Videogames at the Indian Museum

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‘It is the Ajaib-Ghar, the Wonder-House’, Kim replied
(Rudyard Kipling, Kim)

The Indian Museum in Calcutta (now Kolkata) has always been the Ajaib-Ghar for me. Nowhere as big as the famous museums in the United Kingdom, the United States or even India, this is nevertheless one of the most important in the country if one is to try to make sense of how our erstwhile colonial masters, the British, wished to preserve our history and exactly what kind of history this could be. Postcolonial ruminations, however, are a fairly new and post-University phenomenon for me – my critical faculties become puny in comparison to the wonder and amazement that somehow returns from my childhood memories every time I stand inside the colossal entrance of this Wonder-House.

So I was not surprised to see the same expressions of wonder on the faces of a group of children, of ages six
to sixteen and from mostly from deprived sections of society, when I met them at the Indian Museum. This time I was there to speak about videogames. Nothing different there but last Sunday, I went to teach children about the Roman Empire using the videogame,Rome: Total War. This talk or presentation (someone even called it a ‘performance’) was part of ‘Jadughar Jamjamat’ (or the Museum Magic), a two-day programme by the museum authorities to reach out to children and to promote their interest in the study of history and culture.

Here I was, inside Kim’s ajaib-ghar again, introducing the Roman Empire and videogames to kids who probably knew little or nothing about either. It was a daunting experience for me as I had to speak in a mix of Bengali and Hindi and to jettison the academic inside me altogether so that I spoke less gobbledegook to the wide-eyed audience in front of me. After a mini history lesson on ancient Rome (in which I tried to sneak in some anti-Empire feeling), a short video of Obelix walloping the Romans and a longer video from the History Channel’s Decisive Battles series showing the Battle of Pharsalus (between Caesar and Pompey), I started the Rome game. The Decisive Battles series shows these key battles as simulations produced via the technology used for the Rome: Total War game – in effect, all of the major battles shown here look like gameplay from Rome. So little wonder I chose this as an introduction: it was a history lesson using videogames and therefore, not very different from what I was doing myself.

Rome: Total War was launched and volunteers were invited. Two very young Roman generals came onstage and each led Caesar’s army against the Gauls. Total War controls aren’t easy for first-timers and certainly less so if you are ten years old and have a gallery full of other kids checking out what you do.  Point, click and strategise. I had just explained how the Roman legions fought and coincidentally or otherwise, both the children who volunteered kept their armies in formation and beat back the swarming hordes of the Gaulish warband. The Gauls had a reserve army, however. Soon the Roman legions were routing and their general was dead.

This was the first time I tried to teach so very young children using videogames. I’ve used Assassin’s Creed 2 to introduce university students to the Renaissance before this and Rome to talk about empire and biopower (about which I should blog sometime). However, this was different and I think a post-mortem is needed. First, I will know better than to do this in one hour.  Maybe, teaching the controls first or having a sheet describing the controls would be a good idea. I also need to cut the background and the talk down to half its length. The point is to get more kids up on stage and ask them to play.  Given that in India, I am yet to come across workshops which provide participants with individual workstations and that most of the time you end up watching what others do on a screen, I guess some participatory activity (such as get help from the audience etc) needs to be devised to keep the audience involved as well. And oh yes, this time it’ll have to smaller groups.

All said, however, I enjoyed doing the event and I hope the kids liked it. For many of them, this was the first time they had seen a videogame. Some were, of course, pros although the child who played the game onstage had never used a laptop (as his father later told me). I thank, Sayan Bhattacharya, the extremely bright and enterprising educational officer of the Indian Museum for inviting me. I will do more of these things. All said and done, being able to share one’s favourite RTS game with a gang of kids is a pleasure in itself. And of course, to teach them to criticise Empire in all its forms  - playfully.

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