Two weeks ago, I was standing in front of the Las Meninas at the Prado after having played truant at a videogames conference. Mesmerised by the little girls looking at me from within the incredibly lifelike canvas and by that man in the staircase, I felt as if I were in a videogame. Was it art or was it a videogame then? Almost immediately, I remembered the session that I run away from: 'are videogames art?' Eleven years ago, it seems such a long time now, I had asked the questions 'are videogames stories?' and 'can stories be played like videogames?' to a bemused audience of postgrads and academics in an Indian university, my alma mater. These questions haunt me even today, after writing a doctoral dissertation on the subject and many more academic debates and discussions, some of them articles and book chapters. Are videogames art? A rather irate blogger wishes to go back in time and tie Roger Ebert's hands so that he never could type his dictum on videogames not being art. I wish I could too. Tying Ebert's hands is, however, not going to solve my Las Meninas problem. Is my experience of videogames affecting my experience of the Velazquez masterpiece? Digital technology has changed how we experience the world - undoubtedly so. That includes art, literature, culture and you-name-it. So what happens to the pre-digital categories that we comfortably brought to our universities and taught our students? Problems, I say. Problems.
Part of these problems is something called Digital Humanities. For some, it is the answer to the problems that the digital technologies have caused to all those academics who were snug in their Dickens Chairs, their Aristotelian sofas and the like. Naturally, everywhere in Europe and the US, universities have started Digital Humanities courses. They all seem to know what it is and they have some great definitions. This is the good part of the story.
Now, for the not-so-good part: I am back in India again after a good seven years and when I mention Digital Humanities, I see the same bemused faces that I saw after my presentation on videogames those eleven years ago. It’s different, however. Videogames and this whole digital business is not uncool anymore. The whole world is doing Digital Humanities and India is not to be left behind. There’s a small problem though and let’s again bring in Ebert and his tied hands to illustrate this: Indian academics haven’t heard of Roger Ebert and most haven’t the foggiest idea of what videogames are. A large percentage aren’t on Facebook and although many bewail the loss of gigapedia’s free library, the common mainstays of European or American education such as VLEs and e-assessment haven’t reached their office computers. Of course, they don’t tweet; don’t know about Prezi (as opposed to Powerpoint) and would rather create their bibliographies manually rather use Zotero. I met one who did know Zotero but thought it was a note-taking software and she has covered her Kindle (one of the few that you can see around here) in cellophane totally oblivious of the magic sun-proof screen that Amazon prides itself on. Maybe, she just reads it in places where there is no cellophane reflection. Perhaps this is me being mean – so let’s go beyond my little world of web 2.0 for education and research towards the big developments that are purportedly happening in Indian academia. There is the Centre for Internet and Society that does some very important work in the area of digital cultures; there are other places that have a scattered presence in the mainstream academia. However, bigger institutions such as central and state universities have recently started showing interest in Digital Humanities. Here is the second problem: many of these institutions have got their definitions of the area from the zillion different ones in universities the world over. Instead of capitalising on the latecomer's advantage of researching the concept more thoroughly, some of these places have sought (and found) easy ready-to-hand versions more to their liking.The result is that some end up thinking that this is all about digitizing books, some think about law and the digital world, some think fancy and some confused. Kind of like the story of the blind men and the elephant they miss the forest for the trees. The main uniting factor, however, is that they all consider this an area of promise.
Of course, the magic word ‘digital’ ticks the boxes of interdisciplinarity and opens up possibilities of shaking hands with our richer colleagues in the IT faculties. ‘Digital’ also has a cool factor about it – like a male academic’s ponytail or even a metaphorical Lamborghini. Anyway, perhaps in search of this ‘coolness’, in Indian universities there is a rush helter-skelter to grab some expert on the digital humanities (or the so-called New Media), to analyse Facebook, get some surveys on gaming culture and especially on the game (sic!) called Second Life. However, this hasn’t solved any problems for the Humanities departments. Their focus remains limited and the course plans are confused. This is mainly because of the lack of engagement with previous research in the area and a haste that has perhaps stemmed from their earlier attitude to treat the area lightly. As they say, old habits die hard. I only know a couple of people who have expressed an active interest to read up on the area and of them, one is already quite well aware of international discussions and debates on many subjects. The rest seem to be content with their euphoric ‘yay digital’ mantra. It seems to me that some people are trying to do too many things too fast. Call me a purist, but at least as far as Game Studies is concerned, I strongly insist that my students read up their Espen Aarseth, their Ian Bogost and the many other rich discussions on videogames. I also insist that people who talk to me about videogames be willing to experience these games for themselves. If I were to write about Shakespeare, as I once did, I would be expected to have read up everything under the Shakespearean sun from A.C. Bradley to my girlfriend’s latest article on the bard and not to know the plays would be criminal, of course. Even Film Studies professors at least deign to watch the films they talk about. It is not surprising, therefore, that one might expect people who wish to analyse videogames, to at least have a feel of the medium itself.
However, I must not digress. Okay, so what else do I have to offer besides a massive whinge? My own understanding of the term ‘Digital Humanities’, perhaps. Make no mistake, I am and have always been concerned with researching videogames as a storytelling medium. Over the last decade, after having been pushed around under the banner of New Media (which tag I have always protested against) and now being walked into the DigiHum club, I have had to come up with a notion of my own to guarantee my academic sanity. For me, the rapid digitisation of social interaction, entertainment and cultural affects leaves its trace (in the Derridean sense and therefore also a rupture) on traditional understandings of Humanities. It exposes at the same time what was always there in the Humanities but nevertheless unknown; it also points to the close connection that the so-called new media has to the traditional notions. Let us say this in simple words. Digital media do not cause traditional concepts to be replaced by the new and the never-known-before; instead, they point out facets that problematise prior conceptions and renew the process of enquiry.
For example, we know videogames tell stories. Anybody who says that digital games are about to replace storybooks is, however, an idiot. The videogame narrative is multiple and with its saves and reloads presents an uber-complex temporality. However, to say that because videogames do not present the traditional plot structures that we often take as givens, does not mean that they cannot tell stories. Remember Borges’s forking paths, Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Calvino’s castle? Similarly, when people argue about the relationship of the ludic and the narrative, any scholar of narratives or even any random reader will remember how stories often play games with us. We just haven’t been able to study this aspect. At least, not until now. Enter Digital Humanities, Game Studies or call them what you will. Suddenly there is another shake-up of whatever we had taken for granted.
Studying that and facing that challenge in our research is what this discipline (or indeed, indiscipline) is about. Not scanning the obscure letters of a Mr Oldham and keeping them under a password-protected login. Which brings me to another vital thing about the digital world: sharing. Sharing increases the reach of an idea; so what would you say about sharing with millions of computers at unimaginable speeds? Academic culture is changing all over the world. People want to talk to each other across the globe and to listen. The dumb academic gets left far behind - by millions of tweets and facebook posts. If you are an academic going into Digital Humanities research, stay miles away from cliques and do not start by thinking of about competition. Write a blog, share your research with others, take their ideas on board and although I know you must publish your monographs and articles, but leave some free stuff on Scribd or somewhere. Share your thoughts with people not just those peer-reviewed journals.
Digital Humanities, or whatever you call it, is not a new discipline. It is a major cultural shift and it is here to stay and to problematise the stereotypes and the conventions. As game-designer and scholar Richard Bartle has said about coming to terms with videogame culture, the message here is : ‘drown or learn to swim.’ In a world, which can brook challenges and which can share solutions, I do not think we need to keep anyone’s hands tied. I would then untie Roger Ebert’s by now famous hands and take him in front of Las Meninas. Maybe he will revise his comment; maybe he will leave us with more problems. Either way, that’s the fun. Here’s to a great beginning to Digital Humanities in India and many more years, my masters.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino
Madrid and the Matadoria
Madrid, I found, is a smiling city. We had smiling people, bright sunshine, artistic adventures, sumptuous food and of course some great game philosophy. This was my third Philosophy of Games conference. Potsdam, Athens and Madrid – I now am a veteran. On looking back through my memory-glass, I see yet another wonderful piece of gameplay although there are some places where I would have reloaded. That was my complicated gamer way of describing my likes and dislikes.
The organisers were absolutely fabulous and the venues were excellent. I particularly liked the Matadoria or the former slaughterhouse turned art gallery – its motto is ‘not slaughter but art’. I couldn’t help being moved. This conference has always been about people interacting with each other, about making friends and about exploring the new. In an earlier post, I had written about the in-between spaces in a conference and I frequented all of the possible in-between spaces, all short of those in people’s mind, I think. Over lunch, during stolen smoke breaks and in Twitter, the papers were being commented on constantly. Ren Reynolds and someone with a lonely guitar (Twitter handle) were constantly tweeting; Armin Papenfuss and some other remembered faces were rethinking game design and we even had a long discussion on game ethics following the perfect lunchtime question of whether eating animals was ethical. So is it ethical to make and play a game which is about a socially controversial issue? The discussion was unfinished and we returned to the conference.
Keynotes usually disappoint me but Don Ihde kept us all spellbound. Ihde started by drawing a geometrical figure and asking us to rethink its spatiality. The diagram was, for him, a proscenium stage, a Mayan temple a many-headed robot and many things besides. Ihde pointed to this and to the duck-rabbit diagram (used by Wittgenstein) to indicate the multiplicity of the player experience. He showed how the sense of directionality varies from the Western compass-oriented notions to the South-Pacific islander’s notion of directionality as proximity. With respect to avatars, Ihde finds their position in the game interesting and increasingly complex. Arguing against a perfect semblance where an avatar could be considered in a Laplacean universe, he instead advocated a model based on what he calls ‘multistability’. Multistability is all about re-orientation and redefining of game space / experience. Like the Bushmen who use the stretched bowstring to make music (instead of shooting arrows), videogames too are multistable systems where the player experience is reoriented according to the context. I brought back with me a poignant Ihde quote: ‘there is no space for fundamentalism in a multistable universe’. View the keynote address here.
The other keynote that I liked was Gordon Calleja’s talk on incorporation. Calleja brought a fresh dimension into the debate about the immersion / involvement / flow concepts. I’ve read his book In-Game and I recommend it to any student of Game Studies. Here’s the bit that I used in my paper:
The player incorporates (in the sense of internalising or assimilating) the game environment into consciousness while simultaneously being incorporated through the avatar into that environment. […] Put another way, incorporation occurs when the game world is present to the player while the player is simultaneously present, via her avatar, to the virtual environment.
Calleja sticks to FPS titles where this definition works well. In the question session, Patrick Coppock (oh yes, the man with the fantastic questions) wondered whether incorporation was possible in games like Solitaire and I would extend the question to real-time strategy games like Age of Empires. Over dinner, we had a quick ponder over the problem and my answer to this would be a Deleuzian one that would combine my notion of a ‘multiple consciousness’ concept and Mark Butler’s excellent piece on ‘becoming-zerg’ which will be familiar from my report on last year’s conference. I also had a slight gripe about the comment that books and films do not evince incorporation but this is perhaps a literature student’s instinctive resistance – I’ll think about this more. View the keynote here.
The other two keynotes disappointed. In the first, Greg Currie from a Literary Studies background unfortunately was quite unaware about the discourse of videogame research and also perhaps not quite in agreement with established poststructuralist positions on the multiplicity of the text (see Barthes on the readerly and writerly text or Fish on reader-response). Graeme Kirkpatrick presented a well thought out paper on whether videogames can become art basing his notion of art on that of Pierre Bourdieu and then on that of philosopher Jean Ranciere. Kirkpatrick’s argument was complex and he even harkens back to the Ludology/Narratology debate from earlier on in Game Studies. Indeed, he goes on to point out that the really important characteristic of videogames is their emptiness. While I am not much familiar with Ranciere (next on my reading list) and the little experience I have with the aesthetics of videogames, I think such a stark contrast with the visual arts is problematic. Here’s the video, however, and I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.
Philosophers and Gamers
In his closing speech, Olli Leino remarked that this iteration of the conference did not have people saying either ‘I am a philosopher and not a gamer’ or ‘I am a gamer and not a philosopher’ – the meld certainly worked out. People are getting more receptive to the idea and the talks I attended clearly showed this. I enjoyed the presentations of Geert Bruinsma, Paul Martin, Tom Hehir, Carolyn Jong, Jeffrey Dunn and Alex Baker-Graham among others. These were all new faces although I had met Paul and Carolyn earlier. The papers are all available online so I’d best leave you to form your own opinions. However, I cannot resist the urge to comment on a few of these.
Carolyn spoke on the ethics of the non-player characters in Dragon Age and this made me wonder if the ethics of the player-avatar constantly changes /reconfigures with the different non-player characters she encounters. I didn’t get a chance to ask her.
On the same subject of ethics (which had made its way into the main conference from our lunchtime conversation), Dunn’s presentation highlighted the asymmetry thesis which seems to say that actions committed in the virtual world are not real and hence do not count as far as morality is concerned. Dunn went on to compare in-game actions to those in dreams (on which, however, the subject arguably has less control). His conclusion, after testing the asymmetry thesis , its opposite and one where elements of both apply, is as follows: it does point to a trade-off: ‘we can have a very realistic virtual world, or we can have a world that satisfies the Asymmetry Thesis, but we cannot have both. In the virtual as well as the real, it seems, everything comes with a cost’. Fair enough. My one main problem is that he does not refer to any previous work on game ethics, i.e. Miguel Sicart’s book, Christoph Klimmt excellent essay on moral desensitization, Will Slocombe on in-game morality and my own essay. Personally, I think the way forward is to replace any analysis of morality with ethics, especially as outlined by Spinoza in his letter to the rice merchant Blyenbergh. I discuss this at length in my essay on Deleuzian and Spinozist ethics as a way of addressing the ethics of in-game action.
Again, at the risk of sounding too fond of self-advertisement, I would perhaps also mention my papers on temporality and memory (from the Athens conference last year), in connection to Hehir’s presentation. As a hardcore and longtime proponent of narrativity in videogames, I really liked Hehir’s introduction of Paul Ricoeur into the analysis of videogames. The narrative machine for me sounds great and I really liked the introduction of Virilio’s vision machine as a parallel. However, I have a small observation on Hehir’s discussion of the reiteration of game narratives. For Hehir, played experience and lived experience collapse into an imbricated relation such that the constructs begin to mirror each other, creating the possibility for experience unbeholden to reality. Reality enters into a cyclical or teleological relation with fiction, such that fiction becomes lived as reality. This last bit from Baudrillard if it separates reality from the virtual is problematic for me. In my earlier work on the difference and repetition (following Deleuze) of in-game iterations, I have argued how memory, play experience, imagination and the game’s immediate space of possibility are involved in the action that occurs. The Halo player’s experience that Hehir describes is undistillable and perhaps beyond the pale of Baudrillard’s hyperreality.
The other paper that I liked a lot was Geert Bruinsma’s on the Deleuzian affection-image in videogame action. Not only was this an in-depth look at something I focused on in my earlier conference paper at Potsdam (which Geert kindly cited) but also this marked yet another new friendship. Geert introduces Merleau-Ponty, Alva Noe as well as Deleuze into the analysis of the videogame image. He applied his and earlier analyses of Deleuze’s movement-image as an analytical model that would also test itself by analysing Doom 3, Fallout 3, and Shadow of the Colossus. Again, the full scope of his argument is best revealed in his paper.
The rest of the conference time, with Geert and others, was spent in the Prado, pubs and the lovely Madrid gardens. I also attended a fun workshop ongender and gaming where I learned how pathetic I was at playing Mirror’s Edge and where Patrick Coppock and Euridice Cabanes proved that gender wasn’t a watertight entity in influencing player action.
Last but not least, a few words about my own presentation. I heard the phrase ‘shameless plug’ used quite a bit at the conference so here’s my shameless plug. I presented on the concept of avatar in games and its hitherto unheeded roots in Hindu philosophy. My talk was meant more as an intervention – a necessary introduction of non-western philosophical discourses into Game Studies. I know Luke Cuddy has done something similar with his chapter on Halo and Buddhism and I myself spoke on Buddhist reincarnation and gaming at DiGRA ’09. This time it was different. Gamers the world over use the word avatar without bothering to check its etymology - yet, unknown to them the word itself, in its original meaning, incorporates the player experience in an excellent manner. My abstract below will provide an idea of what this paper is about:
Vishnu and the Videogame: The Videogame Avatar and Hindu Philosophy
In Hindu scripture and philosophy, the word avatar has existed for thousands of years. Its original usage differs from the sense that videogames, online media and recently James Cameron’s blockbuster have used the term - drawn from Neal Stephenson’s usage of it in Snow Crash (2000) and from the videogame Habitat (Lucasfilm 1986) to mean ‘ the graphical representation of the user or the user's alter ego or character’. For Hindus, the avatar is an object of worship and is the manifestation of divinity that descends on Earth to destroy evil. The commonest English translation of the term is ‘incarnation’ (literally ‘the being made flesh’) and with this is associated the idea of cyclical appearance manifested through birth and rebirth (reincarnation). The latter concept gets more tangled in Hindu and Buddhist rebirth eschatologies where rigid codifications of reincarnation are outlined. Whether the concept of the avatar in online media retains any of its roots in Hindu philosophy is a moot question. However, after over a decade of usage of the term and the lack of philosophical enquiry into its roots, the question is still one that merits the asking. Almost every game studies discussion mentions the avatar at least once and this paper will address the issue directly, through a comparison of the videogame avatar and its etymological counterpart in Hindu philosophy.
Unfortunately, I had to rush the paper towards the end and there was hardly time for questions. The general feeling was that people welcomed the intervention and I had many people coming up to ask more about the Hindu concept of the avatar. For those interested here’s my paper and my slideshow.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino