider. Adam also focused on how a particular type of presentation of history was privileged in the triple-A games and how it seemed to back up the ‘great men’ approach to history. Tom’s paper focused on the alternative reality aspect of history games and he started with a challenge to the Marxist historian Edward Hallett Carr. 

After this, of course, there was three-sided football, beer and barbecue. And there was the young game designer from Copenhagen, Sabine Harrer, asking me to play her game (modelled on a similar thing created by a Feminist theorist) which involved colouring images of female genitalia. It also uses the C-word in its title. While this was, I admit, quite a shock to me at first, watching the reactions of all the others who played was really really interesting.

I also got to meet Chris Bateman with whom I hope to have many more conversations and also perhaps play the Royal Game of Ur someday. The night ended at around 2:30 a.m for me with a walk from the University to town through a rather spooky bridge and a park full of chairs. After catching up with friends such as  Sebastian Moering, Rune Klevjer and Emil Hammar, it was time to call it another day.

DiGRA Day Three

Karen Palmer’s keynote ‘Is Hacking the Brain the Future of Gaming?’ was a breath of fresh air in that it pointed at possibilities for videogames using her neuroscience-based aids to games. Her syncself game of Parkour is aimed to provide players an environment where they can explore the concept of self.  She calls it ‘not just art, not film but a whole trend towards mindfulness’. Palmer also discussed the example of Nevermind , a biofeedback-enhanced adventure horror game -exactly what I conceptualised in NTU with Russell Murray.

After this, I went for the session that I was waiting for for months  - Mia Consalvo and Chris Paul on teaching videogames. The takeaways were many: from Conway’s game of life on paper to writing prompts on playthroughs there were many suggestions across the board. I was quite happy to see that I use the same initial texts that were recommended by Mia. Hanli Geyser from South Africa said she used African board games to get gaming across to students who are unable to access games technology. This is similar to my situation here in India although unlike in South Africa, I rarely have university computers available for my students. Recommendations came in from all around: Marsha Kinder’s Playing with Power, the first issue of Games and Culture and Ian Bogost’s ‘Here is How Games Persuade’ are some that I noted. I have much more in my notes but I feel that this session requires a separate post sometime. My only regret was that I had a paper to present in a parallel session afterwards and therefore, missed the discussion on setting assignments. All in all, a great takeaway from a great conference.

My own paper on minor literature as a framework for reading games comes out of my earlier work. Here’s Claire Colebrook on what it means for Deleuze and Guattari:

A minor literature, also, does not appeal to a standard but creates and transforms any noFon of the standard. If I seek to write a film script that is just like the popular and financially successful Star Wars (appealing to the spirit and tradiFon of American science ficFon), then this is a major work. But if I aim to produce a film that criFcs may not even recognise as a film, or that will demand a redefiniFon of cinema, then I produce a minor work. For Deleuze and GuaTari all great literature is minor literature, refusing any already given standard of recogniFon or success. (Colebrook 2002, 25)

In my paper, by looking at paratexts of videogames as exemplary of the ‘minor’ character of the games, I raise questions about the very distinction of the text and paratext (by the way the latter was a popular word in this DiGRA) as leading to the basis of narrativity in games. This paper is going to be out as a much reworked version in my forthcoming book, Videogames and Storytelling: Reading Games and Playing Books. The other paper in the session that I attended was on the use of Genettian focalisation in videogames. Interesting but something that could be expanded as a framework, perhaps.

The conference party at the Salon Hansen was nice. There was videogame art on the walls and I got to do something that is one of my main reasons behind going to conferences: speak to younger researchers. There was Ea (like in EA Sports she said she challenged everything) putting up a spirited defence of Espen Aarseth’s take on gaming and others who disagreed. After a relatively productive networking time when I also got to see some eminent names in game studies charging up the dance floor, I thought I’d beat a retreat after realising that the shots in my hand were jaegermeisters!

DiGRA Day Four

Eros and Thanatos - the creation and destruction of everything human. DiGRA was coming to an end and Tom Apperley was there to see that the world of game conferences was to be shaken up. Speaking on ‘nerdcore’ or representations of porn in videogames,  Tom managed to shock quite a few people in there with a couple of photos of pin-up models wearing videogame gloves (and nothing else, just in case you had doubts). Making a case for viewing this as an excessive projection of masculinity, he highlighted the archiving and the legitimising characteristics of nerd core. 

Tom’s talk was followed by the thanatos part - Markus Rautzenberg’s keynote on uncertainty and death was entertaining and thought-provoking. Some of this, I felt, connects to my own work on death (https://www.ntu.ac.uk/writing_technologies/back_issues/Vol.%202.1/Mukherjee/62762gp.html) although I connect more to the uncertainty and the temporal multiplicity of death in videogames and not so much the psychological experience. Bringing in a whole group of philosophers, such as Lacan, Bateson, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Deleuze, Rautzenberg provided a deep, dense and thought-provoking angle on uncertainty. They video recorded the talk and I must watch it whenever they have it online.

I also need to quickly mention Olli Leino and Sebastian Moering's paper on applying existentialist philosophy in videogames. The talk left me with me many questions but I am only going to say that someone finally decided to bring up Sartre in Game Studies. 

DiGRA Things-that-I-missed

All conferences are about missed connections and papers that you really wanted to hear but couldn’t. My biggest miss was Niklas Schrape speaking on Georg Klaus and games. Also Emil Hammar on ethical diversity, the panel with Jesper Juul in it and of course, the second session of Teaching Game Studies were big misses. I didn't know William Huber was at the conference until today when I started looking at the Twitter feeds more carefully.  However, because I didn't bother too much with Twitter this time, I also missed the GamerGate trolls - happily.

Lueneberg memories

I can still hear the bells of Johanniskirche and see the huge organ when I close my eyes. Living in the 150-year old house owned by the Dartennes was a treat in itself. Finally, the dark beer at the Pons pub and the nice sushi at the bizarrely-named Pearl Harbour restaurant with my new-found friends are memories to cherish. And for once, I held the chopsticks right!

[A Sushi restaurant called Pearl Harbour: the name kinda shocked me into holding my chopsticks right - a feat that I've never managed elsewhere]

As I sit in Calcutta now, listening to the endless sea of traffic outside, it's time for that game called university teaching and exam-invigilations (labourisation, someone?). The next DiGRA is to be held in Dundee, Scotland. Strangely, I was in Dundee less than two weeks ago - so Reload!

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