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 ( 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 ( 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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