Recent Posts

Darmok and Jalad at DiGRA: Keynoting at DiGRA 2017 in Melbourne

No comments
DiGRA 2017 is over and many participants are by now already home either in lovely Australia, where it was hosted, or in other parts of the world. This DiGRA was different for me, it will always remain special because I was one of the two keynote speakers. Melanie Swalwell, whose work archiving and preserving videogames and digital heritage needs no introduction, was the other keynote speaker. I, however, spoke on a different kind of preservation and another perspective on archiving. It was time I had to speak on Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.


Those of you who are unfamiliar with the Darmok episode of Star Trek will think I am raving but watch the episode you must if you are to learn the secret. The Darmok episode is about a superior alien species establishing contact with the starship Enterprise and even the ship's super-advanced universal language translator is unable to parse what the Tamarians mean to say. The words are clearly translated but the meaning is beyond the wildest guesses of the crew: 'Darmok and Jalad in Tanagra'. Only later, through a test of faith and cooperation between the Tamarian captain and Captain Picard (of Enterprise), is it established that the Tamarians use a different system of signification - one where there culture and history form the basic units of communication. 'Darmok and Jalad in Tanagra', then means 'friendly cooperation' just as was found between the Tamarian historical heroes Darmok and Jalad on the planet of Tanagra. Kind of like saying Achilles and Patroclus in Troy to indicate loyalty and friendship. There were two reasons for my using the Darmok example: I was talking about the plurality of history and how history itself can become a way of talking about a people; I was also talking about the impossibility of representing the history of a culture using one unified and inflexible system. Those who know my recent work on postcolonialism and videogames will have guessed it. Here's me bringing subaltern studies (and historiography) to game studies. And the feedback was encouraging, I'm happy to say.

Melbourne is beautiful and fun

Before I say more about my keynote-talk, let me first say a bit about some of the fascinating talks that I managed to attend. Mia Consalvo and Chris Paul spoke on 'value-crafting' and indie games  - something I need to share with my Indian indie developer friends to see what they think. The paper is available here. I also enjoyed the presentation on indie and dojin games by Michael Fiadotau - the dojin culture in Japan was unknown to me. As was the fascination with Pachinko (Ozu has a movie about Pachinko) that was discussed in another paper. Similarly, it was fascinating to hear of Maria Garda's work on the videogaming practices as reflected in the archives of Communist-Poland. Rene Glas and Jesper Vught's paper on using Let's Plays in the classroom reminded me of the class exercises that I had for my games and storytelling course in Oklahoma City. You can find an extended abstract here. I chaired a session where Espen Aarseth and Pawel Grabarczyk spoke on the game-identity of the games that are ported as well as of other kinds of iterations of the game. This was followed by Marcus Carter and Adam Chapman's intriguing analysis of truth and authenticity in Total War: Rome 2 and the fantasy world of Total War: Warhammer. Darshana Jayemanne, Antonio Zarandona and Adam Chapman presented an interesting enquiry on the destruction of built-heritage in videogame worlds. Again, something that my own work on digital archives of colonial cemeteries speaks to. Finally, I was also part of Phillip Penix-Tadsen's wonderful panel on the Global South and videogames, where I spoke on India and learnt a lot about game curation in Argentina, game development in Brazil and Nigeria, as well as games education in South Africa. In my own talk, I highlighted the key problems and promises of the Indian industry, the Western stereotypes and our own lack of innovative designs but I also projected the genius of some of the leading game designers from India. People were particularly interested in hearing about Missing, the serious game about child-trafficking in Bengal. There were many papers that I would have loved to hear but couldn't due to the lack of time and the parallel sessions (after all I don't have the time-turner). I did get a lot out of the doctoral consortium run by Steven Conway and the diversity workshop run by Adrienne Shaw and organised by Darshana Jayemanne. Highlights from the doctoral consortium  - a project on narratives by Arseniy, Mahli-Ann Butt's PhD proposal on self-care in games, Kiona Niehaus's project on how racial characteristics are represented in game design, Lars de Wildt's project on comparative studies of religious representation in games and Marcus Toftedahl's work on videogames in India and China.

Besides all the networking and attending presentations, I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with James Manning and continue somewhat our debate from almost eight years ago - on storytelling in videogames. Chatting with Nick Webber on games and history (he had presented on the Britishness of games) and with Peter Nelson about Chinese notions of spatiality and Le Corbusier were other hghlights of the trip. I met the fantastic Laura Crawford, who in between serious discussions on postcolonial identity squeezed in advice on where to get marmite and veggie mite. Last but not least, I got a full-day tour of Melbourne courtesy my friend, Tom Apperley and his daughter Lyra. And I also got to see the MCG and pose beside a statue of Sir Don himself.

But to return to the keynote. Yes, it worked out despite the huge stress that I was under. Here's a description of both the keynotes. To be a DiGRA keynote speaker - it was a dream come true. Veritably.  

So here's how I started. And the beginning will give you an idea of what followed:
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. 
Everyone here except diehard Star Trek fans is probably thinking that I am insane.
But I wanted to begin with these words from a rather strange episode of Star Trek where Captain Picard meets an alien spaceship captain who speaks to him in a language with familiar words but which remains incomprehensible despite the Enterprise’s universal translator machine.
After an almost deadly confrontation, Picard is able to figure out that the semantics in this alien language is not connected to individual words but to the knowledge of the entire history of the alien culture.
History, in the form of metaphor, serves as a language here. The episode serves
1. To remind us of the different ways in which history can be perceived
2. And tell us how this multiplicity of perceptions is important to comprehend
what we think of as different, Othered, alien and even monstrous.

It is with these two points in mind that I have called my talk ‘Playing Alternative Histories’
So I was talking about how videogames represent histories and especially, certain types of history. I emphasized the need for understanding other(ed) patterns of narrative constructions and the potential for videogames for doing so. I spoke about how even though some of the real-time strategy games provide the opportunity to play out alternative and counterfactual histories, their main premise is the hardcoded notion of imperial expansion. Whether the British are conquering India or vice versa, it is the same logic! I also said in passing that the code for these games could have a bias in that most of the triple-A games are manufactured in Europe and the U.S.A - but this was just a passing thought and needs more research. Is code influenced by cultures? Something to think about.

In formerly colonised nations, there is often a trend to have a nationalistic reaction after independence. Whether or not bordering on jingoism, such a reaction also replicates a similar logic to that of Empire. Somebody has to be controlled and if that's not possible, what people remember also has to be controlled. Instead of such a portrayal that almost reflects the logic of empire, I posited the multiplicity of videogames as being a fitting platform for the plurality of historical narratives - especially, the unheard and the voiceless histories that subaltern historians have attempted to represent. Meg Jayanth's work on the dialogues in 80 Days and Dhruv Jani's (Studio Oleomingus) Somewhere were the examples I used. This was the alternative history possibility that I wanted to highlight in videogames - just like in the Darmok episode, here is a situation where we need to reexamine our historical framework and be open to other forms of representation.

Here's the full slideshow:

I had two more days two explore Melbourne after the conference. With the last libations and farewells over, I set out for the two ludic attractions that I had planned to visit. The first one was a cricket-lover's pilgrimage (I mean the game and not the insect) to Melbourne Cricket Ground and the second was to ACMI or Australian Centre for the Moving Image. At the MCG, I was totally enthralled by the Sports Museum and especially its Cricket section. Here's a Lego version of MCG (seen in a departmental store) andof course, a statue of the Don in the MCG Sports Museum:

LEGO  MCG Stadium

Sir Don in the Sports Museum

ACMI, too, was a real revelation and I liked the displays ranging from the magic lantern to the latest VR technology. I got to play some very old games such as Tempest and Pong;  for the first time (can you believe it!) played Pro Evolution Soccer and then got my very own bullet-time sequence capture.

On the more retro side, I also got to see a zoetrope and to make some cool scary shadows of myself a la Nosferatu. My friend, Tom Apperley and his little daughter, Lyra, were supposed to come and pick me up for a visit to the zoo so I stopped making scary shadows and headed towards the exit. On the way out I saw these messages left in the ACMI by people (mainly kids) from all over the world saying what the future will be about:

Someone has written this in the visitor's book for a wishlist of the future: 'Playing computer games using your mind to control characters.'

Straight out of Star Trek. Maybe we'll get there someday. And it might be worth remembering the Darmok episode, then.

Just check the Twitter feed for DiGRA where @adrishaw says ' was easily my favorite DiGRA'. I totally agree. Great work by Marcus Carter and everyone else in his organising team.

Games and Literary Theory Conference, Krakow Keynote

No comments

The jet-lag has not yet left me and although I’ve been jostling crowds in the overly busy Calcutta streets and ‘invigilating’ at exams in my university, I still keep seeing the beautiful disproportionate spires of the St. Mary’s Church in Krakow and waiting in anticipation for the trumpeter to emerge from the tower windows to announce the hour with his melodious but incomplete notes. The story goes that one of his ancestors was shot in the throat by Tatar invaders as he was announcing the arrival of the enemy. The interrupted note is what tells Krakow the time each hour. There’s something about this city, I thought, as I headed towards my conference venue with my hands full of gifts for home. A brisk walk took me to Golembia Street and the Department of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University. On the way, plaques announced illustrious alumni such as Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) and Nicholas Copernicus. Once inside the medieval-looking gate, I was in the welcoming zone of the Games and Literary Theory Conference 2016, organised ably by the inimitable  Tomasz Majkowski and his sterling group of students. I am quite tired of fighting old battles in Game Studies all over again  but mark my words, this generation of Polish game scholars are going to change the field.

The welcome (further accentuated by a delectable spread of Polish food) was lavish and in stark contrast to the extremely cavalier treatment that I received from the Polish embassy in New Delhi who wouldn’t deign to respond to my emails or take my calls. Anyway my getting to Poland was a major victory for both Tomasz and me in that I had never faced so much trouble in getting a visa to a European country before. I haven’t said why I was there in the first place: I was one of the two keynote speakers at the conference. The other keynote did not have as many problems in getting there as I did but when she did get to the venue, I met one of the most sensible Game Studies scholars in my career. Joyce Goggin left us spellbound and simultaneously tickled by bringing up questions of the literary and ludic yet again. No, the other disciplines aren’t out to colonise us (they often don’t even know we exist) and if you throw me a ball, then that it doesn’t tell a story. But then there are different ways of looking at colonisation, throwing balls and telling stories. Now that’s not exactly what Joyce said - her keynote was much more erudite, with references to Finnegan’s Wake (by another Joyce), stories with multiple endings and close readings of Huizinga.

Other highlights for me were the discussion of a herstorical (yeah, you read right: Her Story as opposed to HiStory) board game by Piotr Szerwinscki, another one on an environmental board game, one on the quotidian and commonplace occurrences in videogames, Daniel Vella’s romantic analogy for (some) videogames, Sebastian Moering’s introduction to his upcoming work on existentialism and care in videogames and Darshana’s brilliant reading of Pynchon vis-a-vis videogames. I loved hearing about games and ecology; a brilliant analysis of the quotidian in games and a survey of videogame periodicals in the U.S.A and Canada. Daniel Vella brought back memories of my Romanticism lectures (I had to teach Shelley not so long ago) with his references to M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp.

My own keynote was on post colonialist themes in videogames (or rather the lack of these). After having thanked the British, our former colonial masters, for giving me the language to present academic papers in (some members of the audience got the Caliban reference) and compared my visa-predicament to Papers, Please! , I managed to bring to the table postcolonial theory and the discomfort many of us have with the insensitively colonial approach of the global games. My position is not a popular one and the problem is that such an obviously glaring issue has been hitherto ignored. One of the interesting takeaways for me was that many members of the audience started debating the role of Poland as coloniser/colonised; the other was a comment that Sebastian (who has been a friend since 2008) made: he said he thought this was my most personal talk ever and I was gratified. I think I spoke my mind and people listened with sympathy - nay, empathy. With the world changing as it is now, all this needed to be said.

DiGRA in Dundee

No comments
I started writing this on my way to Heathrow Airport, having boarded a National Express bus that would take me there in ten hours. Enough time to reflect on and put down my thoughts on this year’s DiGRA. Five days have passed very quickly and while I would have loved to attend so many of those presentations, I had to make do with a far fewer number. What I heard, however, I liked very much. William Huber and his team (also including  Sonia Fizek and Darshana Jayemanne) have done a fabulous job with the organisation and I know that all of them will be looking forward to getting some of that well-earned sleep now. 

The Tay Bridge, Dundee

I will speak about the highlights of the conference for me. The first day’s workshop on videogames and history was one of them. Incidentally, my own paper  - on the representations of the Raj in videogames - was part of it. I loved Adam Chapman’s keynote talk on the role of history in videogames and vice versa. For those who haven’t read it yet, I’d recommend Adam’s book on the subject. Two other papers that I liked were one on how 80 Days  portrays history and another on the process of inclusivity and diversity in the history that videogames present. I spoke on how the counter-history created in empire games such as Empire: Total War , instead of being a postcolonial reaction, is one that co-opts the very logic of Empire that it claims to challenge. I also pointed out that the postcolonial reactions lay in the subaltern or the unexpressed and suppressed voices. This was a development on my article in Games and Culture (and earlier, a paper presented at Meaningful Play 2014).
Gandhi and games: me talking about the representation of Indian history in videogames

Speaking of postcolonialism, I’m not sure what made me do it, but I ended up doing a ‘micro-keynote’  on the need for postcolonial thinking in games. This was to fill the time of the scheduled keynote talk of Lev Manovich (who couldn’t make it because of visa issues, it seems) and I was among many others who did an impromptu talk about their work. There was a vote for the best and it seems some kind people voted for me (Adrienne Shaw was among them) leading to a signal event that made this DiGRA memorable for me. I, who never usually win anything, got a bottle of 12-year old Glenfiddich. As William Huber (I believe) rightly remarked to Richard Bartle, I didn’t have any problems with carting it back home. Because some kindred souls and I finished most of the whisky in the next two hours!

William Huber (centre) supervises the takeover of Guthrie Castle by game researchers at the Gala Dinner

Speaking of events and happy things,  I was very kindly invited to the gala dinner at Guthrie Castle and I came back with blurred but happy memories of Talisker, Dalwhinnie and Macallan (in addition to the abovementioned Glenfidditch). Somewhere, I remember playing Bagh Bakri (the ancient Indian game of tigers and goats) at dinner with the President of Abertay University who proved a very good player (much better than me when I play as the goats). I also got to say a brief hello to Jesper Juul and have a very short chat with William Huber. The bus-ride back to town was entertaining as some of the younger folk were singing the Pokemon song in a variety of accents and someone challenged them to sing the Japanese version.

Two other highlights for me were the panel on mapping and games and William Robinson’s talk on the game he has built to represent the history of Jewish labour in 1920s Montreal. In particular Sybille Lammes’s position paper about the relationship of maps and play and a fantastic paper on how the Metropolitan Police in London used a game to teach their officers how to control riots and how this game itself was based on practices previously not known in mainland Britain but common in the British colonies. As I saw how a mini Gravesend was created within the actual Gravesend as a game-board for the police to play at riot-control, all sorts of questions emerged in my head. Also, when I thought about maps and playing, I couldn’t help remarking about whose maps and who plays them - the surveying tools of colonialism that ostensibly kept the empire under the watchful eyes of its guardians, also were the playthings of Kim in Kipling’s eponymous novel. William’s talk opened up many avenues of thought and also raised many questions. His game is going to be an exhibit in Montreal’s Jewish Museum. I’m looking forward to hearing more from him. 

William Robinson demo-ing his Jewish Labour game.

Of all the keynotes I’ve heard, I always enjoy Richard Bartle’s and it was the same this time. I didn’t expect such a lucid and thought-provoking parallel between theology and game design. Richard’s talk also created an excellent pathway for our panel on religion and games, led by the young and enthusiastic Lars de Wildt. I particularly liked Frank Bosman’s attempt to categorise the religious experience in games and Lars’s work featuring comments from players re: religion. To the latter, I thought of recommending my little post on player’s responses to the Govinda! experience in Grand Theft Auto   but I guess I was too carried away thinking about my own paper on karma and gyan chaupar. As a very initial draft of a longer work that I plan to present at a conference in the U.S., I was happy with the responses. The usual question about the statistical possibilities of snakes and ladders was asked and I explained that gyan chaupar with its possibilities of a zero progression move and of overshooting the final point was somewhat  different from snakes and ladders. And what people don’t seem to get is that the purpose of playing it wasn’t to finish a race - it was to be playing it again and again to figure out the meaning of life and karma. Chris Bateman highlighted all the key points that I made in his tweets, so I know that at least some people ‘got’ what I was saying. I am grateful to the people who attended my talk and gave me feedback. Thank you.

I spoke about Gyan Chaupar and karma in games. This was a draft of a paper I am writing at the moment.

On the last day of the conference, I had to  visit the Howff Cemetery and once again, I met up with Tomasz Majkowski and his group. We had an extremely interesting cemetery visit and a long chat on narratives in games. I also got learn about a Polish theatre-director who uses digital media - must look him up. By the by, I am a keynote speaker at the Literary Theory and Games conference in Kracow this year and I so look forward to meeting this fantastic bunch of researchers again. Soon, we ended up at the conference venue and the keynote session was on the British games scene. I was impressed that the Brit game designers get tax breaks from the government and overall, the UKIE’s efforts in bringing the industry together has a lot of similarities with NASSCOM’s efforts in India. I’m surprised though that the UKIE hasn't focused much on ties with the Indian gaming industry. The DiGRA discussion that followed announced next year’s event in Melbourne (the Aussie’s won’t have to talk about jet lag and we get to meet Brendan Keogh, yay!) by the inimitable Marcus Carter and Dan Golding. Everyone joined in their thanks to William Huber and his team for making the first DiGRA-FDG a success. Some other notable presentations for me were Mathias Fuchs on the ruin-desire in games, Sonia Fizek on playbour, Gerald Farca on Wolfgang Iser and games and Rene Glas on paratextuality.

The Howff, Dundee. The name means 'meeting place'.

After the event, I had an excellent chat with peeps on plans for a diversity in games workshop in next year’s DiGRA. I've written a little note of dissonance on post-colonialism and diversity but you can always skip on past it to the end, where I talk of rainbows. We also chatted on whether we need to actually play the games we are writing about or whether watching Let’s Plays is enough. This connects to what I have written earlier in my chapter on paratexts (in my book) and there is much scope to extend my previous research from the discussion we had. Another blog post from me on this, perhaps. I also had a brief chat with Sian Beavers (do watch out for her work) on her empirical studies of player-experiences with the history games. And wonder of wonders, I found out that one can get Irn-Bru ice-cream and deep fried Mars bars together in this cafe we were at. Interesting culinary experience for the adventurous. If you don’t know what either of this is, I don’t blame you. A visit to wikipedia is recommended. 

'Oor Wullie' can be seen everywhere in Dundee

Soon it was time to leave the city with its ancient and grim buildings and its very bright Oor Wullie (a local comic strip character) statues. I had arrived to the welcome of a full rainbow and my gracious host, Theresa Lynn (whose hospitality and local knowledge is ever admirable), commented that Dundee was indeed nice to me as it bid goodbye with yet another rainbow.

Jute: Calcutta's link with Dundee.

The rest of the journey is a tired blur. I am back in Calcutta now, preparing for other journeys.

There's a Calcutta Lane in Dundee!

The Buddha Does Not Play Dice

No comments
Einstein, unhappy about claims of an uncertain universe, famously said 'God does not play dice.' The scientist, later proved wrong, was referring to dice as an aleatory game that he certainly could not see God playing. Moving over from monotheism to the Hindu pantheon, the story is different. Apparently, the universe and everything in it is the product of the divine game of dice that paintings all over India depict Shiva and his consort, Parvati, playing. Here's an extreme contrast, however: the Buddha not only does not play dice, he is against playing almost anything at all. A while ago now, Jesper Juul, who has been besides an authority on many aspects of game studies, a very perceptive thinker on the history of games, raised the question about why the Buddha took such a stand. Way back in 2007, Juul asked the following question in his blog, The Ludologist:
Why wouldn’t he play them? Without going into theology I know nothing about (and without offending anyone), my understanding is that Buddha could not have been a sore loser, so it must have to do with the more formal properties of the games themselves. Neither rules ( board games sized 8 or 10), fiction (toy windmills), nor ilinx escape criticism.
So this I’d like to know: which games would he play, and why?
I met Jesper for the second time shortly afterwards while I was presenting a paper on Indic philosophy's treatment of Karma and how it relates to videogames. He asked me about the roots of ancient Indian games and I realised that I knew very little about my own culture, courtesy my very  colonial education. The Buddha's attitude to games was something that I stumbled upon in Juul's blog and it has bothered me since. Today, after Paolo Pedercini tweeted the same question  nine years later, there are many posts on my Facebook feed about the Buddha and games. Some are flippant and some are genuinely curious. After all, it is difficult to imagine the 'cool' notion of the ever-tolerant Buddha (whether  depicted as laughing or sombre) to be against the very principle of play. Look on the discussion forums and you are certain to come across Buddhists asking whether it is wrong for them to play videogames because of the violence in some of them (that is against the Buddhist Ahimsa or non-violence). To stop play altogether, though? Now that's a tough one. 

[Buddhas Playing a Game by Willie Kendrick III,]

To answer Juul's question (and everyone else's), the key thing to consider the full import of what the Buddha says. The writer of an article on this in Wikipedia quotes the Brahmajjala Sutta (Sutras are the holy and philosophical texts of Buddhism - the  Heart Sutra is one of the more commonly discussed ones in the West). The Buddha states the following about boardgames:
"Or he might say: "Whereas some honorable recluses and brahmins, while living on food offered by the faithful, indulge in the following games that are a basis for negligence:[1]aṭṭhapada (a game played on an eight-row chess-board); dasapada (a game played on a ten-row chess-board); ākāsa (a game of the same type played by imagining a board in the air); parihārapatha ("hopscotch," a diagram is drawn on the ground and one has to jump in the allowable spaces avoiding the lines); santika ("spellicans," assembling the pieces in a pile, removing and returning them without disturbing the pile); khalika (dice games); ghaṭika(hitting a short stick with a long stick); salākahattha (a game played by dipping the hand in paint or dye, striking the ground or a wall, and requiring the participants to show the figure of an elephant, a horse etc.); akkha (ball games); paṅgacīra (blowing through toy pipes made of leaves); vaṅkaka (ploughing with miniature ploughs); mokkhacika (turning somersaults); ciṅgulika (playing with paper windmills); pattāḷaka (playing with toy measures); rathaka (playing with toy chariots); dhanuka (playing with toy bows); akkharika(guessing at letters written in the air or on one's back); manesika (guessing others' thoughts); yathāvajja (games involving mimicry of deformities) — the recluse Gotama abstains from such games and recreations.'
That's a long list of games, everyone has commented. So why does he not like them? The truth is that the Wikipedia list does a half-job of it all. What the Buddha says is more like this:

It is, monks, for elementary, inferior matters of moral practice   that the worldling would praise the Tathágata. And what are these elementary, inferior matters for which the worldling would praise him? [...] Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins … remain addicted to attending such shows as dancing,  singing,  music, displays, recitations, hand-music, cymbals and drums, fairy-shows,  acrobatic and conjuring tricks, combats of elephants, buffaloes, bulls, goats, rams, cocks and quail, fighting with staves, boxing, wrestling, sham-fights, parades, maneuvers and military reviews, the ascetic Gotama refrains from attending such displays. Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to such games and idle pursuits as eight- or ten-row chess, chess in the air,  hopscotch, spillikins, dicing, hitting sticks, 'hand-pictures', ball-games, blowing through toy pipes, playing with toy ploughs, turning somersaults, playing with toy windmills, measures, carriages, and bows, guessing letters,  guessing thoughts,  mimicking deformities, the ascetic Gotama refrains from such idle pursuits.
Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to high and wide beds and long chairs, couches adorned with animal figures,  fleecy or variegated coverlets, coverlets with hair on both sides or one side, silk coverlets, embroidered with gems or without, elephant-, horse- or chariot-rugs, choice spreads of antelope-hide, couches with awnings, or with red cushions at both ends, the ascetic Gotama refrains from such high and wide beds. [...] There are, monks, other matters, profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced by the wise, which the Tathágata, having realized them by his own super-knowledge, proclaims, and about which those who would truthfully praise the Tathágata would rightly speak. (My italics)
The full comment is often ignored. The Buddha isn't talking about hating a few games and listing them; he's saying that it is worldly people who praise him from abstaining from these games just as they praise him for not going to dances or boxing matches. Let's get one thing clear. The Buddha doesn't have a special grudge against board-games. As the prince Siddhartha in Kapilavastu (in modern Nepal), we know that he did let loose an arrow in an archery contest (something he has purportedly criticised in his list of games). What he is saying something very different. 

The world may think that the Buddha doesn't play games because they are immoral and cause people to neglect their work but the Buddha is not everyone else. That much we can agree to, certainly, right? In fact, the moral rectitude that the worldly people might praise him for is the least of their problems that the Buddha points out. They also wonder about the mutability of the self, the finiteness and the infiniteness of the world and things thought to be profounder than whether not playing games also means not neglecting your work and being morally correct. 

What the Buddha is all about is what he states at the end of the long and complex discourse in the sutra
There are, monks, other matters, profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced by the wise, which the Tathágata, having realized them by his own super-knowledge, proclaims, and about which those who would truthfully praise the Tathágata would rightly speak.
In the beginning of the text, he hears two of his monks defending him against the fierce criticism of someone who does not believe in his teachings. In this long and detailed answer, the Buddha expresses the nature of Buddhahood: something that is beyond thought and part of his own super-knowledge. The understanding of the Buddha or the Tathagata (literally 'he who has come' or 'he who has gone', the name the Buddha refers to himself by) transcends all of these. The Buddha is at perfect peace and 'having understood as they really are the origin and the passing away of feelings, their satisfaction, their unsatisfactoriness, and the escape from them, the Tathāgata, bhikkhus, is emancipated through non-clinging.'

The Buddha, or the Enlightened One, is beyond games but only because he is beyond anything worldly. There are accounts where boardgames are a major part of Buddhist learning. Consider, for example, the Buddhist monk Sakya Pandit's creation of the Tibetan Game of Liberation to teach the notion of karma to his co-religionists. Jens Schlieter has an essay on the game that I'd strongly recommend. 

In a recent talk that I plan to turn into a paper, I plan to explore this with a few discoveries that will potentially add to Schlieter's research and make clearer links with game studies. For that, I will have to tell you about my adventures in Rochester - in the next blog post, perhaps. 

* I've been a bit lazy with the citations but the quotes have been taken from the translation (from Pali) by Bhikkhu Bodhi (available here: and another translation that is available here;
** I am grateful to Annika Waern and Mohini Freya Dutta for raising this in their respective Facebook posts.

Article in Games and Culture: Videogames and the Subaltern

No comments
My article 'Playing Subaltern: Video Games and Postcolonialism' has been published in Games and Culture. Here's the abstract:

The postcolonial has still remained on the margins of Game Studies, which has now incorporated at length, contemporary debates of race, gender, and other areas that challenge the canon. It is difficult to believe, however, that it has not defined the way in which video games are perceived; the effect, it can be argued, is subtle. For the millions of Indians playing games such as Empire: Total War or East India Company, their encounter with colonial history is direct and unavoidable, especially given the pervasiveness of postcolonial reactions in everything from academia to day-to-day conversation around them. The ways in which games construct conceptions of spatiality, political systems, ethics, and society are often deeply imbued with a notion of the colonial and therefore also with the questioning of colonialism. This article aims to examine the complexities that the postcolonial undertones in video games bring to the ways in which we read them.

On Fallout 4: My Article in The Times of India

No comments

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.

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

No comments

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: 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.