Gaming Ek Khoj, or In (re)Search of Gaming at the ‘Khoj Gaming Residency’

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It has been a week almost since I was in Delhi speaking at the Khoj gaming residency. I was supposed to send in a report as the visiting speaker, consultant or what-have-you and I’ve been quite late with it. What I saw amazed me. From a card game on Malaysian politics to a potential adventure game / RPG on a mysterious severed hand of a Georgian queen buried in old Goa, the resident artists and developers came up with some superb ludic ideas.  Since this ‘Ludus ex’ post has to double as a report, I’ll discuss my sessions with the participants, one by one. I should also say a few things about my own talk; well, perhaps, more so about the fifteen questions that I fielded after I finished.

The Buddha with a gas mask: wall painting near 'Khoj'

After making its way through the labyrinthine bylanes of Malviya Nagar, the auto-rickshaw stopped near a bizarre painting on a dirty yellow street wall: Buddha with a gas mask on. My sixth sense told me I was approaching Khoj. Once inside the plush cafeteria of the institute,  my hosts introduced me to Zedeck and Munkao. They wanted to know what I do with narratives and videogames and soon the conversation turned to why we differed over Fallout 3 and New Vegas and whether Rome: Total War could be more real than Livy or Tacitus. After all, historians’ accounts are never un-mediated. But is a videogame capable of reflecting and reflecting on reality? Zedeck and Munkao have created the Malaysian Politics card game and this has now gained popularity in Malaysia and they have a photo posing with a leading politician to prove this! So how could one improve the idea? How could more layers of story be made to meaningfully add to the game? Coming back to the issue of whether representations of events can be unmediated, one of the ideas that emerged was the importance of media in putting forward political messages. Politics itself, as construed through the newspaper medium, is a major force in molding public opinion and culture. This is a rule-bound activity usually with set goals and a set of people who agree to ‘play along’. In a way, then, a game.  Made me think of the narratives that are constructed in the quotidian interaction of the adda sessions in North Calcutta, where armed with a newspaper, the couch (or rather, the charpoy) politicians gather together to play out the political future of the state or the country.  Effectively, the newspaper, cut-up into very subjective chunks now forms a card game through which the political opinion is then mediated. Sometimes, you play one newspaper ‘card’ against another such ‘card’. This plays out as a critique of how media shapes political opinion and how different newspapers play against each other to create ‘news’. Think about it: it is a game that we play every morning.  Zedeck and Mankao’s game Politiko ‘examines such an artificial set of rules submerged in the real set of rules’ they say. But who knows whether the game itself is the real.

'Politiko', the Malaysian politics card game by Zedeck and Munkao

After this, we met Vishal (Vishal K. Dar) and his team. Vishal has recently installed a Mother India statue behind India Gate – on Google Maps, of course. A keen reader of the philosophy of Paul Virilio, he uses games to problematise whatever risks slipping into the zone of easy acceptability and essences. Space, the gaze, memory and immortality were issues that we spoke about. He thinks that the future is clunky and the machine needs to be given its due. Vishal is the perfect speaker for the Philosophy of Computer Games conference and I told him so. We had a long chat on Indian films that have a ludic quality  - Mani Kaul’s Duvidha was an example he gave (like Twykwer’s Run Lola Run or Kurosawa’s Rashomon). I could only think of Paheli but it turned out that it was an adaptation of Kaul’s film. He has recently made a graphic novel on Ramayan and here he explores how ideas of disorientation work at every level – even when the hero is hunting; the huntspace is disorientating, he feels. Here, the one appears as multiple and the multiple as one. Deleuzian almost. We also had a discussion of how immortals experience time and how videogames could be used to explore this. Memory was yet another topic that we spent much time over – how does an immortal remember , or forget? We linked this to the memory(ies) of the many saves and reloads of the player in videogames. We ended on the more mundane consideration of whether he could port his graphic novel app to non-Mac platforms.  As I was to discover later, the residency artists could be broadly categorised into the ‘serious gaming’ group and the ‘philosophical games’ group. Such a categorisation is mine entirely and the groups are not mutually exclusive. 

                                              Raavan Chhaya by Vishal K. Dar

Akshay Rathore and Pramod Kumar again fit into these respective groups. Akshay is designing a game on the rising onion prices – a ludic socio-political statement. The immediate connect that I made was with newsgaming (‎ etc) and the book Newsgaming by Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer. Over a couple of cigarettes, we went into deeper discussions about what the game mechanic would be if the onion / whatever commodity the game was on could think for itself. Would it not change the parameters for the economic policies? Akshay’s target audience comprises of the farmers of a few states in Northern India and the challenge is to teach them how not to get cheated by the bureaucratic apparatus. As such, we thought we needed the game to use local languages and to incorporate an interface from media that farmers are familiar with e.g. newspapers and the radio. This again will reflexively make them question the authenticity of such media as well. With Akshay’s work, I was introduced to yet another potentially successful concept for a serious ‘indie’ game and I felt that Zedeck and Akshay were working in a similar paradigm and it might be useful for them to bounce ideas off each other.  Pramod Kumar, who met me after Akshay, was another artist pondering the philosophical question of the many and the one. Pramod, however, is doing this by remediating a game played in his village in Bihar, Bagh Bakri (which translates as ‘tiger goat’). The game is deceptively simple and he has made an electronic version that he demo-ed on his Macbook. He has been researching this game and trying to make a connect with his philosophical problem for a while now. Although our philosophical orientations are very different, I am very keen to learn more about what he discovers. Currently, it seems that he is also looking at ludic history and has found other very early games in Egypt that are similar to Bagh Bakri.

So after playing Bagh Bakri, what do you do when you are faced with a promising young filmmaker coming to you with a bizarre (and not pejoratively so, at all) concept for a game. Nay, it wasn’t just a concept with Gayatri Kodikal but it seemed like a mission of hers as she told me the story of the Georgian queen who was executed in Iran and whose hand was buried in Goa by the Augustinian Friars (see this ToI article: Okay, so this was started by a Georgian filmmaker who made it his mission during the later years of the U.S.S.R and who died without finding the buried hand. The Archaeological Survey of India, however, kept looking and they found the buried hand not very long ago. So how to make an adventure game on the queen? I asked, ‘do you start with the queen or the hand?’ The hand was the clear choice. So we had long discussions on mystery games, slick narrative stuff such as in Heavy Rain and L.A.Noire that she could look at, gameplay as different avatars (one of them her own) and elements of moral choice-making. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to walk around 16th century Iran to track the queen and then to time-travel to modern day Goa for unraveling some secret clues that are being guarded by the local mafia? Well, I’m holding my breath for this one. 

After meeting the Georgian queen (or her hand at any rate), I was ready for anything – even sneaking into someone else’s body and ‘becoming’ that ‘some body’ (pun intended).  Dhruv Jani has created a sneak-em-up with a difference. There is a puzzle to be solved and there are random people who say random things; the only way to make any sense of anything in Dhruv’s  game-world is to ‘be’ those people. This immediately connects to game studies research on immersion / involvement / becoming (these are not interchangeable terms and I personally use ‘involvement’ although I also like Gordon Calleja’s usage, ‘incorporation’). What happens to the self when it enters the other ? Is the initial state of the player a non-self or a some-self? What happens to the some-self when it enters  (an)other-self? There’s much to play around with here, methinks. Significantly, the book that I spotted on Dhruv’s workdesk wasn’t a manual on Unity: it was Borges’s Ficciones. My own talk was to begin in a few minutes and I went down the garden towards the forking paths which led to my talk.

I have spoken on gaming and narratives many times before.  I can do this talk without any prep, nowadays. I mainly focus on the problems that traditional ideas of narratives encounter when videogames appear on the scene. I started with the issue of multitelic (many-ended) narratives in videogames and how the flow of time is messed up in the most Borgesian ways possible.  Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is my favourite example of a self-reflexive analysis of temporality within a videogame. The scene where the Prince rewinds time after being rebuffed by Princess Farah as he kisses her is a case in point. If you can rewind time and replay events, what happens to your memory? Is there a ‘true’ memory at all? After this, I moved on to a discussion of immersion and submergence and thereonwards to games and ethics; serious games and a broad conspectus of issues in game studies. Then the questions came pouring.

I faced questions on agency (a topic that I always sneakily manage to avoid) and spent some very entertaining minutes discussing Run Lola Run and the priest who only took photos in GTA (for those, interested in my views on agency, I am happy to share the relevant sections of my research). I had people asking me about how videogames work as theatre and how contemporary theatre has been borrowing from ARGs such as The Day of the Figurines by Blast Theory! I quickly pointed back to Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ and how it, in turn, had influenced some videogame designers and theorists. Then I was asked about whether videogames could not be coded to recognize the player’s age and thereafter intelligently decide the kind of gameplay. The reflexivity of games, the role of the player and how games relate to earlier narratives (I showed the contents page of Cortazar’s Hopscotch) were among the many other topics discussed. I even had a question on technicity and what I meant by it. I thanked God that my PhD supervisors had given me a thorough grounding in JD’s (non) philosophy so it wasn’t too difficult to respond to my ex-Presidencian interlocutor. 

My visit to Khoj was a breath of fresh air. Or in gaming terms, finally a new level after replaying that trick scene over and over and getting killed by the game boss. The auto-rickshaw took me past the gas-masked Buddha and then through different bylanes that led to Savitri Nagar, where I had spent my first month in Delhi in a tiny prison-cell like room on top of a motor mechanic's shop. Memories again. Reload.

Before I end, I think I should announce that the residency's programmes will carry on until 22nd September. My heartfelt thanks to Pooja Sood, Prayas Abhinav (who is curating this residency) and Charu Maithani for having me here and being such great hosts. 

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