A Far Cry from the Subcontinent: The Problems of ‘Playing’ Conflicts in Video Games

By Arkabrata Chaudhury

Physical games such as athletics1 and different board games2 have long been considered to have strong ties with human engagement in war throughout the known history of civilisation. The birth and growth of digital games, a recent phenomenon, also exhibits direct and indirect associations with war, politics, race relations and violence apart from the usual aspects of play, narrative, representation and imagination. One of the initial computer games, and the first to see wide distribution (albeit within academic institutions), developed by some staff and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962, was Spacewar!, a space combat game. 

From the 1970s onwards arcade video games became popular in Japan, the US, and parts of Europe. The 1980s saw the spread of home computers throughout the Global North, thus increasing both the demand for and development of commercial video games.3 The fascination with wars and conflict of a world in the throes of the Cold War is discernible in the success of arcade games such as Tank, Missile Command, Front Line, and Sea Wolf. In the home computer and game console scene, games such as Castle Wolfenstein, a stealth-based game set in World War II-era Germany, or several G.I. Joe games bearing American flags and showing off their military patriotism suggest a similar trend.4 

In the 1990s, when home computers and game consoles saw even more widespread adoption and increasing computational power and technological innovation opened up the possibility of more realistic portrayal, video games established themselves as the new powerhouse of popular media. Fighting games series like King of Fighters, Tekken, Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter and, most notably, Mortal Kombat not only introduced a gladiatorial theme in video games but also birthed a critical reaction from certain sections of society due to their depiction of violence. While a significant part of the war-related video games tend to put the player into the shoes of a capable martial figure — thus  constructing the gateway into a power fantasy — lately, some games, such as Spec Ops: The Line and This War of Mine, have started to portray war and conflict in a more nuanced manner.

Similar to the other important entertainment industry, the movies, video games too have shown a preference to depict protagonists who travel to the Global South to take part in violent battles — both real-life and fictional conflicts. Prominent game series such as Battlefield, Call of Duty, Delta Force, Ghost Recon, to name a few, have often located entire games or parts of a game in Asian nations, including the Indian subcontinent. Depictions of local conflicts in such games, whether fictional or real life, political or military, make an accommodation for the entry of the saviour protagonist figure who is always from the Global North. For example, the 2010 game Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Predator allows the player to control a squad of special forces from the US to neutralise key figures in a semi-fictional conflict in Sri Lanka and restore order in the country. In almost all of the numerous games developed during the historically infamous Vietnam War, the player dons the garb of a US soldier killing hordes of Vietnamese  guerrillas. These games, almost always developed in the West, seem to provide a privileged and partial view of such conflicts that ignores crucial complexities and fails to deliver a possibility of experiencing different sides of the same narrative. 

The theme of the arrival of the soldiers from the Euro-American nations in the landscape of an Asian or African country is a common element found in many video games or video game levels. However, in such cases more consideration is given to ludic necessities, and less focus is invested on authentic and sympathetic portrayal of regional realities and socio-political complications. Such depictions have, at times, led to controversies as in the case of the 2002 game, Hitman: Silent Assassin, where the protagonist assassin, Agent 47, visits an unnamed city in Punjab (known only as ‘Temple City’) to assassinate the leader of a cult. The level appears as a generic Northwest Indian city without a specific cultural identity or history. The depiction of the ‘cult’ members as similar to Sikhs in traditional attire, and a segment wherein the player-character seeks out enemies in a gurdwara created discontent in the Sikh community. This is irrefutably problematic in that it raises pressing questions about the insensitive handling of local histories and cultures.

Far Cry 4 (2014) is one of the few games centred around a conflict in the Indian subcontinent, in a fictional Himalayan nation called Kyrat fashioned after Nepal. The protagonist, Ajay Ghale, a Kyrati-American, arrives in the country as a visitor and takes up the role of its saviour, and the landscape and level design seem to be designed with ludic traversal, conflict, and capture of land in mind, rather than providing a reliable rendition of a Himalayan state. The gameplay loop revolves mostly around exploration, extermination and area conquest of enemy territory — a re-enactment of imperial history. Even the socio-historical depiction is fraught with misrepresentation and is a hodgepodge of myths and cultural specificities of various South Asian religions and regions.6 Again, while a game like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017) can be considered to have made a decent representation of the Western Ghats and the history and ruins of the Hoysala Empire, it cannot be overlooked that the premise of the game is deeply Orientalist in its imagination of the place. For context, the protagonist, Chloe Frazer7 is a treasure hunter who is at the same time fighting a local warlord and his insurgents by taking part in an internal conflict. This points to a rehash of the theme of a saviour appearing from the Global North — an outsider arriving only to solve the problems of the underdeveloped Global South in general, and the Indian subcontinent in particular. 

A counterpoint, or a view from a counter-historical narrative, can emerge in games when they are developed by the marginalised regions or communities themselves. Most games set in Vietnam are developed from the neo-imperialist perspective of the US; however, when Vietnamese developer Emobi Games released 7554: Glorious Memories Revived in 2011, they chose to narrate the Franco-Vietnamese War from the Vietnamese point of view and in doing so provided an alternative possibility of play, thus allowing the player to transcend the limits imposed by the dominant perspectives. Though the game development industry in the Indian subcontinent has existed for more than two decades, it has produced little in terms of original intellectual property.8 There have, however, been a number of titles dealing with memories of conflicts in the recent past. Bhagat Singh (2002) was an early Indian-developed title that ludified the exploits of the eponymous freedom fighter by, as Mukherjee mentions, not being a particularly original game but, rather, using the blueprint of games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D.9 Games developed in Bangladesh like Arunodayer Agnishikha (2004) and Heroes of ’71 (2015) also show the (re)telling of various conflicts surrounding Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971. These games point not only to how indigenously developed games proffer an opportunity to reclaim historical narrative, but also to how they can further provide counter-perspectives to those proposed by dominant colonial discourses. Elizabeth LaPensée has observed that game design, in what she calls ‘indigenous games’, can create an aesthetic and interactive medium of expression that can lead to self-determination and cultural expression. Since the subcontinent, like the indigenous communities LaPensée writes about, exists on the margins in terms of representation in Western video games, we can discern the substantial significance of these initial ludic expressions.10 

The design of the in-game space is often very telling of how conflicts are played out within the game. We have already discussed how level design in open-world games like Far Cry 4 follows the logic of area domination and control, reflecting the logic of imperialism under the guise of liberation of an exotic and often ‘Oriental’ nation that exists at the juncture of reality and fantasy.11 Kim (2016) is a game based on the canonical colonialist novel of the same name by Rudyard Kipling. The different landscapes of British India serve as the various levels that the mixed race protagonist traverses. This landscape, keeping in line with the colonial imagination, is composed of so-called ‘exotic’ and eternal truths of the imaginary ‘Orient’. Religious and cultural symbolism define both character and architecture design in the game world, which is framed and composed by the ever-present British martial and administrative control in the form of the police, the army, and colonial infrastructure projects that guide Kim’s journey through the game. Like the novel, in the game Kim opens up to his British heritage by entering the Great Game and takes part in the conflict between two imperial powers, while his Indian identity serves to assist the colonial project. The gradual unmasking of the in-game map with exploration of Northern India re-enacts the practice of charting undertaken by colonial explorers. The ludic space, therefore, appears to exist only to be tamed by the British colonial authorities with Kim being one of the numerous agents, and the player’s agential exercise becomes one that consolidates the justificatory narrative of colonial rule. 

The growth of the game development industry on a regional level can provide access to diverse narratives of historical and contemporary conflicts and allow the building of gameplay focused on issues of violence (both specific and universal in context). An example of such ludic possibilities can be seen in the 2014 game Unrest (Ashanti) created by Jaipur-based studio Pyrodactyl. Unrest situates its narrative and gameplay in a mytho-historical era, but its depiction of conflicts and violence — both on the scales of overarching and individual narratives — appears very pertinent to contemporary societies in the Indian subcontinent. In this game, inter-kingdom hostilities affect the lives of its inhabitants, based on racial and ethnic divisions. Beyond the overarching theme of military conflict, the game focuses on intricacies of social violence stemming from interconnected issues of gender discrimination, class structure, racial politics, religious fundamentalism, and even rural-urban confrontation. The game space, instead of focussing on the imperial motives of control, deals with problems of segregation, access to services, property-based class mobility, and poverty, to name a few. The gameplay for almost its entire duration avoids direct violent confrontation, but through its main mechanics of narrative choices and decision-making allows the player to engage with the intricacies of conflicts at the ground level, from the points of view of those affected by such violence. Such an indigenously developed game thus harbours the prospect of making diverse aspects of social, political, economic, religious and military conflicts visible from perspectives generally absent in mainstream games.
Candie Tanaka argues that academics are currently interested in the “use of interactive fiction in emerging literacies” where video games can be used in classrooms and libraries to enhance skills. She says the inclusion of the indigenously developed games in spaces of learning can provide insight into lived experiences that are usually under-represented in the industry.12 We have noticed that games developed in the Global North often look at the issues of conflict and violence from a position of prerogative, and the player agency is directed at the execution of the ludic logics of conquest and control, and the consequent fulfilment of the player’s power fantasy. In such a scenario, a conscious engagement with these games, along with an accompanying theoretically sound analysis, can provide ways to understand aporia ingrained in the ergodic representation;13 it is the rise of developers in the Indian subcontinent that is slowly allowing a more empathetic and varied perspective on the portrayal of life in this region. The role of space in such video games transcends the borders of typical gameplay interest to accommodate a diverse and complex world, and is able to do justice to specific and indigenous cultural representations. By decolonising the  symbolism and spatial representations of certain ‘exotic’ places, and further, rewriting the rules of the game, this new strain of games can provide a stage for the global awareness of regional histories, and the lived realities of violence and conflicts in such places. 

References:

1. Dario Del Corno notes how there are “indisputable links between war and games in ancient Greek culture”.
Corno, Dario D. “Games and War in Ancient Greece.” War and Games. Eds. Cornell, Tim and Thomas B. Allen. Boydell Press, 2002.

2. Masukawa Koichi includes the war games, forming a group of board games as they were developed in ancient societies.
Masukawa, Koichi. “The Origins of Board Games and Ancient Game Boards.” Translational Systems Sciences, vol. 9, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-0575-6_1.

3. For detailed information on the history and development of the digital games industry and culture, consult Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Videogames, Vol. 1 and 2.
Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games, Vol. 1. Three Rivers Press, 2001.
—. The Ultimate History of Video Games, Vol. 2. Crown, 2021.

4. These observations do not, however, suggest that the war and conflict was the sole or major subject of video games, as it was far from that. See Kent for a broader understanding of the era.

5. The possible depiction of violence inside a gurdwara was seen as an allusion to the 1984 Operation Bluestar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The publisher later changed some of the controversial elements after complaints from Sikhs.
news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/sci_tech/newsid_2440000/2440713.stm

6. Souvik Mukherjee finds elements of Orientalism and revisionist history in the game, where the silent protagonist’s view of Kyrat is “largely mediated through the colonial gaze”. Mukherjee, however, also notes some points in the game that can, if developed, provide an understanding of histories of marginal regions.
Mukherjee, Souvik. “Crab-Rangoons in Kyrat: (Re) Writing South Asian History in Far Cry 4.” Games and Culture, Vol. 16, No. 8, 2021, pp. 1065-86.

7. That Chloe has partial Indian ancestry seems of little importance, since she grew up in Australia and operates by the spirit of the colonial practice of treasure hunting.

8. While in recent times a number of small studios and independent teams have taken up developing games that tell meaningful stories, Indian studios of large game publishing companies still mostly work on titles not necessarily connected to the subcontinent.

9. Mukherjee notes the importance of a game like Bhagat Singh, in spite of its technical and artistic limitations, from a postcolonial point of view. For more in-depth discussion see Mukherjee’s Videogames in the Indian Subcontinent: Development, Culture(s) and Representations.

Mukherjee, Souvik. Videogames in the Indian Subcontinent: Development, Culture(s) and Representations. Bloomsbury, 2022.

10.  LaPensée, alluding to indigenously developed games, such as Never Alone, and When Rivers Were Trails, suggests not only a possibility of counter-historical self-expression but also how established gameplay mechanics can be refashioned to enable access to their own narrative of being impacted by socio-political conflicts when developed and informed by indigenous creatives.
LaPensée, Elizabeth. “Video games encourage indigenous cultural expression.” The Conversation, 2017. 
—. “When Rivers Were Trails: Cultural expression in an indigenous video game.” International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol. 27, Issue 3, 2021, pp. 281-295.

11. Such notions of ‘liberation’ of marginalised regions by Western forces or characters have been parodied heavily in Broforce (2015) in which, after parodies of Hollywood heroes literally destroy the entire landscape along with ‘terrorists’, civilians, and at times animals, the game satirically proclaims, “Area Liberated”.

12. The problem of a lack of exposure for games developed in marginal regions like South Asia can be counteracted by following Tanaka’s suggestion on the participation of public libraries in making such games available to members.
Tanaka, Candie. “Indigenous Video Games in Libraries.”  Pathfinder: A Canadian Journal for Information Science Students and Early Career Professionals, 3(1), pp. 14-29.

13. Espen Aarseth coined the term ergodic literature to refer to narrative representation which requires non-trivial effort on the part of the reader to traverse the text. Video games, with their requirement of player agency and interactivity, are a form of it. For a deeper understanding see Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. The John Hopkins University Press, 1997.

About the author: Arkabrata Chaudhury is pursuing his Ph.D. in Digital Humanities from Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He received his M. A. and M. Phil. degree from the University of North Bengal, and his dissertation was on the literary representation of the urban space of 20th century Delhi. He is currently serving as a State Aided College Teacher in Ananda Chandra College, Jalpaiguri. Alongside, his areas of interest include urban studies, game studies, philosophies of space, postcolonial discourse and Tibetan studies.


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