Game Philosophy Conference in Athens, April 2010

Philosophy and games come together yet again in the place where Western Philosophy started and the Olympic Games were launched.  Fancy a chance to ask Aristotle what his favourite videogame is? Come to the Games and Philosophy Conference being hosted in Athens, this April (6th to 9th).

I've never been to Athens. A few years back I could never have dreamt of going - let alone discussing identity in videogames in the hallowed ground of Greek philosophy. This is all too good to be true. And to miss. If you want to know more about the conference, here's the link to the cfp:

Trust me, this is one videogame event you should not miss.


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Souvik's Waterloo

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Waterloo, November 2010

Yesterday, I finally managed to beat Wellington and Bluecher’s combined armies near this little Belgian village called Waterloo. This happened on my third attempt when I finally decided to play on the easy skill level. Yes, I’ve bought Napoleon: Total War after reading all those rave reviews that dub it the best strategy game ever and although I haven’t gone very far with the campaigns, I’ve played all the historical battles that are available in the game. Waterloo, obviously is one of the most signficant. The historical battles begin with you playing as the British at Waterloo and end by putting you in the same battlefield as the French - talk about complex and nonlinear histories. Of that, however, another time. Here, I’m more concerned with strategy and with describing how I led Napoleon’s army to victory.

That's the man!

In the real battle of Waterloo, the British under the Duke of Wellington were facing Napoleon himself near Waterloo, an area that the Duke had visited and remembered from the previous year. The British army was actually a very mixed group of soldiers with many Dutch and Prussian units. They were stationed at a strategically advantageous position behind a ridge with only a fraction of their main strength exposed to Napoleon. Further, below the ridge lay three villages which they occupied: Papellotte on the left, Huguemont on the right and Le Hayes Sainte in the centre. The French forces were on lower ground within striking distance of the villages and with superior artillery. They had lost some vital time in beginning the attack on account of the ground being too muddy for the artillery to move. Wellington and Napoleon had never faced each other. The only way for the French to win was to defeat Wellington before his Prussian allies under Bluecher arrived to reinforce him. The Prussians did arrive in time and Napoleon suffered a devastating defeat after which he was exiled to St. Helena.

In Napoleon, the number of forces on each side are much less than in the actual battle. Nevertheless, the units that participate in the battle are all historical units and their placement on the battlefield is more or less accurate. The events, however, might be quite different because they depend on how you play the game. The battle is hard, very hard indeed. Quite uncannily you end up doing what Napoleon did in the actual battle and suffer the same consequences. I’ve watched Waterloo, the movie, countless times and read the battle plans as many times. Many a time had I thought that if I had a chance, I’d do it all differently. However, this didn’t quite work out in Napoleon and except on the easiest level, my troops were decimated to a man.

Waterloo: Battle Map in
Napoleon Total War

Even though I say so myself, I’m no mean armchair general. I’ve conquered the other Total War games with relative ease, even at the hardest levels. Napoleon, however, is way too hard. The AI is quite good and the game cheats a bit and starts you off with unfair handicaps. The three farmhouses are virtually indestructible and after a constant barrage of 12-pounder fire on them  for over an hour (game time), I was only able to cause 3% damage to Papellotte. Wellington’s troops have incredible high morale whereas even Napoleon’s Guard show their backs much more easily. Finally, Napoleon’s famed artillery is hardly present on the field. In Waterloo, Christopher Plummer (as Wellington) is heard saying that Napoleon moves his cannon as if they were pistols. In the game, Napoleon hardly has any cannon to move and those that he has are under sustained artillery attack seconds after the game starts. God, how I missed my 24-pounder howitzers from Empire: Total War.

The battle, however, was too big a challenge to resist - fighting in Waterloo against the heaviest odds which, as many forums testify, have beaten many good gamers was sheer glory. After the initial battle scene was revealed through a cutscene, the enemy cannon started blowing holes in the ranks of my fusiliers. Haste was required and I found myself frantically moving all my units save two corps of the Old Guard and Napoleon’s bodyguard. All this while, my stationed artillery fired at the British cannon, if only to draw fire away from my infantry units. Then, the siege of Papellotte began. Unlike Napoleon, I did not choose to tease the British at their strongest position and I did not tempt them out of the ridges that provided them with cover. I had attacked the British left, skirting around a hill towards Papellotte with the mass of my units and leaving two units of fusiliers to attack the farmhouse and one to wait as reserve.

The jaegers in Papellotte were overthrown after some initially effective resistance. The farmhouse in French hands,  my reserve fusiliers moved in to provide the extra support against any troops that might emerge from hiding (from previous gameplay, I knew that there was a detachment of Rifles concealed nearby).

Battle Plan for Waterloo in my gameplay of
Napoleon: Total War

As soon as I reached the far side of the hill near Papellotte, the Prussian army began to pour in. Marshal Grouchy who was sent to pursue them had clearly been as unsuccessful in the game as he was in the historical battle. I could almost hear Napoleon sighing, ‘Grouchy, Grouchy! How he tries my patience!’. Anyway, you don’t need to be a Bonaparte to get upset with incompetent colleagues. Seeing the Prussian move closer, I had my cannon unlimber and spray his front ranks with canister fire while my lancer cavalry dug into his rearguard which was already being harried by my grenadiers and fusiliers. The Prussian cavalry had by now come within range of my fusiliers who quickly formed squares to repel cavalry charges. Encouraged , and at the same time, not knowing what else to do I threw in my cuirassiers and Marshal Ney’s cavalry into the melee. My cavalry was, alas, destroyed to a man but by God, they managed to break the Prussians. Bluecher, their general, was dead and their artillery was being cut to pieces by my Chasseurs Cheval horsemen whom I had moved into this sector. The game AI here was quite spectacular in its stupidity. The British troops stood still and watched while I destroyed their allies. The Prussians destroyed, I had over four infantry divisions and the mounted Chasseurs to attack Wellington’s left flank with. Even more importantly, I had my horse artillery up on the mountain with Wellington’s flank at my mercy. Soon the Earl of Uxbridge’s horseman were scattered by volleys from my cannon. The dragoons and the Duke’s cavalry who charged to save their dying comrades were sliced to pieces by my fusiliers in square formation. Soon the British commanders were dead and my troops were proceeding to roll up the British lines like a carpet.

That, however, was not to happen too easily: the Black Watch intervened. Masses of these Scottish soldiers attacked me in waves, their red uniforms soaking up their blood but still their morale held and constant fire from two sides, canister fire from my artillery and two abortive cavalry charges could not break them. I had to throw my fresh division of the Young  Guard against them as my other two divisions routed. The Black Watch was beaten at last but as the last tartan uniforms were edging away to retreat, they created time for waves of British infantry to move into position and harass my Young Guard. An advancing column of Rifles (anyone familiar with Sean Bean from Sharpe’s Rifles ?) was  held back by my fusiliers in the Papellotte farmhouse. Time to send in the Old Guard.

The British finally attacked my left flank. Jaeger and Riflemen (remember Sharpe’s Rifles) attached my only Fusilier Regiment that remained intact  - firing at will, they almost broke my ranks. The Old Guard had just started marching and one Corps was despatched to destroy the British light infantry. The Jaegers and Riflemen dissolved into the forest whence they had emerged. This time, however, they didn’t retreat in order: they routed.  

I don't like St. 'Elena: going home after victory

My reserve was now poised towards attacking the British flank and my artillery kept firing ceaselessly. The Young Guard had held and the Fusiliers from Papellotte had given them some support. It was now the turn of the Old to replace the Young. Two companies of my elite Old Guard broke the British flank. I could now send Napoleon’s bodyguard to mop up the rear of the routing British and Dutch. They offered to surrender and I accepted. My men were exhausted and I couldn’t pursue. Shifting the camera further above the battlefield I actually saw the British soldiers running away - little red squares scattered on the mini-map while the blue squares representing my remaining army in a close formation on Wellington’s chosen hillock.

That’s how the Battle of Waterloo was won by Napoleon … by me.

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GameCity in Retrospect: Polemics and Playgrounds

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It's been a week since GameCity and I'm finally able to collect my thoughts on the event after getting through an extremely busy week. This is not a report but a few reflections on what impressed me most and what didn't.

Newport and Narratives

Once again, on the top of the list will be my conversations with the academics and students from the Uni of Newport's game design department. For the last three years, busloads of students from Newport have come to GameCity and this time they showcased their games to hundreds of visitors. I didn't get to see the games themselves but managed to chat with some of the designers (now famous as  Angry Mango Games) over a curry lunch. They are designing games about concepts that are offbeat in game design terms: Mush is a platform puzzler for Windows Mobile 7 where the player controls an orange fluffy character by tilting the phone. Even more unique is that by drawing a smiley or a sad face on the screen with your fingers makes the creature move. As the Blitz1UP website describes it:

The beauty of this system is that you really feel like you're affecting the little guy's emotions as you play, you find yourself smiling when you make him smile and growling when you make him angry - it really is fantastic fun.
I think I'll love this game. Obviously, in terms of narrative the experience is rather ambiguous but as I've always said narrative is experiential and how we construct it around a series of potential events depends on us. I wish I could experience the game first-hand but meanwhile there's a video of the gameplay on Youtube:

From the pupils to their lecturers: the previous evening I met up with the Newport teaching team, namely Corrado, James and Richard. This was the first ever occasion when I had a very serious discussion on videogame narratives in a Wetherspoons . Facing tremendous opposition from each other in a debate between James and myself that was moderated by Corrado and Richard, we came to an agreement about the need to redefine / understand what narrative means and to move towards an experiential model of narrative. Perception, affection and action - does that sound familiar at all (check Deleuze in Cinema 1)? The experiential notion of narrativity (if such a word exists) is something that I have highlighted extensively in my research and of course, it is sooo hard to disagree with a polite person like me. Anyway, Corrado has played STALKER (or valiantly tried to) and we both remembered having discussed the gameplay in relation to ludic agency about a year ago at DiGRA. We were dangerously close to another polemical discussion of agency when both the food and the drink had run out and it was time to leave.


I've written about Keita Takahashi sometime ago. For those who don't know him, he's the designer for the ever popular Katamari Damarcy and Noby Noby Boy games. Very offbeat, very artistic and not at all like videogames as they are commonly understood.

Anyway, Keita's dream is to design playgrounds. And thanks to Iain Simons (GameCity Director) and the Nottingham City Council, he's re-designing Woodthorpe Park on the outskirts of Nottingham. As Keita demonstrated his transition from designing virtual worlds to physical spaces while retaining all the creativity, the talk on Keita's playground became for me the highlight of GameCity. Imagine having benches in parks that move on rails (which means you can't ask your gf to meet you at a certain bench at a certain time), a doughnut-shaped slide that lets you slide eternally (might sound like a punishment invented by the Greek gods but it seemed to be fun as it was described), a swing that is  operated in a partnership with people on other swings and finally,  a slide combined with a see-saw.  Some of Keita's concepts might not pass muster with health and safety but I must say these are some of the wackiest ideas that I have ever come across for parks and playgrounds. It was interesting to see some very gamey creativity translated into more tangible play experiences. I wish Keita and the Woodthorpe Park project the very best. Finally, if he ever designs an entire city, I will go and live in it.

One of the many fun things in Keita Takahashi's playground

Networking Not working

The 'Notworking' event where I met the Newport guys among others was supposed to be a networking space for game professionals. Hosted in a hard-to-find bar called Nihon the not working title was quite apt for it. Nevertheless, the nature of the event meant that that despite the lack of any 'event' as such people did get to meet and chat so it turned out okay, I suppose.

Romantic Encounters

After a full 8.30 to 5 Thursday, I was in no mood for any encounter however romantic but curiosity got the better of me and I went to check out the only GameCity event by an NTU student. Doing her PhD on interactive media, Rebecca from the College of Art & Design organised a virtual meeting place within its real counterpart in Lee Rosy's Cafe in Nottingham.  I was allowed to talk to some of the participants in the 'romantic encounter' to find out what they thought of the event. The environment looked very Second Life -ish ... it probably was an SL scenario. The event had participants adopt fictitious personae and interact with each other in the cafe in a sort of group chat. While initially interested, some of the participants I interviewed seemed to have been tired towards the end --- the need for virtual seats was strongly felt. Also people wanted to sit down in pairs and talk to their partners instead of talking to everyone in the cafe. Finally, there were some clamours for more freedom - people wanted to touch things, order coffee etc. Personally, although I've seen this done before in other places but such 'encounters' between the real and virtual worlds are always intriguing in the variety of responses that one can get.

What I missed ...

I missed a lot, sadly. My one big gripe against the festival is that it does not think of people who have to do a day job but are also interested in videogames. So what did I miss? I missed a great event on the soundtrack of Limbo, another one on the music for the forthcoming Harry Potter game, a very popular demo event for the Kinect and let's see ... yes, Jonathan Blow on game design. Quite a lot of misses  considering that this might well be my last GameCity.

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CEDAR: After-action report

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Report on CEDAR. So much to say. Not sure how to say it best and what to leave out.

I'll start with Sonia Fizek's presentation. This was the first time I saw Sonia present - I missed her paper in the last Under the Mask. She spoke on how Second Life can work as an academic platform and after introducing us to virtual worlds via a preliminary typology, she pointed out how these, through their reliance on user experience, could be used to host lectures and seminars. I was much impressed with the Second Life Poly University Campus from which Sonia showed us snippets of her experience. Looking forward to experiencing this for myself. In my own practice as Technology Learning and Development Adviser at NTU, I think her videos can prove a very useful introduction for  potential  online learning and teaching. Sonia also introduced us to Tom Boellstoeff's Coming of Age in Second Life and it looks like a very promising read.

From Second Life to ship life. Avast ye landlubbers - did you know how many words in your day-to-day speech are borrowed from maritime jargon? Simon Isserlis enlightened us on this in his presentation.  Words and phrases like 'skyscraper' and 'loose cannon' are some of the examples that he discussed. Simon is building corpora  of maritime language that has made its way into English usage. In his talk he spoke about various repositories that he uses, such as Project Gutenberg for out-of-copyright  texts, the for traditional English songs, Hansard for British Parliamentary Proceedings' records dating back to 1640 and so on. He also gave us an overview of corpora building software such as Wordsmith tools.

Claire Warwick of UCL described her idea of Digital Humanities in her keynote presentation. The impetus of digital humanities is collaboration instead of the individual research that is sometimes the norm in Humanities research, she said. She insisted on the importance of interaction and consultation between Humanities and Computing researchers and also on the move towards project-based work as favoured by scientists.  For those in their early academic careers, the good news is that the REF 2012 (this is a British research evaluation process - gives universities their money and academics their jobs) will also consider digital research as valid submissions.

After Claire's presentation, the unexpected happened. Lorenzo (my netbook) ran out of battery so I was left to jot down pen and paper notes, rather reluctantly. Can't be sure now if the new version of Jolicloud (my OS) is all that good. Anyway, the rest of the report will be rather short.

Anastasija Ropa described how she has built a google site to supplement her project on a comparative study of the Holy Grail motif where she compares L'Morte d'Arthur (Malory) with 20th c. Grail fiction (she did assure us that The Da Vinci Code is not in her list).  Anastasija pointed out the pros and cons of using Google sites as well as the perennial problem that academic websites have of getting inputs from academia. She has also created a Renpy game to provide an easy access to her research. Renpy is a visual novel building software. An idea for us all to consider?

Following our Grail quest on Google, we had Isamar Carillo Masso and Lyle Skains presenting their separate versions of research toolkits. Isamar described how she would think using The Brain (the mind map tool), plan further using Mindomo and present using Prezi. I used a Prezi for my own presentation but am still dubious about how effectively I can use it for my purposes. In fact, most presenters at the sessions stayed with powerpoint - still Prezi's a tool to explore. Lyle's presentation was a virtual one - recorded rather than live (although maybe a quick skype appearance to take the questions would be great - blended learning at its best). She spoke about various websites for sharing your creative writing and critiques as well as tools like google docs and prezi. The presentation was on a video clip so maybe we'll get it on youtube Lyle?

The other presentation in this session was Maggie Parke's presentation on how fan websites affect the reception and development of films based on books such as Twilight, Harry Potter books etc. She described how her participation on blogs and fansites raised her 'fan capital'. Simon made an interesting comparison with the fansites for games and this linked back quite well to my own talk on walkthroughs and after-action reports.

After that, a five-hour journey back to Nottingham and eventually, bed. CEDAR is officially over but then all good things come to an end much too soon. I'm sure, however, that we will carry on talking about using web 2.0 tools for research. Finally, I hope my university (at least for a few months longer) will follow this course and make research easier and more fun.

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Of Bangor and the CEDAR mash

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Back at CEDAR. This time in beautiful Bangor. I've arrived a day early because it takes aeons to get here from Nottingham (four changes on the train and an easy four and a half hours journey). I'm sitting in a hotel room and writing this while trying to focus on my presentation tomorrow and to forget about my day job. Research time is a luxury nowadays and I'm thoroughly grateful that I've been allowed this time by NTU.

So back to de-stressing and chillaxing. Also back to videogame theory - rusty as I am. The programme, however, encompasses the full breadth of web 2.0 and recent social media technology. Here's what it looks like:

Registration and coffee
Participant presentations (10-15 minutes for presentation; 5-10
minutes for questions):

Sonia Fizek
Second Life as an Academic Platform: Experiencing Virtual Conferences.

Souvik Mukherjee
Writing the Disappearing Story: Wikis, Walkthroughs and the Digital Narrative.

Simon Isserlis
The MariTime Text Corpus (MariTeC): The construction of a specialised digital
text corpus of Maritime English.

Short coffee break

Guest lecture (Claire Warwick)

Lunch buffet

Participant presentations:

Anastasija Ropa
Bridging the Gap Between Medieval and Post-Modern Audiences of the Grail
Quest Literature with the Aid of Google Sites.

Isamar Carillo
Three Stages of a Research Project: Advantages of Using The Brain, Mindomo
and Prezi.

Maggie Parke

Lyle Skains (video presentation)
Exploring Multimodal Creativity: Writing Stories for the Printed Page and the
Digital Screen.

'Jam session' / hands-on activities (exchanging and test-running
software/online tools for humanities research)

Discussions over afternoon coffee

All of these topics are extremely interesting for me. Google sites and the Grail (Did Sir Galahad google?) and using Prezi and the Brain - fantastic.  Even relates to my present job. I'm really looking forward to tomorrow. As for my presentation, here's the abstract:

Writing the Disappearing Story: Wikis, Walkthroughs and the Digital Narrative

Do videogames tell stories?’ Although it might be possible now, after almost ten years of academic debate, to answer the question with a resounding ‘yes’, a seemingly innocuous query is bound to bring back the doubts: ‘so where’s the story?’. Digital narratives, especially some videogames, disrupt traditional expectations of the narrative. Operating in complex temporal planes, these digital stories do not lend themselves to standard endings or structures and their plurality makes it next to impossible for researchers to analyse the ephemeral narrative(s). Where older narratology (in the sense applied to the work of Gerard Genette and others) struggles to fathom such phenomena, philosophies of the multiple and the affective such as that of Gilles Deleuze engage quite well with the plurality of digital narratives viewing them as actualisations within a mesh of potentialities.

What might be otherwise construed as abstract philosophy can, however, be experienced in more accessible ways: player themselves have developed ways of recording and analysing the otherwise ephemeral narrative actualisations. The ‘walkthrough’, albeit mostly neglected by game research, has nevertheless established a niche for itself as a form of ludic ‘paratext’ that captures individual actualisations of the game narrative. However, walkthroughs can hardly exist as individual accounts: as they are created mainly as guides to resolving in-game difficulties, the need for player-collaboration and multiple responses is quite plain.

Players have therefore tapped into Web 2.0 and the transition from walkthroughs to rapidly growing and rhizomatic wikis has now begun. Player observations are now being recorded down to the minutiae of character description, narrative, quests, maps and individual experiences. These are constantly updated by the player community but at the same time they give us a narrative to analyse culled from various recorded actualisations. This paper will study the beginnings of this new type of response to videogames using the examples of ‘The Vault’ (the wiki on Fallout 3) and the ‘Call of Duty Wiki’.

In relation to this, it will also analyse a specific genre of game-related blogs which has been named ‘after-action report’ by fans. In these blogs, gamers keep a diary of their in-game experiences often making them resemble literary or historical accounts. ‘The Rise and Fall of the House of Jimius’, an after-action report blog created as a record of the gameplay of Rome:Total War by a player who calls himself Jim. Again the blog format allows more player responses that supplement the narrative created from Jim’s individual actualisations of the gameplay events.

These new types of digital responses to videogames indicate that the idea that videogames cannot tell stories is a myth. This paper will examine how they tell stories differently and how Web 2.0 technologies influence the way in which the stories are read/played.
And here's my presentation.

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Interview published on the Theory, Culture & Society Blog
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I've been involved with TCS for over three years now. For those who don't know TCS , it is one of the leading journals in social theory, cultural studies , media studies and philosophy, with names like Baudrillard, Stiegler  and Deleuze in its contributors' list. Besides the printed journal, TCS now offers a wealth of supplementary texts, interviews, podcasts and discussions on its website, blog and Facebook group. Over the last three years, I have been involved with redesigning the TCS website and setting up the blog. Now we welcome more input from the readers of TCS and people who are generally interested in the areas it covers.

Given the array of famous names who have interviewed by TCS, I felt extremely happy at being asked for an interview. On videogame theory, of course. I've always maintained the need for game studies to make stronger inroads into mainstream theory - so far, it's been the other way round. The TCS interview was, therefore, a very welcome opportunity.

Simon Dawes, editor of TCS webs, and I have a mini discussion on whether (for me it is 'why') game theorists should have some experience of playing videogames before theorising. This has been something I've maintained for a long time and Simon got me proselytising yet again on my pet topic. I also speak about how game studies has 'grown up' and how useful it is to see videogames as being a multiplicity rather than , essentially, just one entity. I also speak briefly about my thesis and how I find a Deleuzian framework useful in analysing games.

If you find any of this interesting, here's the full interview.

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An Unintended Manifesto

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Today I was thinking about the future of videogames and game design. Whenever I am asked questions about this or given t-shirts saying 'Save the Videogame' to wear, I sink into the couch and get all philosophical. Not so today. It seems that ages ago, GameSpot had interviewed me for an article on narratives in games. Just bits of what I had to say went in because of the context of the article but there was quite a lot left in the questions that they asked. Today, almost a year since, I've found that email of mine. Seems like a mini manifesto. Let's see what the Souvik of a year ago had to say about games:

Questions for Storytelling Feature
  1. Tell me a little about your background and how long have you been researching video game narratives?

My first brush with game studies began in 1999 after I came upon a demo of Age of Empires in a pc magazine. This was in Calcutta in the late nineties and pcs had just begun to appear in middle-class homes. Videogames were still a novelty for the Indian man in the street. As a student of Literature, however, I couldn't help noticing that I was playing and replaying a story (actually history, in AoE) and in a way, writing my own story even as I read it. Since this was quite close to my theoretical orientation, I saw some obvious connections between non-linear and ludic texts (like the Alice books and Borges's short stories) and videogames. In 2000, I presented a paper exploring the links between American McGee's Alice and the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, which received a fair share of attention in my university. Unfortunately, I had little access to the works of Ludologists and Narratologists and related literature. Neither did I have much encouragement in terms of funding or infrastructure to pursue this. So while I developed my ideas in my MPhil dissertation, I also saved up to come to the UK and started my PhD in Nottingham Trent University in 2005. Thereafter, I have developed my ideas within a more sophisticated theoretical framework and had the opportunity of testing my ideas at international conferences before I finally received my PhD in April 2009.

2. What research have you most recently done?

My PhD thesis explores the narrative aspects of videogames, stressing the importance of viewing them in relation with older narrative media and related theoretical frameworks. I strongly argue against binarisms such as ludology-narratology and player-studies vs game studies, opting instead for a framework where the game , text and the machine are viewed as intrinsic to the understanding of each other. Simply put, videogames are not conjuring up something terribly new --- they merely point to a more sophisticated idea of reading that has existed through millennia. Videogames, whether you see them as complex ludic stories or narrative games, point to the need for a more nuanced way of engaging with texts. My research explores some of the complexities of videogame narratives particularly controversial and/or confusing issues like their multiple endings (made even more complex by the save and reload function), immersion and agency (I am uneasy with both of these terms and am using them as a shorthand). I use some ideas from the philosophies of Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze as my main theoretical framework.

Recently, I have started working on videogames and trauma and am simultaneously developing my work on the multiple endings and the complex time structures that videogames present. For the forthcoming DIGRA conference, I intend to analyse the save and reload functions in videogames in comparison with the cyclic notion of endings and telos in Eastern philosophical traditions.

3. What are the results of this research?

The results ? Well, in tangible terms they would be 120,000 words on videogames, millions of dead zombies and terrorists (pixellated), endless levels completed, undiscovered pathways and many more worlds (games) still remaining on my exploration wishlist. Academically speaking, my research is yet another small step in raising the awareness of videogames as an important narrative media and also an attempt in moving game studies beyond the simplistic theoretical parameters that define it, so far. Finally, it also aims to bridge the gap between the academia, the gamer and the industry in general. Quite a dream, I know but I am one of the many people who share it and I hope to chip in with my bit.

4. Do you think video games are an effective storytelling medium? Why/why not?

For me some are and some aren't. Some are effective enough to keep me hooked on to a narrative which I read as well as bring into existence (of course different games have different limitations for this). Think of a game like Max Payne and I don't think there should be any doubts. Do you not remember what happened to you in City 17 when you were Gordon Freeman? The term 'effective', of course, brings in a value-judgement that I do not subscribe to. I view videogames as a multiplicity and, therefore, cannot comment on the phenomenon of 'the Videogame'.

5. The way people tell stories has evolved, and continues to evolve. Would you be ready to call video games the new storytelling medium? Why/why not?

The way people tell stories has evolved although people still tell stories in every way they can and using every medium they can use, whether old or new. Likewise, they way people respond to stories has also changed. Videogames mark both of these developments. I wouldn't call them (or any other medium for that matter) the new storytelling medium; however, they are certainly significant as storytelling media inasmuch as they point to certain hitherto neglected but key aspects of telling and responding to stories.

6. Some people believe that traditional forms of narrative don’t have a place in the interactive medium, and if placed there, will not work. What would you say to that?

Depends on what they mean by traditional forms of narrative. If they mean the Aristotelian plot with the clear-cut beginning, middle and the end, then certainly videogames will struggle to conform. However, even older narrative forms exhibit a considerable degree of multiplicity, which is often not adequately focused on. With the advent of videogames and their subsequent usage of plots and generic conventions from novels and films, this multiplicity is coming more and more to the forefront. Deleuze's idea of the 'rhizomatic text' is quite useful in understanding this. I am quite surprised that people still make such extreme claims and I believe more research needs to be done in the area before coming to quick conclusions.

7. Similarly, what do you say to the view that that video games should only focus on creating good interactive gameplay (instead of focusing on story) because at the end of the day, games are supposed to be fun?

Aren't stories fun? And isn't there a link between the story and the gameplay? Pace the Ludologists, gameplay includes the narrative potential of those videogames that tell stories. The story and what an earlier GameSpot definition of gameplay calls 'how well a game plays' really go hand in hand. Consider, the Prince of Persia games or Assassin's Creed without the context and without the Prince and Altair. Difficult, isn't it?

8. Do you think that what you are doing in your role as an academic looking into video game narratives is helping video games progress as a storytelling medium?

I certainly hope it is. I have answered this somewhat in the earlier question on the results of my research. I should clarify, though, that videogames are already a narrative medium. All I'm trying to do is to make this more obvious to academics and designers alike so that there is a deeper and more serious engagement with videogames and so that people stop dismissing the gamer as a geek and the videogame as a teenager's toy. Really, it's high time people realised.

9. Do you find yourself actively trying to change the medium in the way described above? If so, how, and why?

I am not trying to change the medium as such although I earnestly desire better games that explore the narrative potential of such digital media. I was asked in a recent conference about what I thought of the Sherlock Holmes adventure games and I answered that I was greatly disappointed with their restrictive interface. I am looking at ways of tying together storytelling and design in a more efficient manner. My Sherlock Holmes should be able to hail a Hansom and wander around London looking for clues but without getting thoroughly lost and getting away from the game.

10. What’s the opposing view to video games as effective storytelling mediums? What does this view say and suggest about games?

Well, in the early days of game studies, the field was was marked by what is known as the Ludology-Narratology debate. Ludologists would often make extreme claims about videogames being only games and not stories. Markku Eskelinen famously said that when you throw a ball, you don't expect it to rebound and tell you a story. The so-called Narratologists (the term usually applies to a group literary critics who have very little or nothing to do with videogames) counter this by a claim that videogames are the same as literary texts. Both of these positions are problematic and recent scholarship in videogames acknowledges them as being so.

11. Do you think that video games can, and will, one day have the same reach as books, films and TV (i.e. other traditional storytelling mediums)?

I think they will. The industry (if I am rightly informed) has done well despite the recession. Games are fast becoming popular outside the West and Japan. From another angle, they are being used for a variety of purposes and are impacting people from all walks of life. We must remember that the initial hostility towards videogames and the difficulty in understanding them were also experienced by other narrative media such as the novel and cinema. Look at how influential these are, today.

12. Some video games have great stories, and others have great gameplay. But it’s very rare for a game to successfully marry the two and make players strengthen their engagement with the narrative through gameplay and vice versa. Why do you think that it’s so hard to make a game that has good balance between story and gameplay?

Well, making a game that is fun is always a difficult task and this holds true even for non-digital games. Similarly, there must be millions of novels being written every month the world over and we only come to know of a few of these. Videogames bring the two together and it is quite obvious that this isn't easy. It depends on the designers and what they want to achieve. If you are making a racing game like NFS then I suppose you won't think much about a story or say, you make a super-gory shooter like POSTAL (apologies to fans who think otherwise) then the story element won't be a terribly important factor. However, if you consider the Half-Life games, Max Payne, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear, Assassin's Creed, Fable (the name says it all) or Fallout 3 , the story and the gameplay go hand in hand. I'm sure there will be gamers who will disagree with me but then again, that's the point about texts - they make you think and engage with them at various levels. Videogames clearly do this.

13. Do you think new technologies and a growing appreciation of video games in society are helping video games to become better and more effective storytelling mediums?

Yes to both. Good graphics and game engines can enhance storytelling possibilities (although they do not necessarily do so always). Certainly, if more sections of society are involved with videogames then that increases the reach and the range of the medium. This impacts on the storytelling as well.

14. Finally, please feel free to add anything else you think is important for this story!

Very good questions. I've tried to answer them as best as I could but I'm sure a lot more remains to be said. Some day, I think, videogames will be analysed in classrooms much like other narrative media and some day, not very far away, I'll play my 1000th videogame.

Well, that's that then. What do you think?

note: I have since this interview done all the things that have been reported on this blogspace. Right now, I am thinking about working on walkthroughs and 'docugames' as future projects - watch this space for more. Meanwhile, I have done some research on morality and ethics in games and I will soon be writing a paper on reading Sherlock Holmes as a videogame!

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Ludotopia 2010, Copenhagen

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Space: the final frontier. The aim was to travel in ludic spaces to where no game researcher had gone before. I think that we did it ... well pretty much!

Ludotopia, for those who missed my previous post on it, was a workshop on spaces and spatiality in videogames. The workshop ran for two days and had twelve game studies scholars from institutions in Europe and the US participating. We had all shared our papers and had two-member panels which interwove their presentations together. The topics ranged from cartography in games, pervasiveness of game spaces, narrative and spatiality, theories of space as applicable to videogames, space as threat and analyses of videogame space in terms of older conceptions of topology.

Copenhagen: the topos for Ludotopia

Given the erudition and depth of the papers, it will be difficult to summarise everything here and it is also important not to miss out some of the ever-important questions raised in the ensuing discussions. Bjarke Liboriussen (from the Uni of Southern Denmark) has already done a splendidly concise report in his blog. Bjarke's reflections are much fresher than mine and I will consult them from time to time as a supplement to my notes. After having a few days to reflect on what was said, I will, therefore, just try to capture the sense of the papers as I understood them. Okay, so here goes.

Friday, early morning session: Bjarke spoke on cartography in terms of maps and renderings. He has since summed it on his blog:

My own presentation also hinged on structures – “structures” in a specific sense taken from architectural theory. My point was that the special-purpose cartography performed by players of game worlds such as “World of Warcraft” is aimed at explicating, and attuning oneself to, structural flows of transportation, resource gathering etc., and that such cartography is indicative of what the virtual world “is” in the mind of the player. The 2D maps and the 3D spaces on screen are “renderings of the same f***ing thing”, as Nitsche concisely summed up my argument.
I was also intrigued by his comparison of videogames to Le Corbusier's Chandigarh where the 'flows' of the city are mappable on a separate layer - i.e. the sewage, electricity etc are at a distinctly separate level. I liked Michael Nitsche's question about how the code (as also needing to be reflected on a separate layer as a 'flow') should be represented in the game mapping. I also remember thinking about RTS games and how their maps would complicate the renderings but for the life of me, I can't remember the exact question. Anyway, my point was that we should avoid concentrating overmuch on shooters and give due attention to RTS (where maps are very important indeed). Finally, I had another (persistent!) comment, this time on Nek Chand's Rock Garden in Chandigarh as a response to Corbusier's Chandigarh. Any comparison of Corbusier's architecture to videogames needs to take into account the Nek Chand's who complicate things.

The next session was on the immensely interesting (for my Medieval/ Renaissance Lit training) itineraria scripta / itineraria picta relationship in videogames. Matthias Fuchs (from the Uni of Salford) presented on the complexities of mapping in videogames. Citing Kant's Was heißt: sich im Denken orientieren?, he illustrated the very newness and the subjectivity of the conception of orientation. Fuchs spoke on the interplay of the text and image in videogame maps. What interested me most was the discussion that followed where he cited historical opinion that space is the organ through which God perceives the world. He ended on a nicely Derridean (yes!!!) note saying that 'there is differance , an active movement involving spacing and temporalising'.

Friday, late morning : Alison Gazzard (from Uni of Bedfordshire) and Niklas Schrape (University of Film and Television Studies “Konrad Wolf” in Potsdam, Germany) presented two very convincing papers. I'm going to let Bjarke describe Alison's paper because he does it so succinctly:

[Her] work is informed by a blending of RL and VW, with her fine-grain morphology (or topology, depending on your terminology) of the structures allowing movement in game spaces (tracks/paths, gates, bridges, loop-backs, loop-alongs etc.) informed by field studies of RL mazes (e.g., the one depicted below).
We went into an extremely interesting discussion on how theme-park mazes work on this - with light and shadow, elements to confuse, dead ends etc. While I am slightly resistant to typologies of any kind, this structure obviously seems to allow the fluidity and isn't restrictive (or so I think). On another level (purely in the in-between spaces), I learnt more about Alison's ideas on warps in videogames - at DiGRA, her paper on warps was just before mine and I missed most of it out of sheer nervousness when I saw all the big names in the audience!

Now on to Niklas and his fascinating presentation on the rhetoric of Global Conflicts: Palestine. My grasp of Lotman is rather thin admittedly but Niklas's explanations were spot on and I liked the Deleuzian trend that his paper was taking. However, to drag myself away from my hobbyhorse: his paper illustrated how the topology of the game deconstructs the antithesis between Israelis and Arabs in the game.

Friday afternoon: was my own panel and Sebastian Domsch (from the Uni of Munich) presented after me. Let's talk about Sebastian's paper. I was asked to respond to it formally but although I did read it over a few times, I will still stick to my more casual response. Sebastian brought up the important distinction between spatial and sequential narratives, indicating that the spatial narratives are more suited to videogames. He also established the key importance of the 'event trigger' in understanding how narrative spaces are formed. One further point that interested me was the inclusion of the NPC's perception of space in his analysis.

The waste land in Fallout 3.

My abstract (posted earlier) will give you the gist of my paper. I was basically expanding on the importance of the concept of 'any-space-whatever' in videogames, following up from my paper in Potsdam. For me, the 'any-space-whatever' is a philosophical concept that maps very well with the space of possibility in videogames and it is not only spatial but also temporal; rather say spatio-temporal. Basically I created a description of videogame space using Auge's model of non-spaces to show how videogame wastelands conformed to the fragemented and identityless characteristics of non-spaces and pointed at earlier critical voices doing the same. Then I broke down this argument on the grounds that it was too rigid for videogames and replaced it with the friendly neighbourhood 'any-space-whatever'. All the questions that I was asked were very good ones. Some which stand out in my memory are :

Espen Aarseth (paraphrasing): I was surprised that you didn't use FEAR as an example. It seemed that was an even better example than the ones you used.

Me: True enough. I do have a discussion of FEAR in my notes but for some reason, I went for the more obvious examples of waste lands (so as to make the association more direct).

Niklas and Sebastian (Domsch): What happens to the any-space-whatever after all the quest options have been exhausted?

Me: The any-space-whatever is as much a temporal construct as it is spatial. It is an affective space that comes between the stages of perception and action. Deleuze descibes the affect as a motor impulse on a sensory plate. Basically, it is the space of possibility where a zone throbbing with possibility finally sees the creation of an event. So each time you encounter the affective any-space-whatever, there is a mesh of possibilities to actualise into an action. If in a single gameplay instance, all the quest options are actualised, the game space has moved from the state of affect into action. The player has made his or her choices.

I shan't dwell on the other issues here because I need to capture some of the ideas from the extremely rich paper by Stephan Guenzel. Stephan, for those who don't know him, is an expert on space and his presentation analysed up the various perspectives from which videogame spaces have been viewed. In the main, he described videogame spaces as exemplification. For example, he started with Aristotelian space which is the difference between two objects (ergo, there is no empty space in this paradigm) and showed Tetris as being more complex than this. Videogame space is topological rather than just topographical - as soon as one begins thinking of space, the topological element comes in. He mentioned how space in games has been seen as relational as in Leonard Euler's solution to the Koenigsberger Bridge problem, as folding space where space is seen to bend and then loop back to the start (I think one of Alison's space-types would correspond to this), as hodological where space is experience through the change in paths and in terms of field theory where the space is seen as a field with certain affordances (perhaps somewhat like the any-space-whatever but I'm not entirely sure). As opposed to the idea of any one privileged perspective characterised by a singular denotation, Stephan presented a plurality using Goodman's theory of exemplification. As Bjarke comments in his blog,

One comes out from such a dip into the philosophy of space (and this was just a dip, I’m looking forward to a full splash) with sharpened attention to the wide range of possibilities inherent in screen-based, digital media (Günzel stresses the “video” in “video games”).

Personally, I had a couple of questions about Deleuze's smooth and striated spaces (which Stephan responded to with the example of a map layer over an FPS game space - just think of when you bring up the Chernobyl map on your PDA in STALKER, although he used a better example where it shows directly as a layer on top of the map). The second I haven't asked yet: it's about Eric Soja's 'thirdspace' and how it fits to describe videogames , if at all. I remember Stephan mentioning it, but the memory's like a sieve these days ...

After that proverbial 'dip' into the philosophy of game spaces, there was another really lively presentation on meta-chronotopes and ludoforming by Espen. Chronotope is the Bakhtinian term for spatio-temporal matrix that governs narrative acts. Espen described videogames as a 'meta-chronotope' . He also modified the concept of terraforming to describe the shaping of videogame spaces as 'ludoforming'. Espen used the STALKER games as an example of ludoforming - especially, how Pripyat has been treated in the various episodes of STALKER. Obviously, the games edit quite a lot of the real-world maps to construct their ludic space. While the concept of ludoforming was more directly applied to game design in the paper, I couldn't help but wonder how it might be useful also to think of ludoforming in terms of the player's spatial experience. As in when the player starts playing a game and experiences a map (designer-created) is there a possibility of ludoforming here (based on past experiences with the map, perceptions, affections etc?). I love this concept although I am not sure if I am reading it too much in own way. Also think of the ways in which ludoforming influences the way in which we see maps in RTS games.

Saturday: Another early morning start and we were straight into Karla Hoess's presentation on games that play with the perceptual spaces especially in games such as Portal and Echochrome, where she points out how these games play with the perception of spaces. Karla's presentation also explored links with conceptions space in Renaissance art.

Michael Nitsche's presentation which followed was on the pervasiveness of game spaces. Again, I'll rely on Bjarke's concise summary:

Whereas Aarseth deals with editing of the real world, or “optimisation” for ludic purposes in Nitsche’s view, Nitsche himself focuses on “inclusion” of the real world, and the “adding on to” the real world. His work is part of the Next Generation Play project that aims at realising the “convergence between established media, such as television and print, and locative social media such as cell phones”, e.g., Andrew Robert’s (a student of Nitsche’s) location-based “Kitsune” game [this is a game that is played simultaneously on Piedmont Park, Atlanta as well as on a fictional map resembling the park on your Android device].

Michael also showed how gaming furniture is changing the real world spaces - especially living spaces. Finally, he used another example which I thought was fabulous - a Coke machine that vends a cola based on your dance / music performance! I'm not going to get many Cokes if vending machines get their way.

Michael's presentation was followed by Teun Dubbelman's (from Utrecht Uni). Like Sebastian Domsch, Teun also approached the question of narrative in videogame spaces. For him, rather than ludology or narratology, the term to be used is 'presentology'. Teun plays with the terms and brings up three logics - the ludo logic , the narrative logic and the logic of presence. According to him, when games tell stories, they do so by enhancing the spatial experience of the player. As for narrative, 'the merits of these spatial arts [whereby he means experience theatre, architecture, landscape painting and by his definition, videogames] clash on a fundamental level with those of narrative arts.' Obviously, readers of Ludus ex and those familiar with my research, will know that I disagree with the 'fundamental difference' concept. Teun, of course, is looking at a very interesting concept: the present-ness. The being present in space can be further complicated if one were to bring in the being present in time. Narrative, is being seen in strict narratological terms in the 'cinematic storytelling' that is described here (e.g. Chatman et al.) and I understand why such a conception might pose restrictions but then again, if one were to use a different method of analysing cinema (using a more affective method of perceiving cinematic narrative), the discussion might be less restricted albeit more complex.

Just realised that the previous sentence sounds very cryptic and vague. Basically, I have a sense of what I want to say but am afraid that it will end up being a mega-ramble. So maybe in a future post. The final presentation, by Sebastian Moering (from the Uni of Potsdam), was on Heideggerian conceptions of fear as applied to spatial perceptions in games. Moering used examples ranging from Pacman to the latest shooters to illustrate his point about the threat level in games being related to the nearness to an object on which you focus. This theoretical framework is obviously new to me and thereby interesting. However, I had a few questions (typically!): I was curious to know about how this affects the perception of threat from the unknown? I suppose I have an answer now combining both Sebastian's and my response but again, let's leave it for a future post. Another issue I had with this (raised also by Michael) is about how this fear-factor works for RTS games.

Very many interesting ideas here and this was probably the only workshop that kept my attention riveted for all the presentations. I was quite tired as well as being really worried about jobs and other mundane issues that I keep out of here but Ludotopia never failed to interest me despite all these. I must say that I was well impressed with ITU Copenhagen and I hope that someday I will get to work in a uni like this. All plus points here - content, presentation, environment, organisation and the list goes on. I shouldn't forget the impressive barbecue that we had after the workshop and that I partly missed.

One little thing comes to mind, now that I try put together a report exactly a week after the event. I'm not sure we focused much on RTS games and there was again a characteristic bias towards the first-person space or what have you. Perhaps next time.

I squeezed in a short tour of Copenhagen somehow. Photos here.

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