Rediscovering Gaming at Khoj

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My second time at Khoj. The place of discoveries. In the middle of an area called Khirkee - the door to no one knows what. No doubt there was a gate here or a door there in the days of yore. Now, the landscape is a heap of broken images - very wasteland, post-apocalyptic almost.  on entering you pass a huge garbage heap where cows, horses and humans on charpoys are equally at ease with each other and the rubble around them. It has rained and the mud pools make the contrast with the swank mall opposite so much more sharp. The community in Khirkee, they tell me, is a mix of the migrant poor and expats from the not-so-rich countries. The walls are full of bizarre graffiti - the Buddha with a gas mask ( which was there last year too) and another which the words 'red', 'pink' and 'green' on a whitewashed wall. Behind it, a huge house lies derelict and has opened its innards for the world to see. In front, a man is busy making samosas on top of a hand-cart. Kind of breaking into my reverie, there was this game called Home. I'll come to it in a moment. For now, it is the hotel where I lived that must speak of ... Flourish Inn, an intelligent pun on the purpose for which it has been built. Apparently, it serves those who come to India for health tourism as I found out later ( to some trepidation I admit). The Max hospital is close by. The doorbell rang and I answered it to find a Central Asian looking woman with a hijab standing at the door. Seeing me she vigorously shook her head - wrong country. In the hallway I heard someone speaking some unknown language. A dark man with dreadlocks was on  the phone.  Why Khirkee and its environs form such a multicultural hub I do not know but in the general assumption that one has of the ever assimilating and welcoming India, this diversity is almost a given and one wouldn't blink really to see foreign and unfamiliar faces in the middle of the capital city. Recent events, however, have changed things drastically with a political leader encouraging acts of racism against two African residents.

The story of Indians being deported from Africa is not new. My friends who escaped  Amin's regime will have many stories. The  reverse, however, albeit unknown until now, might well have its seeds being sown: Home, the game is about one's sense of belonging especially when one is uprooted from what one thinks one belongs to. Set in the Delhi of the future, in the aftermath of race riots and the consequent preventive deportation by the government, the game describes the dream that a Senegalese girl has about the place where she grew up and from where she has been deported. Sent back 'home' is what the governments call it though. She tells her brother about Khirkee where she lived and went to school. But she can only describe it in her dream. Set in the bloodshot red  background of a future -day Khirkee, the game shows that maze of narrow lanes where I keep losing my way. The two swank malls on the other side of he road have disappeared in the game's landscape. Instead you have huge billboards with scraps of text from the letters she wrote to her brother. You encounter no passers-by - only paramilitary personnel walking by in twos. Auto-ricks haws and cars whiz by and you can cross the road and enter the maze of  Khirkee. As you look for your home you find cut up pieces of the letters that you wrote and your journey within that red dream that you are having is your identity. Home is the creation of Vinit, who is an architect by profession and a game designer only sometimes. I played the game only when it was being set up and thereafter, I kept going back to watch others play. Yes, watch other get lost in the bylans of Khirkee and feel my head swimming as I too lost the bearings of identity. Especially when I remembered my own rootlessness or maybe 'hiraeth' that Welsh word for longing for a home that is not your home, when I had to leave Nottingham after those seven years when I felt I had finally had a home. 

'It's Khirkee that does things to people'. Shraddha was on her smoking break when I walked into her 'installation'. Although it's not one but many installations and you will still find them in unexpected corners of Khirkee long after the four-day exhibition is over. Did I tell you that the Khoj Artists' Residency ends on Monday. Do go and visit if you are in Delhi. So Shraddha has been painting game boards and leaving them for people to use and it is fascinating for her to see random people, adults even, gather at odd times to play a game of Bagh Bakri or Parcheesi on the streetside makeshift boards that she builds for them. In the extremely male world of nighttime Khirkee, to look at the huddles of tired textile workers suddenly coming to life over painted boards of all those games that we learn in childhood and then spend the rest of our lives forgetting. So as parts of Khirkee spring into action to become game boards at random points of time, I move on to the others designers at Khoj. 

Mohini Freya Datta is Bengali expat and lives in New York designing indie games. Very much on the Indiecade scene, Mohini now has had a good look at the Indian Indie developers. I look forward to a connect between Indiecade and the Nasscom GDC. Mohini's game board is a city but it's a city that becomes itself only when you decide so and how you decide so. It's a game space that is all about negotiating the game rules for yourself. Mohini has a slew of interesting games in her kitty and you can find out about them here:     . From Mohini's installation, and after a couple of cigarettes, I went over to look for Krishnarjun, who has this uber-cool board game where four mythical creatures each from a different cultural mythos, tries to become real. The game, a three and half hour board game played with 159 cards, had the players engrossed for over three hours and it was fun to see the flailing arms and the general mayhem around the game board. Krishnarjun has also written a book on an alternate reality Jadavpur University and I’m looking forward to visiting my alternate-reality alma mater. My own talk was on the broad and rather ambitious topic of videogames in India. A bit stats heavy (I was trying to make some sense of the industry with Padmini Ray Murray), it might have been a tad daunting for those who came for a more artistic discussion. I did introduce a few problem ideas about how India is (mis)represented in videogames and also how karma and avatar are words that are so loosely used in gaming parlance without exploring their roots.

As a very interesting mix of people milled around the passages of Khoj, I took a walk down Khirkee looking for those game boards that Shraddha has placed. A casual stroll turned into a memory-lane walk as I stood face-to-face with the Buddha of the gas mask.

Keynoting at Khoj

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Spivacking the Digital: Top, Tap and Tup

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I much admire Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak although I haven't had much to do with her in my area of work barring my recent paper on empire and videogames. I did read her translator's introduction to Of Grammatology and, like many grad students before me, almost gave up on Derrida. Subsequently, I have read essays by her such as 'The Rani of Sirmur' (courtesy my partner's interest in these) and joined the band of Spivak-fans.

So it was to hear Spivak speaking at the Netaji Memorial Lecture (where I had heard Edward Said speak quite a few years ago) that I went. The talk was intriguingly titled 'Freedom after Independence?' and the question-mark was probably the most important part of the entire proceedings. However, as Spivak worked through the tangles of the conceptions of subaltern leanings towards freedom in a post-colonial world, she also had to bring in the digital. She had to. The digital is everywhere - as the purported solution par excellence and ergo the object of much criticism and fear. After criticising MOOCs, e-learning tools and their pedagogy, the great pedagogue (she said that she might not be a great intellectual but that she was the real thing) declared that the digital should be kept on tap and not on top.

So how does this represent the digital? The digital on top is the patriarchical (or 'top-archical') figure almost smacking of sexual dominance. Dominating productivity, dominating creation - the digital as the thing-on-top, the ding-an-oben (as opposed to the ding in sich). From the hierarchy of the database and the digital tool that is used to organise pedagogy and structure the way in which education is disseminated, the digital dominates how we think and produce. The digital-on-top is also imposed on us postcolonial subjects and it silences the subaltern non-digital modes of pedagogy. Now that is a very compelling image.

Spivak's suggestion is the 'digital-on-tap'. Does she mean a water tap where the flow can be regulated or 'on-tap' as in 'under pressure'? Or is it that she wants to tap away impatiently on her table waiting for the digital to behave itself? Let us stick to the 'digital-under-control' option. So you have an essence called the digital and every now and then you can regulate the flow of this using a proverbial stop-cock. Procreation under control. On tap.

Ostensibly, there's nothing wrong with this image. The man who was on top is now kept on tap. The digital, therefore, also needs to be kept on tap. What I was surprised about is that such a comment could come from Spivak. From the perspective of 'originary technicity', the concept proposed by Derrida, there's a problem with such a 'top-heavy' or 'tap-heavy' approach. Technicity is intrinsic and human; rather than being the prosthetic tool, it is that dangerous supplement. This, of course, is in contravention to the Aristotelian idea of technology. As Tim Clarke describes it:

The traditional, Aristotelian view is that technology is extrinsic to human nature as a tool which is used to bring about certain ends. Technology is applied science, an instrument of knowledge. The inverse of this conception, now commonly heard, is that the instrument has taken control of its maker, the creation control of its creator (Frankenstein’s monster). (Clark, 2000: 238)
Clark, in his essay on Derrida and Technology (in the collection edited by Nick Royle), uses Marvin Minsky's SF short story The Turing Option to illustrate his point.  This is an early morning blog post and I am feeling lazy so I'll use Federica Frabetti's summary as a shorthand:

In order to regain his cognitive capacities after a shooting accident has severely damaged his brain, the protagonist of the novel, Brian Delaney, has a small computer implanted into his skull as a prosthesis. After the surgery he starts reconstructing the knowledge he had before the shooting. The novel shows him trying to catch up with himself through his former notes and getting an intense feeling that the self that wrote those notes in the past is lost forever. Clark uses this story as a brilliant figuration of the fact that no self-consciousness can be reached without technology. (Frabetti 2011)
Clark's point is that '[n]o thinking – no interiority of the psyche – can be conceived apart from technics in the guise of systems of signs which it may seem to employ but which are a condition of its own identity.' (Clark, 2000: 240) Let us turn now to the digital. The digital as a form of technology has already figured in our discussion of technicity. Digitality, or call it what you will, does not work outside the human. As a supplement, it alters the centre, threatens it and is also part of it. Top, tap or whatever, it ain't something that is separate from what you are becoming.

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Another Keynote Lecture: Videogames in India

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2014 started with yet another visit to Delhi. I was invited to be part of the keynote panel on Indian videogaming, together with Dr Padmini Ray Murray from the University of Stirling. It was great to be back at JNU and I had some productive discussions, especially with the team from the University of West Virginia and Siddhartha from the JNU team. It was a pleasure to meet Dr Lyle Skains after over three years now (we met in Bangor in 2010) and to skype with Dr Astrid Ensslin about LOTRO MOOC and its relevance to higher education. Dr Sandy Baldwin of UWV spoke on how his team played out (pun intended) Samuel Beckett's Endgame  within CounterStrike 2 and the artistic and philosophical implications of such theatrical interventions in the game-world. Dibyoduti Roy impressed me with his take on the experience of the quotidian in videogames. I felt that he has something new to contribute to how we think through gameplay. His colleague, Kwabena, spoke on WoW but I was more interested in what he had to say about gaming in Ghana (and in other African countries) when we had some time to chat over coffee. At the JNU end, I liked a paper on postcolonial representations in videogames  - something I've worked on recently (for my paper at Bergen). Sid, who was presenting the paper, focused on Far Cry 2 and Assassin's Creed and pointed at racial and imperial stereotypes made by Ubisoft. I did come to Ubisoft's defence though, as I seriously believe that the Ubisoft games are mostly fairly nuanced and good at problematising issues.  I shan't use this space to go into a sustained argument on this but I am happy to defend my position, any time.

I am getting into the habit of writing my conference reports rather late and as such, my memory plays tricks with me. The highlight of my stay was my meeting Quicksand, one of the most 'thinking'game developers I've met in India so far. These are the guys who made Meghdoot, which Murray describes thus:

Meghdoot: Using new technologies to tell age-old stories is a project that will be based around a prototype of a game Meghdoot that was developed in the first phase of the Unbox Fellowship. Meghdoot draws on features of Indian culture such as gestural movements from Indian dance in gameplay and is inspired by using narrative structures drawn from Indian mythology, making a conscious choice to move away from Anglo-Saxon linear sequences in the game's design and deploys an aesthetic that is inspired by Indian heritage artefacts but does not resort to usual tropes of the exotic or the oriental. Meghdoot will fall into the increasingly popular category of ‘serious art game’
I left Quicksand after making them promise that they would visit Calcutta and that some of the bylanes in Chitpore would feature in their next game (about which, mum is the word). Time to get away from fun and games and back to work.

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NASSCOM Games Development Conference 2013, Pune


Me: Marriott jana hay.
Taxi Driver: Kaun sa Marriott? Pune mein to chaar Marriott hay!
(I need to get to the Marriott in Pune and I ask the taxi driver to take me there. He asks me which one – there are four Marriotts in Pune!)

This was my second visit to Pune. The comparative opulence and cleanliness had me surprised. As had the women on scooties and in trendy clothes but with their face covered except for the eyes. I crossed the historic Yerawada Jail and then entered downtown Pune with its Maratha gateways and modern shopping malls. I had reached the right Marriott.

And inside it was gaming like I had never known before in India. There were stalls with mainstream game studios and indies showcasing their work; Julie Heyde, eminent indie designer from Copenhagen was letting people have a taste of the Oculus Rift. I saw a perfectly staid saree-clad PR lady who had never done any gaming go crazy with the virtual world coming alive around her.
I had to say hello to old friends. The videogame industry in India is a friendly place. Rajesh Rao of Dhruva (one of the pioneers of gaming in India) casually walked over and chatted for a bit. He was featured in a recent article on Indian videogaming by Adrienne Shaw, I told him. And of course in mine. I had just missed Yoichi Wada’s keynote (of Square Enix fame) because the plane was a little late. I walked into the ‘Project Heera’ presentation by Tanmay Chinchkar. The BAFTA tag drew me in automatically. So Tanmay, a student of DSK Supinfocomm, has designed this awesome game which is kind of in the ‘chor-police’ (cops and robbers) tradition and the multiplayer experience has you playing either as the cop or as the robber, protecting or stealing diamonds, as the case may be.  Simple mechanic and as Tanmay’s post-mortem revealed, there was quite a bit of excitement in the BAFTA stands when they got two leading gamers from Codemasters to compete against each other and win prizes. So clever promotion tactics, a decent GUI  and of course, an addictive multiplayer experience is clearly a winning formula. Whatever little I saw and played of Heera, I liked.

Posing with Lightning and the Halo gun

After a tea break and catch-ups with old friends, I came across Lightning from Final Fantasy – it was Niha Patil cosplaying and we weren’t friends yet. So dodging the sword of Lightning, I was back in the ballroom and ‘Gordon’ Gardeback or the ‘Go’ of Simogo, the celebrity indie developers from Scandinavia was speaking. If nothing else could have made me buy an iOS device, Bumpy Road, Year Walk and Device 6 would have been successful.  What surprised me was how quickly these games were made and of course, the concepts. So here’s a platformer where you are in an old car with your partner driving slowly through a cute Russian-fairytale landscape and collecting memories (which are placed in photoframes). Only you don’t drive the car, as the player you bump the road and the car trundles along. Normally, I have an aversion to overusing the word ‘cute’ but for this game I’ll make an exception. Simogo has also made other internationally acclaimed iOS titles such as Year Walk and Device 6. I haven’t played the former yet but Device 6 is about this story of a girl who finds herself in a tower and her story rolls out (literally) as the player turns and tilts her iPad (or iPhone) as the girl changes direction and the story asks her to do so. I did have to cheat a tiny bit – the puzzle element is hard and I was often confused. I liked Device 6  a lot though and I think that makes me part of a huge group of fans now.

After the Simogo talk, I went to watch those who were trying out the Oculus Rift that Julie Heyde had brought along. Julie had been one of the judges on the indie panel with me – the other being the extremely helpful and super-modest Divyendra Singh Rathore. Soon I was chatting with Divyendra and catching up with friends when I met. I was introduced to Arvind who is building his MMORPG called Unrest and has based it on ancient India. The game is still in development and we learned about the problems that Indian game devs have to face on a regular basis – power failures, low bandwidth, cut Internet cables and other joys of game dev in India. Unrest looked like it was heavily story-based and very similar to adventure games but I’ll wait and hold my breath. The project is on Kickstarter for any who wish to learn more. From there I went to a panel on Indie game development and again, the scenario was very well defined for us by Shailesh Prabhu and Yadu Rajiv. Funding still seems to be a problem but there is a lot of dedication and watch out for some good indie stuff from this part of the world.

As I said, I was a judge on the indie panel and none of us had any doubts about Yellow Monkey Studio’s Huebrix as the top choice of them all (we reviewed around twenty five games in all). Huebrix is, as its name suggests, about colours and bricks and the objective is to solve puzzles that involve covering pathways with bricks of a certain colour and specific affordances. Deceptively simple, says I. As you get through the levels with the designer’s subtle sarcasm talking back at your achievements, be prepared to tax your brains immensely.  Huebrix is now available on the iOS and Android stores. Our runner-up was Sandy Loisa’s pc game Save the Dummy. I have written about this at length in my Times of India column ‘Game Theory’ and as the developer hails from Calcutta (my hometown), I feel a surge of hope for game development in Eastern India. But of that, perhaps another day. I covered many talks – by Microsoft (who did a standard ‘why we are great’ spiel and never mentioned Xbox One), Facebook (much interest from young developers here) and Disney UTV (Hrishi Oberoi spoke of the need to have a Sholay of videogames to promote Indian gaming).  I also ended up at a session on game related laws in India and while this was very informative, the fact that the speakers hadn’t ever played a videogame was kind of disappointing.

Anyway, this is indeed a very late post – two months late in fact. Better late than never as they say, though. I have to thank Dr Padmini Ray Murray for making my trip possible in the first place (from her AHRC project , on which I am a consultant) and also Joel Johnson, that wonderful man behind organizing the NASSCOM Game Awards – the first time ever in the country. Finally, of course, Shruti Verma and Vijay Sinha, the two stars of Indian videogaming without whom I would have been very lost indeed in the huge crowds of game devs and others that filled up the halls of The Marriott.


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