Aditya Deshbandhu discusses the nuances of storytelling in video games
Video games have slowly but surely come to the forefront of the entertainment industry. With more players joining the fray, the titles that are produced each year reflect the cultural trends and different ways the developers are trying to push the boundaries.
Games nowadays have a much larger appeal, even in the subcontinent of India where the medium has been seen more as a mere object of play rather than a serious subject worth both play and research. It thus bodes well to listen to someone who has been actively studying the medium and its effects in the country.
In a conversation with Sportskeeda Esports’ Angshuman Dutta, Aditya Deshbandhu, author of Gaming Culture(s) in India: Digital Play in Everyday Life, discusses growing up playing video games, the recent trends in the gaming identity of India, and the immense possibilities imbued in the very medium.
Aditya Deshbandhu talks about video games in India and the development of indie gaming
Q: Can you please introduce yourself?
Aditya: I hail from Hyderabad, India’s second silicon city. I have been working in the new media/digital space for the last decade. In the kind of work I do, I have been given the luxury of inhabiting three distinct spaces – user of technology and a player of video games, someone who reviews and examines technological forms, developments, and someone who then studies them up close as an academic to look at how they shape the society around them and vice-versa.
I use each of the three positions to further my understanding and, most importantly, have as much fun as possible in the process. So, this means that as a gamer, I play the games that interest me, use the gadgets I like, and experiment with them in unique ways.
As a reviewer/columnist (a big part of me now as my column is about to turn 5 this year), I make sense of how these work in the everyday, what differentiates the games I play, the tech I use, and as a researcher I look at what all this means in a broader social context.
Q: I remember reading in your book Gaming Culture(s) in India. I think it was in the introduction section where you mentioned playing Brick Games handheld device as one of your earliest memories of playing a video game. Even I used to have those and I think one can still find them with hawkers aboard a train.
Coming to my question, what was your childhood like with respect to video games? What were some of the other games that you enjoyed growing up?
Aditya: Video games were a big part of my childhood. I am a little over 31 today and I have been playing games for about 28-29 years of that time. I grew up playing Brick Games, the Indian version of the cartridge consoles (Contra, Duck Hunt, Mario).
I had my earliest PC when I was 8 (1998); it ran on an Intel Pentium III. The internet on it was dial-up and it was provided by the now defunct Satyam Infoway (which went on to become Sify).
My earliest games were both on DOS and Windows 95 and 98. On DOS, there was legacy Dangerous Dave, Keen, Prince, Skyroads, Paratrooper, Galaga and a host of others. On the Windows side, Age of Empires, Midtown madness, Road Rash, Flight Simulator, Shattered Street, Half Life, Delta Force, and Quake were all big parts of my childhood.
As I got older, gaming became too intense. I used to skip meals to play and I was ushered off to a boarding school (circa 2001) but gaming still happened in the vacations. I had a Gameboy advance by 2003 and was playing Pokémon on it. Then mobile gaming happened with the Nokias, and once college happened, the consoles came in. I have always been playing games for as long as I can remember.
Q: Given that playing a video game is not considered a serious activity worth studying by a large section of our society, what has your experience been regarding this as you pursued the field?
Aditya: This question is unending, right? Let me give you two examples where I have faced this question and it has left me flabbergasted. The first in 2014, at one of communication’s biggest global conferences (IAMCR), I was presenting my early understanding of game studies as a field in the popular culture section.
After my presentation, the first question I was asked by an Indian researcher attending the session wasn’t on the methodology of my study, or my approach, or even what my research questions were, but how was it relevant to people who weren’t kids. The question caught me by surprise and I didn’t know how to react.
The second happened in June 2019 when I had started working at one of India’s premiere institutions when one of my colleagues was asking about my work and she told me: “but Aditya you can’t work at a place like this and study video games” and all I could say was “why not?”
The trivialization of gaming as a leisure time activity seems wrong on so many levels, and the reduction of games as artifacts for kids or platforms that are addictive to players is something I have been trying to change in the last decade with my work.
I nowadays answer this question with a simple line – when Newzoo estimates that one in every two people plays games today (globally), and since the pandemic I would say the number is conservatively at a 3 in 5 or a 4 in 7, then why shouldn’t we study a phenomenon of this size?
The global gaming market has revenues that are larger than film and TV combined and it would be grossly unobservant and negligent of us to not study them or let other people study them.
Q: How do you think the Indian gaming community has changed in, let’s say, the last five years – considering the advent of titles like PUBG and Pokemon GO among others?
Aditya: In gaming time, 5-7 years is transformational. I have watched the market change significantly and the mobile/smartphone revolution is a big reason for that.
We watched what happened to Tencent’s stock and valuation when the Indian government banned PUBG. The sheer size of our player base is staggering, as Garena was discovered recently in the vacuum left behind by PUBG and Fortnite.
On the players front till 2016 (when I finished the data collection for my PhD), a huge chunk of our gamers didn’t want to pay for the games they played. With mobile games, especially trends like freemium and f2p, we have seen their wishes fulfilled.
In terms of engagement, I can’t see a more dedicated set of players. The willingness to pay has also increased and we are seeing the growth of something new here – a context-specific economy that is keen on value for money and making memorable experiences of play. I hope it continues in that vein and we become a unique market someday like Japan and Korea.
Q: With a number of games being developed in India finding global recognition, Raji and the works of Studio Oleomingus come to mind. What is your opinion on the overall growth of the indie development scene?
Aditya: I will be frank mate, Raji I wasn’t too impressed with. It was a bad game that looked good and was platform-exclusive on the Switch (a console not officially available in India).
I don’t know if it was even made for the Indian audience, or for diasporic kids in the Global North, or as a means of continuing India’s “exotic” (cue Priyanka Chopra’s song) narrative in the west. Compare it to a game like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and the country’s portrayal is not very different but for an Indian protagonist.
Studio Oleomingus on the other hand I like and their projects seem interesting. For now, indie is the space if we want to make new games and experiences. Games like Limbo, Inside, Kena and Valheim from last year and Disco Elysium and Hades from 2018-2019 have all been great. I was a big fan of Firewatch too.
Looking at the avenues that platforms like Steam, Epic, and others offer, a good idea and experience will always find space in indies. That’s something developers can take to their advantage.
I really like the story of Supergiant Games and how they have grown from Bastion to Transistor to Pyre and then Hades. That’s indie development done right – unique themes but consistent design and mechanics. No shortcuts with indies, but a steady progressive landscape with the world as your oyster.
Q: What do you think the medium of video games provides in terms of storytelling when seen against other traditional mediums? Do you think video games can offer a different perspective to cultural and mythological stories from the subcontinent?
Aditya: Oh massively! A big part of the storytelling is the interactive bit and the players building their own narratives. I believe that the action in games and the story go hand in hand and this we need to examine – both the play and the narrative.
In classic gaming terms, study the action and the cut-scene that is unlocked through the action. Now on to the second bit, yes, of course there is vast potential both in the myth and the lore that’s in India and also in today’s every day – in urban, semi-urban or rural settings.
If a game like Infamous Second Son can happen in the boonies of the US, so can something like that in India. But the question is – will we be willing to take that risk? Tell a story that’s different, that offers an experience that’s unique, not pristine and clean like the Global North but cluttered and chaotic like its India. I hope we can and soon.
Q: What is your opinion on the evolution of the identity of the Indian gamer – although it probably cannot be reduced that easily to an answer – with the budding esports scene in the country?
Aditya: The best thing about Indian gamer identity is it’s heterogeneous. It’s everyone and anyone and so far, it’s open to all if you don’t mind listening to the expletive led tirade in the lobbies.
The esports scene needs time to mature. From what I can see, Indian pro-players or wannabe pros aren’t at the level (in terms of understanding gameplay) to find exploits and meta styles on their own, something that’s the norm for gamers from South East Asia or the US and Europe. But that should change with time, dedication, and a nurturing outlook, of course. I can’t overemphasize that enough.
The esports scene can’t remain budding for a decade. It needs to bloom at some point, right?
Q: How do you see the future of gaming in India – be it casual, professional, or academic?
Aditya: It is a bit muddled as of now. The way ahead needs a bit more time. All three fronts could benefit from a bit of seriousness. Casual gaming needs to progress and lay the foundations for going professional if one wants to. Professional needs nurturing, exposure and a lot more competitive events and sponsors.
Lastly, academic – it will follow I am sure. If we make games and play them at a great level, there will be a lot more stories to tell and a lot more intricacies to examine from a variety of subjects.
Q: To conclude, what projects are you working on now, if you can share that is?
Aditya: I am working on a few projects at the moment, Angshuman. The biggest one of those is my second book called The 21st Century in Hundred games, and it will be published by the fantastic team at Routledge. It looks at how games are remembered by players and society at large. I should have it ready by June hopefully and it should be available to read by early 2023.
I have just finished a study on how video games can allow us to examine the possible futures humanity will have to endure. It looked at the societal systems in games like Cyberpunk 2077, Detroit: Become Human, and Deus Ex.
I have a larger study on Pokémon Go in Indian contexts with two former colleagues of mine that has been on-going for the last two years and should be available to read in the next two months. It looks at new modes and spaces of leisure in augmented spaces, especially in urban India where places to play and loiter are far and few as high-rises become the norm.
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There are a few more brewing and I promise I will share more the next time we speak.