Under the Mask: An After-Action Report

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I started writing this on the train back from Luton and that was over ten days ago. Life has been hectic but apologies anyway. UTM 2011 was my last videogame conference in the UK - probably. Almost six years of growing up as a games scholar is now at an end seemingly. I have a Lego sheep to remind me of UTM 2011 and it'll stay with me always. Of course, it's been changed to a spaceship now and I can also make C3PO out of it. Anyway, let's talk about the conference.

It was a conference where I heard the best keynote in many years (the last fab keynote that I'd heard was in 2008 by Richard Bartle). Jason Rutter keynoted on the twitter commentary of players post or during play. Rutter observed that player and gamer were different concepts and that analysing tweets by the players of Portal 2 is a useful way of identifying the meaning of being a 'gamer'. To quote Jason:

This was a great opportunity for me to develop a few ideas on what being a gamer actually means and how it is different from being someone who plays games. The presentation I gave, ‘Finding Gamers in 140 Characters: Talk of Games on Twitter‘, started by looking at differences in the use of ‘gamer’ and ‘player’ in the academic literature before turning to gamers themselves to see how the terms are used.  This is did through Tweets about ‘Portal 2‘ before moving to look at the way the category of gamer is developed as a practice involving not only playing games, but not gaming and planning gaming.
There is a written draft of the paper which needs a few tweaks to fill a few gaps and smooth the worst of the rough edges after which I’ll post it online. The slides I used (and indeed quite a few I didn’t) for the presentation are available on my Slideshare page though.
         (Jason Rutter, 'Made by Jase' blog)


In his blog, Rutter also praises the presentations by Caroline Jong, Ewan Kirkland and Steven Boyer - all of them my co-panellists. I particularly like Jong's presentation on the Let's Play archive (http://lparchive.org/) which had much in common with what I was doing with AARs. As the Let's Play people describe themselves, 'the Let's Play Archive focus on giving you the full experience of the games in an informative and entertaining manner. Just look at some of the great playthroughs below and you'll see what we mean'. Jong's introduction of the LP to academia is an useful addition to the studies of the paratext that are now increasingly coming into vogue. Unlike the AAR, however, the LP playthroughs are generally delivered as unedited although one might need to investigate this further. I was interested in Ewan Kirkland's presentation on Little Big Planet and also in Barry Atkins's question about whether LBP is a game. Although there were quite a few good presentations and some which I totally didn't agree with, the other notable presentation for me was Astrid Ensslin's talk on metaludic communcation. Ensslin applied speech act theory (Austin, Lakoff, Searle etc) to analysing communications in and around games. The paratextual angle was interesting for me and I hope she develops this further for me to plug into it with my research.

My presentation was perhaps my 'swansong' (as Gavin said) in the UK. I was happy with it and the after-action reports elicited interest. Barry's question about how constructed these 'reports' were and how they differed or were similar to wartime after-action reports was quite an interesting area that I need to follow up. Astrid's point about whether 'paratext' should replace 'cybertext' was an issue I had not thought about. Now, on hindsight, I don't think so ... firstly, I do not think that 'paratext' will be the umbrella term (if I am forced to pick one) of my choice; 'assemblage' would. In which case, the issue of replacing would not arise.



I answered the questions quickly and then ran off to lunch.  And so from lunch to paper and paper to pub. More interesting conversations there: Tetris studies, Calcutta , Belgium, agency in games (Justin would have loved this), a Robert Graves anecdote from Esther and Lego (they gave me a Lego sheep).


Then it was time for farewells. Goodbye all you nice people. I'll miss you.


Moving away from the farewells, I would like to thank my friend Sonia for helping me during those moments of nervousness when I had those doubts about my last presentation in the UK.

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Under the Mask 2011

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I never buy mementoes. I'm not sure why but I always manage to forget that I should buy stuff when I visit new places until I reach the departure area of airports and have nowhere else to go barring duty-free shops. On my way back from Athens, however, I did buy something and yes, it was from a duty free shop. It was a t-shirt with some Greek text on it and the image of a ancient Greek theatre mask. Here's what it said:

The mask hides the man
Shut up inside it, he sees
everything as if through
two dark holes;
from the darkness of the mask
he contemplates
the universe with detachment like a god.
In a mask you feel an ancient strength;
in a mask you dare things that the mind
cannot conceive.

I felt I had to buy it. It would remind me of the many masks that I have to wear always. It reminded me of videogames where I take on a mask - my real-life character interacting complicatedly with the mask that tries to hide it. Previously, I have said in Ludus ex and elsewhere that I do not believe in immersion but rather see the game persona as a becoming and the mask as another plugging in to the assemblage. The whole process fascinates me and the mask works so well as a metaphor of me as a becoming-game, becoming-avatar and simply becoming. 

Which is why I think 'Under the Mask' is one of the coolest titles for a videogame conference. Readers will remember that I have been to all the iterations of this conference bar one. I'm going back again. Check out the link to the abstracts here (http://underthemask.wikidot.com/abstracts). I strongly recommend it if you are interested in videogames and can make it to Luton on 2nd June.


As for me, this is my last games conference in the UK and it will soon be time to pack my bags. Here's the abstract of my paper:


Souvik Mukherjee

Rewriting Unwritten Texts: After-action Reports and Videogames

Storytelling in videogames still remains a contentious issue and one that commentators have found difficult to agree on for over a decade. On the one hand, the multiplicity of possible events within the game narrative makes it difficult to employ traditional literary analysis and on the other, the stories themselves are often unfavourably compared to literary classics and criticised for lacking the depth and the significance. Despite these issues, however, players continue to enjoy playing videogames as a storytelling medium and the narrative exists, as it were, at an unstable and marginal level where it is recorded not only in the player’s memory but in walkthroughs, guides, wikis and the recent genre of fan-fiction based on actual gameplay instances and called ‘after-action report’ (referred to as AAR, hereafter). Studies of walkthroughs (Ashton and Newman 2010; Newman 2008) and cheat codes (Consalvo 2007) are slowly coming to the forefront; the after-action report or the game journal has, however, remained largely unnoticed in Game Studies. This paper explores after-action reports and the stories they tell.

Examples based on different game genres will be analysed here, such as the ‘Rise and Fall of the House of Jimius’, an AAR based on Rome: Total War (The Creative Assembly 2004), ‘The Amateur’, which is based on Hitman: Blood Money (Eidos 2006) and Ben Abraham’s ‘videogame-novelization’ called Permanent Death (Abraham 2009). The main aim here is to highlight the variety of the AARs, the creativity of their writers and to examine the conventions that the genre is building around itself. A comparison with older narrative media will be equally important. Indeed, the relationship between AARs and films based on videogames is worth investigating - the Hitman film and the AAR are cases in point. The same holds true for AARs and printed fan-fiction. With the combination of image, videos, game scores, strategy tips and imaginative rewriting of the game’s plot, the AAR combines many kinds of texts, ranging from the walkthrough to the graphic novel. It will also be argued here that the AAR is an important way of talking about stories in videogames.


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Impact!

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Ever since my job title changed to ‘impact research fellow’ in February, I’ve been asked many times what I have to do at work. Well, to the Ludus ex reader, impact probably means the ‘stopping-power’  of your latest gun in Call of Duty: Black Ops or the  thud when the racecar in Need for Speed bangs against a barrier. To me it means all that and also what has defined my role at De Montfort University in these last six months. It also means that I haven’t been playing too many videogames lately (honest).

So what do I do at work? I analyse ‘impact’ which the Research Excellence Framework (REF), UK,  defines as ‘all kinds of social, economic and cultural benefits and impacts beyond  academia’. I work on a series of very multiple projects about the application of social media to business practice and communities in Leicester. Mainly my work involves examining rich narrative data and survey data for observable trends and changes. So did you ever wonder whether your facebook and twitter usage improves your business practice? If you did, you might find my research to be of interest. How does social media affect cohesion in communities? Okay, enough hints. I’m presenting a paper on this at De Montfort University, on 8th June. If you are interested, here’s Professor Sue Thomas telling you more about it in her characteristically lucid way: http://travelsinvirtuality.typepad.com/suethomas/2011/05/mukherjee.html.

The talk will also focus on my experience of doing this impact analysis for REF  - something that might be of interest to academic colleagues in the UK who are engaged in similar exercises. Mainly, I will focus on the REF indicators of ‘reach’ and ‘significance’ in the light of their relevance to the projects that I have analysed and more broadly, to any kind of transdisciplinary research. Finally, my recommendations for the project will highlight how Humanities research can be seen as having an impact in the current REF contexts.

Apologies to Ludus ex readers for the delays in posting. May has been a very busy month and a strange one. I'm still reeling from the impact.

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The Philosophy of Computer Games - Memory and Athens

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Then it was a dream come true. To talk about videogames and philosophy in Athens, the seat of Western Philosophy, was an overwhelming experience in itself. This was probably my last conference presentation outside the UK so I was quite tense about it. Moreover, I was speaking about Bergson, memory and videogames and I felt I was on shaky and unfamiliar ground. With all this in mind and with concerns about my visa and the whole Indian-travelling-in-Europe malarkey, I set forth for Athens.

As my friend Sebastian Moering (whom you will have encountered in earlier posts) says, I attract all sorts of weird adventures. Of these I shall tell you later. For the moment let us pass the graffiti covered walls of Panteion University screaming their protest against the powers that be and enter the conference hall.  Gordon Calleja opened the conference by announcing its aim of bringing philosophy and game design, otherwise loosely connected, together in the arena of theoretical Humanities. Yannis Scarpelos added the poignant reminder of the world around us saying that Greece is a gameboard and that its people are pawns in a game - an analogy that amply illustrated why games were so important to social sciences and the humanities.

I forgot to say, I met the entire Ludotopia crowd (Alison, Sebastian and Niklas) as well as Mark Butler whose wisdom I have always respected. Among new found friends I count Isaac Lenhart, Armin Papenfuss, Christophe Bruchansky, Adam Russell, Graham Matthews,  Daniel Vella and Stefano Gualeni. Anyway, let us go back to the conference hall.

the 'Philosophy of Computer Games' mascots

As I started writing, I was thinking of making this a commentary on each of the papers. The further I got, however, the more difficult and time-consuming it seemed. So I'll switch from commentary to reportage. To start with the papers that I liked in particular.

Although we have very different theoretical orientations, Rune Klevjer's research has never ceased to impress me. Rune spoke about telepresence, embodiment and diegesis as relevant to the player's identity. His analogies ranged from Merleau-Ponty's 'blind man with a cane' to those who fly unmanned drones. He identifies a difference between being telepresent and being embodied. He also sees difficulties in having an embodied presence in a diegetic world. The player and diegetic character (story protagonist) are, for him, fellow travellers who share history and even memories but are not the same person. Readers of Ludus ex will know wherein I disagree with this - especially looking from the perspective of the player's involvement in the story as a 'becoming' (in the Deleuzian sense).

This brings me to Mark Butler's paper on 'Becoming-Zerg'. Mark-becoming-Protoss (as he confessed was normally the case) was now becoming-zerg. I have never seen anyone tackle the involvement  / identity-formation in RTS games. I touched on this briefly in an earlier paper (and at more length in my thesis) but then left it there. So how can I become all the Zerg in Starcraft  - do I become a Zerg, some zergs, the whole zerg-collective (these zerg things remind me of the Borg in Star Trek)? Mark brings in the Deleuzoguattarian concept of the assemblage. Identity is configured and de-configured (he replaces 'deterritorialise and reterritorialise' with these terms) and as such the borders between the player-experience are blurred due to a state of flow that is in place. The player's experience as a Zerg is a 'becoming'. Might I add here that the collective experience of identity in a multiplayer RTS game is also well explainable using this model.

Among the new researchers whose work I came across, Peter Day's Wittgensteinian reading of the relation between avatar and player  impressed me. Like Mark (who made the comment), I am intrigued to see Peter's work moving beyond the Tractatus to other Wittgensteinian texts. I'm sure we will see more exploration of the connection between the metaphysical subject and the 'I' within the language of games. Felan Parker's application of Foucauldian aesthetic self-fashioning to expansive gameplay ( non-canonical things that players do with a game, e.g. playing Halo without killing any of the antagonists)was another interesting topic. Graham Matthews Lac(k)anian reading of Pacman and gameplay in general the restoration of lost unity in the progressive circuit of desire was another notable contribution. Graham is going to link his research on videogame to medical humanities and outside the conference walls (over a kebab, actually) he told me about his interest in analysing how health is perceived in videogames. Wonderful, I think!

The philosopher-theorists impressed and so did the philosopher-designers. Adam Russell (another East Midlands connection), known for his design of the identity mechanism in Fable, spoke on the underlying philosophical assumptions and problems of narrative-driven games. Like Rune, but approaching the question differently, Adam asked how we can be present in a game-world as an avatar who has personality and also memory. He invokes Heidegger's idea of 'thrownness' and brings in a comparison with our real selves where, he points out,  we are always identifying with a character that we cannot fully control (ourselves). I was hoping Adam would say a bit more but tiredness and time-constraints clearly came in the way. I'm eagerly awaiting his paper online.  From Adam to Stefano 'Digital Bat' Gualeni. Stefano is a famous game designer and on sharing a beer with him, I learnt loads about innovative game design - didn't know some cool people in some cool places were designing games based on biometric input. Stefano spoke about how we could use games to illustrate philosophical concepts. So next time, we won't present papers but build games instead.


Okay, looks like this is becoming a humongous post and I can see myself struggling to encapsulate everything here. Therefore, I'll steer towards more brevity. Some of the other papers that I see my work connecting with would be Daniel Vella's work on ruins and videogames, Mia Consalvo's keynote focusing on identification in social games (well this isn't my area but it was very interesting ) and Alison Gazzard's paper on perceptions of space in game worlds where she brings in Massumi in a way which seems to connect to my work on affect.

I haven't discussed the keynotes in detail but David Myers' biological naturalism based formulation of videogame identity was very interesting. Myers' paper engaged in a dialogue with Eric Olson, the other keynote speaker. Olson's paper was provocative but I felt that some of his points needed more justification and certainly, a more solid base in terms of gameplay experience.
 
This was also the first conference where other Indians besides myself presented. Samir Passi and Ranjit Singh had to leave early and it was a pity that we didn't get better acquainted. The next day, after an enlightening early-morning trek to Acropolis with Isaac, I too had to leave quite early. Halfway through Consalvo's paper in fact - unfortunately. So I have homework to do. Not for anything in the world will I miss the chance to ask Sebastian and Niklas questions about their respective papers, both of which turned out very well as I've been told. Among the papers that the severe brain fatigue after presenting my own paper forced me to miss, I'll be looking forward to reading Elina Roinotti's paper on identity and governance in WoW. Although not a WoW fan, Esther MacCallum-Stewart's sterling work has got me more than casually interested. Elina was also our tireless host at the conference and I'd like to thank her and her team for making this a memorable experience.

'Re-membering and Dismembering': the title of my paper

Speaking of memorable experiences, my own presentation at this conference was certainly a major one for me.  This is almost my swansong - the trailing last few things that I'm probably going to say to Game Studies before I go back to India (and to possible game-research oblivion) in July. It's fitting that what I had to say was about remembering. I have made so many friends in my journeys in videogame research and I hope our shared memories remain. My paper too was about shared memories and about constructing identities through memory (re - memberings as opposed to dismemberings). I pondered the question of how multiple memories of the same game event can exist (created at each reload of a saved instance) and how these influence who and what we are in the game. I find the models suggested by Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze particularly useful. For a quick overview check out the abstract below and for the full paper, click here. Click here for the slideshow.

There were interesting responses to my presentation from various people. This is work-in-progress and suggestions are always welcome. Mark wanted to see a bit more of the dismembering unpicked in the paper. There were interesting questions raised regarding collective memories in games in comparison to the writing of history (from Christophe) and about how someone else's memory could be appropriated by the player (in that say I share my savegame with you, as Alison asked). Gordon asked if I had not considered psychological studies of memory and my response is that Deleuze covers some ground here in his Bergsonism which I use heavily but that I'm intent on doing more work on this. There is also the neurobiological angle that I've started looking at. The concept of collective videogame memory appealed to many and left me wondering if I should have concentrated more on this aspect. Serendipitously, on my way back I met Mara, a Psychology student from Italy and we fell talking about the multiplicity of memory. Now I have some more articles to read :)

Before that, however, I need to synchronise my memories with those of Altair and Ezio of Assassin's Creed. I'm playing after ages and I've clocked eight hours already today. Now to quickly post this and get back to my game.


For papers by other presenters, use this link. 
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Abstract

Re-membering and Dismembering: Memory and the (Re)Creation of Identities in Videogames
[Heading: Identity, Artifacts and Memory]
Perhaps one of the most natural things in gameplay is to avoid the same tactics that killed the player in the last saved game when he or she reloads and play again. In fact, it seems so natural an element of gameplay, that the act of remembering is almost unnoticed. As scholars such as Michael Nitsche (2007) and Barry Atkins (2007) have observed, however, memory plays an important part in shaping videogame actions. Remembered actions educate the player against making some decisions and as Nitsche observes, narrow down the number of possibilities in each future iteration of gameplay. Simply put, based on memory, the player does not get killed in the same way twice. Atkins and also the present author have analysed how the remembered experiences in videogames complicate the temporal schema of the game plots, thus making them problematise linear chronologies. From these initial forays into looking at the relationship between the videogame and the player memory, one salient issue emerges. Remembered actions inform the future in-game deeds of the player and these, in turn, contribute to the construction of the in-game identity. Given its influence on in-game action and by extension of the player’s in-game identity, the role of memory can almost be seen as a ‘re -membering’ (from the original sense of the word ‘member’ meaning ‘body’) - memory therefore serves to re-embody and recreate the player-character.
The question, however, is further complicated because of the nature of the memory itself. Often, the memory is a collective construct. Digital artefacts such as walkthroughs and  game wikisites host a massive database of remembered experiences uploaded by players. Future players ‘plug-in’ , as it were, to such a collective memory when they seek help or context while experiencing the game. Their experiences, arguably, are modified with the involvement with the collective memories in such paratextual material.
Remembered experiences can be instinctive and ‘gut responses’: for example, before entering a narrow lane in a First-Person Shooter where the avatar might have died in a previous instance, the remembered response might be to automatically spray the area with bullets before entering. At the same time, in-game memory is also a clearly defined entity that calls for reflective analysis. Some games consciously make memory a key trope in their plots and there they address issues like temporality and identity. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) and Assassin’s Creed (2008) are prominent examples where the avatar’s lived experience is governed in various remembered experiences . STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007) is about a protagonist who plays out the game’s narrative in order to find out who he is -  his identity and memory constantly inform each other.
The question of how the act of remembering (or re-membering) contributes to the in-game identity formation of the avatar might be problematic but whether it is an entirely new one is a moot point. A comparison with parallel concepts in philosophy would be useful, therefore, in exploring the role memory has in building in-game identities. Such a comparison would also provide concrete illustrations to support or refute  philosophical models.  Taking this approach, this paper explores parallels between Henri Bergson’s philosophy of memory and videogames. In doing so, particular emphasis is placed on the Bergsonian view of time and memory as a multiplicity. Like the mass of discrete yet inseparable remembered experiences that game walkthroughs, wikis and other records consist of, for Bergson multiplicity is qualitative and is characterised by both heterogeneity and continuity.  Memory is categorised by Bergson into the automatic ‘habit-memory’ that is aligned with bodily perception and a ‘pure’ memory which involves thought and action.
The similarities with memory in videogames come out even in the comparison with  the brief sketch of the Bergsonian model above. Despite the similarities, the process of identity-formation and its relation with the player memory still needs further clarification. Gilles Deleuze (1988) proposes a reading of Bergson that takes into account the Bergsonian multiplicity and also provides a more substantial model of perception, affection and action where in between the perception and the action, memory plays the important role where the character of the avatar can be seen to be constructed in the ‘movement of memory’. After a certain event in the game, how the player responds to it depends susbtantially on  the  past experience, whether it is his or her own or whether it is drawn from the collective wisdom of databanks or fellow players. The identity of the avatar is the result of actualisations that occur from within a complex space of parallel and interlocking possibilities. This space of possibilities is, however, constantly modified by the player’s previous actions as well as by what the player remembers of previous actions or in other words, his or her memory. Having analysed the function of memory in videogames and having compared it with Bergson’s concept of memory as well as Deleuze’s commentary on Bergson, this analysis will illustrate how player memory - both singular and collective - forms a key part of the mechanism of identity-formation.


Indicative Bibliography
Assassin’s Creed, 2008, Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft.
Atkins, B.  2007, ‘Killing time: time past, time present and time future in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’ in B. Atkins and T.  Krzywinska (eds.), Videogame, Player, Text, Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 237-253.
Bergson, H., 2004. Matter and Memory, Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications.  
Deleuze, G., 1988. Bergsonism, New York: Zone Books.  
Deleuze, G., 1986. Cinema 1 : The Movement-image, London: Athlone.  
Nitsche, M., 2007, ‘Mapping time in video games’. In DIGRA. Tokyo. Available www.lcc.gatech.edu/~nitsche/download/Nitsche_DiGRA_07.pdf.  Accessed: 12 January 2011.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, 2003, Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft.
STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, 2007, THQ, GSC Gameworld.

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My Bangor talk

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After that long twenty-eight year wait, India has won the Cricket World Cup once again and I cannot but help joining in the jubilation and euphoria in my country. Congratulations to the Indian Cricket team.

This is the first world cup that I haven't watched on television. British television is not interested in cricket, especially since the England team has been so dismal in its recent performances. 'It's not cricket', they'd have said back in the days but well... that's another story. As the team was battling the formidable Pakistan team in the semi-finals, I was not watching the match but giving a talk in lovely Bangor, far from the tense atmosphere at Mohali. I love going to Bangor University both for the place and the people. I would like to thank Dr Astrid Ensslin and Isamar Carillo Masso for inviting me to speak.

The Humanities building in the University looks something like Gryffindor Tower - ancient and dignified. It even has vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. In such an august venue (although my talk, strictly speaking, was held in a more modern section of the building), I held forth on my pet subject - reading games and playing books. Yes, I'm still making a case for reading game narratives as seriously as literature and films. As I said in earlier posts, I use Deleuze and Guattari's concept of 'minor' literature to analyse game narratives and their place in literature. Here's the relevant section from my abstract:

Videogames are not the only such type of narrative; Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari identify similar characteristics in the works of authors ranging from Franz Kafka to Lewis Carroll. They call this type of literature 'minor literature' by which they mean any literature that subverts and dislocates tradition.  For Deleuze and Guattari, 'minor literature' is great literature and it does not necessarily belong to minorities, although this may be the case. Like other examples of 'minor literature', videogames contain multitelic and multiple narratives. Further, although they are seen to be at the periphery of narrative studies, they are nevertheless seen to occupy a central position as research in videogames progresses.

I also used examples such as Cortazar's Hopscotch and B.S.Johnson's The Unfortunates to talk about the ludicity of literature itself. Finally, I defined videogames as an 'assemblage' (following Deleuze and adapting DeLanda's definition of assemblages). Assemblages are characterised by rules of exteriority. A component of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different. The exteriority of relations implies a certain autonomy - 'a relation may change without the terms changing'. I've spoken about this before and this time I was a bit bolder in that I came up with a 'definition' of videogames.


Sonia Fizek, who is doing a PhD on videogames, picked up on this and very rightly asked why I called this a definition especially when many other things could be called assemblages. True enough -  Deleuze himself describes other things as assemblages. So the 'definition' is in effect a non-definition. Its aim is to indicate the complexity of videogames as a phenomenon and the problem of identifying something as 'the videogame'. I do not believe in 'the videogame'; videogames are multiple and arguably they resist any easy compartmentalisation more than other media. Instead, the videogame-assemblage plugs into other assemblages and the boundaries give way to organic relationships. I may have more to say when I describe videogames as assemblages but I certainly have less to define. However, definitions provoke people and my guess is that a thought-provoking idea becomes more interesting when put forward as a (non)definition. Thank you Sonia for highlighting this.


The other main issue that rings in my head is that about the 'Canon'. Do videogames have a Canon? Should they have one? And if I were to choose my ten games for the A-Level videogames and literature syllabus (should such a thing ever come to pass), what would they be? Humanities in general now makes it its business to resist attempts towards  sustaining the canonical. I do not see any reason why videogames should do otherwise. My personal theoretical orientation prevents me from singling out any specific examples for special attention. Instead of selecting individual games (although like everyone else I have my favourites), I'd go for concepts and ideas and leave the selection of related texts fluid. 



There were other questions asked and my memory fails me as to the finer details. Someone asked about videogames and morality. Astrid Ensslin gave us a singularly problematic example of a game where the player as Berlin Wall guard has to decide whether to shoot one of those who tried to cross over. From this and other slightly unrelated meanderings, the session closed with a question about whether we can have a Paradise Lost in videogames. I'm wondering ... after all, I had Milton as my special paper in my Master's. I don't think we need to have a videogame version of Paradise Lost just as we don't know whether a film version will capture its charm. What we need, however, is a work of such epic proportions in videogame-narratives. Videogame storytelling is getting richer by the day and I'm optimistic.


Here's a message to the naysayers, videogames are maturing as very complex narrative media  - face it or run away.






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Videogames as Literature: Talk at Bangor University

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I’m going to Bangor today. Yes, loved it the first time and wouldn’t miss another chance to visit. In fact, I am admiring the lovely Welsh countryside even as I write. It’s raining and the bilingual signs and the unfamiliar names adding a quaintness that is unique to this place. On top of this, the train catering steward just brought his trolley announcing the delectable menu of ‘ice creams, albatrosses and ocelot spleens’!

I’m going to the University there to do a talk. On Videogames AS literature (note the ‘AS’ – I’m getting bolder with age). Yes, this is probably my last presentation in the UK so I might as well say my say. I'll be looking at comparisons between videogames and Deleuzoguattarian 'minor' literature.

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I am an Assassin and I fly on fire

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Safety and Peace, traveller. The story I tell today is not of Altair, my illustrious ancestor. Those whom he removed from this world by the will of God, ever so glorious, have returned to our story. Such is the cyclic fate of man.

I am Ezio of Florence of the House of Auditore born to the pleasures of the reborn Italian states and embroiled in the conspiracies that govern our troubled lives. I too am an assassin or rather, am training to be one. Training well I must say as the streets of Milan and Venice are abuzz with rumours about me. They paint portraits of me so that people can report me. The town-criers cry warnings. The guards are on high alert. There are rumours that I can fly. At other times I would have laughed but today I am dead serious about flying. I will fly into the Doge’s palace, otherwise impregnable and bristling with the spears of its thousand guards. Today my job is to save a life , not to take one. They say the Doge’s padre will poison him today. Like I saved Lorenzo de Medici, I must save this Doge. Else, the future of Venice lies with the Borgia scum.



Fly, I said and you did not take me seriously. After all, this is still the early Renaissance. I am sure your history books have recorded the story of my friend Leonardo, the artist and polymath, even though it has effaced mine. Leonardo has invented a flying machine. Yes, as stupendous as that. Our first test flight ended up as a major embarrassment and increased my resolve of not trusting men of learning. I landed amongst the rooftops and was very lucky not to have my bones turned into jelly. Leonardo has had a brainwave since then. We are going to use fires all over the city rooftops and heat the air. The heated air is going to lift up Leonardo’s contraption whenever it sinks down. Whenever it sinks , I have to steer it towards a fire and of course, steer clear of the archers or kick them off the roofs.

Meanwhile, back to my job of clearing the rooftops where I plan to have the fires. My hidden blade just slid smoothly into my palm as I wiped off the blood of the last dead guard. So back to Leonardo and then I will have more stories to tell.

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2nd CFP for PhD seminar: "Worlds, Stories, and Games"

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This one's a cfp from Sebastian Moering. The guys at ITU Copenhagen have decided to have yet another stab at the contested ideas of storytelling in videogames. I mean, come on, everyone knows videogames tell stories. Yes, they tell them differently and because they started as pure fun, academics in the Humanities avoid them. They also avoid pariah literary scholars like myself who try to say that some of their precious texts are actually like videogames. I'm used to that by now. I'm also used to people claiming that games are games and nought else. Instead of bothering overmuch, I've been investigating and building alternative mechanisms of critical analysis that literary criticism does not provide. I've also been arguing the case for introducing these mechanisms into literary analysis so that we learn more about how narrative, in general, works. Anyway, to return to the cfp from my manifesto. Take over, Sebastian. Ludus ex is at your service.

Just before handing over the mike, are people who have completed their PhDs allowed? I love Copenhagen and also the chance of the very lively debate that Espen Aarseth's presence manages to inspire. Better check my calendar just in case. If you are a PhD researcher working on videogame narratives, please pack your bags ... DON'T MISS THIS!

-----
2nd CFP for PhD seminar***
"Worlds, Stories, and Games"


May 18-20, 2011 at IT University of Copenhagen
5 ECTS

Speakers from the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT
University of Copenhagen:
Espen Aarseth (Ludo-Narratology)
Yun-Gyung Cheong (Story generation)
Mark Nelson (Drama management)
Julian Togelius (Procedural content generation)
Georgios N. Yannakakis (User/Player modeling)


***ABSTRACT***

This seminar invites PhD students to investigate theoretical and
practical problems of interactive storytelling and interactive
storytelling techniques in computer games or related media from the
perspectives of computer sciences (part I) as well as humanities based
research (part II) and tries to find interconnections between the two
perspectives.


Part I: Computational Models of Storytelling and Interactive Storytelling

Narrative generation by computers has been actively researched for the
last two decades. In particular, various artificial intelligence
techniques have been used to model story creation and comprehension
processes. However, generating interactive stories is still challenging
due to the dynamics of user interaction. The user in story-centered
games is like an actor who plays a role in a story without the script.
Therefore, creating a seamless story that continuously interacts with
the player requires numerous storylines and tremendous authoring
efforts. In narrative analysis theory, story consists of two layers:
story world and discourse. The story world includes all the events in
the story including the events hidden from the reader while the
discourse contains only the selected events to be presented to the story
consumer. The author constructs the discourse carefully for particular
impacts and emotional experiences for the reader.

In games, the story consumer takes a part in creating the story world,
and thus story events that are not worth to tell can be conveyed to her.
The user’s dual roles as story producer and consumer in the game
environment have complicated the direct application of narrative
theories into interactive story generation.

This seminar is looking for approaches to problems like: How can we
efficiently use the interaction of a user into storytelling? Is the
interactive storytelling more like a story or a game? Should the story
components be present in the story world that the user navigates through
or be present in a retrospective way when she recalls the game play? How
much does narratology come into play in interactive storytelling?


Part II: Ludo-Narratology and Beyond

If games and game technology can be used for storytelling, what is
storytelling, really? How much can the standard theories and models of
narratology help us understand game-story hybrids and new kinds of
ludo-mimetic entertainment, and how great is the need for new theories
and models? A critical understanding of "story-games" is useful both for
the development of experimental systems such as FAÇADE (2005), as well
as for the study of commercial productions such as FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS
(2010), DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS (2010), or HEAVY RAIN (2010).

For years, game studies have tried to come up with an answer to the
question: Are these "things" games or stories, or both? Unfortunately,
the discussion got side-tracked on a meta-level, misleadingly termed
"ludology vs. narratology," and became an unproductive no-man's land. It
is high time to reboot the empirical study of story-game hybrids and
move the field forward.

The seminar will explore the ludological limits of narratology and
present some new models from recent game research, and examine the
utility of classical narratology. Through lectures, close-playing
analysis and discussions, the goal is to attain a better grasp of the
aesthetic challenges and solutions involved in game-story production and
analysis, through new models and concepts developed specifically for
these new forms.

The seminar will furthermore give introductory talks on the state of the
art in interactive storytelling techniques such as story generation,
procedural content generation, and automated camera control. The seminar
also includes an interactive session to demonstrate the use of
interactive story authoring tools.


***REQUIREMENTS***

PhD students from the fields of game studies, narratology, interactive
storytelling techniques, computational story generation and related
fields are invited to submit papers which offer new insights or
solutions for the presented problems. For participation please send an
abstract of your paper (300-500 words) to smam(at)itu[dot]dk.
In order to get 5 ECTS you only have to submit a paper and present a
position, a problem, a solution etc. from the given fields.

As an orientation:
- a humanities based paper should have about 10 pages in Times New Roman
12pt, double line spacing or 4000-6000 words,

- a computer science based paper: about 4000 words or max 6 pages following
IEEE double column formatting style (e.g. http://bit.ly/i2KdHK).

Knowledge in either computational interactive storytelling techniques or
narrative and computer game theory or both is preferable but not
obligatory. A refreshment of knowledge will be made possible with a
compendium of theoretical texts provided prior to the course.
Furthermore, it is advised to play at least three of the example games
(HEAVY RAIN (2010), FAÇADE (2005), FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS (2010), DRAGON
AGE: ORIGINS (2010), THE MARRIAGE (2006)) prior to the course in order
to have a comparable frame of reference in terms of examples.

The seminar is free of charge; travel expenses and accommodation have to
be comprised by the participants.


***TIMETABLE***

Deadline for abstract submission: March 22, 2011
Notification of acceptance: March 29, 2011
Submission of paper: April 29, 2011

Further information will be available in the “events” section of
http://game.itu.dk. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to
send an e-mail to Sebastian Möring, smam(at)itu(dot)dk, or Yun-Gyung
Cheong, yugc(at)itu(dot)dk.

--

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Games and Philosophy Conference, April 2011

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My abstract has been accepted  for the Games and Philosophy conference being held in April at Athens. Identity formation has always been a prime concern of mine and so has memory. Some games (and I'm thinking specifically of Assassin's Creed as the best example, here) engage deeply with memory as an entity that constructs the identity of the avatar. I consider this symptomatic of a quotidian phenomenon in videogames that is often overlooked. In the game that we play, we are what we are because of things we have remembered or others have remembered and retained for us (in some kind of collective memory storage or in simple words,  a wiki) and we are also the creatures of habit and reflexes - memories that we don't even realise that we remember. Hence, I've fallen back on Bergson and Deleuze's reading of Bergson, both of which I see as pathways into this analysis.  Writing the paper - well that will be a daunting experience if I know Bergson and Deleuze at all. As always in Ludus Ex, suggestions are welcome.

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Ludotopia II: An Any-Space-Whatever?

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In-between spaces, holes, interstices, people milling around coffee tables and Danish pastries talking about space and the sliding from one reference frame to another.  Copenhagen in 2010, Manchester this year - the Ludotopia game was reloaded and revealed a space throbbing with possibilities. Throbbing in the sense of a vibrating space where ideas constantly keep forming, get expressed or even suppressed and forgotten. Ludotopia is a conference / workshop or even what my boss Sue Thomas calls an 'unconference'.  Last year a group of around 15 people convened in Copenhagen to discuss various aspects of spatiality in videogames. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and also managed to come up with papers of high quality (as we thought). Hence, the need for a second event to polish the rough edges, expose the papers to further scrutiny and to stimulate a general discussion that would result in a book proposal. I learnt much and can indeed give page-long glosses to some of the changes made in the papers (I reported on their contents last year).  Much of these is work in progress at this stage  so I shall not outline all the details. Instead I shall discuss in general some issues that struck me as well as the two new papers that were presented.  Finally, I have no issues with revealing where my own work will go so I'll attempt to provide a preview of my own paper as it will look later on.  As usual, Ludus ex always welcomes feedback.


Among the concepts that fascinated me last year, Espen Aarseth's 'ludoforming' stands out,. Marked with an incisive wit and yet an affable gregariousness, Espen's presentation of his ideas have always interested me mostly because of their contentiousness but this time because I was in full agreement. To ludoform, in Espen's Copenhagen presentation,  was to construct a game's space over a real space and it was interesting to see how game meaning's formed / reformed / ludoformed real spaces.   Back then, he had used examples from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R games' version of Pripyat, the African savannah in Far Cry 2 (where he famously showed a pacman-like structure in FC2's map of its fictitious African landscape). It seems from his recent discussions that as a concept, 'ludoforming' will become much more robust and address even games like Monopoly (in the sense that places in Monopoly have their own specific attributes adapted from their real counterparts that are modified by the game). Sweeping across more games, this concept looks like it'll be an attractive one for Game Studies.

This year we also had a more distilled version of Stephan Guenzel's paper. Stephan explained his concept of trialectic space (first, second and third spaces) in more detail. Essentially, he describes how computer games symbolically exemplify concepts without missing out reality.

Almost all the papers have been developed and enriched but I'll let you read them in their final incarnations. My previous post on Ludotopia and Bjarke Lieborussen's blog will give you summaries of the papers as they were last year.

My own paper is on the use of the wasteland as a spatial metaphor in games and I see the wasteland as a space of possibilities from within which events  are actualised (so from a mesh of possible events, one is made to occur depending on the influencing environment  -whether this consists of the game affordances or the player's emotional state etc). At first glance, however, the wasteland seems to be a space devoid of meaning and human interaction. Like the railway stations and terminals that Marc Auge calls 'non-places', the wasteland too is a place for passing through. Here, there is no history no human relationships. The game wasteland is, however, not such a 'non-place'. Instead, it is a place that throbs with possibilities. It corresponds with the affective spaces or the vast public spaces where events form despite the apparent nondescriptness of these spaces. Gilles Deleuze calls this the 'any-space-whatever' in his Cinema 1. Whether Deleuze is commenting on Auge we do not know (despite a very problematic footnote in Deleuze) but in game terms, any-space-whatever certainly emerges as a better description for game spaces. Even the wasteland setting in games is not like a bus station where players just pass through Deleuze even in the bus station lies a space of possibility that is going to give rise to an event, an actualisation of a possibility.  The wasteland setting in games is such an 'any-space-whatever'.  This is a difficult concept to fathom and in spatial terms it is abstract. Some of the immediate criticism that I'd received focused on the fact that after a while, the any-space-whatever exhausts its possibilities in a videogame whereas I was claming otherwise. The any-space-whatever consists of possibilities that are structural (games are unique in that they have such a wide range of structural options) but also at the same time semantic and experiential (all media, including cinema to which Deleuze applies this, would have this plane of reference). A complex notion such as this when applied to a complex medium like videogames causes much controversy and worse, confusion. However, judging by the number of times the term was used in various contexts in the two days, it is a useful framework in game studies.  A rewrite, therefore, is necessary where I need to expand on the primacy of the concept of any-space-whatever, tease out the various layers of meaning and pace O Deleuzians, simplify the concept in relation to digital games.

Having expounded on my grand plan for videogame wastelands (yes, I'm building a housing estate in Megaton - ring  for bookings), I'll take you through two fascinating presentations by the new guys who joined our Ludotopian spaceship. Speaking of spaceships, the event was organised in the control cabin of the starship Uni of Salford. Lean back with me in your console in ThinkLab to see the two discussions unfold.

The first new paper was Stephan Schwingeler's study of perspective in videogames. He started with a comparison of Uccello's use of the checkerboard with that of the checkerboard base in Wipeout! thus pointing to the development of perspectival spaces in games. Illustrating the use of perspectival spaces through a discussion of Alberti and Brunelleschi with much reference to the art historian and theorist Erwin Panofsky, Stephan  announced that videogames are still in their Baroque age and that other artistic movements like Romanticism and Cubism hadn't permeated the videogame world yet. He also pointed at the difference between videogame spatial perspectives and Renaissance ideas of perspective in that although both ideas of perspective 'turn the space of bodily presence into represented space', in digitising psycho-physiological space, spectators become users as well.  Some of the questions in response were about non-visual videogame spaces (such as aural games) and about other forms of perspective besides the standard first or third person perspective, such as the Asmodean (Asmodeus is an intrusive devil that can look into people's houses from above) perspective in Sims or the God's-eye view in RTS games. I added to these the problems with the shift in perspective in games like Rome: Total War and also on another level, as Michael Nitsche clarified, in games like Max Payne where the view of Payne drugged and Payne sober are different. Finally, how about non-Western ideas of perspective that may have been used in games.  Would games like Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy  require a different understanding of perspective? Similarly, how about Echochrome ?

Later, on our way to the Curry Mile in Manchester, Stephan suggested similarities with my wasteland metaphor and Romantic images of ruins (in Friedrich's paintings  - but I can think of enough English examples as well). An interesting parallel to pursue.

The second paper, by David Hancock, was equally interesting. Working on Henry Jenkins idea of transmediality, David is looking at scenes in videogames that remediate images from art (as in the Golden Compass videogame) and is then doing paintings based on them (for example, the painting of a sunset in GTA). He is also filming the practice of cosplayers and provided some interesting insights into the practice of local cosplayers. Cosplay, he says, is not a subculture in that it's not a 24X7 identity like the Gothic and Alternative groups have. Cosplayers are apparently more concerned with the character they cosplay than anything else. This also brings up issues in spatial terms. I was intrigued how the cosplayer switches spatial awareness from the game space (which should form the context for the character) to the city space in which they cosplay.  There seem to be two levels of spatiality at work here. Stephan Guenzel made an observation about multilayered space existing as a directed space for  those players whom Richard Bartle refers to as 'killers' and as a non-directed space for the 'explorers' in Bartle's categories. I'm not sure if Stephan made the comment in this connection but I certainly see two overlapping and interlinked spaces in cosplay - the game space undercut by the cosplayer's city space.

Ludotopia, however, is never about the formal. The in-between affective spaces rule here so here's a random list of trivia. Stephan Guenzel announced that 'Romanticism (as in landscapes that you can only contemplate) in games comes before the epoch of Far Cry'. David told us about the possibility of Zelda going for coffee at Affleck's (a coffee bar in Manchester I guess). We started wodering again about fiction and story as well as the sartorial elegance in British nightlife. Espen definitely has a prospective alternative career as chilly-taster - he ate three raw chillies without batting an eyelid (or maybe he did blink a little). I  ate them too but I'm Indian and I have them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Michael's designing this huge duck toy that feeds othher ducks with chocolate (I might be making this up by the way so ask him).


Last but not least, I met rapid cyclist on the way to Manchester. Thank God he was there; otherwise I would have read all the papers again and been over-critical. Rapid cyclist is a psychiatrist by profession whose first love is computers and guess what, computer games. He turned out to be an Elite aficionado, having played the game since his Amiga days and now plays Eve Online. We had so much in common. We are both from the Indian subcontinent  and I am a games researcher who wanted to be a doctor whereas he is a doctor who wanted to research informatics. As it would happen, the so-called non-place (pace Auge) of a train compartment suddenly resembled an any-space-whatever in that it provided so many possible interactions.  It was like having found a friend in City 17. By the by, I'm sure you know this but Rapid Cycling is said to be the favourite malady of artists.


The return from Manchester proved equally eventful. During a walk down the city's lanes (not very nice ones) and a flaneur -like journey around the remains of a  Victorian fish market, we discovered a shop that sells PacMan cookie-cutters and Star Wars blasters. I think they also had Obi Wan's tooth but the thought of a Jedi toothpaste was daunting enough. A friend of mine did buy a PacMan stress ball. We ended up in this alternative pub and the behatted barman inspired me to buy a trilby yesterday. The place (or maybe it was just us) inspired us to think of a project where we'd all do peer-reviewed critical close-analyses of games for a journal  or a some-as-yet-undefined-thing. Sebastian Moering brought this up and everyone was enthusiastic. As for me, this has been my dream since 2000 and there have been hurdles everywhere. I do a bit of this in Ludus ex as you might have noticed but for a formal project all I have to show is a disappointed face after the abortive funding applications. I've still not given up and Seb's plan is certainly a glimmer of light at the end of a dark tunnel.

The other Ludotopians dispersed towards the Manchester City Centre for more revels. I was on the tiny train to Nottingham again after having waited in the station. 'Welcome to City 17' , the loudspeakers said. No, it was actually, 'the next station is Nottingham' and the lady exhorted us to remove any remains of our existence - the compartment was gearing up to look like a non-place. Looks, however, are deceptive.

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Reloads

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'Reload' has been the word of the week for me. In real life and the virtual world(s). A chain of events that I thought had terminated eight years ago suddenly swung around and like those moving staircases in Hogwarts, reconnected some things that I never thought of as possible. Reload. I've been working on my article on rebirth eschatologies, time and in-game death. I also reworked my other article on Sherlock Holmes called 'Sherlock Holmes Reloaded.' Reload. I've been thinking about memory and identity recently and a revisit to Deleuze's Bergsonism is called for. Reload. I've just reloaded a saved 'memory' of virtual ancestor, Ezio de Firenze, using his DNA chain in Assassin's Creed 2. Reload. In an in-game event, the protagonist of the first Assassin's Creed game, Altair, turns up.

Reload again. Think Ludotopia. Our workshop in Copenhagen is now coming closer home to Manchester. We'll be seeing the entire Ludotopia team again and I need to get back to my Videogames and topos  discussion.

Time to exit game temporarily. More reloads are possible. Subsequently. Will this year bring lots of reloads, then?

Happy New Year by the way.


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