Darmok and Jalad at DiGRA: Keynoting at DiGRA 2017 in Melbourne

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DiGRA 2017 is over and many participants are by now already home either in lovely Australia, where it was hosted, or in other parts of the world. This DiGRA was different for me, it will always remain special because I was one of the two keynote speakers. Melanie Swalwell, whose work archiving and preserving videogames and digital heritage needs no introduction, was the other keynote speaker. I, however, spoke on a different kind of preservation and another perspective on archiving. It was time I had to speak on Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with the Darmok episode of Star Trek will think I am raving but watch the episode you must if you are to learn the secret. The Darmok episode is about a superior alien species establishing contact with the starship Enterprise and even the ship's super-advanced universal language translator is unable to parse what the Tamarians mean to say. The words are clearly translated but the meaning is beyond the wildest guesses of the crew: 'Darmok and Jalad in Tanagra'. Only later, through a test of faith and cooperation between the Tamarian captain and Captain Picard (of Enterprise), is it established that the Tamarians use a different system of signification - one where there culture and history form the basic units of communication. 'Darmok and Jalad in Tanagra', then means 'friendly cooperation' just as was found between the Tamarian historical heroes Darmok and Jalad on the planet of Tanagra. Kind of like saying Achilles and Patroclus in Troy to indicate loyalty and friendship. There were two reasons for my using the Darmok example: I was talking about the plurality of history and how history itself can become a way of talking about a people; I was also talking about the impossibility of representing the history of a culture using one unified and inflexible system. Those who know my recent work on postcolonialism and videogames will have guessed it. Here's me bringing subaltern studies (and historiography) to game studies. And the feedback was encouraging, I'm happy to say.

Melbourne is beautiful and fun

Before I say more about my keynote-talk, let me first say a bit about some of the fascinating talks that I managed to attend. Mia Consalvo and Chris Paul spoke on 'value-crafting' and indie games  - something I need to share with my Indian indie developer friends to see what they think. The paper is available here. I also enjoyed the presentation on indie and dojin games by Michael Fiadotau - the dojin culture in Japan was unknown to me. As was the fascination with Pachinko (Ozu has a movie about Pachinko) that was discussed in another paper. Similarly, it was fascinating to hear of Maria Garda's work on the videogaming practices as reflected in the archives of Communist-Poland. Rene Glas and Jesper Vught's paper on using Let's Plays in the classroom reminded me of the class exercises that I had for my games and storytelling course in Oklahoma City. You can find an extended abstract here. I chaired a session where Espen Aarseth and Pawel Grabarczyk spoke on the game-identity of the games that are ported as well as of other kinds of iterations of the game. This was followed by Marcus Carter and Adam Chapman's intriguing analysis of truth and authenticity in Total War: Rome 2 and the fantasy world of Total War: Warhammer. Darshana Jayemanne, Antonio Zarandona and Adam Chapman presented an interesting enquiry on the destruction of built-heritage in videogame worlds. Again, something that my own work on digital archives of colonial cemeteries speaks to. Finally, I was also part of Phillip Penix-Tadsen's wonderful panel on the Global South and videogames, where I spoke on India and learnt a lot about game curation in Argentina, game development in Brazil and Nigeria, as well as games education in South Africa. In my own talk, I highlighted the key problems and promises of the Indian industry, the Western stereotypes and our own lack of innovative designs but I also projected the genius of some of the leading game designers from India. People were particularly interested in hearing about Missing, the serious game about child-trafficking in Bengal. There were many papers that I would have loved to hear but couldn't due to the lack of time and the parallel sessions (after all I don't have the time-turner). I did get a lot out of the doctoral consortium run by Steven Conway and the diversity workshop run by Adrienne Shaw and organised by Darshana Jayemanne. Highlights from the doctoral consortium  - a project on narratives by Arseniy, Mahli-Ann Butt's PhD proposal on self-care in games, Kiona Niehaus's project on how racial characteristics are represented in game design, Lars de Wildt's project on comparative studies of religious representation in games and Marcus Toftedahl's work on videogames in India and China.

Besides all the networking and attending presentations, I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with James Manning and continue somewhat our debate from almost eight years ago - on storytelling in videogames. Chatting with Nick Webber on games and history (he had presented on the Britishness of games) and with Peter Nelson about Chinese notions of spatiality and Le Corbusier were other hghlights of the trip. I met the fantastic Laura Crawford, who in between serious discussions on postcolonial identity squeezed in advice on where to get marmite and veggie mite. Last but not least, I got a full-day tour of Melbourne courtesy my friend, Tom Apperley and his daughter Lyra. And I also got to see the MCG and pose beside a statue of Sir Don himself.

But to return to the keynote. Yes, it worked out despite the huge stress that I was under. Here's a description of both the keynotes. To be a DiGRA keynote speaker - it was a dream come true. Veritably.  

So here's how I started. And the beginning will give you an idea of what followed:
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. 
Everyone here except diehard Star Trek fans is probably thinking that I am insane.
But I wanted to begin with these words from a rather strange episode of Star Trek where Captain Picard meets an alien spaceship captain who speaks to him in a language with familiar words but which remains incomprehensible despite the Enterprise’s universal translator machine.
After an almost deadly confrontation, Picard is able to figure out that the semantics in this alien language is not connected to individual words but to the knowledge of the entire history of the alien culture.
History, in the form of metaphor, serves as a language here. The episode serves
1. To remind us of the different ways in which history can be perceived
2. And tell us how this multiplicity of perceptions is important to comprehend
what we think of as different, Othered, alien and even monstrous.

It is with these two points in mind that I have called my talk ‘Playing Alternative Histories’
So I was talking about how videogames represent histories and especially, certain types of history. I emphasized the need for understanding other(ed) patterns of narrative constructions and the potential for videogames for doing so. I spoke about how even though some of the real-time strategy games provide the opportunity to play out alternative and counterfactual histories, their main premise is the hardcoded notion of imperial expansion. Whether the British are conquering India or vice versa, it is the same logic! I also said in passing that the code for these games could have a bias in that most of the triple-A games are manufactured in Europe and the U.S.A - but this was just a passing thought and needs more research. Is code influenced by cultures? Something to think about.

In formerly colonised nations, there is often a trend to have a nationalistic reaction after independence. Whether or not bordering on jingoism, such a reaction also replicates a similar logic to that of Empire. Somebody has to be controlled and if that's not possible, what people remember also has to be controlled. Instead of such a portrayal that almost reflects the logic of empire, I posited the multiplicity of videogames as being a fitting platform for the plurality of historical narratives - especially, the unheard and the voiceless histories that subaltern historians have attempted to represent. Meg Jayanth's work on the dialogues in 80 Days and Dhruv Jani's (Studio Oleomingus) Somewhere were the examples I used. This was the alternative history possibility that I wanted to highlight in videogames - just like in the Darmok episode, here is a situation where we need to reexamine our historical framework and be open to other forms of representation.

Here's the full slideshow:

I had two more days two explore Melbourne after the conference. With the last libations and farewells over, I set out for the two ludic attractions that I had planned to visit. The first one was a cricket-lover's pilgrimage (I mean the game and not the insect) to Melbourne Cricket Ground and the second was to ACMI or Australian Centre for the Moving Image. At the MCG, I was totally enthralled by the Sports Museum and especially its Cricket section. Here's a Lego version of MCG (seen in a departmental store) andof course, a statue of the Don in the MCG Sports Museum:

LEGO  MCG Stadium

Sir Don in the Sports Museum

ACMI, too, was a real revelation and I liked the displays ranging from the magic lantern to the latest VR technology. I got to play some very old games such as Tempest and Pong;  for the first time (can you believe it!) played Pro Evolution Soccer and then got my very own bullet-time sequence capture.

On the more retro side, I also got to see a zoetrope and to make some cool scary shadows of myself a la Nosferatu. My friend, Tom Apperley and his little daughter, Lyra, were supposed to come and pick me up for a visit to the zoo so I stopped making scary shadows and headed towards the exit. On the way out I saw these messages left in the ACMI by people (mainly kids) from all over the world saying what the future will be about:

Someone has written this in the visitor's book for a wishlist of the future: 'Playing computer games using your mind to control characters.'

Straight out of Star Trek. Maybe we'll get there someday. And it might be worth remembering the Darmok episode, then.

Just check the Twitter feed for DiGRA where @adrishaw says ' was easily my favorite DiGRA'. I totally agree. Great work by Marcus Carter and everyone else in his organising team.

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