Agency: Responses to the DIGRA session

Okay, agency is not simple. While we know that it is much debated in other fields, most of us in game studies concern ourselves with very specific applications of the term. That's one problem.

These applications of the term aren't uniform. Another problem.

We keep coming back to it in circles. Yet another problem.

However, some good work is being done on it.

At least, we recognise that all the “satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” etc isn't really an explanation. Neither is the formal and material cause idea useful mainly because it still leaves too much to human volition.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin brings in the discussion of the machine's agency and sort of links with the actor-network theory (see his paper). I kind of like the ways in which he identifies the 'waxing and waning of agency' and how he slashes the simplistic proportionality equation of realism and agency.

However, I do not think that this approach adequately discusses the aleatory element in games (especially for me, in RTS) and how that affects and upsets the choice equation. Also not sure it accounts for the process of moment-to-moment perception of choice by the player and also the perception by the player of choices exerted by the machine (connection also with involvement and also context: a deeply involved player thinks he is fighting the Roman army and not a program on his pc). Further, I think that the term 'agency' itself is problematic especially with its humanist connotations (and indeed the morass of other connotations that relate it 'free will' and a whole lot of other things). In any case, it is problematic whenever it implies 'pure' choice. In videogames, the human choice is also a non-choice (on the level of the machine). Justin Parsler's very lucid explanation of how he uses the concept of weak agency (and strong agency) is useful here. In a very inspired smoking break, in the presence of Miriam Eladhari, a very informed academic whose name I forget and yours truly, Parsler described 'weak' agency as the choice to choose between a certain number of shirts in a shop and not to make the initial choice of what shirts are going to be there. In a sense, I think that this is the case on even other levels of freedom and choice. For example, even the number of shirts that can be made for you depends on the availability of the material and labour and so on. Choice is never the absolute free will claimed by Renaissance Humanists like Pico della Mirandolla ('Oration on the Dignity of Man'). Neither is it free will given by Divine Grace as a one time dispensation (i.e. God as Supreme Being makes a one-time grant of a mechanism of free choice that humanity can use until Doomsday) . Nevertheless, we experience the sense of choice and do not live in a wholly deterministic world, whether that of a Calvinist God or that of Agent Smith. Please, a subtler understanding of agency is required.

An 'extra value' airtight definition of agency might be available soon on superstore shelves in varicoloured cans. The cans, however, may be empty most likely, caveat emptor. If game researchers wish to use the term 'agency' in a qualified sense that accounts for the process of experiencing choice while recognising machine constraints, then the sense in which they define agency needs to be spelled out with no ambiguity. Wardrip-Fruin does this quite well and this sets his analysis apart from the sweeping generalisations made by some earlier commentators. However, it is important that game researchers don't only speak to themselves. When we talk to outsiders, the sense of what we say should not mislead them into construing the process as one of human-centred choice. To avoid any liberal humanistic connotations, I use the value-neutral term 'action' as the starting point for my analysis of the processes (choice-making/acting/experiencing) that go on in the game-machine-human complex.

I find it easier to look at agency from a Deleuzian perspective in my PhD dissertation. After yesterday's session, I feel I must at least state the issues I perceive with the problem of 'agency' in videogames and especially so, since recent scholarship is also tending to move in a similar directions. The aim is to enter the discussion- with yet another point of view.

Below is an extract from Chapter Seven, 'Playing in the Zone of Becoming I: Agency and Becoming in the Videogame, from my PhD thesis, The Zone of Becoming: Game, Text and Technicity in Videogame Narratives (Nottingham Trent University, 2009), pp. 220-260. Please cite with my permission.


Murray’s conceptions of agency have provoked much critical response. The above analysis of procedural authorship clearly shows that the action in videogames occurs in a process of interaction between player and machine rather than being located as embedded agency. Further, contrary to Murray’s anthropocentric model, the player as the protagonist or subject is not homogenous and absolute; neither is the participation in a game just a wearing of a mask or a journey into the Holodeck, as will be shown subsequently, here, and in the following chapter. In fact, how much of the playing-subject is human and how much machine is a moot question. Considering these issues, a theory of an anthropocentric and embedded agency is insufficient in explaining the process of action in videogames. Recent commentators, therefore, argue against this model and also take into account the issue that Murray calls attention to but does not pursue: the ‘call of the machine’. Critics like Atkins and Krzywinska express their scepticism about earlier conceptions of agency and Atkins briefly refers to these as the ‘illusion of individual agency’,i a phrase that will be significant in the subsequent sections of this chapter. A more sustained criticism, however, has been made by critics like Poremba and Susana Tosca who approach the problem from different perspectives. It will be instructive to identify these approaches first because they create the base for creating the model of ludic action in the subsequent sections.

Poremba quite clearly argues against the earlier conception of ‘embedded agency’ which is how she identifies the model proposed by Murray and followed by theorists like Klastrup. Commenting on GTA III, Poremba concludes that its agency is ‘difficult to attribute [and can be seen as] lying somewhere in a nebulous region between player, designer and system’.ii Though an issue such as agency, which has always been hotly debated in other contexts, obviously attracts a lot of controversy, recent game studies criticism generally is in consensus with the description above. The so-called nebulous region has, of course, attracted much critical attention and this chapter will also attempt to locate and explore the zone of ludic action and agency.

In fact, though she does not mention it, Poremba’s account clearly illustrates a Derridean supplementarity between the various situations in which agency might be possible within a game. The phrase ‘situations in’ has been purposely chosen over ‘types of’ as a reminder that this description does not aim to divide agency into separate types with different ‘ordered centres’. The various elements associated with agency — the player, the designer and the machine — are not distinct entities. In fact, Poremba’s analysis reveals that they cannot be characterised as originary and derivative as Murray’s model does. Poremba states that ‘further work needs to be done to explore new models of agency that accommodate a more complex relationship between game designer, player and the game itself’.iii While the issue could not have been better expressed, the term ‘agency’ still poses problems especially because of its connection with human-centred choice and the problems of reconciling this with the bipartite process of action in videogames.

Murray’s conceptions of agency have provoked much critical response. The above analysis of procedural authorship clearly shows that the action in videogames occurs in a process of interaction between player and machine rather than being located as embedded agency. Further, contrary to Murray’s anthropocentric model, the player as the protagonist or subject is not homogenous and absolute; neither is the participation in a game just a wearing of a mask or a journey into the Holodeck, as will be shown subsequently, here, and in the following chapter. In fact, how much of the playing-subject is human and how much machine is a moot question. Considering these issues, a theory of an anthropocentric and embedded agency is insufficient in explaining the process of action in videogames. Recent commentators, therefore, argue against this model and also take into account the issue that Murray calls attention to but does not pursue: the ‘call of the machine’. Critics like Atkins and Krzywinska express their scepticism about earlier conceptions of agency and Atkins briefly refers to these as the ‘illusion of individual agency’,iv a phrase that will be significant in the subsequent sections of this chapter. A more sustained criticism, however, has been made by critics like Poremba and Susana Tosca who approach the problem from different perspectives. It will be instructive to identify these approaches first because they create the base for creating the model of ludic action in the subsequent sections.

Poremba quite clearly argues against the earlier conception of ‘embedded agency’ which is how she identifies the model proposed by Murray and followed by theorists like Klastrup. Commenting on GTA III, Poremba concludes that its agency is ‘difficult to attribute [and can be seen as] lying somewhere in a nebulous region between player, designer and system’.v Though an issue such as agency, which has always been hotly debated in other contexts, obviously attracts a lot of controversy, recent game studies criticism generally is in consensus with the description above. The so-called nebulous region has, of course, attracted much critical attention and this chapter will also attempt to locate and explore the zone of ludic action and agency.

Poremba’s account is representative and thorough. She argues for a model of agency that will account for the game designer’s agency, player agency and the emergent and artificially intelligent system’s agency. Besides making conscious choices to explore, configure, experience and react with the guided environment of the game system, the player often subverts this environment by using external tools (additions or modifications to the game’s code) or by exploiting latent possibilities in the game’s code (as in the ‘Hot coffee’ mod in GTA: San Andreas) or in its logic (the ‘hooker cheat’ in GTA III, as mentioned by Poremba). In all the cases mentioned above, player agency is possible only in response to the ‘call of the machine’. The modification and subversion of gameplay certainly falls under the category of constructivism described by Murray but in that case it is necessary to realise that this is a machinic constructivism. An awareness of the machinic affordances is not only required for modifying and subverting gameplay; it is essential for the process of play itself. As Wright, Boria and Breidenback, in their analysis of creative player actions in online FPS videogames, make it clear, ‘Playing is not simply mindless movement through a virtual landscape, but rather movement with a reflexive awareness of the game’s features and their possible modifications’.vi Poremba supports their conclusion in her essay on agency in GTA III and maintains that this is indicative of the fact that agency in games needs to be seen in terms of newer models which move the analysis beyond the limitations inherent in the notion of embedded agency. She also states that player agency and designer agency are not discrete binaries but rather they exist as interdependent categories. According to her,

Game designers have expressed pleasure in player’s creative actions — even ones that clearly go against design intention and extend the boundaries of the game. Conversely from a player perspective, gameplay is often about determining what the game designer wants (i.e. how to play the game) rather than a constant drive for increasing agency.vii

This assertion illustrates a clear shift in the understanding of procedural authorship from Murray’s separation of the design perspective and the gameplay to a more supplementary relationship between the two. In fact, though she does not mention it, Poremba’s account clearly illustrates a Derridean supplementarity between the various situations in which agency might be possible within a game. The phrase ‘situations in’ has been purposely chosen over ‘types of’ as a reminder that this description does not aim to divide agency into separate types with different ‘ordered centres’. The various elements associated with agency — the player, the designer and the machine — are not distinct entities. In fact, Poremba’s analysis reveals that they cannot be characterised as originary and derivative as Murray’s model does. Poremba states that ‘further work needs to be done to explore new models of agency that accommodate a more complex relationship between game designer, player and the game itself’.viii While the issue could not have been better expressed, the term ‘agency’ still poses problems especially because of its connection with human-centred choice and the problems of reconciling this with the bipartite process of action in videogames.

Commentators such as Atkins suggest that the experience of agency is illusory; the chief reason for this is a reaction to Murray’s notion of agency as free choice. Susana Tosca examines this issue in detail through a critical analysis of the Blade Runner game (1997) created by Westwood Studios. Blade Runner is an interactive adventure game — one of the last of its kind; though it wasn’t commercially as successful as its FPS rivals such as Quake 2 (1997) and Half-Life (1998), it still has a considerable fan-following and figures in many game studies analyses. It requires the player to play as Ray McCoy, a blade runner employed to ‘retire’ replicants; McCoy is similar to Deckard, the protagonist in Ridley Scott’s film and Philip K. Dick’s novel. The issue of whether to have sympathy for the replicants or to kill them, a major philosophical question in both the book and the film, is incorporated into the game as player choice. The game has thirteen different ‘official’ endings which depend on what chain of actions the player follows in the game. Player choice is, therefore, responsible for determining the player’s character within the game as well as the fate of the various characters. This is how it looks from the player’s point of view but that, however, is not the only perspective. Louis Castle, the designer of Blade Runner, in an interview with Pearce, describes how this works from the point of view of the game:

If you play the game as if you are a replicant, then the game treats you as a replicant. If you play the game as if you were a Blade Runner human, it treats you like you’re a human. So people perceive that at some point they’ve made a choice that puts them on one track or the other, which isn’t the case at all. It’s based on how you play the game, whether you hunt the replicants, whether you kill them, whether you let them go. Those things give us clues as to what you think you are—and at any given point, you can switch over. You can go halfway through the game and go "Oh, my gosh, I’m really not a human after all, I’m a replicant." And just turn mid-stream and start saving the replicants. And that’s okay. The game lets you do that.ix

In the above comment, the way the game constructs the playing subject is important. Castle’s language, especially his usage of phrases like ‘the game treats you’ or ‘the game lets you do that’ clearly indicates that the game is also an actor or a player. For the (human) player, the choices she makes may seem all important- they may even seem to reflect the player’s character. For the game’s logic or algorithm, the case is different. Here the response is input-based, as Castle states.

The subject is determined by the actualisation of technical choices. Tosca makes a similar point in the following comment:

Each action matters towards the end and that we contribute to the evolving story as we go. Trying to guess which actions those are, and how they lead to each conclusion, is a sort of narrative reverse engineering where, in my opinion, the pleasure of the game lies. And once we know, of course, we can always exert our free will and choose another path.x

Tosca’s statement is important because it highlights a dichotomy. First, there is the idea of each action contributing to the evolving story. This is part of the process of configuring and interacting with the game’s algorithm. Hence agency seems to involve both the player and the game algorithms together with their technical affordances. Tosca’s idea of the process of back calculation or as she calls it ‘narrative reverse engineering’ is also in consonance with this kind of agency in that such activity still involves the game’s logic as an equal partner in the process. The problem arises, however, when she speaks of exerting free will to choose another path. This sounds as if it is arriving at the same conclusions as the earlier conceptions of embedded and anthropocentric agency. Tosca’s qualifying comment in a later statement, however, shows a contrary position: ‘Blade Runner creates a digital suspension of disbelief that players are willingly drawn into through the excitement of the different moral choices, where trusting our implanted memories will bring us the illusion of free will’.xi

This is a statement that needs careful attention: the memories that allow the player to reverse engineer or, in simpler words, to reconstruct a narrative actualisation, are not just human memories. They are also a part of the machinic memory in that they are steps in the algorithm that the game follows. In the example of Sands of Time in Chapter Six, the saved games were attributed as the Prince’s (and therefore the player’s) memories. The ‘free will’, in this context, is an illusion simply because the choices made by the player are not entirely free but rather bound to the affordances of the machine algorithm.

Once the player returns to the point of deviation in a game that is being replayed (for example, from a saved game), she encounters a series of choices and has the opportunity to exercises choice yet again. Beneath the apparent vital nature of the player’s emotional choice, which the game convincingly portrays, lie the game choices and these are primal in determining the path of actualisation. The player perceives moral choices and memory whereas the game algorithm contains its algorithmic choices and pathways. The two coincide when, as Tosca says, there is a ‘suspension of disbelief’. The suspension of disbelief, intrinsically related (in the nature of the supplement) to agency, will merit a separate analysis in Chapter Eight.

The present discussion will return to the question of memory. Not surprisingly, Tosca uses the phrase ‘implanted memories’, a concept that is all too familiar from Blade Runner texts, to describe the experience of memory in videogames. Those familiar with the Blade Runner movie will remember the famous scene where Deckard (Harrison Ford) administers the Voigt-Kampff test to Rachael (Sean Young). At the end of the test, it is revealed that Rachael, unknown to herself, is really a replicant. She does not know that some of her memories are not real: they are ‘implants’ from Tyrell’s sixteen-year old niece. While the player’s memories are literally not ‘implants’ as in Dick’s novel or Ridley Scott’s film adaptation, they are reconstructions of a series of in-game choices: they are as much memories as part of game algorithm. Hence, after accessing these to replay a game sequence, the player willingly becomes part of game system and executes another algorithm.

For the player, to choose not to kill replicants may be a moral choice, but it is also a choice informed by the machinic attributes of the game and its specific algorithm. For example, the player in Doom does not have the choice not to kill the monsters that appear in the game. It is of course possible to subvert the original game using cheats and mods but as noted earlier, to do even this involves restrictions in the game program.

Tosca’s conception emerges as more complex than mere non-agency. The ‘illusion of agency’ most certainly includes and allows for choice. Here, choice is, however, a decentred phenomenon: it is not the prerogative of either the (human)player or the machine algorithm. These entities themselves occur as supplements to the other, as already observed in earlier chapters. The element of choice therefore occurs within the (human)player-machine algorithm complex. Given this supplementarity within which choice operates in videogames, it is possible to relate this to the earlier examples of supplementarity between writing and reading or game and play where the elements in the relationship are all in-play. Even in conceptualising agency and choice in videogames, it is possible to see them as being in-play. This notion has significant implications in the way the phrase ‘illusion of agency’ can be read. By ‘illusion of agency’ something different is to be inferred. The use of the word ‘illusion’ here is perhaps fortuitous but it serves the purpose marvellously. The etymology of ‘illusion’ (as derived from ‘illude’, which can mean ‘make sport of’, albeit used pejoratively) contains the Latin root ludere or ‘to play’.xii It is possible to read the term differently from what was perhaps the intended meaning: one can read ‘illusion of agency’ as the "making ludic of agency" and this reflects the process of interaction and response between the (human)player and the game algorithm. In the case of videogames, it is important to remember that the game is also an artificially intelligent machinic algorithm. The possibility of choosing the action in videogames is therefore always related to the ‘call of the machine’.

From Agency to Becoming: A Deleuzian Understanding of Choice in Videogames

The altered conception of agency, as described above, marks a major shift from the earlier human-centred concept of free will to a relationship between the player and the machine that can be more clearly understood in terms of a bipartite process of action. Commentators such as Galloway already have already started thinking about the bipartite process as being a supplementary one. For him,

One may start by distinguishing two basic types of action in videogames; machinic actions and operator actions […] Of course, the division is entirely artificial — both the machine and the operator work together. […] The two types of action are ontologically the same.xiii

Galloway quite rightly identifies the importance of studying the action in videogames as a more accurate way of analysing gameplay. He stresses, almost axiomatically, that ‘if photographs are images, and films are moving pictures, then video games are actions. Let this be word one for video game theory’.xiv While maintaining the importance of an action-based approach for game studies, Galloway notes that there is no clear division between machine and operator actions. This account also illustrates the supplementary relationship described above. In the first chapter of his book, Gaming: Essays in Algorithmic Culture, Galloway launches directly into a discussion of action, in digital games as being performed ‘step by step [and] move by move’xv by operator and machine. As the base foundation of his analysis, he reads games in terms of the ‘action-image’ as described by Deleuze. However, he does not engage with the concept of videogame action within a Deleuzian framework in any detail. The importance of the concept makes it merit further analysis and it will be seen in this and the following chapter that the process of involvement of the player and the ludic action that characterises gameplay finds its best explanation when analysed within a Deleuzian framework.

The analysis of ludic action within a Deleuzian framework, however, may be opposed by various commentators. As mentioned earlier, Bogost’s objection to such an analysis was that the ‘local operations’ within such a ‘nomadic’ structure would deny any factor of deliberation in digital games. For him, it is difficult to locate agency in the workings of the Deleuzian manifold since he sees the multiplicity as being characterised essentially by the element of the aleatory. Such a reading of Deleuze is open to contestation.

Bogost, however, is not alone in his objection. Hayles, quoting Mark Hansen, notes that ‘Deleuze and Guattari are much more thoroughgoing in their deconstruction of the liberal humanist subject and of "subjectification" in general. As Mark Hansen comments, "D+G do not shift the locus of agency [... but] dissolve the role of agency altogether"’.xvi She, however, adds that ‘they too recuperate agency at crucial points […] They warn the reader against giving up agency altogether’.xvii Hayles agrees with Hansen that Deleuze and Guattari wish to deny agency but she maintains that they cannot avoid it because ‘through their performative language, they exercise agency even as they deny it […] Deleuze and Guattari cannot avoid inscripting into language, the agency implicit in their performance of desire’.xviii While she is right in stating that Deleuzoguattarian theory does take into account the exercise of agency, her assertion regarding its intention to deny agency is controversial. Hayles’s argument is drawn from her reading of A Thousand Plateaus where Deleuze and Guattari do not directly address issues of agency. Such a reading misses the more direct analyses of agency and subjectivity in Deleuze’s earlier works, such as his treatises on Hume and Spinoza, which also play a key role in shaping the main body of his work including the texts where he collaborated with Guattari. Aurelia Armstrong, commenting on Deleuze’s modification of the Spinozist conception of agency states that in Deleuzian (and indeed, Deleuzoguattarian) thought, quite differently from earlier notions, ‘agency is conceived of as a movement, which evades the definition of the individual in terms of forms and functions and the delimitations of its capacities, whether such a definition is biological, psychiatric or political’.xix Armstrong further maintains that the ‘growth of agency is shown to consist in a becoming-active, in the increase and enhancement of “individual” powers through their combination with the powers of other, compatible individuals and things’.xx This is obviously quite different from liberal humanist notions in which agency is situated as the free choice of the individual; it is also equally different from the totally aleatory scheme of events.

In the analysis of temporality in Chapter Six, the Deleuzian idea of the manifold was compared to phase portraits of molecular movements where the population of trajectories as a whole influence the course of any action. Agency should be seen as an analogous and related experience. In an emergent structure, agency can only be thought of in terms of the options for acting within a framework of the constraints imposed by the actions of connected elements. Further, the concept of ‘becoming’, which runs as a key theme throughout the whole thesis, is equally important in speaking of agency. True, agency is action but it is actually the ‘becoming-active’; in this process, the individual’s subjectivity is experienced in a complex manner due to the actions performed by her within the system. ‘Becoming’ has already been introduced in Chapter Two as the ‘zone of indiscernibility’xxi occupied by the subject: the player in the computer game does not act as if free of her machinic persona and neither does she get totally absorbed in such a persona. Instead, as explained in the subsequent chapter, her experience can be described as a ‘becoming’. In game studies, the concept that corresponds most to this is well-known as ‘immersion’. The subsequent analysis will, however, indicate the problems in seeing this as being a separate phenomenon. Instead, both immersion and agency need to be viewed as merged concepts that constitute the core of the process of ‘becoming’. As already discussed in the context of videogames, an altered conception of agency is being put forward here: this conception is based on action and on movement or ‘becoming’ and it moves beyond the more traditional ways in which game studies and other analyses of machinic media conceive of agency.

However, it is obvious that despite their apparent differences with Deleuze, both Hayles and Hansen are in agreement regarding the two aspects of agency described in Deleuze. Total free will for the (human) player is not the case in videogames because of the pervasive presence of the (machine) algorithm and because during gameplay, the machine can also be considered a player and the human player a part of a certain algorithmic sequence. The first issue would be the emergent patterns present in videogames that preclude any totally determined act on the part of the human agent. Secondly, the human agent, in becoming part of the game experiences a complex subjectivity that any conclusion of pure agency difficult to envisage. Both of these issues are described in Deleuze’s formulation of the action-image in the ideas of action as actualisation and as resulting in a ‘new mode of being’ for the agent.

In fact, it might be argued that Deleuzian ideas of agency are not so different from Hayles’s own, especially when seen in a broader Deleuzian context. Hayles maintains that ‘if the posthuman implies distributed cognition, then it must imply distributed agency as well, for multiplying the sites at which cognizing can take place also multiplies the entities who can count as agents’.xxii Her position is similar to that of Poremba and Tosca, described above. It is also the point of entry to Galloway’s application of the Deleuzian action-image to videogames and to its extension to discussions of agency. Distributed agency is seen as resulting from distributed sites of cognition. This is similar to the Deleuzian explanation provided by Armstrong: agency can only be conceived of in connection with the actions of connected elements; hence, to use Hayles’s term, it is ‘distributed agency’. More needs to be said about distributed agency in the subsequent discourse on the action-image. From this analysis, it is possible to conclude that the Deleuzian framework used in this thesis does not support a denial of agency as some critics suppose; instead, it effectively brings together the different aspects of the discussions on agency and helps view the process within a more representative framework. Nevertheless, within this framework, the earlier approaches need to be sufficiently modified and some significant changes must be made. The first of these would be to replace the term ‘agency’ itself.

The analyses of the computer game narrative show that the process of gameplay is not deterministic from the point of view of either the human or the machine, but the use of the term ‘agency’ gives it that connotation, especially when considered in the light of its liberal humanist history. The subsequent analysis will, therefore, use a more representative term for the process and one that is well supported by the Deleuzian framework that provides adequate tools for studying the process; the concept in question is ‘action’.


Well, that's pretty much what my position is and I am posting this in response to yesterday's speakers as well as to share ideas with Justin. I am happy to enter into a more extensive discussion.


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DIGRA 2009: My Paper - excerpts

Here, I attach excerpts of my DiGRA paper - a reworked version has been submitted for publication.

Remembering How We Died: Telos and Time in Videogame Narratives

Dr Souvik Mukherjee
Nottingham Trent University

‘Time is like an Ocean, not a river’, says the Prince of Persia. This reflexive comment by a videogame character describes the multiplicity of temporal experiences in the game narrative, also including the many times a player has to die before learning how the game ends. Such an eschatology transgresses against accepted Christian conceptions of the linear movement of the soul from birth to the afterworld. As evident in the writings of St. Augustine or Joachim of Flora, however, there is considerable speculation in Christian theology regarding time and telos. However, by allowing the player to replay the life of his onscreen avatar, videogames defy Christian expectations of the finality of telos by making it a multiple and repetitive event. Effectively, the implication of this multitelic structure is that Death itself becomes multiple.

Early discussions of game studies believe that this multiplicity 'trivialises the “sacred value” of life'.[1] It will be argued here that this is a limited reading of the issue, especially when considered in respect to pre-Christian eschatologies, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Ancient Greek. These, in themselves, are, of course, quite disparate and this paper does not aim to engage with their complex theological nuances. Rather, concerns itself with specific ideas from Indic theologies that highlight the importance of the alternative conceptions of Time in videogames while developing on the earlier research done by commentators like Barry Atkins and Michael Nitsche, and analysing the phenomenon of in-game death from philosophical perspectives that have hitherto been virtually unexplored in game studies.


Instead of trivialising death and telos, it is evident from the above examples that videogames actually add to some of the oldest discourses on Time and endings. Neither is their role fortuitous. Atkins illustrates this through his example of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. He observes that 'Sands of Time accommodates something close to the save/reload inside the game-space, and within the game's internal logic. Fatal decisions and actions are reversible, quite literally with the player able to “rewind” play.'[5] Of course, the player is not literally re-born and certainly does not occupy a different body as some karmic proponents describe. Further, the karmic schema does not involve time-travel into the past. Similarities, however, exist. Often, after restarting a level, the player ends up with the same situation in the story that he has earlier encountered; it is only too likely that he does not have the power-ups and weapons that he was accustomed to using in his past 'life'. In this sense of restarting a ‘life’ in the game world, then, he is reborn into the game. Regarding the journey back into the past, some karmic notions, especially Hindu beliefs, support the idea of being able to remember past lives and as Swami Abhedananda states, it is a power that can be achieved in the higher levels of Yoga.[6]

The word 'remember' plays a twofold part, here. The more obvious meaning is that associated with memory. As Atkins points out, from the second iteration of gameplay onwards, the shift changes from 'How do I do this' to How did I do this last time?' Memory plays a vital role in giving us cues for gameplay and at the same time, it complicates the temporal scheme because we remember our past 'life' in the same scenario while re-living it in another iteration. The second meaning of 'remember' is less usual. 'Remember' could be read as 're-member' where 'member' is used in its old sense connoting body parts. The act of remembering (as re-membering) could be likened to a putting together of a body (as opposed to dismembering). This dual connotation is well evinced by Assassin's Creed.

For those unaware of the game, the setting is that of a laboratory where, sometime in 2012, kidnapped bartender Desmond Miles's memory is being scanned for his experience in a secret group of assassins, in a past life. Before proceeding any further, two things need to be pointed out. Firstly, in the game, there’s a similarity with the yogic concept described above: only instead of the extraction of memories of a previous life, here the machine extracts ancestral memories through genetic code and to ‘re-live’ his ancestor’s life (again, almost like reliving a past life). The second point is about the protagonist or rather his ancestor called Altair ibn-La’Ahad (literally, 'the Eagle, son of no one'[7]). Altair is killed by his master for failing in a mission and then miraculously revived and given a second chance to redeem himself. Altair, the 'son of no one' is not born and does not die. The player playing Altair dies manifold within the game but lives again and plays out other instances of his narrative. Finally, Assassin's Creed consciously connects memory, death, multiple temporality and rebirths through an element in its gameplay. The protagonist, through his memory, recreates the body and the actions of Altair – as explained above, he 're-members' Altair. In a rather nice touch, Ubisoft illustrates this in the moments where, in an intentional glitch, the player's memory struggles to recreate Altair's image, which breaks up from time to time into a mesh of DNA patterns and nucleotide chains. Altair himself does not seem bothered with death – he dares to jump from the top of high towers and monuments in what is called a 'leap of faith', in the gameplay. Even when he dies, it is possible to move on to another seemingly parallel memory, where Altair is not dead and can continue on his further adventures. Neither is Altair the only life that Miles can remember – Assassin's Creed II will tell the story another descendant of Altair, this time a noble called Ezio di Firenze. These multiple strands of Time and the parallel lives and 'rebirths' of Altair and Miles, further explain the Prince of Persia's comment about Time being like an ocean and also prompt a comparison with the eschatologies of the Indic religions. Perhaps, it is not a coincidence that the Prince of Persia unleashed the Sands of Time in an Indian palace.

That the player's avatar necessarily does not die and can saved and reloaded in the game is a fact that reflexively allows videogames to engage in discourses on the multiplicity of Time. Earlier connections of the ludic with the philosophy of Time have existed for long in Hindu or vedantic traditions where Time (kala) and Karma are all subservient to the divine cosmic play or Lila. This play is beyond mortal comprehension and also beyond the limitations of the karmic cycles. Rather, this is more in the realm of the gods. Besides the cyclic comprehension of Time in the karmic cycles, there is a further conception of cyclic temporality that is uniquely associated with divinity. This is the concept of reincarnation or the avatar.


As previously observed, the iterations of gameplay are not the same thing as the rebirths in the karmic eschatologies. However, they bear a marked similarity with these in that they are involved in a multiplicity of temporal structures, often concurrent and certainly without a fixed teleology. Like the avatars in the Hindu pantheon, the player's avatar is at a given moment the same character and yet different. In one instance of gameplay, Altair is really weak and unable to face up to challenges while in another, he takes on a dozen Templars and vanquishes them. Both of these temporal strands might be located at the same point in the same narrative and yet they tell different stories. It is also possible, as Nitsche points out, to have multiple events portrayed simultaneously on the same screen and in the same game event:

XIII includes multiple frames that, like comic novels, tell an event over time and are framed in certain panels that overlay the main game view. At the same time, players stay in continuous control of the main character. Players have no difficulties understanding the situation although the temporal conditions are different from panel to panel to game world.[9]

Both Nitsche and Atkins, observe how Sands of Time allows the player to 'rewind' Time, as a necessary part of its narrative, thus reflexively recognising the multiple temporal frames that the save and reload function that is part of most videogames allow anyway. For example, after reaching point B from point A in the game, the player (as the Prince) can choose to rewind Time and return to point A. Thereafter, he can again travel to point B', with added knowledge of the situation (there is, of course, the possibility of random changes made by the AI to the game environment experienced in an earlier instance). In the story that the game tells, both of these strands are equally valid and there might be many more than two such instances (depending on the difficulty of the game and the number of times one needs to replay an event), which effectively creates a very complex mesh of temporality. The question also arises as to how the player's action(s), as occupying many separate chronologies and yet describing one event, is to be described. Finally, is the instance of the replay the same action (as in the replay of a goal 'event' in a football match) or is it different? It would perhaps not be wrong to say that it is the same difference.

This phrase obviously brings up an important issue in analysing the game-narrative. Considering how many times players 'die' in the course of the game and the number of replays involved, this issue ties in with other complex discourses on the multiplicity of telos and Time in philosophy, both ancient and modern. It is possibly because of this complexity that when the Buddha is posed questions about the mechanism of rebirth, he replies with a resounding silence. Unlike the Hindus, he does not accept the imperishable atman but at the same time, stresses on the doctrine of rebirth. Later Buddhist philosophy, tries to interpret Buddha's silence on how karma can pass on from one life to another. McDermott analyses the explanation of the Buddhist monk Nagasena as follows: 'The act (kamma) itself does not pass from one state to the next; it cannot be said to exist here or there. But since its potential cannot be prevented from actualising itself in due time, it may be considered to follow man like a shadow.'[10] Nagasena's concept contains the key ideas of the potential and the actual, which prove useful in analysing the event in videogames. It also captures the sense of how the player's action in a previous iteration of gameplay can have an effect on later instances.

Nitsche brings up this idea of repetition of play through his comment on Brenda Laurel's 'flying wedge' figure where Laurel proposes to explain the player's learning process as a 'gradual development of player behaviour from the possible, via the probable towards the necessary.'[11] For Nitsche, players experience the same event in the game's fictional time differently, because the later iteration of gameplay has already been influenced by the earlier (that is, in most cases, the second time the player has some idea about the obstacles ahead). This effectively skews the 'wedge' because players do not return to their former state and instead know more about the probable behaviour. These observations bring up a few questions. How is it possible to explain the multiplicity of time and of different instances of the same event? Are the later iterations of a videogame event contingent on the experience that the player carries forward, and finally, are all these instances different or the same?

Nagasena's reply to the questions posed by King Menander, mentioned above, argues against karma being carried by a fixed agent and with fixed results. So his scheme is quite different from the far simpler Hindu belief of karma where one's next birth is rigidly codified according to one's actions in this one (in this there are strange formulations, such as, if one steals green leafy vegetables, he will be reborn as a peacock). Similarly any game experience is not literally carried forward as a sort of karma (in its original sense, meaning 'action'). However, it forms part of the changing potentiality that is variously actualised in every event in the game. This later Buddhist concept is not easy to explain but it can be examined at greater length through another complex philosophical perspective. The ideas in question are those on difference and repetition as stated by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.
The complexity and gravity of both Deleuzian philosophy and Hindu or Buddhist theology is well recognised and it is not surprising that a connection with a seemingly disparate entity like the videogame is not the most obvious of things. However, the associations with such philosophical systems need to be made to explain multiplicity of Time in gameplay. Instead of trivialising the multiplicity of endings and death, based on the linearity Christian teleology, the full complexity of the issue needs to examined from other perspectives, ranging from pre-Christian theologies to modern philosophy. Finally, when analysing videogame narratives, it needs to be remembered that older methods of narrative analysis often miss point. Instead of solely basing the analysis of the 'tying and untying' of the plot (desis and lusis in Aristotelian dramaturgy), videogames show how criticism should also seriously consider the 'dying and undying'.

[1] Gonzalo Frasca, ‘Ephemeral Games: Is It Barbaric to Design Videogames after Auschwitz?’ [accessed 23 November 07]
[2] Gananath Obeyesekere, ‘The Rebirth Eschatology and Its Transformations: A Contribution to the Sociology of Early Buddhism’ in Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, ed. by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1983), pp.139-49
[3] James P. McDermott, ‘Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism’ in Karma and Rebirth, p. 175
[4] Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, ed. by Donald A. Yates and James E.Irby (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 53.
[5] Barry Atkins, 'Killing Time: Time Past, Time Present and Time Future in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time', in Videogame, Player, Text, ed. by Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska, vols (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 243
[6] Swami Abhedananda, Reincarnation, (Project Gutenberg), [accessed 29 August 2009]
[7] ‘Assassin’s Creed wiki’, [accessed 29 August 2009]
[8] Bhagavad Gita , Chapter IV-7.
[9] Michael Nitsche, 'Mapping Time in Video Games' in: Situated Play: Proceedings of the Third International Conference of the Digital Games Research Association DiGRA '07 ed. by Akira Baba (University of Tokyo, Tokyo, 2007), p.145-152
[10] McDermott, ‘Karma and Rebirth’, p.168
[11] Nitsche, ‘Mapping Time in Videogames’.
[12] Souvik Mukherjee, ‘Gameplay in the Zone of Becoming: Locating Action in the Computer Game’ in Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, 2008, ed. by Stephan Gϋnzel, Michael Liebe and Dieter Mersch (Potsdam: University of Potsdam, 2009), pp. 228-241
[13] Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London, New York: Continuum, 2002), p. 28
[14] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: The Athlone Press, 1994)p. 358
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Deleuze, p. 353
[18] Deleuze, p.105; emphasis mine.


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You Played That? Yes, I've been playing that game criticism game for ages

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Just read about the 'You Played That' panel at Digra on Andrew's site (he is blogging his detailed notes on whatever he's attended so is high on my recommendation list - far better than the desultory tweets). Am very happy that the senior academics are finally interested in close-reading games. Something I've been trying to for ages (Reading Games and Playing Books, ergo). Hoping that this increase in interest in close readings of walkthroughs etc will improve research in the area.

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Responses to Some of the Questions at my DIGRA Paper

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Presenting at DIGRA was a dream come true.Back in them days, when I used to I used to wait for ages for my dial-up to download a DIGRA paper and suddenly the infamous Calcutta power-cuts would frustrate all my endeavours... II never thought I'd be at one of these conferences.

Well, I made it and now my paper's done. As my earlier post said, the paper was on Indic eschatologies and the multiple temporality in videogames. Not surprisingly, I re-traversed my favourite topic of difference, repetition and endings. Again, not surprisingly, I went back to Deleuze.

I am quite satisfied with the paper - in the way I never am, because all I aimed to do was to open up some perspectives and not to defend a thesis. The upshot of it all was that seen from alternative viewpoints (theological and philosophical), the multitelic instances of gameplay complicate the very idea of narrative itself. Through its obvious presence videogames, this complexity is also revealed in earlier and more canonical forms of narrative. Indeed, coming from a literary background, my prime concern happens to be narrative in the videogame.

The paper itself is not in the conference proceedings - because I messed up and did not submit on time. So I'll put it up here. I still use (and will forever use) the very idiosyncratically British MHRA citation system but I'm sure you can put up with it. Fact is, it took me almost three years to get the hang of it.

Now, for some answers to the questions I was asked:

Q1: how can the difference and repetition (and Karma as actualisation of potentialities) idea be squared with recorded instances of the game (i.e. in games where you can switch on the recording mode and replay your record - not 'replay' as in reloading a savegame but an action replay as in a football telecast)?

I view even that as a different event that paradoxically is the same. the difference here lies in the fact that the event is actualised under different factors (singularities) , for example, the pressing of the record button.

Q2: I don't remember the exact question since I was half-dead with fatigue by then - in short, why is all this linking with karma etc useful? We already know that games have repeating instances.

Well, I am interested in narratives in videogames and one of the reasons why game-narratives are considered problematic is because of their multiple instances - which effectively confuse the hell out of formalist narratologies. To analyse the story(ies) in the game is to grapple with the problem of repetition. And no, the problem of repetition is not a given and is far more complex than game studies yet can tackle. Fresh perspectives are therefore necessary. This, however, has not fallen from the sky ... ancient philosophies were already engaging with this : games add to this serious philosophical discussion. another reason why games are important. my conclusion was pretty clear about this. And yes, Deleuze is very important in engaging with this. Game theorists the world over are now beginning to approach game studies from the Deleuzian perspective (read Bogost and Galloway for a start). I was also heartened that the commissioning editor of MIT Press, Doug Sery, made the obvious connection with DeLanda (himself an important commentator on Deleuze) and videogames --- something that academics in the field have often missed.

This also partly answers another question I don't see death in games as being trivial - because I'm looking at the narrative aspect. Even if you look at it like Frasca does ('it trivialises life' etc), as I say, this is a limited response based on a linear theology.

And after that little lecture, a question which though answered somewhat clearly at the time, is beginning to make me think in retrospect:

Q3: Is there a connection between videogames and the religious experience?

I'm not sure and i think I need to think this through. The paper, however, uses the theology in its philosophical aspect and shies away from religious commentary. This question, however, opens up a whole new angle (by the way, The Escapist was supposed to do an issue on games and religion).

Jesper Juul's comment on board-games also involving similar issues is interesting. I know I need to do something on Indian conceptions of play (Lila and khel/ krira etc) but am hesitant because this will involve a rather heavy study (parallel to the work on Huizinga etc) that I am reluctant in undertaking just yet, especially with my scant knowledge of the field.

Arnav Jhala's comments backing up my response about the Indian gaming situation were helpful: I didn't know that some people have tried making a Mahabharat game.

Anyway, got to get some sleep before leaving home at an ungodly hour to attend the last day of DIGRA. Apols for the stacatto writing. And I'll upload the paper tomorrow after cleaning it up a bit.


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DIGRA at last! When it almost looked like all chances of getting the day off were forfeit, my colleagues at work came to the rescue. Thanks Elaine and Sanj.

The troubles were worth it. Day One at DIGRA was a rewarding experience. Of course, there was much that I missed (e.g. Bernard Perron's paper). The sessions that I went to, however, were brilliant. The Bad Games panel led by Jesper Juul started with the discussion of 'camp' games and a discussion of para-gaming. Juul defined four categories of 'taste': traditional, casual, indie and 'good' (academic) taste. A 'bad' game would be breaking with the requisite elements of the above, as the case may be. Juul highlighted the need for researching 'the great unplayed' comparing this with similar work on the 'great unread' going on Literary Studies (interesting comparison coming from a Ludologist, Jesper). Having come from a department with a strong recovery research presence, the literary side of this I am only too familiar with. I certainly agree with the need to research / resurrect interest in the games that suffer years of neglect and are even tagged as 'bad'. Of course, there's a historical perspective to the creation of the videogame canon. The reasons that the prolific 'bad' game creator Ian Gray's (Anglo-Saxon , mind you) China Miner has been tagged as bad and yet draws many an addicted fan to it are worth investigating.Anyway, I dwell too long on this. All in all, I think this is a great initiative taken by Jesper and co. If your forthcoming book explores more of this, I'm certainly buying it. The two other papers in the panel were also interesting. The comparison between full motion video in earlier games and the way this remediated / even copied B-movies is interesting. The social aspect of these so-called 'bad' games is also a thing to look into.

In the second session, I mistook the panel on film and games for the session on horror games (wonder how) but luckily for me, it was a great one. Michael Nitsche brought back the issue of Ludology and Narratology; although I hope not in the old way (well, i think not) with the famous 'versus'. I have blogged about such watertight categorisations earlier and written endlessly against such positions. Michael, as far as I understood, is doing something much more intellectually informed. He says that the problems that the L-N debate brought to light should not be ignored. I agree. He mentioned the problematics of doing and telling; to me the problem is much more complex than a (mis)reading of Genette on description and narration. Michael identifies the need for a performance studies approach to videogames. Incidentally, there was another lady at the conference who told me about her work on this. Both she and Michael mentioned Richard Schechner whom I now must read / read about. We are probably moving near Frasca's work on 'live theatre' Augusto Boal and games, which I much admire. Michael's uniqueness comes from his deep knowledge of both the theory and praxis of film. He used examples of camera usage in games (read his book for some nice examples) to illustrate how the framing of the action was important in the conflation or otherwise relating of the action and the telling. For me, of course, this is a form of actualisation of the potential. Two things that Michael mentioned struck me as quite important and I'll just copy out these points straight from my notes:

Aram Barthollie FPS glasses

In Natal, how do we control the camera?

After Michael's presentation, there was another nice one by Eric Campion. Again a few points from my notes (i'm tiring out now):

Architecture is narrative


Game uses different parts of brain unlike film.

Not sure I agree with everything Campion says but then again, food for thought.

I went to some other sessions and listened to quite a few papers but either they weren't particularly relevant to my interest or else I was too zombiefied from the tiredness and the tension of having to present.

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Gamespot Article on Games and Narratives

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(read the article here:

Laura Parker of Gamespot Australia interviewed me a few days ago about that most contentious of subjects in videogame studies: the role of storytelling in games. Every time I speak about this, I do so with mixed feelings: I anticipate rising degrees of opposition, easy acceptance and finally, the risk of being scoffed at yet again for daring to equate videogames with the established and lofty notions of literariness. However, as the days have gone by since I first started thinking of videogames as storytelling media, academia has stopped considering videogames in the earlier pejorative light and pockets of research are emerging in the unlikeliest corners and adding academic respectability to videogames. Even as videogame studies has moved far beyond its earlier coaxial locations of some Scandinavian universities and Georgia Tech in the US, game studies has not yet decided on whether it wants to admit to the narrativity (another game studies coinage, I think) of videogames. Some of the so-called Ludologists have now softened their earlier anti-story positions and some like Jesper Juul, in his book Half Real and as quoted in Parker's article, have altogether re-evaluated the situation. I find it difficult to disagree with the spirit of Jesper's comment and I admire how much his position has developed in these ten years. By beginning to ask the important questions (particularly relevant to my interests are his notions about time in videogame narratives), he has opened up many avenues for other researchers. To comments such as that of Professor Dutton, all I would say is that they are not new. Robert Wilson was making a similar case against the ludicity of narratives and the narrativity of games as long ago as the 1960s. The Ludologists, especially those like Markku Eskelinen, Like his notions of Physics, Aristotle's conception of the plot (as might be inferred from his Poetics) have achieved a rather questionable sense of finality that most students of literature learn to question in their first undergraduate year (or so I hope). The formula of distinct beginnings, middles and ends is not universal. Neither do stories necessarily have predetermined endings. I could go on at length about how this applies also to Dutton's example of Homer's Odyssey (thinking about the Homeridae etc) but of that another time. Eastern (or shall we say non-Eurocentric) notions of narrative have always been at variance with such set parameters. Recent developments in literary theory also point towards multitelic stories. I will make another quick point here against Dutton's description of the story element in videogames as a 'window dressing' and his comparison of BioShock and GTA 4 with 'a tea-party for teddy bears'. While these make me laugh, it is quite clear that such conclusions are extremely contestable. The teddy-bear bit quite intrigues me - a very unusual metaphor considering the plots of the games he cites. As for the 'window-dressing', oh well, I think that the whole context of the games involves a supplementary narrative experience (for the Derrideans out there, the word 'supplementary' was used on purpose - read the right hand column of Ludus Ex). Finally, whoever said that we do not get inside the characters we play - I know of people (and can see at least one in the mirror) who often feel as if they are Max Payne or Gordon Freeman. Shan't say any more on this.

Anyway, I really liked Laura's article. She doesn't take sides and presents the case lucidly while also reminding people that this is important stuff. I learnt a lot from the article - Rhianna Pratchett's comments being my favourite. Am eagerly awaiting the next part of the article (coming out next Friday) - check out Gamespot Australia or watch this space. I had so much more to say on this but then my 9 to 5 job usually kills all my enthusiasm by the end of the day (game research is increasingly becoming a luxury , yet again) and I am struggling to keep my eyes open. Thanks a lot to GameSpot Australia for discussing this issue and for featuring my comments.

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Graduation Day

I am now finally and undisputably Dr Souvik Mukherjee after being awarded my PhD scroll at a grand (and expensive) graduation ceremony at Nottingham's Royal Centre on 22nd July. Later on, in between the 'official' ceremony and my celebrations with close friends, I had a mini ceremony of my own, befitting the spirit of my research so far.

Visiting GameStation in my doctoral gown.

In August Company: (from right) Dan, Phil, John and me. Dave I missed you at this one.

With my parents


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DIGRA: forthcoming paper

Here's my DIGRA paper abstract. Here, I develop a salient point in my thesis and, in a dialogue with earlier commentary, explore the pattern(s) of time in videogames. The paper itself is work in progress and early comments are most welcome.

'Remembering How We Died': Memory, Death and Temporality in Videogames

Death is an intrinsic part of gameplay. On considering the role of killing, dying and negotiating the 'undead' in videogames, one cannot be faulted for noting in them an obsessive engagement with the act of dying. It is almost a prerequisite that the player's avatar has to 'die' many times in the process of unravelling the plot. Instead of the traditional tying and untying (desis and lusis) of narrative plots, held sacrosanct since Aristotle, videogame narratives are characterised by 'dying and undying'. The sense of an ending, as literary theorist Sir Frank Kermode calls it, is constantly frustrated by its absence in videogames. Western conceptions of ending, whether Hellenic or Judaeo-Christian, are based on telos and a linear temporality. In a culture where death is a grim finality and where resurrection is only possible by the divine, videogames seem to shockingly trivialise death by adding to it the perspective of multiplicity. Videogame theorist, Gonzalo Frasca, observes that from the perspective of real life, this reversibility can be seen as something that 'trivializes the "sacred" value of life'. This paper argues against such a conception and in doing so, it points to how videogames to a different but equally serious view of death and endings that has so far been largely ignored due to an occidental bias.

In Vedantic and Buddhist philosophy, belief in reincarnation is the norm rather than the exception. The multiplicities of death(s) is, therefore, not trivial. This, however, is not to claim a straightforward connection of the videogame endings with the rebirth cycle in these world-views, especially since there are many differences within and between them. Not to consider them at all, however, would skew the analysis, given that the characteristics of videogames though considered 'trivial' in a Western paradigm, actually connect to ideas that pre-date Christianity. The videogame protagonist, also called avatar (which requires a separate discussion), dies, lives and lives again; thus replaying the cycle of his or her existence. Within the context of the game-narrative, each death or ending is important: often, as Michael Nitsche states, death can be a way of exploring the game or of obtaining information about 'future' possibilities. That apart, each ending is connected to the assemblage that the game narrative forms. Despite their other mutual differences, in Vedantism and Buddhism the key idea of rebirth does not trivialise the event of death. Instead of a transmigration of an essence, Buddhism believes in a moment-to-moment process of rebirth dependent on the encompassing circumstances. The Gita states that 'the newly moulded inner nature will express in a new form.' The 'new' form is called avatar in Hinduism; gods are often (re)born in different reincarnations or avatars and this is part of the divine play or lila. The term avatar is rather freely used in game criticism as meaning 'player embodiment' which is but part of its original significance; its key connotations of reincarnation and immanent existence have so far been ignored.

While these non-Western perspectives indicate an alternative reading of death in videogames, their heavily moral and religious implications make any easy equation problematic. Their ideas of immanence, nevertheless, connect well to games where the same avatar re-experiences the game-world but differently, each time – a complex case of difference and repetition. This, importantly, also connects with current ideas in Western philosophy, such as Gilles Deleuze's understanding of immanence and temporality. The avatar in the game experiences events, including death(s), as actualisations of a virtuality of events. The actualisation takes place from within a combination of possible events, which in turn are determined by their spatial and temporal environments. Further, even as an actualisation takes place, the other iterations of the gameplay (such as other instances where the same section of the game was played) still remain quite 'real'. In the Deleuzian sense, this is a real virtuality or one that is 'never past either in relation to a new present or in relation to a present it once was.' For Deleuze, the different actualisations are like the dice-throws in a 'Divine Game', where they are multiple but at the same time partaking in the One. Following this, he proposes that the idea of death be treated 'less as a severance than an effect of mixture or confusion'. Traditional conventions of death are influenced by the idea of time as a chronological progression. When faced with phenomena such as videogames, where chronological progression gives way to more immanent structures; firmly believed in conceptions about death, memory and event are greatly problematised. With this in consideration, this paper will attempt to build upon the discussions on temporality already started by critics such as Jesper Juul, Barry Atkins and Nitsche. Carrying these forward both in terms of game studies and contemporary philosophical discourse, it will attempt to understand the importance of in-game death: as both immanent and imminent.


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Sherlock Holmes Reloaded

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Apologies again for the long absence especially to regular readers and PKD-Day 3 attendees. This has indeed been a rather difficult time both on personal and professional fronts. Today's post is an attempt to make up for the silence and also to record the memories of a singularly entertaining conference. I mean the The Afterlives of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes conference held in the University of Hull today. I went despite the intense stress of this week's workload and after literally writing my 'paper' and preparing my presentation in a single evening!

A brief outline of the papers as culled from my notes. For me the conference started with papers on Laurie King's Mary Russell stories – for the uninitiated, in these pastiche novels Sherlock Holmes gets married to Russell, who is a formidable detective in her own right. The discussion ranged from cross-dressing, feminist perspectives to the nature of Holmes pastiches. Sabine Vanacker's paper, while providing learned perspectives on various other aspects, particularly interested me with the analysis of the Holmes stories as taking place in a repeated presence. Sabine also pointed to the chronological anomaly in the Holmes stories and how Carole Nelson Douglas and King establish a clearer chronological relationship in their Holmes pastiches. The best part of her paper, for me, was the description of Holmes's stories as a virtual palimpsest of texts and context. Palimpsest --- that's how I would describe gameplay.

I also particularly liked Annushka Donin's first-time paper on metafiction in the Holmes and Poirot novels. She established a network of textual relations through a comparative analysis and drew out interesting parallels. This is apparently Annoushka's undergraduate work being developed here – I wish I had even one such undergrad in my seminars. She seems to be on her way to engage with more theoretical perspectives and I was obviously thinking of post-structuralist viewpoints.

All the papers that I heard were great. M. Lee Alexander made an interesting case about detective figures being 'wounded' or disabled in some way or other. She provided a long list (to which I added Max Payne) but surprisingly, all of the names on the list were male! Patricia Pulham and Jennifer Palmer both looked at aspects of historicising fiction. Patricia discussed Julian Barnes's novel on Doyle's one and only attempt at detection – I must read it. In my own panel, Harvey O'Brien entertainingly presented on the variety of filmic responses to Sherlock Holmes including 'The Great Mouse Detective' and the Christopher Plummer Sherlock Holmes ('Murder by Decree'). The other panelist, Sally Widdowson, interestingly explored the link between Sidney Paget's Sherlock Holmes illustrations and modern graphic novels such as the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Very interesting, all said and done.

What I missed though was more of a chance to socialise and chat. Though I did make up for it by joining some other presenters on a stroll through Hull. Finally, like all the conferences that I have been to recently, this one ran simultaneous panels and I missed some of the papers that I was keen on listening to. Bran Nicol's paper on Bayard, Eco and conjecture seems really interesting from his abstract and on talking to him after my session (which he chaired). Interestingly, he too describes the structure of the Holmes novels as 'rhizomatic'.

My own paper did what I expecteed it to do – I felt that it opened up Sherlock Holmes scholarship in different aspects and developed on the connection between the multiplicity of narratives and videogames. One of the questions that I was asked was how I would make a Sherlock Holmes videogame. A storyboard is already building up within the recesses of my head and it certainly isn't elementary.

Anyway, here's my abstract:

Sherlock Holmes never faced his final problem. Just as he re-emerged from the Reichenbach Falls after being 'killed off' by his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes has lived on in a multiplicity narratives ranging from the new Holmes tales told by the likes of Anthony Burgess to adventures on the Holodeck of the starship Enterprise. It is this multiplicity combined with that makes the Holmes tales key predecessors of more recent forms of storytelling, especially the story in videogames. The videogame player after 'dying' in an attempt to 'complete' the multitelic narrative, does a Sherlock Holmes and replays his existence in a different way. The Holmes stories can be viewed as proto-videogames by analysing them side by side with Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened (referred to as The Awakened hereonwards), a videogame based Holmes investigates an as-yet-unsolved mystery. Created in the adventure game genre, albeit with attempts to include different visual points-of-view, The Awakened, is characterised by a multitelic structure; it also emphasises its multiplicity by placing Holmes in the Lovecraftian world of the Cthulhu mythos.

Theorists of so-called New Media have argued for multiplicity as being a key factor in determining the novelty of hypertexts, interactive fiction and videogames. However, this conception can be challenged by a closer look at earlier forms of multiple narratives such as the Holmes stories. Analysed in comparison to The Awakened, the Sherlock Holmes stories as told over the last century, emerge as far more multiple than was earlier assumed and reveal greater complexities of authorship, plot and telos. To do so, this paper will engage with Gilles Deleuze's concept of multiplicity, which makes it possible to view the stories as actualisations of a mesh of virtual narratives, where Holmes continually emerges from his various endings only to start again – almost as if he plays a videogame.

Oh yes, I called my paper 'Sherlock Holmes Reloaded'.

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PKD-Day 3@NTU is a Huge Success

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My absence from Ludus ex this time was due to the fact that I was co-organising PKD-Day with Prof John Goodridge from my department. NTU had another fab event: the third successful PKD-Day. We did it again.

PKD-Day, as regular readers of Ludus ex, will know is a small and offbeat event for those who enjoy the works of Philip Kindred Dick, the legendary Science Fiction writer. For the absolutely uninitiated, he's the guy who wrote the Blade Runner book (called do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). This time's event had an interesting mix of papers featuring Baudrillardian responses to Dick's work, the Dickian response to ideas of humanity, the police-state in Dick's novels, samizdat responses to Dick on YouTube and a Gnostic reading of PKD. My own paper was on how the Phildickian world is actually like a videogame because of the alternate realities and parallel tracks of time that Dick (in a very Deleuzian way, I argue) presents in his books and discusses at length in his talk 'If You Find This World Bad, Go Take A Look at Others'. I used the obvious example of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to start my discussion. self-reflexively states that time is not linear like a river but like an ocean. Then I looked at Dick's novels The Man in the High Castle and Ubik in terms of the alternate realities they posit.

There were two highlights of the day. One was the lovely lunch that John had laid out for us and the other was the key attraction: a Skype conversation with Tessa Dick, PKD's last wife. This, although effected using improvised means (since the university apparently doesn't support Skype), worked out really well in that the audience were able to ask Tessa questions and hear her live, without our having to pay the loads of money for airfare or telephony that our small event cannot afford. Tessa spoke on A Scanner Darkly, PKD's philosophy and even PKD's cats.

Besides these events, we also had a workshop to discuss the reading experiences of the participants and thereafter, a chance to reconvene at a local pub (which took us 30 mins to reach on foot, courtesy my superb planning!). Anyway, the ale was good (even though they ran out of Bombardier) and the event came to a fantastic close. The papers and more details about PKD-Day will be available on the event's website. We also aim to create a mailing list to keep the PKD-Day community active and involved.

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Shall We Kill the Pixel Soldier? Paper at Under the Mask, 2009

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This was my first collaborative paper and I must say a big 'thank you' to my co-presenter Jenna Pitchford for her thorough work and cooperation despite tight schedules and other problems. In one of Jenna's presentations in our university, I realised the wider definition of trauma that she was using was vital in analysing videogame experiences and in countering the false politically motivated allegations against games. This is changing now; as Ernest Adams told us, the first console has now been installed in the White House and polemic might now turn to policy in favour of games. However, whatever happens, the need to understand that games do not merely desensitise and that they cause a different level of trauma (some can even raise moral concerns) is imminent. We are not psychologists or trauma specialists but Jenna's work on Gulf and Iraq War narratives and mine on gameplay experiences come together in stating that the problem is more complex than has hitherto been understood.


Shall We Kill the Pixel Soldier? : Perceptions of Trauma, Morality and Violence in Combat Videogames

It felt like I was in a big video game. It didn't even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

Sgt. Sinque Swales quoted in The Washington Post

Sergeant Swales’ comment provides an easy link from the so-called moral desensitisation of soldiers in the 2003 Iraq War to their experience of videogame combat, an apparent connection that is eagerly picked up on by Western media. Videogame criticism, surprisingly distancing itself from contemporary challenges to the notion of media effects, persists in conflating the technologically-mediated experience of the Gulf War with the increasingly face-to-face interaction in recent Middle-Eastern conflicts. Contemporaneous accounts have compared the Gulf War to the electronic experience of ‘a child playing atari’; despite vast developments in gaming, commentators still contend that ‘thus far, games have avoided engaging the real-life issues to which they are responding’. A key issue that games are accused of avoiding is that of combat trauma. Contrary to such positions, many videogames already simulate the trauma in their gameplay experience; this paper will explore this concept from Laura Brown's definition of trauma as ‘outside the range of human experience’. This evokes recent work in games studies on in-game involvement and identity-formation. It also opens up further questions against ignoring the role of morality in gameplay, especially in multiplayer interaction in combat games like Counter-Strike, Call of Duty 4 and America's Army. Working from these hitherto overlooked aspects of trauma in gameplay experiences, our analyses challenge the oversimplified association of videogames with the desensitisation of US troops in recent conflicts, and by extension, with wider issues of violence.

read the full paper here


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Under the Mask 2009

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Once again at 'Under the Mask'. Can't believe that a whole year has passed since I first tested out my ideas on 'egoshooting' and 'becoming' in videogames. This year's conference was better organised and even more enriching and entertaining than it was last year. Some of the presentations, particularly Gavin Stewart's, Steven Conway's and Alec Charles's, I liked and benefited from more than the others. I missed Esther MacCallum-Stewart's paper because I went to hear Steven and Jenna, my co-presenter, later told me that I had missed the best paper in the conference. My loss, but the paper is online so I presume I can read it now. On the entertainment side of it, the constant repartee between Alec and Gavin was already expected from my experience of it last year. The philosophy of computer games as recounted by Ernest Adams (the keynote) certainly entertained although I strongly disagree with most of it. There was one of the usual 'magic circle' debates among the panelists; only this one led to Pride and Prejudice and speculations about whether it was possible to find Darcy's grave. I also enjoyed Esther's description of her WoW battle with the great Espen Aarseth himself. Last but not least, perhaps the most entertaining part was Jenna's adventurous GTA-style driving on the way back. (this is a long post so if you are just after the papers download them from here)

This posting will be in part a response to some ideas I either contest or wish to develop. It will also attempt to provide a general summary of the conference.

Philosophising on Computer Games: An Alternative Response to Ernest Adams

I do not know if there is a 'philosophy of videogames' but I work with two philosophers, in the main, to formulate my own thoughts on games; so though I won't go as far as to point to a 'videogame philosophy', I'll certainly agree that there is an imminent need to think about videogames philosophically. I went to (and presented at) the Games and Philosophy Conference at Potsdam, last year and I was happily rewarded with some of the most philosophically oriented discussions on videogames. When Ernest Adams opened his keynote address on the philosophical roots of computer games, I was expecting more of such discourse. Adams has always appealed to me in the way he bashes the academia for needlessly engaging in the ludology-narratology (non)debate and in the way he understands gameplay as 'difficult to define' rather than trying to define it within a set formula. Therefore, I was surprised when he tossed game studies (if there is such a thing) between the binaries of English and French philosophy as well as the classical and the Romantic.

Videogames, he says, are number-driven and logic-driven. Their orientation is more classical than Romantic. For Adams, videogames (those that tell stories, that is) do create a tussle between the classical and Romantic identities but even these can at best compare to Norse Saga or Victorian novels. Videogames have not had their Modernist or Postmodern text. To back this up, he considers the oft-cited 'postmodern' experience of the break in the fourth wall / magic circle (or whatever you will) and claims that it is not a break in the immersion ( how i hate the word ... shall we call it 'involvement' or something else, please?) because the player is never really immersed. So much for 'flow' and Cszikzentmihalyi (pronounced 'Chicks send me high') then, if one listens to Adams.

As I said earlier, I so disagree with a lot of what he says. Against the French / English philosophy binarism: according to Adams, the philosophy of videogames has nothing to do with Derrida, Bergson and Sartre (because they are French and inductive) and everything to do with Locke, Hume and Whitehead (because they are English and deductive). I am being flippant here but this is how such a binarism sounds. I am not sure what aspects of Bergson's works, Adams considers but he certainly does not take into account how Gilles Deleuze uses, quite effectively, Bergson, Whitehead and Hume to engage in supplementing each other's concepts. The watertight binarism certainly isn't a product of nationality; nor is there a clear-cut binarism of inductive versus deductive. Or even of Classical versus Romantic for that matter. Nietzsche, whom Deleuze reads deeply, says in Ecce Homo that The Birth of Tragedy is his 'most offensively Hegelian' book because of its dialectical opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysiac (roughly corresponding to Classical and Romantic). Nietzsche clarifies that he understands 'Greek tragedy as the Dionysiac chorus which ever anew discharges itself in an Apollonian world of images.' Adams's binarism, therefore, has been challenged and disproved in philosophical terms, over a century ago. He refers to David Thomas's (of 'Buzzcut' fame) article on gaming as belonging to Pre-Socratic philosophy, which Thomas understands as 'all is number' in a very limited sense. As Keith Ansell-Pearson comments, Nietzsche explicitly connects the Dionysiac with the concept of flow and Becoming as stated by Heraclitus, a key Pre-Socratic philosopher. Deleuze goes on to develop Nietzsche's reading into an idea of Becoming that is now of legendary proportion. In my last year's paper at UTM (as well as in many other papers), I have applied the idea of Becoming to videogames, especially to describe the involvement of the player and the machine. However, I digress ...

Adams's claim about the player's immersion, i partly support. I have often likened immersion to a dip in the Ganges - under water and fully out of contact with the outside world. That does not happen in games, says Adams and I totally agree. However, if it does not happen in games, neither does it happen in books and movies as Adams seems to claim. Normally I have to challenge the other extreme argument that claims that games are like the Holodeck - hence, this new claim is rather amusing for me. Typically, then this would problematise even the relocation of the fourth wall (after Steven's paper, I shan't say 'breaking' ever again) - for Adams, the experience does not include the deep involvement that Esther pointed to while describing her deep gaming experience which made her oblivious to other passengers on the train. In sum, Adams makes a rather extreme claim for the game experience and it is one that does not account for the deep involvement. I believe that extreme and dialectically opposite positions should consider the experience as being more processual and engage with ideas such as Becoming to explain this.

These problematic conceptions also prompt Adams to conclude that videogames are sans their Modernist or Postmodernist examples and should rather be compared to Pre-modernist literature. However, any literature student will know that chronology does not work as a categorising element in literature - not any more. Consider the Modernist and Postmodern implications of Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones. One more point that I cannot resist making although it is a sort of digression.

Adams claims that Victorians did not use their machine to create art. He has probably forgotten Ada Lovelace who wished to use Babbage's Analytical Engine for 'poetic programming' or weaving artistic patterns with music (in other words, being a computer DJ). Babbage himself used to impress his guests with automata built to entertain. Cultural Babbage offers many examples as does my own article on the subject. Even in the 'steampunk' novels that Adams refers to, there are ample examples: in The Difference Engine, John Keats (otherwise famous in our world) earns his living as a 'clacker' (hacker/programmer) who programs for the cinema.

To return to my main contention, however. Adams neglects many videogame titles that do not correspond to the Norse saga structure that he sees in Duke Nukem or Quake. Many games problematise the idea of good and bad binaries. Max Payne, Stalker (which Adams was consulted on), Fahrenheit, GTA etc in their own ways relate to current theoretical and philosophical positions. In yesterday's conference, ironically most of the philosophers discussed by the presenters were French and postmodern (i use this term loosely and rather unhappily). I've just found out that Adams' paper was first published in 2004 - a year before I started my PhD. It is to my discredit that I did not find it earlier - or else I would challenged it more substantially within my thesis. However, even in in 2004, there were games like Blade Runner that would, in essence, challenge the simple story structure that Adams claims for videogames. It just shows how important it is to start studying the stories in videogames in more depth instead of endless quibbling over things like player studies versus game studies.

Steven Conway Relocates the Fourth Wall

Steven if you are reading this, then you'll see that the masthead of Ludus Ex is all about what you said in the conference. 'I was in a computer game. Funny as hell it was the most horrible thing i could think of'. In fact, even in RL (which one of Sherry Turkle's respondents calls 'another window') I sometimes feel a relocation of an imaginary 'fourth wall' (or nth wall) which in a Phildickian way seems to surround us (assuming that life is an ARG, ha ha).

Back to academic blogging (see i've already relocated the fourth wall).Snap!

I liked the way in which Conway spoke of the relocation of the fourth wall rather than the breaking of it. He basically proved previous commentators wrong in one neat slash and numerous examples from other media that many game critics hadn't considered. The examples are too many to recount and I sincerely wish I could share his presentation with the readers of Ludus Ex. However, he spoke of how Max Payne refers self-reflexively to its identity as a videogame and how Psycho-Mantis 'reads' the player's mind in a faux-psionic way and makes the player perform acts outside the game in order to defeat him. Other critics would call this being pulled 'out of the game' but Conway contends that it is instead an extension of the game. It could be a contraction or the expansion of the fourth wall but it is still the maintenance of the 'as if' that the play involves. I am not one for magic circles or Hamlets on Holodecks, but Conway, if I read him right, is not either. As far as the play is concerned, I think the idea of the relocation is spot on. To illustrate this in terms of Brechtian 'alienation effect' (Snap! Correct me if I err, Steven. I am not writing like an academic now. The punctuation is intentional and many 'rap' poets relocate the fourth wall thus), in the game, the spectator is being reminded of a reality A that is different from the game's reality B while existing in another reality C which corresponds closely and almost resembles reality A. I agree with the concept of relocation also because it implicitly negates any final watertight (or even semi permeable) boundary which we have to 'break'; instead it shifts the experience to a different level of Becoming. This fits in with my conception of a Deleuzian Becoming, as well.

I was only intrigued that Conway does not refer to Gonzalo Frasca's use of the concept of the 'spect-actor' as borrowed from the drama of Augusto Boal. In a sense, Frasca also seems to support the relocation argument on a more general scale. Frasca talks of 'outmersion' where the player is conscious of being involved in the game and then he describes 'meta-outmersion' where the player is simultaneously conscious also of being 'outmersed'. If the spectator is simultaneously the actor, this is a constant process and the wall (or whatever imaginary membrane) of the act does not really break but it is relocated. All said, however, this is was a very interesting paper from Conway and I would certainly like to read more.

Shifting Boundaries: Gavin Stewart's Presentation on Paratexts and 'Inanimate Alice'

The other paper that I will briefly discuss in Gavin Stewart's. I had never heard Gavin present but I always had a deep respect for his work when he was at my university (i even called him 'sir' for the first two times i met him, he reminds me). Gavin spoke about a website called Inanimate Alice, Genettian ideas of paratext (as (mis)used by Mia Consalvo) and Bioshock game covers. The talk woke me up to the fact that I usually unconsciously take in so much from game covers. Must add this to my post-doc plan. Gavin also eloquently pointed to how even non-game objects are ludic to a degree, as they require. Inanimate Alice can, therefore, be a ludic entity at times. Similarly, ARGs can be a 'real life' entity as well as a ludic entity. It is also interesting to note how the paratexts of games affect our readings and play and also how games themselves work as paratexts. Finally, the often neglected (in my previous theoretical work, especially) element of the market needs to be considered in-depth. I will need to explore this further in my own research and thinking.

General Observations

First, I'd like to thank the organisers for having invited us (Jenna and me). The interest that the event evoked among the many gamers (you wouldn't use this term if you were there at yesterday's debate) was very encouraging. Among the other papers, I enjoyed Alec Charles' paper (thanks for thanking me about 'egoshooters'; credit also goes to my friend Mark Butler). The concept of 'hailing' in Althusserian terms has already been used by Will Slocombe in his essay on ludic agency (Digital Gameplay ed. Nate Garrelts). I am not sure I agree. I've said a lot of about agency already. Click here for an example. Of the others, I thought Maria Baecke could have developed her interesting study a bit more and also that the paper on gamer mothers could have been more representative and supplied more details. I was happy to meet Philip Lin who presented on a somewhat similar topic as ourselves -- the US Army and 'militainment'. Philip is developing his PhD plan now: all the best. Adrienne Shaw presented a interesting case study of Finnish gaming and how it relates to the global experience. We should see more of these coming up... soon, hopefully. Finally, I must say I was slightly disappointed by Vicente Gandasgui's paper on spectatorship. I am not sure King Kong is the best example for game-film comparison and Gandasgui did not seem to be aware of ground-breaking work on cutscenes (such as Rune Klevjer's) and dismissed them by saying that his friends find them boring so they really don't count as parts of the game. He also missed key research in the area – especially by Tanya Krzywinska (who is also a film theorist in her own right) and Michael Nitsche. I am sure he will develop his research further as he progresses with his research in what is a very interesting topic.

And so we came away from 'Under the Mask' driving through the heavy spray, tired but quite satisfied with a great gaming day.

All the papers are now available here.

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