Learning, Illumination and Citizenship

By Prayas Abhinav

It was 2010, and I remember sitting in the library, making notes. I was waiting for a programmer who wanted to intern with me and he was to arrive shortly. We were to talk about a game idea I had been thinking of. I was new to this world, and had wondered why he wanted to work with me.

At the time, I was tinkering around with Love 2D, a tool used for prototyping games. It is used in game-a-thons around the world and people use Love2D to prototype ideas in a messy and impolite kind of way. I recall downloading a game called Dave Goes Apeshit from the website, in which an employee goes berserk and starts shooting all his colleagues. I wanted to share the platform with the young person coming to work with me, and ask him to play around with it some more. I think he just wanted a portfolio that allowed him to showcase the fruits of playing around with tools like I had. But two weeks later, I had made my first prototype.

The game was called Decay of Meaning, and was built on a hypothesis that language devalues over time and any word can mean anything. This was a digital game in which two avatars of myself chased each other. The avatars could jump and eat words. They started running faster or slower depending on which word they ate. The positive or negative association of the words kept changing. It gave me a space to capture models of new philosophical narratives and show how fragile new systems of thought can be modelled through them.

Now, over the past decade and more of my practice as an artist, game builder, teacher and thinker, I firmly believe that games offer a new way of looking at the world. They allow us to dramatically stage scenarios, thoughts and emotions, and can lead to bold new ways of living rather than carrying on the ways of the past. These bold new ways of living can rescue personalities and leaders who have imagined the world to be a different place than what we know it as.

Another digital game I made was Distortion Field: a top-down car racing game. It again carried a philosophical message, and this time it was a metaphor of modern society and ‘the rat race’. The objective of the game was to actually escape the race instead of winning it. I had built it using a tool called ‘stencyl’—a tool that built on MIT Scratch, a drag-and-drop programme for kids to learn programming. It used the same programming interface. Another issue that I wanted to convey through the game was the openness, ease and democracy of building games—these new technologies allowed me to build without coding: what a powerful pitch.

I often think, what is play? I’m convinced it is an elusive and mysterious factor. What happens when two rival sides compete with each other, who makes the first strike, what happens in a battle of words, of thoughts and ideas? I believe it is mostly random. When words strike against each other, anything can emerge. You could be surprised with gold, a bouquet of flowers or a crown of thorns. I believe that not only are the actions random, the outcomes are too. Betting against what will emerge is really unwise and should not be done. The strike is lucky, sometimes it is unlucky. But one thing is a given—that it cannot be predicted. The strike itself is a factor of luck. Some call this coincidence luck—some call it play.
Another digital game I worked on was a typing simulator, in which the sentences or words broke (visually). If you did not type at a particular speed, your passages broke down. These were all symbolic systems and environments which were then translated into digital games. On being translated they only became a firmer example of a real world system. The narrative became much clearer. It became much more about how the conceptual narrative of a digital game was involved with a conceptual game language overall.

Now I am linking board games, street games and using them to create awareness about aspects of the Indian Constitution and its various acts.

Beyond building games, I was also concerned about building an ecosystem of learning for an enthusiast who had very limited coding skills. My games brought a newer and more critical perspective to themes like the nature of language, top-down car racing and a typing simulator and were indicative of someone who was drawing from his environment. I was furiously reading about philosophy, games and these disparate threads, and I remember also running a reading group about these topics in Bengaluru. We had a relatively well-attended membership of 20 in this reading group. Ideas were freely floating between evolution of language, of computers and of human societies. And the school where I worked—Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology—had a healthy environment (inflow-outflow) of artists and technologists to fuel my imagination.

The founder of the school was a pedagogue named Geetha Narayanan and she allowed me to live at the margins of what was a very academic environment. She understood that what would be good for me would be a little bit of teaching and a lot of roving. I conducted a workshop on time capsules which explored communicating with the future when nothing (not even language) was stable. What materials, what techniques would allow this communication to happen then? At the school there were a few other faculty members trying to make games but their interests were very different from mine and no exchange of ideas took place.

Play and the Player
Sometimes play is all there is to decide the winner in a game. But play is not all there is to a situation. Social factors are unwittingly significant for the way situations shape up. One cannot predict the course of situations because hope is a fool’s narrative. Hope is really for the non-strategic player. “When nothing else is a ploy, prayer is a choice.” This is not a belief that holds strong for everybody. Some really believe in the power of prayer. Play and strategy control a lot of destinies.

Yet play is not all there is to a game. Neither is strategy. Mechanics is also there. And balance makes up the rest. With these three, most games can be explained. Calculation is often the fallback mechanic of a game. Pattern, shape, colour form the other part of the gestalt of gameplay. For me, games are really shaped by playful inaccuracy. The power of accuracy and arriving at a result in a game, is really not a good sign. It is not the sign of a good player to depend on accuracy to win a game. I am saying that a good player relies on play itself.

And good games allow such players to win. This comes not only from experience but also from aspiration and observation. Focus, wanting to win, attentiveness, taking on a challenge are the qualities of a good player (as understood generally). I am making a general point here. Winning a game allows one to know it. Which kind of player is a game oriented to let win? Is this the quality of the game? How difficult is it to win the game? Does that determine the quality of the game? For everyone it is different. It also describes why they are playing in the first place.

Learning about citizenship really comes from knowing about how one learns about anything that concerns us. I have been thinking about street games. Finding the abstract definitions that rouse your spirit as playful material on the ground will surely bring it closer to us. And that is what we need. The meta as matter close to the body—as close as music is to lyrics. Else, the citizen is named through abstract thought and words in a document that is seldom read. The proximity of the street game to the body excites me. If it were not to be so the game would be like dandruff on the skin—dry and separate. I want to frame the subject of the game as something embroidered on the skin.

Citizenship is a concept that is very close to the spirit. Else, citizens are floating in blank space, without any gumption or any structure. This is to say, if you have a name, it must mean something. Birds can’t just fly around, they must be categorised and named. And once they are named, they must follow it. They must perform it. To perform a role means to act every nuance of its definition. In the same way we have mechanisms in a game—for binding the role to its characteristics and behaviour.
When an actor assumes a role, there is no room left for them to falter. The goal really is to make actors assume their role. It is every citizen’s role to be aware of their responsibilities. Having an actor tend their role is very much like a piece of theatre with reluctant actors. It should happen naturally and easily.

What can we do for it to be natural? We should craft roles that have no hereditary power, only performative power. Playing a role is the only cause for respect on the battlefield. A quick look at chess shows how this could be possible. In classical chess pawns have no power. Only feudal masters on horses or camels or an elephant have any power. This is a problem—the pawn is the first to die, after all. Power without hierarchy really ought to be prototyped in games because it is possible. Games are the magic circle where suddenly everything is possible.
Instead of more of the same, games can be spaces for prototyping social relations. These can form systems for actors to practise new ways to be. We do not need another trade, we need another way to be. We do not need to reinforce old ways to be. Propagation as a right is granted to everyone. But it is only a privilege enjoyed by a few. Others bear the weight of unequal social relationships and suffer as the subjects of propagation projects by others. Some just don’t feel good enough to share what they enjoy.
Games—board games, street games, video games and AR games—all need to be novel formulations of real worlds and new fragile ones. Merely being custodians of normalcy—whatever that entails—is not enough. This needs to be a feeling held widely and not on an exceptional basis. So, games can be a gateway to new worlds. This gateway can be like a conservatory for fine minds that envisage taking risks of all kinds to arrive at new value systems and breathe life into them. The proposition that ‘art making offered us but failed in making real’ will be offered by gaming culture in the future.

Games have a very unified philosophy and narrative. Be it digital games or board games or street games, it does not matter. The reason for us wanting to unify these narratives is simple—the resource investment it takes to create a digital game till the final stage is huge. It would be useful to break it down in the form of a game ecosystem, where initially it is a board game. Because board games are very approachable and can lead to more people associating with the proof of concept in the form of a board game.

Some middle-ground level tools like Twine allow us to systemically build games without getting into the graphical world of digital games. We can build a mesh of stories in Twine without building a full-fledged digital game at the same time. These stories range from make-believe replacement to actual level-play. Visuals can be integrated with these stories to give a more real-life experience and a more convincing feel to the overall play. Twine stories are interactive so they do feel like games.
I have shared here some strategies that I am toying with to integrate board games and digital games. As the approach develops over time, I will be able to share further.

About the author: I am a teacher and an entrepreneur. I have worked on numerous pieces of speculative fiction, software, games, interactive installations, public interventions, and curatorial projects. I have developed my research and practice with the support of fellowships by Sarai, Openspace, the Center for Experimental Media Arts (CEMA), and TED.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *