Games and Politics: Teaching History and Politics via videogames

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Do you know what Queen Isabella I of Spain has to do with modern chess rules, or chaturanga with contemporary Indian chess rules? Or that according to one version of the story, Mandodari is said to have beaten Ravan in the very first game after he invented chaturanga?

Well, we frankly had no idea either.

For the space of a little more than four hours starting from 2:30 pm on Saturday the 23rd of February, I forgot a lot of things. That this was part of my working day, that this was work, that I’ve always maintained a healthily curious but firm distance from digital, card and often board games for what I told myself was my inability to ‘suspend disbelief ’.

Megha and I were attending ‘Games and Politics: Teaching History and Politics via videogames’- a workshop conducted by Dr. Souvik Mukherjee and a Goethe Institut initiative in collaboration with History for Peace. After the six participants introduced themselves and shared their motivations in attending this exercise, the workshop began on a dramatic note with Dr. Mukherjee presenting to us a chaturanga board with its four sets of intricately carved figures. Telling us of its many histories, from its mention in Arthashastra to its Persian evolution into shatranj, he gave us free rein to explore his impressive collection of dice from across the world—story dice each of whose pictographs affects the direction of narrative, dice in which zero or no change in the karma balance is a possibility, and even minuscule pig-shaped dice whose each fallen position after the throwing of dice stand for a different count. Needless to say we were reduced to excitable children with differing degrees of restraint.

Dr. Mukherjee proceeded to give us an orientation into the area, beginning with ‘magic circle’, a term in game design taken from Huizinga’s Homo Ludens referring to the space participants in a game are encircled by, that is governed by its own sets of rules and laws, as opposed to ‘reality’ whose norms are suspended for that duration. Games as spaces of possibilities and choice making, the anti-capitalist origins of Monopoly and its subsequent re-modellings were among the topics we discussed before getting acquainted with an array of creative, sometimes horrifying board game adaptations through the years—‘The new game of Tippoo Saib’, Plantation Monopoly, Stalinist Monopoly, etc.

Two men suspended by rope in what seems like a desert military state. One is a civilian guilty of the capital crime of stealing water, the other a soldier sent to capture the first man and guilty of killing the former’s family since they proved an ‘obstacle’ in his line of duty. A third man in uniform has to pick which of the men must be punished with death. State snipers surround the scene. You are the third man. What would you do?

This clip from a popular video game was the predicament placed before us. Responses varied from killing the second man for abusing his power, the first for committing a crime he knew was capital, to ‘can’t I just refuse’. The only avid gamer among us observed that experienced gamers didn’t exhibit or at least linger on the same kinds of questions, hesitations that we were doing, the gamer’s world is more immediate, the decisions and choice-making involved more geared towards finishing the journey in a game than unconstructively contemplating its ethics.

We explored a host of games thereon—from being a daily newspaper’s editor picking what kind of news goes where on the front page, knowing your family is in the state’s custody, to playing at governing a State, allotting priorities to the executive, legislature and judiciary, to reconstructing personal historical narratives (using factual records from WWII survivors) through interviews, to being part of border security entrusted with deciding who qualifies for a visa and who does not. The three quarters of an hour given to us to explore the game demos curated as part of the ‘Games and Politics’ exhibition went by in a rush.

We returned to Dr Souvik Mukherjee offering us a choice between an Egyptian pyramid and a painting: which one did we want to step into? After the indescribable experience of exploring the first panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s fascinating triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (a personal favourite) using a 3D VR box, we sat down to share our thoughts about this intensely immersive workshop.

Since the workshop was aimed at teachers, the primary question that arose understandably centred on the potential of videogames as a learning tool: Are videogames a tool to teach with or are they a tool to inspire inquiry? Will students still be gripped by videogames if they see them as another part of their formal education? Is there existing content or content that can be practically developed to cater to Indian classrooms? Dr. Mukherjee asserted that asking if videogames can be used to teach is akin to asking if books can—it depends on which videogame, for what purpose and just as importantly, who the target audience is. The discussion brought forth the possibilities existing videogames hold for learning areas such as environmental studies, geography, the solar system and space, etc. at the upper primary level.

The practical applicability of videogames as a learning medium may be debatable—lack of requisite infrastructure or a model of education that can incorporate this medium seamlessly or just the general unfamiliarity with the medium in India among schoolteachers are only a few factors why. The workshop’s value, to me however, lay in the exposure it provided to a group of people otherwise unlikely to have engaged with this medium, and in its encouraging us to re-view the role of narratives in learning while also helping loosen a widely prevalent conservative idea of what comprises ‘learning’.