Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, Bergen 2013
I didn’t ever think I’d make it this time. Backbreaking work at the university, very little research time and certainly no gaming time meant that conference abstracts were super-impossible to write. Imagine my surprise when I found that the PCG abstract had been accepted. Anita Leirfall, eminent game philosopher and PCG veteran, casually asked me whether I was going to Bergen and I answered with a crestfallen ‘no’; on second thoughts and on Anita’s suggestion, however, I emailed the organisers and there was a welcome email from John Richard Sageng saying that yes we would be meeting in Bergen. The story goes on and involves battles with university admin and incompetent travel agents and a miraculous intervention by the VC whereby I was able to get my visa at the very last minute from the Norwegian consul’s residence!
The UNESCO heritage buildings in Bergen
Then I was in Bergen – adjusting to the sheer beauty of Bergen Bay, the colourful buildings and the beauty of the surrounding hills. Having arrived a day before the conference, I was able to go exploring on my own. After a magical ride into the Floyen on the Bergen Funicular railway and then a desultory but very rewarding stroll around the city, I felt I had done enough sightseeing for the day and now it was time to locate Hotel Grand Terminus, the venue for the conference.
The first keynote by Stephan Guenzel outlined in detail the philosophy of space, taking us carefully from Euclidean and Newtonian space as understood and experienced in Game Studies and then moving on to Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the spatial trialectic. Agreeing and then differing with the spatiality concepts laid down for videogames by Michael Nitsche and Milaucic, Stephan spoke of the need to identify the different concepts of space to be found with computer games, offering users an experience enabled by the intuitions of space as form. He mentioned Linda Henderson’s work on four-dimensional space and also made connections with how in videogames we have an inversion of the horror vacui or the medieval fear of empty spaces and the way in which this relates to videogames (such as Tetris which Janet Murray views as a metaphor for the overtasked lives of the American people).
Paul Martin from the University of Nottingham, Ningbo presented on the landscape and gamescape in Dwarf Fortress. For Paul, landscape is experienced as tension and the ‘over-thereness’ is not experienced; one interesting description of gameplay by Paul is that it is ‘souplike’ and the different ingredients cannot be separated. Paul was followed by Ivan Mosca who focused on social ontology as a means of analysing videogame spaces as maps vis-à-vis game-boards. Other presentations included Guglielmo Fels on truth in videogames, Jonne Arjoranta on mapping cognition spatially, Velli-Marti Karlulahti on defining videogames and Emil Hammar on postphenomenological play. I was intrigued by Arjoranta’s suggestion that we need to take cognition into account in our design of videogames and experiment with going against what we use normally. Emil Hammar, another very promising student of ITU Copenhagen, happened to be my roommate at the youth hostel where I put up and we had quite a few deep conversations about the field. Hammar discussed games as technology from the standpoint of Don Ihde (who, incidentally, was the keynote speaker at the previous PCG conference) and the phenomenological analysis of Merleau-Ponty. Karlulahti’s presentation started with the rather intriguing question about whether academics texts have an implied author but his main premise, the definition of videogames as anything that evaluates performance, is one that I cannot agree with and find limiting.
Equally problematic (albeit a masterful presentation) for me was the concept of analysing (literally ‘breaking down’) videogames into ‘ludemes’. In his keynote, Espen Aarseth referred to the signified of the ludemes (which are units in the same manner as Levi-Strauss’s mythemes); the concept while appealing seems to me to assume what Derrida problematizes as a ‘transcendental signified’. In his talk titled, ‘Fictionality is Broken’ (after McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken), Aarseth questioned those who state that games are a form of fiction. This leads back in new ways to the old videogames as fiction (or not) debate and this is perhaps not the space to engage with it yet again. Talking of space in videogames, Aarseth put forward a more developed and robust form of his concept of ‘ludoforming’ that he had first introduced at the Ludotopia workshop in Copenhagen in 2010.
Daniel Vella’s Heideggerian take on game space in Minecraft and Proteus drew attention to the double ontology of spaces in these games – where trees are to be seen as trees (and part of the landscape) but as an arrangement of a resource block, simultaneously. He views the space in these games as the congruence of virtual and actual environments. Speaking about the virtual experience of space, Rune Klevjer spoke of the virtual as a positive entity rather than a negative and as an ontologically irreducible category. As he expresses it best, for him the solution ‘is to accept that the simulation of physical reality in computer games, unlike the abstract and concrete models of non-computerised mimetic play, is able to constitute its own irreducible ground of perception and action.’ Rune also made an interesting comparison, in passing, between the theological concept of transubstantiation (whereby the blood of Christ turns to wine at Communion) and virtuality: Christ’s flesh and blood although not present in front of us are nevertheless ontologically independent and irreducible entities. Some of the other presentations that I remember well are those of Patrick Coppock on aesthetics in videogame spaces, Olli Leino on ‘from game spaces to playable worlds’, Carl Mildenberger on evil in games, Kristin Jorgensen on the game interface and Daniel Milne on spaces of moral and narrative possibilities in videogames. Patrick’s presentation reminded me that I need to read up my John Dewey; regarding evil and morality in videogames, I have my own take as my article on videogame ethics illustrates – however, I guess I need to think through issues like griefing and suicide ganking within the framework that I have devised for myself to make sense of ethics and morality. Olli’s presentation, in his own words, dealt with the: ‘(post-)phenomenological tradition, I argue that while this terminology is useful for analytic projects seeking to shed light on the structure and form of the game artifact and the processes it facilitates, spatial notions do not necessarily resonate with the first-person experience of computer game play, especially in cases of playing games of genres which do not rely on simulated locomotion and proprioception in three-dimensionally modeled space.’
I had to leave before the conference ended and I missed two papers that I really wanted to listen to: the keynote lecture on mazes by Alison Gazzard (Alison’s new book on the subject has been published recently) and Anita Leirfall’s talk on orientation in computer game space. Other paper such as that by Ian Jones on the intersection of spatial knowledge and bodily skill were also much praised, as I gathered from the comments on Twitter., afterwards. As I write this, it is all the more obvious that summarizing so many extremely and intensely learned papers and what I have provided here is a mere sampling of what I gleaned. The full papers are available here (http://gamephilosophy2013.b.uib.no/papers-and-slides/), except for the keynotes.
‘Give me a hundred battalions of British line infantry and I shall conquer your countries’
My own paper was on empire, its spatial understading and how it is portrayed in videogames. This is a new area for me but one that I have thought about often (especially since I come from India – with its centuries of British imperial rule).The key points that I made were as follows: spatiality in empire and that in videogames where you can play at empire have many similarities; however, although empire has become a politically dirty word elsewhere, videogames seem happy to celebrate it. One of the reasons why may be the ease with which empire builders used to perceive the machinery of empire as a game – rule based, competitive and fun with clear goals. I go on to examine how Creative Assembly, the designers of Empire: Total War have coded in their own version of imperial history and how that it is still governed by the Western notions of the East and itself embodies a rhetoric of Empire. Countering the game’s construction of empires, players often subvert historical events through their gameplay. Could one call the player’s intervention a challenge to empire or another means of reinforcing the logic of empire? At this point, I discuss how the gameplay inevitably involves a ‘thirdspace’ ( a concept from postmodern geographer, Edward Soja)where the often unnoticed lived spaces (in the sense in which this is used by Henri Lefebvre) of the empire also constitute its spaces of protest and the spaces that strive towards an-Otheredness that challenges Empire intrinsically. I ended with a hint that such videogame spaces as in Empire: Total War are illustrative of the way in which the logic of empire still pervades every aspect of our society, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in their rather controversial book.
I was happy to have received many questions and support from those who were there. There was quite a bit of discussion afterwards and some solid suggestions for improving the paper. One of the questions that I could not answer too well was whether there were other games that addresses the logic of empire so well and Alison told me about High Tea, a game based on the opium trade in China and Olli mentioned a game (mod?) of Civilisation IV. When I came back home, I also saw the East India Company game staring at me from my shelves. I was also asked whether this concept of imperial spaces extends into other genres of the videogame, namely the FPS. Having limited my thinking to a particular scenario, I think that extending the argument sounds tempting but will need much more thinking.
And here’s what people were saying on Twitter:
@GauteKAndersen3 OctThe Empire Needs You! A concept of Empire entails protest. also the segahistory of british emp. S. Mukhrjee. #pcg2013 pic.twitter.com/FEbXuczBTY@d_nielv3 Oct Interesting - empire as female body, possession. cf Donne, "To His Mistress...": "My America! My new-found land!" @Prosperoscell #PCG2013 Favorited by Gaute K. Andersen@GauteKAndersen3 Oct S.Mukherjee critical look on Empire:total war, with postcolonial studies, possession of space as paramount feat. of empirial space #pcg2013@d_nielv3 Oct Envisioning an alternative history where Malta is a Barbary pirate nation. @Prosperoscell #PCG2013@boundedspace3 Oct "The Sega history of the British Empire" @Prosperoscell #PCG2013@jilltxt3 Oct Provocative critique of video games and their infatuation with empire-building by @Prosperoscell at #pcg2013 pic.twitter.com/1eWhIKw3zg@boundedspace3 Oct Great Eddie Izzard clip by @Prosperoscell talking about empire and videogames #PCG2013@endecasillabo3 Oct #wololo #wololo #aoe time: conversion and Empire #PCG2013@lycitea3 Oct Mukherjee quotes Cecil Rhodes: "I would annex the planets if I could, I often think of that." #pcg2013
The full paper is available here (http://gamephilosophy2013.b.uib.no/files/2013/09/Souvik-Mukherjee-Bergen-2013.pdf) and the slideshow can be found here. Any comments and suggestions are most welcome.
It was a very short but refreshing stay in Bergen and a not-too-great journey back but it was great to meet the Game Studies community again and get out of the humdrum life of Calcutta for a bit. I forgot to say, I took a longish walk around the city after I reached and here’s what I found up in the hills (the Floyen):
Straight out of a videogame ?
Will end with another photo. We sampled the local brew and chatted with the game developers and enterpreneurs from Norway about indie games there. 'Konsoll' is a fest organised by the Norwegian game developers and it coincided with the PCG 2013. I left wondering if we could explore synergies between them and the Indian game industry. The NASSCOM GDC is coming up - time to think about it then.
A Norwegian Indie game projected on a wall at the Konsoll inauguration
'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