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Gautam Sen Memorial Boardgame Museum

 

Gautam Sen Memorial Boardgames Museum

Trying to address the lack of any public resource on ancient boardgames in Kolkata, the Gautam Sen Memorial Boardgame Museum has been started as a modest venture to create an awareness of the rich culture of boardgames among the general public, researchers and enthusiasts. Mr Gautam Sen, my father-in-law, whose untimely demise we mourn was a chess-player par excellence and it is fitting that Amrita and I dedicate our joint efforts in building this museum to his memory. As one of the first few  visitors to what is a fledgling project we seek your blessings and bid you welcome. 

The museum hosts a collection of boardgames both ancient and modern, ranging from the oldest ever boardgame, The Royal Game of Ur to current games such as Settlers of Catan and Grizzled. On display are mainly the older games from different parts of the world with a focus on Indian games, of course. You will find games such as Go, Mancala and Senet here as well as a collection of Ganjifa cards and chess sets from all over the world. 

The museum is an entirely non-profit and private space and entry is by invitation or prior appointment only. It is still a very small effort and we encourage only those who are really interested in boardgames to visit. 

The timings are 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m on weekends.

There is no charge for visiting the museum.

Please fill out this Google form if you wish to visit and we will get back to you. 

We request you not to touch the exhibits and while the museum is also open to children, we encourage supervised visits. Also, the boardgames are not available to play unless you obtain special permission. 

Browsing the museum is easy and there are three ways to go about it:

  • You could use the museum’s mobile devices to scan the QR codes (on the exhibits for detailed information. We have tried to consult authoritative sources and in most cases the codes will direct you to the Ludii Portal, which is one of the authoritative research sites on boardgames. Where the Ludii website does not have the information, we have referred you to similar academic forums. 
  • You could also use this index and read the entries following the numbered exhibits. 
  • If you are feeling chatty and want an adda over a cup of tea, just ask me about an exhibit and I will jog my memory for information and of course, anecdotes.
Finally, some of the games are available as apps and are installed on our mobile devices. There are also printed copies of some of the game-boards. You are most welcome to play! 

Once again, Welcome to the Gautam Sen Board Games Museum!!!


My new book

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 So my new book is out. You can get it on the Bloomsbury website: https://www.bloomsbury.com/in/videogames-in-the-indian-subcontinent-9789354356919/

Here's what it is about:

Description

Videogames in the Indian Subcontinent: Development, Culture(s) and Representations explores the gaming culture of one of the most culturally diverse and populous regions of the world-the Indian subcontinent. Building on the author's earlier work on videogame culture in India, this book addresses issues of how discussions of equality and diversity sit within videogame studies, particularly in connection with the subcontinent, thereby presenting pioneering research on the videogame cultures of the region.
Drawing on a series of player and developer interviews and surveys conducted over the last five years, including some recent ones, this book provides a sense of how games have become a part of the culture of the region despite its huge diversity and plurality and opens up avenues for further study through vignettes and snapshots of the diverse gaming culture. It addresses the rapid rise of videogames as an entertainment medium in South Asia and, as such, also tries to better understand the recent controversies connected to gaming in the region In the process, it aims to make a larger connection between the development of videogames and player culture, in the subcontinent and globally, thus opening up channels for collaboration between the industry and academic research, local and global.

Table of Contents

Videogames in the Indian Subcontinent
Section One: Development
1 Digital Technology and Videogames in the Indian Subcontinent: An Attempted History
2 The Videogame Industry in the Indian Subcontinent: The Current Scenario
Section Two: Cultures
3 Diverse Subcontinent, Ludic Cultures: The Non-Digital Game Cultures as Context
4 Digital Gaming Cultures in the Indian Subcontinent
Section Three: Representation
5 Representations of the Subcontinent in Videogames Global and Local
6 Absent Discourses in Game Cultures: The Case for Diversity
7 What Wakens the Sleeping Giant?
Bibliography
Appendix One: Timeline
Appendix Two: Survey
Glossary
Ludography



Game Studies India Adda to DiGRA India

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Suniti Chattopadhyay, in his 1913 article ‘Hostel Life in Calcutta’, describes adda as 'a social activity or a space for a carefree talk with boon companions'. In Games Studies, because of the nature of the area, things are much more flexible and easygoing than in most other academic circles. Bringing Games Studies to India has always been my dream. Or at any rate, it has been for the past twenty years. What better mode of bringing Game Studies scholars in India together than an adda. A carefree chat about games without the fear of being shushed. And in a country that has one of the largest and most diverse gaming populations yet is not on the games research and development radar, it was necessary to get the conversation going. Especially when there are so many who have such fantastic ideas about games and gamers. In 2019, when I organised the GamesLit conference in Kolkata (arguably the first international Games Studies conference in India), the high quality of the papers from India impressed not just me but also my colleagues from abroad. It was Espen Aarseth who asked me why I was not setting up something whereby we could have a games research community in India. The thought remained with me and during the pandemic, I decided to take the plunge by roping in some talented young researchers who I thought would be able to carry on the discussion, giving it a local flavour (through the adda mode) while also participating in the international network.


Today, after ten months of our existence as Games Studies India, we have been recognised as a chapter of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA). We are now DiGRA India. It is a dream come true for me that after two decades, digital games studies now has a platform for debate and discussion in India. DiGRA India, in its earlier avatar, Games Studies India Adda, has featured talks by eminent scholars and industry experts from both India and abroad. These can be accessed on our YouTube channel, here. As DiGRA India starts functioning we hope that we can connect the research on India's gaming culture to the rest of the world.

Check out DiGRA India on our website: https://digraindia.com/



Chess and Death

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Covid-19 has left its indelible dark mark over my family. My dad-in-law, Gautam Sen, passed away recently felled by that dread disease. He was a polymath - a chartered accountant, a traveller and someone with a deep interest in history. As his daughter says, he has now gone to visit 'the unknown country from whose bourn no traveller returns'. For me, he will remain the embodiment of the ludic, a chess-player par excellence and an enthusiast in the digital. He was forever battling Fritz and other computer programs often beating them or drawing the game. I had tried to introduce him to strategy games - Napoleon: Total War, specifically, because of his interest in Bonaparte. That didn't quite work out but Chess remained a lifelong passion with him. He had been instrumental in bringing the Soviet grandmaster and former World Champion, Vasili Smyslov, to Calcutta and gave up a potential chess-playing career for family necessities. Every now and then, I would see him sitting in his office and watching chess matches on YouTube. A chess enthusiast myself, I have never had the patience to watch chess games but he would analyse them with much care and consideration.

I will not have those conversations about chess again when I am at home and I doubt anyone else here will beat Fritz 7; not me, certainly. The shelves are, however, filled with books on Chess. Yes, these remain. Memories.



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(This is a personal post and although I  refrain from posting about anything other than my research, Covid-19 and the damage it did to my family is certainly an exceptional scenario; hence this post.)

Speaking on Board Games for the Indian Museum's Stories of World Cultures series

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So here's me presenting on boardgames and culture in the Indian Museum's Stories of World Cultures series. The series was started after the Museum had to be closed due to the Covid-19 crisis and still going strong, it has been a fantastic inspiration for many.

Here's me presenting on boardgames in episode number 29.


The Looting of the Ganj i Sawai and Uncharted 4

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Returning to Ludus Ex and gaming after a long absence, I have many stories to tell. Of the Covid-19 pandemic and being locked down for two months, of my continual travails of being (a most unwilling) departmental head and of the super-cyclone that almost wrecked our house, there is too much to be said. Some of it is too personal to be recounted in a blog. So of that the less said the better. And I am also fed up with writing academic prose; ergo, here’s an essay in Dr Johnson’s manner, a ‘loose sally of the mind’. I’m going to write about Uncharted 4and my first brush with Nathan Drake. Uncharted 4, the last in the series, is a PlayStation game and PC gamers might not know much about it. In fact, in my nineteen years of reading Game Studies, this is the first time I got to play an Uncharted game.

The game is a monorail-narrative experience; one that takes the player on a treasure-hunt. Nothing original in the idea and the gameplay mechanics are borderline-sadistic, punishing the player with constant button-mashing as one grabs rock-ledges, swings from branches and shoots baddies with no respite. The promise of success is the famous treasure looted by the pirate Henry Avery and stored in the fabled city, Libertalia (modelled on the legendary pirate-colony, Libertatia, founded by Captain Henri Mission). While I was intrigued by the concept of a pirate colony, what interested me most was the source of the treasure and also what I view as distinct colonial overtones in the storyline. 

In 1695, at the zenith of the Mughal Empire, a self-styled pirate captain, Henry Every (also known as Jack Avery and Benjamin Bridgeman), looted a heavily-armed Mughal ship returning to India with Hajj pilgrims and considerable riches. The ship was called the Ganj i Sawai and was escorted by another ship, the Fateh Mohammed. Both were attacked by a pirate fleet and looted; Avery’s men would go on to rape the many women in the ship, both old and young, some of whom committed suicide by jumping into the sea. The Mughal emperor, Aurungzeb, was furious and demanded reparations worth 325,000 pounds (some recordssay that he demanded double the amount) and swiftly showed his wrath by imprisoning the British East India Company officials in Surat. The EIC, too, was alarmed and launched a worldwide manhunt for Jack Avery, the first of its kind. Avery remained at large and his fortunes are not known although the game shows that he died in a swordfight with the Rhode Island pirate Thomas Tew, as both killed each other over the treasure.

Nathan Drake discovers the treasures of the Great Moghul in Uncharted 4

What intrigues me, however, is the game writers’ choice of the Ganj i Sawai narrative. The whole incident is referred to as the ‘Gunsway Heist’, of course – the Indian / Persio-Arabic name is never mentioned. In the game, Henry Avery is a character almost to be admired and is (wrongly) described as the chief founder of Libertalia. With an unmistakable Western bias, Avery the bloodthirsty pirate is to be glorified as a ‘prince of thieves’ and a champion of liberty. One of the protagonists actually believes that he brings freedom to the oppressed and if it is at the cost of Eastern wealth, then that is because he had no choice. The Orient is a place to be robbed and the proceeds, of course, go towards rescuing the poor and disenfranchised – I meant Europeans, of course. I was asked at a recent interview whether I was not overstating the colonial bias of games; after all, the whole idea of the hero is someone who performs deeds that rescue those in distress. Nathan Drake faces dire adversity in order to rescue his brother (in fact, the penultimate chapter is called ‘Brother’s Keeper’) and B.J. Blazkowicz or the nameless space-marine do the same to save the world. The world, however, is mainly America and Europe. Naturally, the writers of Uncharted 4, see no need for even a passing comment on what happened on the Ganj i Sawai. Avery’s career as a slave-trader is also glossed over. This is in no way surprising as after his dastardly deeds, Avery was celebrated at home as a hero. According to Ursula Sims-Williams,

Meanwhile Avery became a household name in 18th and 19th century Britain, synonymous with the spirit of adventure and life at sea. Numerous fictional and semi-biographical accounts of his life were published: The Ballad of Long Ben and The King of Pirates by Daniel Defoe, to mention just a few. In the earliest, The life and adventures of Capt. John Avery written by a pseudonymous Adrian van Broeck and published in 1709 (see below), Captain Avery seized not only Ganj-i Sawai’s treasure but the Emperor Aurangzeb’s granddaughter who happened to be on board. They married and sailed away to Madagascar where they lived happily (almost) ever after. (Sims-Williams 2013)

He also features in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (written in 1921) and I remember having adored the famous pirate after reading of him in my English reader (primer) as an eight-year old child, much later of course. Avery was one of the main influences (together with Captain Kidd and Blackbeard) behind tales such as Treasure Islandand the more recent Pirates of the Caribbean. Mughal (and other oriental) treasure has been the key driver for many other nineteenth-century narratives such as Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (the Great Agra treasure) and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (a diamond brought back from India after the defeat of Tipu Sultan).

The story of the Ganj i Sawai is not told in Uncharted 4 because it goes against the centuries-old notion of the ‘orient’ as the othered locale that is to be stripped of its wealth. In a sense, the East India Company, although assiduous in its efforts to rid the seas of freebooters, is itself invested with the same idea of exploitation and conquest. The lone operators such as Avery needed to go (as did the privateers who messed up the Company account-books) so as to make room for the larger project of colonialism. One does not know what happened to Avery. Despite the professedly huge manhunt, he was never found. Instead, he remained at large and loomed large as the worthy inspiration for the grand project of European colonization of the East. Even in what is arguably the newest narrative media, the legend of Jack Avery’s Great Gunsway Heist is to be celebrated by gamers the world over.

What remains untold is the Indian side of the story. Contemporary Muslim historian Khafi Khan writes in his Muntakhab al-lubāb how brutal the attack by Avery was and how it was not an isolated incident:

The source of the remaining unstable income of the English is the plunder and capture of the ships going to the House of God. At intervals of one or two years, they attack these ships, not at the time when, loaded with grains, they proceed to Mukhkhah and Jeddah, but when they return, bringing gold, silver, Ibrāhīmis and riyāls.

Avery’s attack created a major diplomatic incident and almost cost the EIC its right to trade in India. History, however, has turned out differently and I was able to celebrate the finding of the Great Gunsway Treasure with Nathan Drake. It could have been Lara Croft or Indiana Jones for all I care.



Games and Literary Theory Conference, Kolkata November 2019

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It was a dream come true for me when the leading games scholars from all over the world came to my city, Kolkata, to discuss games and literary theory. The topic, too, was dear to me: videogames at the margin. Here's the CfP and the Conference Programme:

Call for Papers
Videogames have grown into a global socio-cultural phenomenon and are now a primary concern of Literary and Cultural Studies as well as the Social Sciences. In a medium that sweeps across geographies (including virtual ones), however, the discourse usually privileges a certain section when it comes to the representation of identity. In a medium, where roleplaying and playing in character is of prime importance, such an ignoring of the marginal and the diverse is indeed problematic.

In one of the first books on the subject, Adrienne Shaw says ‘Teaching classes on minority representation in games, I heard this refrain repeated yet again by my students. Video games are a niche medium; they are fantasy environments; and they are designed for a narrow market. Of course games are not diverse—so what? […] I realized that I recognized myself in my participants’ responses. After all, I too grew up playing a medium for which I was not the primary market and media in which only certain aspects of my identity were ever shown’ (Shaw 2015). Shaw’s concern is an urgent one and recent events related to racism, sexism and other kinds of discrimination in the videogame industry and in the content of the games, highlights the importance of academic dialogues around gaming ‘at the margins’, as it were.
These concerns, of course, echo much older debates on diversity and difference in Literary and Cultural Studies. Identity and indeed, even the body, are constructs in the Foucauldian framework of biopower and beyond the actual control of individuals. Thinkers such as Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva and bell hooks point out how the the body is marginalised based on gender, race and class. Similarly, the constructedness of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Oriental’ in colonial discourse as shown by Edward Said and also how the colonial system also renders certain groups of people ‘subaltern’ and how this affects the discourse of diversity as Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak and Homi Bhabha make evident. Often, the discourse of diversity and the margins pervades games as well although the connection is not often made evident in the older and more traditional disciplines.
Recent games scholarship has started addressing issues of diversity in games through the new Diversity Group that is now part of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), books on gender, race and colonialism (Shaw 2015; Murray 2018; Mukherjee 2017) as well as edited journal issues and panel discussions. As crucial to discussions of both games and literary theory, these issues form the main theme of this year’s Games and Literary Theory Conference, being held in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. 
Conference Programme
The GamesLit 2019 team: GamesLit pioneers
Hajo Backe and Tomasz Majkowski with many new members and Debanjana Nayek, the ever-efficient co-convener.


Keynote Diane Carr responding to a question from Prof Sumit Chakrabarti

Anirban Ray on games from ancient Egypt
Game scholars from the world over. (From left): Tomasz Majkowski, Me,  Yue-Jin Ho, Pavel Grabarcyk, Olli Leino, Poonam Chowdhury, Espen Aarseth, Samuel Heine.

My Arctic Adventure - Tromsø 2018

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I was in Tromsø , Norway for just two days and the shift back to 25 degrees centigrade from a good -10 is still quite something to adjust to. Short as the visit was, it was one to remember. It is not often that one from the so-called Global South ventures this far north to examine a PhD proposal. Again, a PhD topic that relates so deeply to the issues raised in the South-South interactions - namely, the postcolonial, the subaltern, the Othered et al.

Beautiful is an understatement: Tromso from my hotel.

Emil Hammar, the co-editor on the forthcoming 'Videogames and Postcolonialism' special issue being published by the Open Library of Humanities, is probably the northernmost Game Studies PhD scholar in the world. He and his supervisor, Holger Pötzsch, are doing interesting stuff in faraway Tromso. Emil's work on postcolonialism in videogames and recently, on counterplay and the representations of race and diversity in the upcoming titles (such as Kingdom Come!) have already attracted attention. I was also fascinated by Holger's brief introduction to his work on the current digital 'remediated' perceptions of war where war, or iWar as he terms it, is personalised and even customised to preference. My day started with a class taken by Holger, Emil and their colleague, Juliana. Juliana spoke about the remediation in the movie Downfall and how history is reproduced in the remediated filmic medium and then on, even in memes that show Hitler ranting at a whole variety of things that we wish to laugh at. Emil's talk led to an exploration of who and what is the Other(ed) and how normative constructions affect our understanding of life around us.

The northernmost games studies PhD scholar is on his way with flying colours


The assessment procedure was pretty simple and friendly. I got a whole lot of very useful ideas from the discussion with Emil and Holger. I'm hoping that my two penn'orth of thoughts was of some use to them as well. The other highlight (and it was really high) was the cable car ride up to a mountain peak overlooking Tromso and our many slippery trysts with the ice. And then there was a fantastic three-course dinner. I usually reserve my opinions on things culinary for a different space but I can't help commenting on this one since this was a three-course grand affair with wines to match each course. Not something I'll get anywhere outside Europe. I'm sure.

The LEGO house in Tromso

Mural from the more Leftist days
I gave two talks. The first, my usual rant on the need to figure in postcolonial themes into the historiography that videogames engage in, took place in the Peace Centre - with Gandhi ji's statue right outside. As I spoke on how the terribly insensitive treatment of history in the depiction of Gandhi's nuclear rage in Civilization games upsets me, I believe Gandhi ji outside might just have approved. There has been some intense activity on how videogames represent history (but too little too late if you ask me) and that's a good thing. What I don't get is that the historians seem to have a European or North American bias. This is what I addressed in my discussion of subaltern history(ies) in videogames and the way these games can help us look beyond the archives (that are mostly created by those in a position of power and advantage). Some of the questions that I got were quite thought provoking. For example, one of the faculty members spoke about the Sami people and the lack of archives - how the Sami drum is not something that people really know about and how the Sami language had to be reconstructed from scratch in recent times. A student (who is clearly a gamer) asked me why the prevalent historical presentations in videogames are often so inaccurate - he used the example of the much-touted historical accuracy of the WW1 game, Battlefield One. Again, following E.H. Carr's famous description of history as a 'hard kernel of interpretations surrounded by facts' I spoke of history as constructed according to a certain preferred politics. This for me is the politics of Empire as I have discussed at length in Videogames and Postcolonialism: Empire Plays Back.
Gandhi ji outside the Peace Studies Centre where I gave my talk.


The second talk was on a very different topic - Indian boardgames as precursors to gamification. I had given this talk to a packed gallery in the Indian Museum (thanks to the efforts of the wonderful education officer, Sayan Bhattacharya) but I have never written about it. Here was a far smaller audience and certainly one that was unfamiliar with Indian boardgames and some had never even played Snakes and Ladders! The mechanics of the game is, thankfully, very easy to explain  because of how our former colonial masters simplified it from the original Gyan Chaupar. So I was able to move the discussion from the simple race game that was about a straightforward telos to the very complex and almost unending game of rebirth. Quite fulfilling to talk at length about karma and its complicated working through what is considered a children's game. Again, I was asked interesting questions about how during gameplay people start creating narratives of their own and also whether these games are more like simulations than games. One of my biggest takeaways, however, was the translation of the Persian text in one of the Gyan Chaupar boards. Azadeh Isaksen, who originally hails from Iran, was quick to spot almost literal translations of the Hindu terms into Persian in the bilingual Gyan Chaupar board that I showed in my slides. This has set me thinking - why translate it? and is it actually possible to translate the religious ideas?
Persian translations underneath the Sanskrit terms on this Gyan Chaupar board.

The stay in Tromso was all too short - just two days and I was on the plane again. All the way from Oslo to Dubai, I was sitting beside a Croquet player from Norway (there are only forty-five in the country) who was on his way to Cape Town for a Croquet World Championship. It was kind of hard to get through the hoops of the Croquet conversation (literally) and finally, fatigue and sleep took over.

Sami Game Jam 

Sami drum



While I was in Tromso learning about Sami culture, my friend Shailesh Prabhu was attending a Sami game jam somewhere in Northern Finland. They have made some fantastic game prototypes representing Sami culture and the subaltern narratives that do not get represented in our majoritarian discourse. Here's the link to some of the games - https://itch.io/jam/sami-game-jam.

I hope I can go back again and learn more about the Sami culture.