Christmas, Fallout 3 and Goodbye to EDU (and 2008, as well)

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Another Christmas Day gone by. Am getting used to spending Christmas by myself. It seems easier than it used to be. Took the day off from reading what I've written and instead, in a very Christmassy gaming mood , installed Fallout 3 on my pc. The graphics are absolutely brilliant and the plot (which I have read about almost everywhere) is already quite interesting. I was looking forward to checking out Liam Neeson's voice acting in the game: not sure whether it was him I heard in the very first scene. My only gripe so far is the Microsoft Live system and the fact that the installer was claiming that I had no sound card installed (what a lie - ask my neighbours about my soundcard).

I bought the game in London, last month - an early Christmas present. I simply had to buy it: the price had gone down, my pocket had two crisp notes freshly obtained from a cash machine and someone had told me that Fallout 3 would not be available in India. All three seemed perfectly valid reasons to buy it and buy it, I did. The third reason, however, is the subject of my posting. Microsoft has decided not to market the game in India. Apparently, it contains a mutant animal ( a two-headed cow) called Brahma: enough reason, thinks Microsoft, to enrage the Brahmans or the Hindu priestly caste. The 'cultural sensitivities' bar, however, reveals its typical Western cultural ignorance. Brahmini bulls are actually a species of cattle and no one seems to object to their being named thus (the cow and the bull are holy animals for Hindus). Secondly, Brahma is the name of the God of Creation; perhaps, that link could be cause for umbrage. it might, however, be noted that Brahma himself is said to have four heads (as do some other Hindu gods) and that Hindu gods often take the shape of animals. Finally, whoever told Microsoft that Brahmins are not gamers. Surely, no one even remembered to ask yours truly (after all being born a Brahmin, I have some claim to the title, however small). Anyway, I could go on and on and maybe even write an essay on this; suffice it to say that I'm not quite in agreement with the Microsoft Gamer's Guide to Hinduism. A deeper reading than this might even expose the layer of orientalism at work here.

Thank God (the Hindu trinity, perhaps) that I'm in the UK and MS doesn't consider me Hindu enough. Don't like to imagine being Id'd at the GAME till and not being sold Fallout because it would offend my cultural sentiments. Well, the game is on my pc and my profile has been created. You will hear more of my adventures in Fallout very soon, religion (or the lack of it) notwithstanding.

The other reason why I'll be plugged into the game is because I suddenly have a little more time
on my hands. My contract with my employers has run out and I am jobless again. I'll sorely miss the hours spent in training and troubleshooting and I'll miss my friends at work. I don't have a clue as to how I'm going to fill in this 'vacuum' in my quotidian activities. My former colleagues obviously know me more than I do myself: they have given me a voucher from GAME as a farewell present. Looks like its more games again, as the year turns the corner and disappears.

'And now another cup of the generous! and a merry New Year, and many of them, to you all, my masters!'

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Lecture on South Asian Games and Globalisation

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I gave a lecture called 'The Many Faces of Solid Snake' for some postgrads in NTU. In it I focused on the problems that videogames experience as global media and how, arguably, they even exhibit this in a more accentuated manner than earlier media. I spoke of the global nature of videogames being describable as 'rhizomatic' in the Deleuzoguattarian sense. The global, however, is not 'smooth' in the case of videogames. Koichi Iwabuchi's concept of 'cultural odorlessness' of Japanese games describes the problem well: non-Japanese perceptions of Pokemon as a 'cool' Japanese product may actually differ from the perceptions in Japan itself thus complicating the global network into something beyond a simple series of universal linkages. I'm probably ending up simplifying this too much. Anyway, i enjoyed the lecture and the research into what was a comparatively little-trodden area for me.

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Last Week after Reading the Game Blogs

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Every night, I check the feeds on gaming-related blogs all over the world. That done, I then read the news. I am doing the same tonight; just like last Wednesday. Only I couldn't sleep last Wednesday and haven't been able to sleep much since. I do not want to describe what happened that night in Bombay ... I cannot describe shock and I do not have words to express the continuous anguish that I have felt since.

For those of you who don't know it, Bombay is a bright, vibrant and friendly city. It rarely sleeps and almost always puts up a merry smile despite the trials and tribulations that mark my entire country. I loved it second to my beloved home city Calcutta. For me, it even has a videogame connection: I storyboarded my first games there.

Last week's events had left me asking myself a question i did not know how to frame. Yesterday, at a lecture I gave in my university, a student exclaimed, 'but videogames make you violent'. At other times, I would have parried this with clever repartee or shielded myself with the Byron report. Yesterday, however, that dull persistent feeling of shock made me ask a question in return. How about religion, then? How about fanaticism, frustration and hatred? Videogames can be blamed easily; violent videogames can be censored and banned. Religion cannot - at least, in democratic and civilised nations. Perhaps, we need to look somewhere else for the root of our aggression - into ourselves, first and foremost.

As usual, I am doing my rounds of the gaming blogs tonight. Mine will probably be the only one to say anything about this. Then again, I guess you have to be in the game to know its bosses. In this case, i hope you never are.

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Ave Jimius. Long Live the Emperor.

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Following my friend Andrew Armstrong's blog I came upon the glorious house of Jimius. They say Rome wasn't built in a day. I say there was never one Rome and never one day. Check out the exploits of the Romans under the Jimean dynasty. http://houseofjimius.wordpress.com/.

Alternate history using Rome: Total War. Simply amazing. Ave.

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Far Cry 2: Nearing the Heart of Darkness

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Mosale Seto, 24th November, 2008: I am in this almost unknown African country, beset with a malarial epidemic and civil war and it seems I've got a long stay ahead. Came to kill the arms-dealer called 'The Jackal' but on the two occasions when i met him, I was either sick or half-dead and surprise of surprises, he actually saved my life and disappeared into nowhere. Who is this man? What does he want? I know for sure that I'm getting embroiled in the conflict of the APR and the UFLL because of the Jackal's war-mongering and arms-dealing. I started my hunt for the Jackal with the UFLL; 'Doctor' Leon Gakumba seemed a reasonable man, a politician with a vision ... I thought he would lead me to the Jackal and his country to a great future. While I was taking out his enemies, Gakumba betrayed me - God has truly forsaken these people. I killed Gakumba while he was lecturing his men. A Dragunov shot from a hilltop: I saw the bullet burst his skull. I am a hunted man now and only Nick Greaves and his APR masters can save me. I am doing missions for them and they pay me with diamonds. I am a shadow that all the men here are afraid of. They think I am an army but I am just Souvik ... sorry, or is it Warren.

Everybody is afraid but not that one man- him whom I am to kill. Because of whose machinations, my life is at stake every minute. Yet, twice he saved me. My saviour , my killer: this strange Kurtz in the Heart of Darkness ... shall I press the trigger (left mouse button) when I see him in my telescopic sights (right mouse zoom in) ... shall I kill him, or shall I stop because my sniperscope is now a mirror?

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More episodes of my experience with Far Cry 2 will follow.

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LINK Conference

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This year's LINK conference for PhD students from Leicester, Loughborough and NTU was held at NTU, last Wednesday. As already mentioned on Ludus Ex, I presented a paper on identity in videogames. The paper addressed identity as what games criticism commonly views it as a simple and direct process of 'being a character', based on a rather simplified reading of the FPS, which is for some reason taken as the representative of all videogames. Through a close reading of the STALKER games, my paper tried to illustrate how even in the FPS, identity was a complex entity and how even the first-person or the 'I' that is assumed by the player is constantly undercut by many not-I's or not-not-I's that the game highlights, in the various aspects of the gameplay. In this paper, I am still playing with some ideas that I had after a long chat with Mark Butler on a Berlin train. The audience was entirely literary and I thought the most obvious example of this from earlier media that occurred to me would be quickly picked up by them. So it was: I spoke of the doppelganger in Wilfred Owen's poem 'Strange Meeting' and compared it to the 'egoshooting' in the FPS. Owen's protagonist speaks through the 'enemy you killed, my friend'. The main purpose of the paper, however, was to illustrate to a non-gaming literary audience how videogames do further complicate the nature of textuality and how they need to be read as doing such, rather than being seen as a medium that differs in essence from earlier media in providing an entirely 'new' form of participation. The paper and the slideshow are going to be uploaded to my website soon. It is always a challenging experience to present a videogaming paper to a non-gaming audience and this time was no easier. I was extremely happy with the range of the questions though. Besides the obvious Manhunt and violence issues, there were observations about how people felt like Lara Croft in real life, on whether videogames illustrate the Barthesian 'death of the author' or on whether the subversive music in GTA IV complicate perceptions of identity.

Besides a panel discussion on teaching after/ during a PhD, there were three other very interesting papers. One of these was a study of the cleft-palate (commonly called 'hare-lip') and the development of perceptions about it in Early Modern literature and another was a study of memory in the poems of the Victorian poetess, Augusta Webster. My personal favourite was 'The Re-read Tent', a gender studies analysis of Anita Diamant's novel The Red Tent, which the speaker analysed as an alternative reading of the Bible where the patriarchal bias was highlighted and overturned. The women's tent and the concept of the daughter regarding all the women there as her 'many mothers' seemed to remind me of the Deleuze and Guattari's nomadic rhizomatic structure. Oops ... didn't I promise not to bring them in, this time...


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Speaking at NTU's LINK Event on Weds

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My paper's called 'First-Person Shooting: Identity and I-Problems in Videogames'. Self evident - isn't it?

Yet another excuse to talk to academics about STALKER.

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Goodbye to Lorenzo

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Lorenzo, the computer on which i wrote my PhD is now with its new owner (in faraway India). Can't say that I'm not struggling not to think about it. Lorenzo's replacement is here now: Lorenzo 2 is an Asus eee pc. Virtually no gaming but should be very useful for research.

plus, it gives me a good reason to experiment with Linux. Open-source all the way.

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Memories of Gamecity , November 1

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Two weeks have passed without my noticing and it's been a very busy two weeks. The last day of GameCity 2008, however, must absolutely be remembered in Ludus ex. Hence this post - albeit delayed. I spent the whole day in town, hopping from venue to venue to catch the best of GameCity: it all started with a talk on how the world would be like if the world leaders were gamers. Then there was Sackboy and his creators in the Little Big Planet intro: some of the things that interested me were 1) the creators are called Media Molecule and they claim to have a molecular organisation structure (Deleuzian ?) 2) Sackboy character stops the game from becoming a tool (narrative-machinic-ludic?) 3)User generated content does not replace the game- just as blogs don't replace journalism (What a quote!). As I left Sackboy and went for a coffee with my new found friend Elsa, the Fable 2 expert, we started thinking of what to do next. The plan was to go to Indiecade. Am glad we went. Came across an awesome Indie CS mod with the graffiti and murals of Belfast's walls all over the game. Two computers playing CS where you shoot 'the other' - fenian or not. On a third connected computer randomly generated images of important figureheads deliver randomly generated speeches (not necessarily their own). Faith Denham, creator of the installation, explained that this was to indicate how the speeches were doctored and never played live in Northern Ireland. The division of the north and the south (and perhaps the illogicality of it all) was well described by the huge dividing wall, the tower and the mindless shooting. Very realistic ... didn't think of the potential of videogames as documentary media.

The final events of the day were a pub (curry, rather) quiz conducted by Guardian Gamesblog's Keith Stuart and a party. The questions were ... hard ... my ignorance of videogames despite doing a PhD on them became shamefully evident. Besides discovering Elsa's superlative Play-Doh skills, the other major find was an extremely game-knowledgeable informatics student, Andrew Armstrong. I'm planning an interview with him on Ludus ex: you listening, Andrew? The party, however, didn't go too well but I did get to join the team of green robots that defeated the hordes of red robots invading our territory. It's just that the 8-bit music got on my nerves. GameCity was over. For me, at least.

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GameCity 31st October 2008

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Finished work at 12, today. The ludic compass on my feet suddenly activated itself and set itself a course for the various venues of GameCity. I've been to the last two iterations of GameCity and loved them. Nottingham Trent and GameCity have always had much to do with each other and that is happy news for me. Somehow, this GameCity, however, falls slightly short of the high expectations raised by last year's event. The keynotes are pretty much the same as the first year and this time, there's no Keita Takahashi and Alexei Pazhitnov. Moreover, instead of the beautiful Broadway, it's moved to the darker confines of the nightclub GateCrasher. Not that I'm being posh (maybe just a tad) but to me this encourages the perception of games as being a marginal part of culture or 'teenybopper activities' as they have been unjustly perceived. That marginal feeling grew stronger when I visited the new home of this year's Indiecade exhibition: at the back room of The Malt Cross (a Nottingham pub), almost impossible to find and with the games huddled together in uncomfortable groups of three.


Gamecity, however, never fails to charm. Attended a curry lunch cum lecture on the BBFC's game rating system. It was a good event and the speaker Jim Cliff certainly knew his videogames well. What his talk revealed was how difficult it is to create the parameters by which one judges videogames. The BBFC, PEGI, ESRB and the rating systems all over the world vary so much in their notions of appropriateness that the standards for videogames emerge as a very complex issue. I was quite entertained by Cliff's examples of the alien-human sex scene in Mass Effect that got a 12 rating and the Simpsons game which got 'pg' even though it mentions words like 'milf' etc. The games that did get more restrictive ratings (15+) were ones that showed a lot of realistic human gore. According to Cliff, the difference in perceptions about ratings is vast: in Germany, apparently, this isn't as much of an issue and the ratings are affected all that much because of portrayals of violence and in France, portrayals of sex are even more leniently judged than by the BBFC or PEGI. Finally, that bit of shooting those lilliputian humans from the helicopters cannon (so shockingly close to reality) is apparently classifiable as 12 +. It should be normal for thirteen year-olds to be able to consider blowing up fellow human beings if they look tiny enough; if you have a problem letting your kids shoot at point-blank range , give them a chopper fitted with cannons from which they can shoot like gods. Like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now they won't mind smelling napalm in the mornings. Classification, it seems, has a long way to go: first, however, we need to make up our minds about what really is violence.

As I was musing about Cliff's extremely thought-provoking presentation and teasing out its deeper implications,I happened to meet another very interesting and surprisingly not-so-well-known (in the UK at least) gaming personage. I bumped into Gerard Jones, the author of the best-selling Killing Monsters and was lucky to be able to spend a very interesting hour discussing his book, zombies, player psychology and of course, my pet topic - narratives in videogames. I did not know of Killing Monsters before meeting him; now, it seems a must-read. Jones, of course, concentrates more on Quake and Doom, with a brief discussion of Half Life. We were speaking of perceiving monsters as the 'other' and whether it is a different experience to shoot humans than it is to shoot monsters in a game.

Talking of monsters, I had an interesting zombie-experience while sitting in Starbucks. A woman in zombie fancy-dress (going to the zombie competition in GameCity)suddenly emerged from the ladies' and for a split second, i was in another world madly looking for that shotgun.

Then, of course, my lunch break was over.

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Post-gameplay Blogging :(

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Just read my last post. It reads as badly as the staccato fire from my Obokan automatic rifle (which often gets jammed, by the way). Maybe, that's why walkthroughs are stylistically so deficient: they are written immediately after finishing a game in that strange dazed frame of mind that I'm struggling to shake off. I am going to have to set a precedent by writing a walkthrough that will be published in essay anthologies. Keep dreaming Souvik.

Perhaps Jim Rossignol or Tom Chick could be considered good examples of game writing. Will have to ask them if they've written anything immediately after finishing a game.

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Out of Chernobyl

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As I write, the whole world is a blur and I see it in a daze, almost as if I've downed three bottles of Cossacks vodka on an empty stomach (I have no "tourist's delight" in my backpack). I have just finished S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky and my eyes are having a tough time readjusting to the 'reality' of my tiny room and the energy-saving bulb. My last posting on Clear Sky was over a week ago and having started on veteran, I had to keep going ... and i gave up ... i gave up playing for over three days when I was getting mowed down by an army machine gun every time I was making a dash for the Cordon. In true S.T.A.L.K.E.R fashion, it was obviously pitch dark. That's when I realised that Clear Sky is hard, very hard - even harder than its predecessor. The enemy AI is more intelligent and surprise surprise, even the bandits are much more difficult to kill. The mutants didn't pose many problems except for the modified version of the psy-monster and that was because I hardly had any bullets, bandages or first-aid kits. In a bizarre piece of gameplay, I actually finished off the hulking monster with a few well-aimed close-range headshots from my Browning (the Ukrainian version). I'll tell you my story(ies) later ; my dealings with Freedom and Duty will make a long chapter but Clear Sky lets you participate in the faction wars and participate I did. After all, what's a good mercenary for. One of my toughest battles was with the monolith chaps in a construction site. Man, this game is good - but it is also damn unfair. The AI can land grenades exactly where you stand and stalkers are not known to be nimble (even though there is one who bears that name). The ability of the enemy to get their shots on target even when it is pitch dark was also irritating at times. The secret I learned was to save , save and save. So save I did. Or else, i would never have killed Strelok. I even had to check a Youtube video of the ending to see how anyone got there. I know how: they played on 'easy'! Anyway, for anyone who gets that far, as soon as you get the Gauss gun, low crouch and get Strelok in your telescopic sights and fire at his head. Try to land about eight to nine shots on target even as Strelok moves. I could not take him down on the bridge and therefore, had to chase him. I passed through a teleport device and landed straight in the middle of three monolith snipers. The result, predictably, was immediate death(s). Here's what you do to get past them: run zigzag to distract their aim and then crouch (low, if possible) behind a metal sheet. Change guns (the horrible gun you have when you cross the portal is absolutely useless) - i used a vintar sniper rifle. Take out the monolith chaps one by one and do so very quickly. Otherwise, there will be someone throwing a 'granata' and then you will see your body in mid-air. By the way, at this stage, let's hope that you have at least one health pack left. This is because you will have to cross another portal and take some shots on the way. I responded with bursts from my Tunder but that was more in anger than anything else. Past this portal, run for cover, get your Gauss gun out and wait for Strelok (yourself, in the previous game). Your boss (irritating as most bosses are, except mine who's really sweet to me) Lebedev constantly whines that it is time for 'Strelok shooting'. Incidentally, I tried to blow Lebedev up with three grenades from my Tunder grenade launcher but to no avail: bad AI here. Anyway, ignore Lebedev and concentrate on the game boss, instead. Land about six to seven shots on the moving target and the game's done. I took some sniper fire and was losing blood, as the game ended. It did not really matter though ... but let's not give away the end. Join me in the Zone and I'll spin you a yarn.

Meanwhile, I'm a merc again but this time in Africa. Far Cry 2 is still sitting in my overcoat pocket. More gaming to come.

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The Max Pain Movie

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'The truth split my skull open, a glaring green light washing the lies away. All of my past was just fragmented still shots, words hanging in the air like balloons. I was in a graphic novel. Funny as Hell, it was the most horrible thing I could think of': the masthead of Ludus ex is taken from Max Payne, and sums up most of gaming experiences. Yes, Max Payne and its sequel are games I have never stopped loving. And they made a movie out of it.


The first thought I had when I heard of the Mark Wahlberg version of Max Payne, was that I must watch it. After the movie, as the credits began to appear, I did not know whether I'd even watched a movie. Wahlberg himself was good as Max and even kind of looks like the game version. The rest was big time BAD. The makers apparently were confused whether to keep the Chandler-ish noir dialogue; so they mixed it all up. They were also not sure whether to keep the game elements and the bullet-time; so they presented us with a half-hearted attempt. Finally, the wrecked the story, taking out important characters like Vladimir, Punchinello, Gognitti (whose name, however, appears - somewhat like an apology - on a signboard) and creating a half-baked role for Nicole Horne, one of the most convincing female villians in videogames. I quite liked the Valkyries (the birdie hallucinations) but after the first appearance, they kind of lost their point. It seemed that the creators were badly affected by the recent bank crisis and had to end their film somewhere midway. The 'pain' part of the game came out really well: it was a pain to watch.

As I started writing my thesis in 2005, I would tell everyone who cared to listen how Max Payne was such a great game because of its story and movie elements. If Agent 47 could come on the silver screen, Payne would surely be a major success.

Perhaps I wasn't wrong; seeing this film, however, one wouldn't believe me!

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Back in the Zone

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In the Zone again. Am playing the extremely buggy STALKER: Clear Sky. Almost 30 minutes spent without making much progress. Two user guides recommend playing as 'novice'. Haven't done this in years but Clear Sky might be too challenging ...

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A Personal Crysis

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Just finished playing Crysis. Not the recently released Warheads, but the 1997 original 'blockbuster'. It was a game that I had much wanted for months and not been able to afford; therefore, I couldn't miss it when the price went down and I had more time for gaming. Despite the hype in other reviews and my personal euphoria at finally playing this long-awaited and top-of-my-wishlist game, for me it was a bit of a let-down. Not because of the graphics, which were excellent to a fault, or because of the resource-intensive nature of the game (my NVidia 8800GTX showed what it can do); it was the gameplay of the last levels that disappointed me. Let me clarify, though, before I upset the game's huge fan-following. For me, gameplay means and has always meant something intrinsically related to the narrative: it is in this sense, that I find some problems with Crysis. I have no problems with stories about alien-invasions – ever since, H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, there have been numerous such stories and we've had them in videogames for quite a good while. The Half Life series does a good job of it, populating Earth with a range variously intelligent extra-terrestrial creatures and having the player aka Gordon Freeman (note the pun in the name) fight a faceless, ultra-intelligent extra-terrestrial coloniser. I quite liked the level of colonial discourse in that game. Crysis, however, is about the irresponsible North Koreans (communist baddies as opposed to the enlightened West) taking their greed for energy resources to the extreme and waking up E.Ts who have apparently been dormant for a million years on a South-east Asian island.

What the E.Ts did during these million years is never revealed; maybe, we'll find out in a sequel, some time. Whatever they did to mammoths and dinosaurs, these creatures are now no friends to humans (shall we blame it on the Koreans, then?) and strange things happen on this island. There is evidence of human habitation (I saw a semi-frozen hillside cafeteria and a couple of villages) but we never get to know whether the aliens came to visit them for the daily news or to have their green tea. Anyway, as always, it's up to the US Delta Force (back in 'Nam territory) to clean up the mess. Obviously, they have to win and they are certainly the good guys. It's true that the Pentagon authorises a nuclear strike on the island and the aliens just suck in the energy and use it to their advantage; but isn't it the intentions that count? To be fair, though, there is a dissenting voice and leading archaeologist, Helena Rosenthal, provides a running criticism when the US admiral orders the nuke-strike. What surprises me, though, is that Rosenthal being an archaeologist can also double as a nuclear physicist and fix up my nanosuit with clever gizmo technology. That, however, is a minor point for me. The game is very hot on technology as sci-fi games are wont to be. Like Gordon's HEV suit in Half Life, I aka Nomad was given a nanosuit in Crysis. This is quite cool and you have modes like invisibility, maximum strength (good for high jumps and bashing some doors) and speed mode besides having the (by-now standard in sci-fi games) radiation protection and armour. At a later stage, of course, I even had a nuclear-powered TKA gun with which I destroyed the big baddie alien. The aliens are also supposed to possess superior 'technology' but it seems unconnected with their intelligence and kind of prosthetic – in fact, they 'wear' it as I do my nanosuit but it is more an exoskeleton than the almost living part that I begin to perceive my nanosuit as being. How the game conceives of 'technology' is an interesting point to pursue: is technology an exoskeleton or a prosthesis, then, like the one that the aliens wear? The game seems to make this distinction and no connection is made between the technology and the alien intelligence, or rather the lack of it considering the way in which they fight like big dull airborne octopuses. Moreover, the alien is quite different to look at without its exoskeleton and much weaker.


I guess I should stop griping though. This is standard Hollywood sci-fi and anyone who loved Independence Day will love it (same exoskeleton stuff and alien invasion with America being our protectors). I just like to have some friendly aliens around as well (or ones which become friendly like the Vortigaunts in HL 2); it's unfair to think that all extra-terrestrials want to do is to destroy us. I rather prefer the more ambiguous Phildickian contact with aliens. Nevertheless, as a game Crysis is good: the graphics are beyond compare, the setting beautiful (one lovely moment was when a frog passed me as I lay hiding in the tall grass) and the levels manageable (I played 'normal' mode). I liked the Korean missions much more; probably, because they were more realistic. General Kyung , the chief human boss, was easy to take down. There's a mission where you fight aliens in a VTOL and I must say I struggled a bit before realising that the game's use of physics was so excellent that I'd need to consider wind speed, currents and gravity before I could even think of firing. Great stuff! The best graphics display for me was in the interminable (and a bit boring in terms of gameplay) journey through the alien's cave. It was like a magic world in there and I liked floating about in the gravity-less space. A couple of issues, however, do remain even in the technical aspect of the gameplay. Sometimes the levels drag on a bit and it seems a rather forced attempt to make the game longer. My worst gripe is that, in some levels, I had to put up with a useless character called 'Psycho' whose rasping voice and the habit of incessantly calling me 'mate' while standing around with the girls and gawping while I took the hits just made me extremely irritated, especially when I realised that life, in-game, is as unfair as real life. The NPCs are often that silly: there was this US VTOL in the airspace above me and it did nothing to save me from an enemy chopper that was ripping me to shreds.


All in all, though, Crysis is quite a playable game; even more so if you like Independence Day and similar films. With the emergence of games, such as STALKER and Call of Duty 4, that make you think a bit more instead of merely filling in the Hollywood success-formula, however, I personally would be more inclined to those.

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The Financial Districts in MMOs

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Just picked up something interesting from the Terra Nova blogs about the financial crisis and MMOs. I have the same questions. Read on if interested at http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2008/10/whither-mmo-eco.html.

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My Recent Paper on 'Multimedia' in the Romantic Age

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This was the combined result of a request from an Indian publication and the long period of inactivity due to a broken collarbone which meant that I had ample time to read The Difference Engine. In this paper, I try to trace the roots of modern programming to the Romantic Age.

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Poetic Programming:

The Romantic Origins of Information Technology


It is difficult to imagine what Wordsworth would have done with an Asus Eee pc or how Keats would have felt after his first look at Chapman's Homer by clicking a hyperlink on a website designed in Flash. However, farfetched though it might seem, the computer and its versatile capabilities were not too distant from the Romantics. At a time when it was fashionable to philosophise about the clockwork mechanism of the universe and to conceive of engines that could reason, the basic principles of information technology were already current in Romantic philosophy and science.



Looking back, it seems that things could indeed have turned out very differently for the Romantics, if we are to go by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's alternative history novel, The Difference Engine, where a computerised Victorian England is governed by Byron and where a certain Mr Keats's reputation lies in his expertise in creating multimedia presentations. Though Gibson and Sterling's 'steampunk' world is a fantasy, the machine after which they named their novel was already partly built during the lifetime of some of the Romantics. The Difference Engine, built by Charles Babbage, and the Analytical Engine, which he later outlined, have been universally acknowledged the predecessors of the modern computer and Babbage himself has been called the 'Father of Modern Computing'. The story of computing, however, remains incomplete without mention of another important Romantic connection: Lady Ada Lovelace, the mathematically gifted daughter of Lord Byron, also called the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’.



Even as one listens to an MP3 on the latest i-phone today, the possibilities that Lovelace saw for programming Babbage's engines two centuries ago are now coming to fruition. The technology for the media may have moved far beyond the gears and levers of Babbage's engines; the concept of multimedia is, however, not as 'new' as is sometimes thought to be.



This essay will explore how the 'poetic programming' of Lady Lovelace compares with modern conceptions of multimedia. Taking this as the point of departure, it will go on to explore other similar comparisons between modern-day computing concepts and their roots in early nineteenth-century ideas.


The London of Gibson and Sterling's novel is a city governed by data-processing engines. The machines are used to store information about all those who live in England and the huge mass of gears, pulley's and levers exercise possess awe-inspiring capabilities. The following description from the novel is illustrative:

The white-washed ceiling, thirty feet overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns. White coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles [...] Tobias glanced at these majestic racks of gearage with absolute indifference. "All day starin' at little holes. no mistakes, either! Hit a key-punch wrong and it's all the difference between a clergyman and an arsonist. Many's the poor innocent bastard ruined like that.”(Gibson & Sterling 137)

The description above is that of a fictitious machine-assemblage that processes enormous amounts of data and where a single key-punch virtually determines the fate of individuals. It also mentions a new profession called 'clacking', which is the novel's version of programming in Victorian times. The resemblance to 'hacking' is more than obvious but this is not surprising given that Sterling is also famous as the author of The Hacker Crackdown. Gibson and Sterling make their case quite clearly: the possibility of a very different world was latent in the nineteenth century and the key to it all lay in Babbage's rudimentary version of the computer and the 'clacking' of the gears and switches.


In actuality, however, Babbage's machines were never completed. Work on the first Difference Engine stalled due to his dispute with Joseph Clement, his engineer for the project. The British Government had already spent the formidable sum of £17,500 and Babbage himself claimed to have invested an additional large amount: the Difference Engine was a doomed project for the nineteenth century that, as Babbage complained bitterly, was ignored for the Great Exhibition of 1951 (Hyman 219). Babbage went on to conceive another machine the Analytical Engine which would perform logical as well as mathematical operations and would be so huge and complicated that it would need to be powered by steam. Finally, he developed plans for a second Difference Engine, which, arrayed in a series, would present the awesome spectacle of the panopticon-machine reflected in Gibson and Sterling's description above.


Gibson and Sterling’s version of 'history', though bizarre, is not altogether fanciful. A decade after they published their novel, Doron Swade's team at the Science Museum, London, reconstructed Babbage's machine as it might have turned out in its completed form. The gearage was nothing short of impressive, weighing just under three tonnes and consisting of 4000 parts, and was, perhaps, somewhat similar to what Gibson and Sterling had envisaged. Swade, however, has his feet firmly grounded in reality and is conscious of the limitations of Babbage's project. He rightly points out that the 'lineage of the modern computer is not as clear-cut' (Swade 37) as to easily identify Babbage as the grand patriarch of computing. Babbage never built a successful computer, after all, and later pioneers such as Konrad Zuse in Germany or Vannevar Bush in the US have more claim to the honour in that respect. However, as Swade states, it is clear that 'Babbage was the first to embody in his designs the principles of a general purpose computational device' (Swade 35). Hundreds of design drawings and notes in some twenty 'scribbling books' are testimony to Babbage's genius. Babbage is supposed to have said, 'Judge me by my engines' and if one tends to interpret this in terms of tangible results, there is indeed very little to judge. It is, however, of signal importance not to miss the idea behind his enterprise, to consider it in terms of its milieu and to explore the Romantic traits of modern-day programming.


Even Babbage's designs, prescient as they were, did not fully develop the potential that he had in mind for the Analytical Engine. Possibly the first person to start thinking of the potential of computer programs, Babbage went as far as to ascribe human existence to a program designed by God. In The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, he compares creation to the programming that is possible with his calculating machine; for him, 'in turning our views from these simple results of the juxtaposition of a few wheels, it is impossible not to perceive the parallel reasoning, which may be applied to the mighty and far more complex phenomena of nature' (Babbage, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise 44). Of course, he acknowledges that this is beyond human capabilities and 'manifests a degree of power and of knowledge of a far higher order'. Babbage's ideas about creation are by no means remarkably new: in fact, they are almost Calvinist in their advocacy of predestination. The novelty, however, lies in the imagery used by Babbage. For the first time, perhaps, the powerful creativity that programming could unleash was being considered and the results being compared to divinity itself. However, it could be argued that these ideas were themselves very much the product of the milieu. Percy Bysshe Shelley, writing for the very opposite purpose of refuting the existence of God, uses a framework which still resembles Babbage's in terms of the conception of a coded or programmed universe . Whereas, Babbage deems the world to be the result of an enormously complex program written by God, Shelley denies the existence of such a master program, maintaining instead that

We admit that the generative power is incomprehensible, but to suppose that the same effects are produced by an eternal Omnipotent and Omniscient Being, leaves the cause in the same obscurity, but renders it more incomprehensible. (Shelley)

It is important, here, to note that Shelley does not do away with the notion of creation as machinic. Even when he challenges the notion of a universe created and run by a god who resembles a divine programmer (somewhat similar to Blake's The Ancient of Days), Shelley nevertheless sees the world as being governed by equations and laws that are specific to the entities they govern: in a way, this would correspond to many simultaneous programs rather than one divine program. On a similar note, the 'monster' conceived by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein, is an automaton, not created by God but by a Swiss scientist. The monster is an extreme manifestation of the results of human programming, much like the organic robots in the film AI, where the creative essence of Divinity is replaced by programs generated by manmade machines.



The Romantics were fascinated with automata, such as machines that danced or played games. One such machine, The Chess-playing Turk, though ultimately revealed to be a fraud, was an object of great interest in England in the 1780s.1 There were other such 'automata' like the 'Musical Lady' in John Merlin's Mechanical Museum in Hanover Square. As a child, Babbage was enthralled by this mechanical 'lady', which moved with impeccable grace. In fact, in later life, Babbage bought the 'Musical Lady' and would display it side-by-side with his calculating machine. This relationship is in no way coincidental. Simon Schaffer traces the link between the Romantic curiosity about automated figures and conceptions about thinking machines in modernity:

There is a tempting contemporary resonance to these stories of dancers, Turks, chess and calculating engines. [...] Alan Turing, brilliant Cambridge-trained mathematician and veteran of the secret wartime campaign to crack the German Enigma code, was a keen reader of Babbage and Lovelace and much concerned with the problems of automating chess. (Schaffer 78)

Modern conceptions about artificial intelligence, as embodied in Turing's 1950 paper on the subject, are deeply influenced by Lovelace's pioneering thoughts on whether machines could think for themselves.



Automation was clearly the order of the day and there was a shift towards automating even aspects of quotidian activities. One such was Joseph Marie Jacquard's improved design of the loom. Jacquard devised the plan of connecting each group of threads that were to act together, with a distinct lever belonging exclusively to that group. The levers were to pass through a perforated (punched) pasteboard, which would allow only a certain design to be worked out on the textile. It was not long before this pioneering development in the weaving of textiles would also signal a change in the ideas, mainly traceable to Lady Lovelace, about the 'weaving' of the text.

Before coming to that, however, one needs to understand how the simple idea of punching holes on pasteboard to generate designs started a revolution in the mechanisms of calculation. In Babbage's time, the calculation of mathematical tables required laborious calculations; the people employed in preparing these tables were called ‘computers’. It was the punched card that was instrumental in transforming the concept of computing from a solely human-centred activity to the present-day's machinic understanding of it. Babbage's machine, originally built to automatically generate and print complex mathematical tables using punched cards, was, therefore, the first prototype of the mechanical computer.


Luigi Menabrea, an Italian scientist and later prime minister of Italy, wrote the first description of Babbage’s machine, the Analytical Engine. His description brings up the obvious comparison with Jacquard's loom:

It will now be inquired how the machine can of itself, and without having recourse to the hand of man, assume the successive dispositions suited to the operations. The solution of this problem has been taken from Jacquard's apparatus, used for the manufacture of brocaded stuffs.(Menabrea)

In his memoir, Life of a Philosopher, Babbage provides a detailed description of his engine. Corresponding to the modern computer's memory unit, the Analytical Engine's store contained 'all the variables to be operated upon, as well as all those quantities which have arisen from the result of other operations'(Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher 117). The other section, or the mill, was the counterpart of the arithmetic and logic unit in modern computer architecture.



Babbage's machine was supposed to be capable of carrying out algebraic operations. The process he describes is complicated but revealing in the sense that it shows similarities with the principles of programming:

There are [...] two sets of cards, the first to direct the nature of the operations to be performed these are called operation cards. The other to direct the particular variables on which those cards are required to operate--these latter are called variable cards. Now the symbol of each variable or constant is placed at the top of a column capable of containing any required number of digits. Under this arrangement, when any formula is required to be computed, a set of operation cards must be strung together, which contain the series of operations in the order in which they occur. Another set of cards must then be strung together, to call in the variables into the mill, the order in which they are required to be acted upon. Each operation card will require three other cards, two to represent the variables and constants and their numerical values upon which the previous operation card is to act, and one to indicate the variable on which the arithmetical result of this operation is to be placed. But each variable has below it, on the same axis, a certain number of figure-wheels marked on their edges with the ten digits: upon these any number the machine is capable of holding can be placed. Whenever variables are ordered into the mill, these figures will be brought in, and the operation indicated by the preceding card will be performed upon them. The result of this operation will then be replaced in the store. (Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher 118)

Babbage's detailed description needs to be considered carefully since it has many resonances in modern-day programming. The mechanism of data storage in the memory unit of a modern computer and subsequently a pre-defined operation is carried out on the data based on a series of user instructions. The same procedure, albeit perhaps taking hours instead of milliseconds, is executed by Babbage's engine. It is, therefore, not surprising that we use terms like 'strings' to denote the variables in programming (which in Babbage's day had to be 'strung' together) or 'operators' for the arithmetical and logical functions carried out in the programs. Often, very elaborate and versatile modern programs, such as the ones which run computer games, are even called 'engines': computing definitely remembers its early days, even if it is not too obvious.



The mechanism of Babbage's engine, despite its complicated description and its ability to carry out complex mathematical functions, is nevertheless based on the simple principle employed in weaving. The operation cards are 'strung together' as in a loom. The perforations on the card were the means to hold data; the gears in the mill would move to 'read' the data, which would be both numerical and analytical. As in the Jacquard loom, the data could be 'saved' as a combination of two sets of cards as a ready-to-use pattern. As Babbage comments, 'Every set of cards made for any formula will at any future time recalculate that formula with whatever constants may be required’ (Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher 119). In Gibson and Sterling's novel, John Keats, the expert 'clacker' is shown as creating presentations by combining numerous combinations of punched cards. The white-coated clackers of the novel lose their eyesight very young because they are always staring at the little perforations on punched card — perhaps, far more complex than the one's Babbage refers to. The novel, however, centres around an even more eminent programmer about whom more needs to be said here.



In The Difference Engine, Lady Ada Lovelace is the dissolute yet brilliant daughter of the Prime Minister, Lord Byron. She is also a first-rate clacker and the inventor of a wonder program called the modus. In the novel, the modus is an indefinite loop generating program that is capable of crashing the mighty analytical engines, belonging to the British and French governments, by giving them a task that is infinitely beyond their capabilities. In reality, as well, Ada Lovelace was no less an intriguing figure. She understood the potential of Babbage's machine and developed the ideas for using it even beyond what its maker had in mind. Lady Lovelace wrote what can called the world's first computer program: a set of instructions that would make Babbage's Analytical Engine calculate the Bernoulli numbers. Babbage was nothing short of impressed and in a poem dedicated to her, he called her the 'Enchantress of Numbers' (Lovelace ix). Ada Lovelace was also the first to conceive the possibility of developing a program from another program: in effect, the most basic principle of software development. The team of American programmers, who first created a programming language with such capabilities in the 1980s, fittingly named it ADA in her honour.



Ada's mother, Lady Byron, wished to distance her daughter from poetry and more so perhaps from any connections with her famous poet-father. Ada, however, is believed to have told her mother,'if you can't give me poetry, can't you give me "poetical science”? '(Lovelace 319). It can be argued that the story of Ada Lovelace's search for 'poetical science' is intrinsically intertwined with the history of computer programs.



Though Babbage publicly acknowledged Lovelace's genius, he was silent about a certain aspect in which she saw the development of his engines. Lovelace probably came closest her 'poetical science' in the way she understood programming. Instead of limiting her ideas to Babbage's original purpose of performing complex calculations, she imagined the Analytical Engine as performing its operations on entities other than numbers. Her observations, obviously based on the original principle of Jacquard's weaving apparatus, extend to something that Babbage did not foresee: music. As Lovelace writes,


Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent (Menabrea & Lovelace 270).


Lovelace's comment on 'weaving' musical patterns is actually very current. It is not difficult to recognise a description of multimedia in what she is saying here. Music generating software, mixing software and audio-editing software are now quite commonplace; the complex principles they are based on were, however, adumbrated almost two centuries ago. Though Lovelace uses the instance of music, she indicates that many other non-numeric entities can be similarly acted upon. The obvious computerised processes this would prefigure would be word-processing, data analysis, multimedia and even online poetry generators. Thinking of the latter, Ada Lovelace's dream of 'poetical science' seems close to realisation. Only, perhaps, it is better termed 'poetic programming', instead.



While Ada Lovelace was concerned with the potential of 'programming' using the Analytical Engine, its creator was exploring yet another key aspect of computer operations. Babbage, having compared notes with a famous contemporary locksmith, a Mr Hobbs, notes with great enthusiasm his efforts to defeat all known methods of picking locks. (Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher 234). Conversely, he also notes how much he liked deciphering coded messages in his schooldays. Code is the one definitive word in any modern conception of programming; restricting access to it and breaking through the restrictions (or 'hacking' in computer jargon) are functions of paramount importance. Babbage's prescience in identifying the importance of these aspects is admirable to say the least. After all, he is not merely concerned with dry numerical operations but his attitude is much like the modern-day programmer for whom the poetry and the challenges all exist in the code.



It is easy to miss the fact that key principles of computer programming were drafted in the 1800s, in a milieu very much influenced by the ideals of Romanticism and at the same time characterised by a sense of transition. It is true that Babbage's engines did not work as they were supposed to and indeed, they weren't even properly built; however, to dismiss them would be a cardinal mistake. Pace the proponents of 'New Media' theories, the current conceptions of media, of information-processing and even multimedia were equally current in an age where Lady Lovelace was seeking 'poetical science'. One does not need to imagine Keats clacking away at his cinematic presentations using complex punched cards in Gibson and Sterling's fictional world, to comprehend the importance of the nineteenth century in fashioning modern conceptions of Information Technology. Lady Lovelace and Babbage's 'poetic programming' speaks for itself.


References

Babbage, Charles. Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

---. The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment. London: Cass, 1967.

Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.

Hyman, Anthony. Charles Babbage, Pioneer of the Computer. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Lovelace, Ada King. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron's Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer. Ed. Betty A Toole. Mill Valley, Calif: Strawberry Press, 1992.

Menabrea, Luigi. “Sketch of The Analytical Engine.” 20 Sep 2008 .

Menabrea, Luigi, and Augusta Ada Lovelace. Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage. London, 1843.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Shelley : A Refutation of Deism.” 19 Sep 2008 .

Simon Schaffer. “Babbage's Dancer and the Impresarios of Mechanism.” Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention. Ed. Jennifer S Uglow & Francis Spufford. London: Faber, 1996.

Swade, Doron. “'It will not slice a pineapple':Babbage, Miracles and Machines.”Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention. Ed. Jennifer S Uglow & Francis Spufford. London: Faber, 1996.


1A curiosity imported to England by Viennese engineer Josef Maelzel, the 'Turk' was a formidable 'mechanical' chess-player; however, the so-called automaton was revealed to be a fraud when Robert Willis exposed a concealed human player inside the mechanism.


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Review: This Gaming Life

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Turned thirty in RL, last month. It wasn't as exciting as people make it out to be. RL is not too bad at the moment but it's quite humdrum when compared to the lives I've been leading in game-worlds. Yet, one can't ignore the overlap. Or perhaps it isn't an overlap: to me, sometimes the two can merge into something I cannot explain or describe. It is then that I start wondering about this gaming life.



I was quite sure that other gamers have the same experience but Jim Rossignol's book, This Gaming Life, still came as a surprise. I'd known people to write and talk about Holodeck Hamlets, Cybertexts and theory; Rossignol does something different. He talks about that constantly changing 'zone' where 'real life' and gaming lives come together and he does so without trying to tell us what to think. He starts by telling us how he lost his job in a London City financial paper because of his obsession for videogames and eventually ended up working with a gaming magazine, which took him on many adventures -- both in-game and outside. Though he subtitles his book, 'Travels in Three Cities', and divides it into sections called London, Seoul and Reykjavik, the front cover reveals a supplementary location. It's a part of some imaginary map with places like Nintendovia, Marioville and Sim city.


Though written as a travelogue, This Gaming Life is a versatile book: partly autobiographical and partly a commentary on the gaming industry, digital culture and philosophy, it addresses most of the major issues in videogame research. Though originally a Quake gamer, Rossignol's ludic knowledge is impressive. He discusses games as disparate as WoW, Spore, LEGO Star Wars and Half Life 2 with equal ease. In some cases, his interviews of the designers and modders adds more to the already very diverse understanding of videogames. I'm not sure I've seen a discussion of LEGO Star Wars in other books on gaming and I liked the author's approach here. His interview of Jonathan Smith, the creator of the game, reveals to an extent the strange yet very obvious experience where the interaction of the colourful LEGO blocks maps so well with the gameplay of a sci-fi videogame. While pointing out overlaps between digital games and their non-digital counterparts, Smith makes an important point: 'It's not a simulation of the plastic LEGO experience - it's the imaginative exercise'. This is similar to what Smith had told me when I met him at GameCity, Nottingham in 2007. I see his point even better now though I must admit to being disappointed then, because I was expecting a total sandbox-type game.




Not that I was to wait for that too long. The Sims were already there and Spore is here, now. Rossignol presents a promising preview analysis of Spore and despite the mixed reviews of the game, I am inclined to agree with his praise - mainly because he describes the idea behind the game and not the issues with DRMs and such irritations. Though one cannot have a Spore-like gameplay in every game, one can certainly increase the space of possibilities by creating mods. Rossignol's comment that 'browsing through modding archives is like visiting a library of rewritten classics. It's as if one were able to edit Shakespeare with pulp fiction tropes ...' is of vital significance, and I kind of wish that the author had unpacked this a bit more. Needless to say that I agree with him, though for me Shakespeare has always had the potential of being edited with pulp fiction tropes and this moddability is a characteristic of literature itself. I've said all this and more ever since I started playing videogames (and I bet in at least 80% of the previous posts) so I'd better stop here.


Perhaps the most useful part of This Gaming Life for me, was the section on Korean gaming. It helped dispel my ignorance of gaming in the Far-East. Honestly, sitting in the middle of the United Kingdom (or even in gaming backwaters of India), I had never imagined that gaming would have its own celebs and like Lee Yuneol, the StarCraft champion, they would feature on popular TV shows. Neither did I know that Korean gaming while perhaps a more 'serious' quotidian affair, is actually rather limited in terms of variety and concentrates on a few titles. In this console-based world, where my pc-gaming self is almost an anachronism, it is still heartening to know that an entire major gaming culture is still based on the pc. While I am used to hundreds of gamers telling me why they prefer consoles, I nevertheless tend to agree with Rossignol's point that the pc still remains the better platform - it lets one invent, edit and modify so much more easily. It also allows independent creativity rather than make games the preserve of large manufacturers. Often, this can be beneficial for the industry in many unthought of ways: Rossignol's example of how Portal developed from the indie game Narbacular Drop is a case in point.

I realise, as I write, that I haven't really been trying to write a book review. Instead of trying to summarise what the book is, this posting tends to look at how this book plays. There are many issues that I might have missed in my own rather quick path through the book. Other reader-gamers will surely pick them up. In other words, this is a possible GameSpot review of This Gaming Life. I'm judging it mostly on the gameplay and on my scoresheet it easily gets a 9.5/10.

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Jim Rossignol has a blog called rockpapershotgun.com and writes for various journals and newspapers. I believe he writes for Wired, PC Gamer and the BBC. Here's the link to another review (a proper one, I think) of the book; I don't agree with the bit on 'lack of focus', though - I think the style is just right for a travelogue-cum-autobiography, which is how the author presents it. Rossignol also happens to be a fan of STALKER like me ... well, I must have met him in Pripyat some time.

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It is done!!!

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Just submitted my thesis this morning. And finished Assassin's Creed yesterday night.

Safety and Peace to all who walk the paths of a games PhD.

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Videogames in Victorian England

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Extract from The Experienced Clacker's Book of Kino-games by Lord Charles Babbage, F.R.S. (1854)

The first Difference Engine was born out of a ludic principle - mathematical, but ludic at the same time. From my very early boyhood I was fascinated with machines that could play, such as the dancing dolls of Mr H-'s exhibition or the chess-playing Turk (even though it was later discovered to be a hoax). In my Analytical Engine, I began to realise my ludic dream and finally, in Analytical Box X, I combined the powerful mechanism of kino cards to work with the complex gearage of logic gates. Mr Keats, my eminent clacker friend, was the first to test this mechanism. Not yet capable of punching cards to create a chess game, we hit upon the idea of designing a croquet game for the Box X. As we saw the representations of mallets and hoops on the big canvas screen put up in my stable, the first kino-croquet game was born. The gears started creaking into life and the guests were playing croquet on a very different platform - it was rather like playing in thin air.



Among the guests present were the illustrious Lady Lovelace and Disraeli, who reported the event in The Times.



(Inspired by Babbage's comments and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's alternative history novel, The Difference Engine)





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Apologies to readers for the long absence. Was away from blogosphere due to an injury and impending submission deadlines. You can, of course, tell what I was reading all the time I was away. I have recently written an article (to appear soon on this blog) for an Indian journal where I trace the roots of multimedia to the Romantic period (early nineteenth century). Gibson and Sterling's book was a great discovery. Absolutely videogame material!

In case, there are still doubts, the whole account of kino-games is fictitious. Babbage did, however, wish to design ludic machines; however, he never even completed the Difference Engine.

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(Ab)Sense of an Ending Published in Writing Technologies

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Normally, I don't like July. This year even less since it's not been a particularly ludic month and I have nothing to report except for my 20 hour long stint at the old Sudden Strike clone called Hidden Stroke 2 and my repeated defeats by the infinitely superior AI. Did I say repeated ? Yes, repeated and endless were my endings . How can that be?

Read my essay (Ab)Sense of an Ending in Writing Technologies 2.1 to find out more. They published it just in time to make me start feeling that it wasn't that bad a month, after all.

Thank you WT.

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Need for Speed Hydrocarbons

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Apologies for my rather slow return to Ludus Ex: many interesting events have happened meanwhile and have been missed by me because of other engagements. As I try to refuel my engines and get back to research after conferences, parties and my other job (not necessarily in that order though), I find myself in a world plagued by petrol crisis and inflation. This makes me wonder whether petroleum, that extremely important mixture of hydrocarbons, has any of the effects on the videogame-world as it does in other aspects of our quotidian affairs.


Need for Speed but No Need for Petrol?

The thing that surprises me is that videogames seem to ignore this very important part of our lives. We drive cars in GTA 4, race like crazy in Need for Speed Carbon or Motocross Madness and we even fly all kinds of aircraft in videogames but I don't remember ever having to go to a petrol station. Not that petrol has been ignored altogether in videogames: players of Rise of Nations will remember how important it is to possess your enemies oilfields so that your tanks and planes can keep flying. Suddenstrike introduced petrol trucks as an important element in its Resource War version: the animated petrol truck explosions bring a sense of fear into even the mightiest martial spirits. A more recent (and for me extremely disappointing) game series called Act of War even has the petrol crisis as a key theme. In general, however, games seem to avoid the issue. The in-game characters need weapons, ammo and even food but their cars seem to have an inexhaustible supply of fuel. I wonder why. Also, why connect the importance of petroleum only to military affairs?

As games get more 'serious' and responsible, perhaps they will be able to take this into account especially keeping in mind the millions of people who play them.

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From Under the Playful Mask

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The 'Under the Mask' Conference at the University of Bedfordshire is all set to begin. The joysticks, gamepads, mice and keyboards are at the ready; the players in position. To cap it all, the papers are all online, including one by yours truly. A quick skim through shows me that research on online multiplayer games is getting increasingly richer. 'Griefing' has been singled out for particular attention - with two papers providing a detailed analysis from different angles. Esther MacCallum-Stewart's paper reveals a whole new world for a non-MMORPG gamer like me (yes, that species exists). I didn't even think that a possible typology existed for 'griefing': ludic grief, social grief and spectacle grief. This is very illuminating and the 'deeper' levels of MMO gaming is well revealed in the analysis. Good grief, Esther! I didn't know that there are so many 'griefers' out there ...


The ultimate 'Griefer' mask


Narratives, narratives ... yes, narratives ... games tell stories: now that is for sure. Many papers testifying to the fact, here. Pity, i didn't join the team having chosen 'becoming' and ludic philosophy of Deleuze (perhaps, I did take the storytelling aspect for granted - i have been doing so since I first started researching games). Particularly interesting for me are Anne-Mette Albrechtslund's paper on narrative in online games and Jan van Looy's on Alice. The first paper I have only just had time to glance at and since it's just after mine, I'll get to have a good listen, i think. It's the next that's even more up my street. Van Looy speaks on American McGee's Alice ... we say similar things. Visitors to my website will find two papers by me on the subject: one written in 2000 and the other one being more recent: my 'Brown Bag' presentation at Nottingham Trent University. Van Looy's work adds the novel dimension of viewing the game using 'Kendall Walton’s theory of representational artefacts as props for evoking imagining in games of make-believe.' Moreover, it does a pretty decent job of analysing the Alice narratives in different media.

There are thirteen solid papers and I haven't the skill to summarise them here. I can't help noting another very promising paper on onlookers of arcade games. The audience of gaming has always fascinated me ... somebody somewhere says that games don't have an audience ... I wonder. The papers can be accessed here and the direct link to mine is here.

Finally, Tanya Krzywinska's keynote presentation on 'Reanimating HP Lovecraft: The Ludic Paradox of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth' looks very intriguing. Never had the chance to delve much into the Cthulhu mythos. Here's my chance.

My first paper on Alice are to be found on the London School of Journalism's website and the more recent one's to be found on my own website, here.

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Videogames and Boiled Eggs

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When I wasn't an egghead: the glorious days when eggs (and life) were unproblematised

I've not eaten boiled eggs for a while now. The reason, according to my friends, is that I am too lazy to go and buy eggs; but there is to more to it than passes show. I have been struck by the dreadful Endian-controversy. Yes, this is the infamous controversy that claimed millions of little lives in Lilliput and Blefuscu, the mighty empires that went to war over which end of the boiled egg they should first eat. Whilst I am still indecisive, I will let you fathom the problem in depth. The controversy is best described by none other than the illustrious traveller, Mr Lemuel Gulliver:

It began upon the following Occasion. It is allowed on all Hands, that the primitive way of breaking Eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger End: But his present Majesty's Grand-father, while he was a Boy, going to eat an Egg, and breaking it according to the ancient Practice, happened to cut one of his Fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penaltys, to break the smaller End of their Eggs. The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us there have been six Rebellions raised on that account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown. These civil Commotions were constantly fomented by the Monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the Exiles always fled for Refuge to that Empire

Let us also have a visual representation of the problem, just to understand the awesome complexity. Here is the picture:

The simple and delicious boiled egg has now become a scary element in my life

'That's all about eggs and your agonising psyche but where's the connection with the videogame?' says the impatient reader. Patience, dear reader (you need to play more of the slow strategy games). This 'allegory of the egg' is my message for the videogame world. In an earlier posting on the Ludologist, Jesper Juul mentioned that 'It’s official: The new conflict in video game studies is between those who study players and those who study games.' Like the Ludology-Narratology conflict. Indeed, these are serious battles and believe me, they all started with the problematised boiled egg.

Well, the good news is that while writing this posting I came across an ingenious solution (the Internet be praised) that has put eggs back on my appetite:



By the way, Jesper has since clarified his own position(on videogames not boiled eggs) in a very sensible (characteristically) follow-up comment.

I hope the others do the same.

For the really hardboiled reader, I've picked up another trail to the egg-endian controversy in software. Read on at your own peril.

As for me, I'd better get back to my breakfast.


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A Dialogue Indeed

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This is a belated posting and I sincerely apologise. A few quick comments on my all too brief chat with Stephan Juergens who presented a paper at the Dialogue conference on the 23rd of May. I was the discussant for his paper at the conference and here is a brief summary of what we spoke about (or rather planned to speak about - we ran out of time!) These are just notes from Stephan's emailed comments with my own glosses - more like a research log, i guess.

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SM: Interactive art ... i will start a discussion linking your paper to other kinds of interactive art - will ask for a definition of the limits of interactive art (if any)? Are computer games interactive art or Second Life?



SJ: Interesting question... in my perspective computer games can be art if used by an artist as a form of expression. Today artists use any kind of platform, medium or material to work with, why not computer games? It all depends on the artistic vision, I guess.
As far as Second Life is concerned, it is rather a platform, which allows you to interact with all kind of intentions, commercial, artistic and otherwise.


SM: I am curious about the cyborgian nature of the interactive artist - how much is he/she part of the machinic?

SJ: I was very much into the Cyborg debate at the time of my MA (2001), but the more I investigated, the more the cyborg lost my interest... seems rather important as a cultural construct... but as a choreographer and dancer, I am naturally interested in "embodied" practices, in "intelligence amplification" as opposed to "artificial intelligence"



SM: Is the technology a prosthetic element to the dance itself?


SJ: I see technology rather as emerging from bodily knowledge; I use technology as a partner for performance, including "old technologies", such as light design, sound system etc.


SM: Could you comment on the other aspect where the machine and user produce 'art' on different levels? I am thinking of a game using dancemats such as Dance Dance Revolution or music videogames like Guitar Hero.


SJ: DDR in my view falls into the category of the "sensitive instrument", a reactive form of interaction. Though requiring some of the dancer's skills (coordination, rhythm, learning sequences etc.) it feels more like a limited "personal trainer"... don't know Guitar Hero to well.


SM: machinic agency... Is there a difference between interaction and agency? How does machinic agency work with conceptions like 'free will' that are implicit in some discussions of agency?


SJ: My favourite suggestion of yours! I think, this could be quite an interesting exchange, as we have a term in common and could compare! [later, Stephan compared the Deleuzian idea of the action in the 'Zone of Becoming' (from one of my conference papers) to similar ideas of agency in Mark Downie's work on dance ... must follow up on this. I think I introduced the religious debates on 'free will' in the discussion. Stephan, quite interestingly, brought up the idea of agency and action in Buddhism -again another interesting area to read up on.]


SM : The software agent: I am reminded of Weizenbaum's Eliza - is Eliza an agent in the sense that 'she' carries out a dialgoue with her interlocutor (sometimes pretty convincingly).


SJ: Yes! There are a lot of similarities. We could look more closely at Downie's work.


SM: would you like to say more about the human-computer complex?

SJ: We could have a look at Downie's "creatures" There is a "tree" amongst them... [regrettably, we didn't have much time for this one]


SM: what is the reaction to such interactive art in the more conventional areas of performance studies (dance, especially).


SJ: According to Sarah Rubidge interactive technologies are used by choreographer's of all kinds and styles; they are usually interested for different reasons!
......................

Well, there you go ... the ravages of time and a week spent in reworking a chapter does so much to the memory. We continued the conversation in the pub and unfortunately Mr Guinness took some of it away with him!


So this is more than a dialogue , then: it's on one-level a dialogue between me and Stephan and on the other, one between me-at-the-present-moment speaking myself-a-week-ago (and i expect Stephan is somewhere around, interjecting, interrupting and correcting).

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