Angshuman Dutta (Jadavpur University, Kolkata): ‘The Erhabenheit of Space: The sublime in Outer Wilds’

The concept of the sublime plays an important role in the understanding of subjectivity and subjective experience. Established by Longinus in what he called the ‘tekne’ of the sublime affects the achieving of a state of elevation or ‘ekstasis’, it is with Burke and Kant that we reach a fuller understand of the sublime. Where Burke involves terror into the realms of the sublime, in Kant, we find the self, facing unfathomable incomprehensible power, reaffirmed. For both, the sublime is invoked in nature and in the relationship between the object and a perceiving subject. Mobius Digital’s 2019 game Outer Wilds echoes on the surface the extreme fascination humanity has towards exploring space. Rather than putting an immense-almost-infinite world at the fingertips of players, Outer Wilds puts them in a contained solar system stuck in a 22-minute timeloop ending in the sun going supernova. The gameworld is characterised by its markedly distinct environment for each planet with impressive landscapes, natural and artificial, and its use of unique diegetic music. The visuals provided by the game, such as the exploding sun, the crumbling planet with a black hole in the centre, or even the gothic horror of the anglerfish, bring about this sense of the Kantian sublime as the solitary player character faces these unfathomable structures. Alone in space in a dying universe, the player experiences the sublime in the artificial nature of the game. But the use and importance of music in the gameplay invoke the notion of Bolt’s ‘techno-sublime’, which is marked with the loss of one’s self, ‘the very possibility of a collapse into the unknown or even annihilation or death’.  This paper’s aim is to look at both the visual and aural elements of the game in their creation of a Csikszentmihalyian flow and how the two notions of sublime are produced and affect or inform the player’s narrative.    

Samuel Poirier-Poulin (Université de Montréal, Canada): ‘The Wounds That Never Healed: Videoludic Trauma in Cry of Fear’

Since the 1990s, trauma theory has been used in the humanities to better understand the “psychological, rhetorical, and cultural significance of trauma” (Balaev, 2018, p. 360). Despite the vitality of trauma studies, trauma theory is only starting to make its way to game studies. So far, a few scholars have explored the use or design of games to cope with trauma (Harrer, 2018; Sapach, 2020), while others have analyzed the construction of traumatized protagonists (Bumbalough & Henze, 2016; Kuznetsova, 2017; Rusch, 2009). Mukherjee and Pitchford (2010) have argued that players of military shooters like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007) can experience some of the symptoms of war trauma in a milder form. Meanwhile, Smethurst (2015) has analyzed how Limbo (Playdead, 2010) incorporates the symptomatology of trauma through its bleak graphics, its soundtrack made of disembodied sounds, and the numerous grisly deaths of the protagonist.As noted by Luckhurst (2008), trauma seems to be “worryingly transmissible: it leaks between mental and physical symptoms, between patients … between patients and doctors, [and] between victims and their listeners or viewers” (p. 3). Building on horror studies and using the video game Cry of Fear (Team Psykskallar, 2013) as a case study, this paper suggests that trauma might be transmissible from a video game to the player. It argues that video games can cut across the reality/fiction divide and deeply impact on the emotional organization of the player. More specifically, it develops the idea that Cry of Fear can induce trauma in the player by putting them in horrifying and intense situations. Drawing on bleed theory (Bowman, 2013; Montola, 2011) and scholarship on transgressive games (Mortensen & Jørgensen, 2020; Tronstad, 2018), this paper will first define videoludic trauma and introduce the concepts of impactful trauma, hurtful trauma, and horror flow. Then, using these three concepts as a starting point, it will examine how Cry of Fear represents trauma symptomatology and transmits trauma to the player through its aesthetics, narrative, and gameplay. This paper provides new analytical tools and vocabulary to talk about our traumatic experiences with video games and lays the groundwork for future research focusing on the relationship between trauma and the horror genre.

Nisarga Bhattacharya (English and Foreign Languages University, India): ‘Emergent Behaviour or Artificial Intelligence? The Question of Ethical Behaviour in Gaming’.

Emergent Behaviour or Artificial Intelligence? The Question of Ethical Behaviour in Gaming

The paper takes up the ethical debate regarding player behaviour that has been emphasized by Shawn Levi’s movie Free Guy (2021). By drawing upon RPGs like Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite, the movie evokes a consideration for more humane treatment towards especially the NPCs in a game. I will address the distinction between the notions of emergence and artificial intelligence which problematizes the ethics of gaming behaviour expressed in Free Guy. Through a consideration of the sorites paradox, I will explain that artificial intelligence in a game would occur when a quantitative change leads to a qualitative change. While emergent behaviour requires a quantitative growth beyond original expectations in the behavioural functions of an NPC, artificial intelligence would require this quantitative growth to a point where it results in a qualitative transformation into a self-conscious subject.

Achintya Debnath (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta): ‘ A Psychoanalysis of Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds (PUBG) in the Context of India 2020-21.           

Soon after the release of PUBG (Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds) game, on 20th December in 2017, a cataclysmic change occurred in the virtual world of game. Such paradigm shifting game has attracted nearly more than 1 billion mobile accumulating as of March 2021, yet it is a subject of severe scrutiny for being a violent game. Furthermore, in the context on banning it, many countries such as India has oversimplified the psychoanalysis of violence throughout the year (2020-21). Even though there have some well known monographs (such as Violent Games: Rules, Realism and Effect. 2016, The Video Game Debate2: Revisiting the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Video Games. 2020) been done on the relation of violence and game, yet significant study has not been done so far on specific games such as this specially in the discourse of mobile users in the recent context of India. Therefore, my analysis will be deepened on surveying mobile users and interviewing mobile gamers.     

    Nevertheless, initially in the 1970s when video game play was introduced the debates about the negative effects of video game play have been started (see, The Video Game Debate2; 2020). Therefore, the 1 billion mobile accumulating PUBG has revived these concerns, reinvigorating old debates and generating brand new ones in many countries in general and India in particular. To this contrast my study will be a psychoanalysis understanding of controlling violence through the lens of PUBG game. As many recent Scholars on the field such as Souvik Mukherjee opined that it would be unwise to suggest that killing a figure in a video game would enable a soldier to kill the enemy without any emotional response in the battle zone (see, Mukherjee; 2010). Hence, my focus would be rather in the context of controlling violence through PUBG than the oversimplified view i.e. PUBG causing violence.

Poonam Chowdhury (EFLU, Hyderabad): ‘Game Over?: Spirituality of Death in Spiritfarer’ 

Most religions, whether ancient or modern, have ‘death’ as a central element. Despite being a common and inevitable phenomenon, there is still a lot of discomfort and fear around it. When it comes to video games, death is supposed to be avoided at all costs. If the player’s character dies, the game regresses you and you are cursed with repetition. “Lives” are limited and one is supposed to beat the game with as little dying as possible. In most video games, death denotes a fail state. But in Thunder Lotus’s 2020 game, ‘Spiritfarer’, (after)life starts after death. Advertised as a “cosy, management game about dying”, this Ghibli-esque masterpiece is, in reality, a slow affective game on relationships, care, grief, contemplation, acceptance, and letting go. You play as Stella, the new psychopomp who picks up lost spirits from far-off islands, makes their last few days on her ship comfortable and drops them off at Everdoor, the destination of their journey. Each task or quest that the spirits ask Stells to do for them, gives us glimpses of their past lives. The game’s slow design encourages players to find the meaning of life (and death) through the in-game mundanities. In this proposed paper, I want to explore how ‘Spiritfarer’ deals with sensitive topics of death and grief through its slow spiritual game elements that seem to be significantly influenced by Eastern philosophies.

Professor Xenia Zeiler (University of Helsinki) and Satyajit Chakraborty (game designer): ‘Durga Puja Beyond Borders. Teaching Indian Festival Culture through Video Games’

Educational video games and their research and development have thrived as an academic field in roughly the past ten years. Mishra and Foster (2007) in the possibly first comprehensive publication on the subject make five relevant claims for using games for learning purposes, claims that are still relevant today: development of cognitive, practical, physiological skills, social skills, and motivation. Game-based learning and utilizing game-based environments for teaching are increasingly discussed. Sometimes we find the term “edutainment” (Michael and Chen 2006).

In order to extend the benefits of educational games to the academic discipline of South Asian Studies, in August 2020, the educational video game The Durga Puja Mystery was released (https://blogs.helsinki.fi/durgapuja-the-videogame/the-durga-puja-mystery/). The game was as successful to be selected as a finalist for Hacking Higher Education Finland 2020. Following the experiences from the  development process and students’ play experiences, the creators now, in September 2021, released a second game, Durga Puja Beyond Borders (https://blogs.helsinki.fi/durgapuja-the-videogame/new-durga-puja-beyond-borders/). 

Durga Puja Beyond Borders is an educational video game which uses aspects of management games to playfully yet educationally introduce various layers of Durga Puja festival culture, such as joint organizations and especially celebrations. It conveys educational content about the festival’s history and past and present ways of worshipping and jointly celebrating, in India and beyond. Moreover, it allows a glimpse into how festivals are important events and locations for migrant communities to live and negotiate identity, heritage and culture – beyond borders.

Both games are a collaborative effort of the University of Helsinki (Finland), Xenia Zeiler, and the Kolkata (India) based award-winning game development studio Flying Robot Studios, Satyajit Chakraborty. In this talk, the creators will introduce the new game and discuss the benefits of serious games, the development process, and hint at do’s and don’ts for creating educational games. 

Haryo Pambuko Jiwandono (Brawijaya University, Indonesia): ‘Re-thinking Asura’s Wrath as an Indian Epic’.

Asura’s Wrath is notable for drawing inspiration from Indian mythology (Wibawa et al, 2019) which tells a story of battle between demigods and demons under an overarching narrative of internal struggle among demigods themselves. The story of celestial conflicts often serves as the core foundation of Indian Epic which emphasizes on extraordinary attributes of divine beings as opposed to human heroism (Blackburn et al, 1989). Asura’s Wrath, in particular, expresses conflict between the protagonist; Asura, and his fellow demigods. This expression is rooted in Indian mahakavya mythos which depicts asuras and devas as bitter nemeses. Blackburn et al (1989) argue that Indian mahakavya is distinct from Western epic in both theme and delivery. Mahakavya emphasizes on human fatalism and celestials’ essentialism as opposed to Western epic’s focus on human’s subjectivity (Abrams, 1993). The delivery of mahakavya is more formulaic and ornamental compared to Western epic’s more formal storytelling.

Abhirup Maity (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta): ‘Alternative History from the Lens of Video Game(s): Colonial India and Mahatma Gandhi’

This paper addresses the alternate storytelling of India in videogames, particularly in games based on colonial India such as Sid Meier’s Civilizational V, SEGA history games. The aim is to underline the portrayal of history in videogames, where players are presented with a very different understating of history or in other words, an alternate history. 

I will give some examples of such storytelling in the SEGA game. In the story, England captured the whole Hindustan within 1750, this statement is historically incorrect. Other interesting examples are the omission of indigo cultivation while the addition of tea cultivation much before it was actually started. It is quite interesting to note, the indigo cultivation became the site of the anti-colonial struggle. Entire India was represented as ‘Hindus’ in the game, while in the actual timeline it was dominated by Muslims. The game Sid Meier’s Civilization V has a different story plot. Here the Mahatma Gandhi- the father of Indian Nation has shown as a character can drop nukes and is responsible for large bombing and explosions. This is not only historically incorrect, but a huge disrespect towards an icon of global peace. The India’s struggle for independence headed by Mahatma Gandhi has largely been non-violent. This treatment of the entire history of India’s freedom movement and colonization is a violent erasure and although videogames often move away from the actual history. 

My paper will focus on two objectives; first, it will highlight the historical misrepresentation of colonial India in games, secondly, the paper will go beyond the historical accuracy and try to figure out (1) how this narrative creates an alternative space, (2)the existing of power-relation between Orient and Occident in video games too (3) the impact of these stories in cultural aspects.

Anandadeep Roy (Independent researcher): ‘The Game as Interpretation: Identity, Absurdity, and the Horror of Colonialism in Disco Elysium’

The first words you hear when ZA/UM’s “Disco Elysium” begins is ‘There is nothing.’ After a surreal exchange, you are greeted with the image of a man lying face-down in a pool of his vomit, unable to remember who he is. This is you for the rest of the game.

The world of “Disco Elysium” is intricate with its own history, geography, and politics. Our protagonist is an amnesiac detective who has to solve a murder in the context of an escalating conflict between an ostensibly socialist union and a multinational conglomerate, in the forgotten district of Martinaise, in the occupied city of Revachol.

In this paper, I shall argue that the ludic narrative that “Disco Elysium” presents in the guise of a conventional whodunnit is concerned with the reconstruction of a fragmented identity through the function of play as an attempt to interpret reality.

The game presents the trope of the detective as the quintessential postmodern protagonist in an entirely new garb. The detective’s entire identity has been obliterated by an understandable reaction to two levels of colonization — that of his mind by memories of his ex-wife and that of his country by a coalition of foreign governments. The narrative of the game often blends these two levels, using one to comment on the other.

There is no actual winning or losing in the game as the main narrative will play itself out no matter what you choose. The player’s choices can only determine the interpretation of the narrative as well as the identity of the protagonist in-game. The creation of the protagonist’s identity thus becomes a game of continuous interpretation of the character as well as that of reality. This paper thus argues that playing the game is the construction of a version of reality using the scaffolding of the main narrative.

In the disguise of a detective story, the aim of “Disco Elysium” is thus the interpretation and construction of identity, history, and politics from the ashes of colonial oblivion. The postmodern detective arrives at a version of truth but the player is left wondering what other versions may exist.

Geoffrey Fernandez (Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani): ‘A Critical Study of Problematic Historical Narratives in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise boasts an opening statement that reads, “Inspired by historical events and characters, this work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities”. However, Ubisoft’s decision to have this disclaimer about the resolve to root their games in detailed recreations of historical geography and their diverse development team imposes a burden that becomes particularly significant in the case of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.The framing of communities in pop-culture constructions of the past is paramount to how an audience perceives them, as it facilitates the negotiation of potential meanings of the past. However, these constructions are also produced and disseminated in the present, allowing existing hegemonic power relations to determine the representation and recognition of communities in such media. Set in 873 A.D., Valhalla tries to present sizable ethnic diversity for a relatively homogenous historical setting through design decisions to broaden the game’s appeal. However, in making a more inclusive game, the developers deviate from history on several crucial facets of Viking practices and culture, resulting in an overly romanticised view of Scandinavian society in this period. Furthermore, by playing to the popular colonial fantasy of finding ‘virgin’ lands to settle in, Valhalla’s depiction of English lands becomes problematic, as the violent subjugation by a ‘superior’ people appears to benefit the natives. Such narratives, thus, come across as an apology for colonialism by sanitising history.This paper attempts to interrogate the game developer’s claims, as mentioned earlier, in contrast to the ambivalent representations and selective narratives present in the recreation of the Scandinavian Past in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

Neil Nagwekar (Independent researcher): ‘On the Postcolonial Analysis of ‘Indians’ in Age of Empires II’ 

The representation of the ‘Indians’ civilization in Age of Empires II (henceforth ‘AoE’) is, in several respects, stereotypical and misinformed. The Camel Rider as a unique unit, the emphasis on gunpowder in the tech tree and the homogenous categorization of multiple regional factions in a massive subcontinent as ‘Indians’ are but a few examples of historical inaccuracies and Oriental presumptions. Therefore, criticisms from Lammes, Mukherjee, Šisler, etc. with a distinctively postcolonial lens are as valid as they are inevitable. This paper pinpoints most of the flaws in the portrayal of Indians, with the aid of critical observations in the academic discipline. However, in addition, it inspects whether the reasons behind these historical inaccuracies stemmed purely from an Occidental outlook or from game balancing constraints, market forces and other distinctly non-prejudicial   reasons. In doing so, it points out historically inaccurate depictions in other Occidental civilizations, accepts a few accurate depictions in the Indians, and studies strategies in an AoE game between TheViper (Indians) and Hera (Celts), two professionals in the game. It also expands on why professionals objectively regard the ‘Indians’ civilization as among the worst. From here, the paper explores the sentiments behind postcolonial criticisms of AoE, concluding with the postulation that the fossilized depiction of Indians may not necessarily be linked to a superficial and racial profiling of a nation.

Prabhash Ranjan Tripathy (Jawaharlal Nehru University): ‘An Invisible Technician  and The Unknown Child: Absences that Construct the Reality of Gaming in India’

 The Games and the Gamer are crucial for the study of gaming cultures, however, an exclusive focus by the researcher on the ‘game-gamer duo’ can also produce a blinding effect. Upon locating the games or the gamers or both, the local researcher might be tempted to produce an account of the gaming scene solely based on the ‘presences’. The paper would argue that the centrality of the game-gamer duo within the study of game cultures and communities should also to be understood as a site of potential bias and it leads to production of homogenous, compatible, convenient and comparable accounts of game cultures with translatable linguistic differences and palatable local flavours. The temptation towards this methodological tendency/trap has serious political consequences, not only does it fail to situate games in the socio-political space of the local but also directs the research away from engaging with the local/specific absences or addressing specific forms of socio-historical inequalities and thereby limiting an adequate representation of the reality of gaming. The exclusive focus on game and gamer thus, unknowingly/knowingly upholds the old principle of ‘keeping politics out of sports (games/ludic/videogames)’ or limits politics to the realm of representation within videogames.

Scholars from game studies have issued timely and regular warnings against such treatment of game cultures, and have raised important questions such as: what is game culture? can it be treated as separate from culture in general, what would such a treatment mean? they have also recommended concepts and theories e.g., the notion of technicity, post coloniality etc. that can help produce a more authentic and local account of game culture. The current paper would seek to engage the above claims and concerns through a study of two Figures, Fridge (the migrant mechanic) and Chotu (the child laborer) encountered during a 2016 field work concerning game cultures (at two sites in northern India).

Samya Brata Ray (IIT Jodhpur): ‘No Racism? That’s pretty ‘sus’! Or is it? A study of Identity and scope for conflict in the gamic space of Among Us.’

The pandemic saw the meteoric rise of Among Us (2018), a game that has lying and deceit at the heart of its play. The discourse around multiplayer games features a lot of toxicity, bordering on harassment and abuse, and I was expecting nothing different. But, the actual observations proved very much on the contrary that led me to contemplate the lack of a racially charged atmosphere. Is it because it limits human interaction, and thus the exposure of one’s identity, only to the textual which is also time-bound? Or, is it simply because it is not as competitive having no leaderboards etc.? Can we then say that here anyone can be a dog on the internet? (Nakamura 2001). This paper tries to understand the role of written language in this gamic space and its relation to identity and conflict by considering these positions to reach closer to a rather elusive conclusion.

Srija Chowdhury (Calcutta University): “Not just a player, but a gamer: A sociological study on the web of identities in Gaming” 

E-games are making their way into the mainstream of cultural products now more than ever and have been taken up by diverse population including the peer activities of youth – a generation is growing up in an era where digital games are part of the taken-for-granted social and cultural fabric of playing, learning and social communication.

This is a hint towards the changing, converging, morphing youth identities which always seem to be in flux. Owing to this, a plethora of identities are being re-created on the virtual platform which, unquestionably, affects the identity formation of its consumers. The study is designed to throw a light on the social-psychological impacts of e-games on the youth identity. It aims to study the motivational factors which accelerate the youth to indulge in e-games, leading to the shift in their identities, in regards to gender, gamer-avatar identification and formation of community identity. The study has been carried out in the Asian countries of India, Malaysia, 

Indonesia and Philippines. It is a quantitative study, done primarily through online surveys and interviews, with a total of 100 respondents. Several social-psychological theories by eminent scholars have been used to explain the findings of this study, some of which are, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, social identity theory by Tajfel and Turner and Belk’s theory of extended self. New realms of identities have been found in terms of avatar and gender identity along with the blurring of virtual and real-space community lines and the emergence of a third space.