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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