Welcome to another edition of the C3 Weekly
Update. As of this week, the role of the newsletter editor will rotate amongst the C3 team. Ana Domb has the pleasure of initiating this new editorial approach with this edition of the newsletter.
This week's Opening Note is by CMS visiting scholar Jaroslav Švelch. In his article, Švelch looks at the polemics, the potential benefits or drawbacks behind the hard-core gamer concept.
In our Closing Note, C3's Principal Investigator, Henry Jenkins, interviews Parmesh Shahani. Aside from being one of our Consulting Researchers, Shahani was part of the original C3 team. We are happy to present this interview where he talks about his recently published book, Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India, the place of gay culture in India, and the methods behind his research.
We are also taking this opportunity to remind you that FoE3 is almost here. We very much look forward to sharing this productive and intense conference with all of you.
If you have any questions or comments or would
like to request prior issues of the Update, direct them to Ana Domb, editor of the C3 Weekly Update, at email@example.com.
In This Issue
Opening Note: Jaroslav Švelch on reconstructing the identity of the hardcore gamer
Futures of Entertainment 3 (FoE3)
November 21-22, 2008
Closing Note: Henry Jenkins interviews Parmesh Shahani
The End Of Gamers? Reconstructing the hard core identity (Part I of II)
While playing, sit in the most uncomfortable position possible. This way, you can better identify with the game's main character - he doesn't feel comfortable, either! 1
How To Die At Your Computer, Excalibur gaming magazine, 1990
When studying video game audiences, we clearly see that playing games does not make one a gamer. A player of casual games will most likely not call herself a gamer. She might not even admit she plays video games. Being a gamer, on the other hand, involves a sense of belonging to a community, a certain kind of sentiment or fandom - however, it is always contained within a particular gaming culture, which in turn operates in a broader cultural context.
The word gamer is also burdened by a number of pervasive clichés. Gamers have been considered adolescent nerds with zero social skills, their medium of choice was deemed trash or downright dangerous for both individuals and public. Many of these accusations have been, at least to a certain extent, countered by writers in the cultural studies mode of game studies, such as James Newman 2.
Recently, another argument has emerged: Gamers stand in the way of the evolution of the video game medium itself. Ian Bogost has noted on several occasions that he envisions the future of the medium as free of the demands of the hard core audience. In one of the latest contributions to this discussion, Douglas Wilson criticized certain groups of gamers for being confrontational and overly protective of the medium:
Smitten with near-religious fervor over their hobby, these so-called gamers increasingly treat digital games as a devotional object, a thing morally good in itself. [...] The very notion of the "gamer" implies that games are a niche hobby, only for the sufficiently devoted. This exclusivity is exactly what impedes games from attracting a more diverse player base beyond the white adolescent male stereotype.
In the course of his argument, he proposes to discard the term gamer altogether, calling it "anachronistic". He goes on saying that "opening games to, well, everybody can only result in a wider selection of genres and ideas".
This blog post triggered a fiery discussion among gamers and game scholars. The symbolic act of "dumping" the gamer 3 signifier is a powerful and controversial statement - proving that there is a value in the right to call oneself a gamer. However, there has been little effort to examine the multi-faceted gamer identity, its roots and values, as if it was clear to just about anyone. Building on my case study of a gamer subculture in the mid-90's Czech Republic, I will try to discover what a gamer stood and stands for.
In a 1995 issue of a Czech hard core gaming magazine Score, a strikingly similar attempt was made to discard the equivalent of the term gamer. I will focus on the very moment when the Score magazine attempted to shake off its hard-core affiliation and embrace mainstream readership. This naturally spawned numerous responses of alienated gamers, and set off a discussion on what it is to be a gamer.
Gaming? You wouldn't understand!
The Score magazine had a certain clandestine charm, beginning right on the cover, with its dark images intentionally pixelated beyond recognition, must have looked extremely unwelcoming and confusing to a non-gamer. However, the magazine instantly found its audience and its circulation steadily grew during the next three years, eventually dominating the market.
The magazine was aware of gamer clichés that started to circulate. But they were not only refuted; they were also embraced and creatively, often ironically, reworked into a complex identity that is a blend of a real-world narrative and fantasy. The guide to the "death at your computer", quoted above, turns mainstream criticism into a value of its own, proclaiming that "gaming is so bad that it's good".
At the heart of its community was the concept of the gamer. Its Czech equivalent, pařan, implied even more hard-core enthusiasm and it was derived from the word meaning "to party" which in turns implied a certain degree of addiction. The recurring addiction metaphor is explicitly formulated in Score's Computer Gamer's Lexicon under the keyword pařan:
Although it's hard to determine where you stop being a player and become a gamer (pařan), most players eventually reach this state [...] of progressive gaming addiction, from which there is no escape. Pařans spend about 70% of their free time at their computers, playing games. [Rest of the time,] they spend with their friends [...] sharing gaming experience and advice, only to return to their darlings - computers . (Score #3, 1994: 39)
However, the definition continues with the author admitting that:
even though we at Score call ourselves pařans, we don't really fit the description above. Quite honestly, we are normal people and besides computers and gaming, we are interested in other beautiful things (alcohol, junk food, movies, music, sex). (ibid.)
This definition shows that there was a constant negotiation between the serious and the funny, the real and fictional takes on "gamerdom". The gaming community was centered around a real-life activity but also around an imagined identity that eagerly positioned itself outside of the "normal" mainstream culture.
When trying to understand subcultures less overt than punks or mods, we find out that early Birmingham school works such as Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style do not account for them. Another, more contemporary British author, Sarah Thornton, however provides many
interesting insights in her work on club cultures. She claims that subcultures start off in opposition to mainstream culture as taste cultures centered around shared media consumption, namely "niche media".
In addition to that, Thornton introduces the idea of subcultural capital, which is unevenly distributed within the community (which we will from now on also call a subculture, opposed to a gaming culture, by which I mean broader complex of gaming practices and attitudes towards them in a society). Where does this capital reside in the gamers' realm?
Masters of joystick and Norton Utilities
In the January 1995 issue of the Score magazine, unsuspecting gamers could find a short editorial piece by the editor-in-chief Jan Eisler, entitled The End of Gamers in Bohemia. In it, he pledges to stop using the word pařan in the magazine:
As the gaming industry and the quality of games grow, the funny little old games turning into a serious business in the scale of billions, so must our magazine keep up the pace and grow with them. [...] No more childhood illnesses, no more childish statements, no more colloquial talk about pařans and gaming ecstasies. The [computer game] prehistory is behind us and so is the pařan. (Score #13, 1995)
Just like Wilson, Eisler wanted to give up the hardcore-ness of the medium, framing the gamer identity within the adolescent/adult opposition. The most interesting of many responses came from a reader who emphasized the notions of gamer history and achievement and reversed the adolescent/adult dichotomy:
Today, a kid says 'I want this' and gets a computer, finishes a game with a walkthrough and cheats and calls himself a pařan. He is not one, but what about those who worked themselves up step by step on programmable calculators, ZX Spectrum, Amiga and PC to be first-class gamers, aren't they pařans? They mastered mouse and joystick, crosshair and two-handed axe, magic and strategy, dialects of English and Norton Utilities? Aren't they pařans?! (Score #15, 1995)
Naturally, mastery of the gaming technology is one of the basic elements of gamer's subcultural capital, even more so in a gaming culture which is mostly computer-based, as opposed to more console-based gaming cultures of Japan or the United States.
Shared narratives like the one quoted above are central to gamer subculture. These narratives differ across gaming cultures, so that an American gamer might start an account of his gaming career with Atari VCS, and a British, Spanish or Czech one with ZX Spectrum. Continuous and rapid evolution of gaming technologies also highlight the temporality of a gamer narrative.
It also takes time and effort to be a gamer - as we can see in the letter, a kid who has just a computer is assřumed not to have the right call him/herself a pařan. Being a gamer usually also involves being aware of one's own gamer narrative, as well as being able to abstract from it the general principles of gaming.
- All magazine and interview quotes translated from Czech.
- Newman, J. 2004. Videogames. London: Routledge.
- We saw a similar renaming maneuver in comics, with the adoption of the term graphic novel in 1970's.
Jaroslav Švelch is a Czech Fulbright visiting researcher for the academic year 2007-2008. He is a Ph.D. student at the Charles University in Prague, with degrees in Journalism and Media Studies. His studies of Linguistics/Phonetics and Translation/Interpretation Studies double major are also nearing completion. As a journalist, he has written on popular music, film and marketing. As a student and scholar in training, he has written theses on comics, time structures in narratives and video games. In his Ph.D. thesis he wants to focus on the subcultural meaning of video games and the relationship of content and activity.
Futures of Entertainment 3
This November, the Convergence Culture Consortium (in conjunction with CMS) will host the third Futures of Entertainment conference. An event which has proven increasingly popular over the past two years, the conference will once again bring together industry practitioners and academics to participate in extended discussions - while also encouraging attendees to really dig into the nuts and bolts of key issues. With panels discussing comic book adaptations, transmedia production, ways to value audiences, non-broadcast production forms and global distribution deals, as well as an opening session examining the gift economy - a way to understand the exchange of goods in non-monetary terms - FoE3 will once again serve as an engaging platform to examine evolving media practices. In response to the swift sell-out of last year's conference, we are moving from our traditional home in Bartos, to the larger Wong Auditorium, which will afford us more space. The event will be held on Friday and Saturday, November 21 and 22.
Gay Bombay: An Interview with Parmesh Shahani
Parmesh Shahani, a recent alum of the Comparative Media Studies Masters Program, now consulting for some of the leading magazines and media companies in India, has published an exciting new book, Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India. The book, which was adopted from his thesis, is a tour de force which manages to apply multiple modes of analysis -- ethnographic, historical, institutional, and autobiographical -- to explore a moment of change as his home country adjusts to what is at once an economic, a sexual, and a media revolution.
As one of his thesis advisors, I had a chance to watch this manuscript take shape as he learned how to balance the competing conceptual frames needed to understand and explicate this complex set of transitions. Some of the most compelling aspects of the book are the most confessional: Shahani draws on his own sexual experiences to offer insights into how people are living these changes through their bodies. It is a daring approach, especially given the recent history of homophobic backlash in India, but it also sheds insights that no more distanced writing could offer. In my classes, we read the manifesto introduction to Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture which talks about the importance of writing about "culture that sticks to your skin" and the value of first person perspectives for describing our experiences with popular culture. I recall his enthusiasm as we discussed this material and was happy to see him push this idea to the limits as he was writing his thesis.
So, I hope I can be forgiven a teacher's pride in seeing one of my students make good as I share with you this interview with Shahani about his book, about the place of gay culture in India, and about the methods behind his research.
You write, "Gay does not mean what it does in America, or in the west at large. They have creatively played with it, modified it, made it their own." So what does gay mean in an Indian context?
Homosexuality isn't an alien concept in India. A brief flashback. Ancient Indian texts from the Vedic period and the Kama Sutra all indicate that ancient Hinduism had place for a 'third sex'. Even pre- colonial India was generally tolerant, but things changed under British rule, and in 1861, the British legal system was imposed on to India as the Indian Penal Code. Section 377 of this code was an offshoot of the British 1860 anti sodomy law, and thus male same sex acts were criminalized. The British also collected, translated, rearranged and sometimes rewrote Indian history as part of their 'Orientalist' agenda during the two centuries of their rule and part of their rearrangement included eliminating or marginalizing all traces of positive same-sex references.
Flash forward to today. In contemporary urban India (My research was based solely within this context), while there is no guilt-based taboo against homosexuality, being gay has its own unique set of connotations and experiences because of the cultural and social structures, and family pressures that insist on conformity to traditional patriarchal, heteronormative values.
Family, social and community connections are the primary ties, and gay people do not want to let go of these at all. People hardly come out, and even if they do, they want to accommodate their gay identity within the established framework. In the west, if families are un- accepting, then gay men often move away and form separate communities but almost all the people I interviewed for the book who were living in India were adamant that they were very connected to their families and did not want to move away from them at all.
The second aspect is the institution of heterosexual marriage. It is almost like a compulsory stage of life, and for many gay people, this is the biggest challenge that they have to negotiate. Sometimes they manage to avoid it, but many times, they don't, which creates a whole new set of problems. The pressure to conform is even more intense when the gay person is effeminate and thus visibly marked different. Rebellion against this pressure can sometimes mean banishment but in most cases, the gay person is not thrown out, but pressured to change his ways in order to maintain the family honour.
The third aspect is the law. The Indian penal code continues to criminalize same sex behaviour, and this is really problematic in several ways - in terms of the limitations to health and safe sex outreach, in terms of the restrictions to same sex partnerships in terms of cohabitation and planning a life together, etc. At the same time, there are also so many global influences, whether it is the coverage of gay marriage in the US that gets reported on regularly in India, or films like Brokeback Mountain, or gay dance parties and so on.
When urban Indian gay men construct an idea of their gayness, they draw upon all of these different components and create an imagination with global influences but rooted very much in the local realities. I think that to be gay in Gay Bombay signifies being 'glocal'; and gayness here stands for Indianized gayness. So, one might dance in a Western style disco anywhere else in the world, but one can only munch on a post-dance jalebi sweet in India. The online-offline group Gay Bombay, around which my book is based, is certainly inspired by Western notions of what it means to be gay - its dance parties, PFLAG style meets, website, etc, have all drawn from Western experiences; but they have been customized, glocalized, and made uniquely Indian. For example, several support group meets take place around uniquely Indian festivals such as Holi (festival of colours) and Raksha Bandhan (which celebrates brother-sister love), and the festivals are appropriated to meet the needs of the group.
How are debates about how we label sexual identities tied up with concerns about
westernization and globalization?
Oh, they are very tied up. In fact, this is the main line of attack used whenever the discourse around homosexuality becomes too public, or too threatening. It seems that being gay is something that needs to be prevented from happening to the impressionable young men and women of the country! Right wing Hindu fundamentalist groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Brotherhood of Volunteers) are only too happy to jump on the "anti-Indian culture" bandwagon at any given time. I write in the book about how the current Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh was clearly flustered by a question about same sex marriages by a Canadian journalist and emphasized that these kinds of things were not appreciated in India. The lesbian themed movie Fire (1998) was deemed as an attack by "ultra westernized elite" on "the traditional set up" through "explicit lesbianism and other perversities" by the right-wing newspaper The Organizer.
Concerns about the negative impact of globalization are also expressed by certain
members of the gay community. The English speaking upper middle classes have largely been the beneficiaries of globalization (jobs, travel, media consumption, internet usage, etc.), but for the non-gay identified homosexuals from the working classes, life might have become harder.
Globalization is also viewed as a positive prism to promote the decriminalization of
homosexuality. This point of view wonders if it is right for a country that aspires to
be part of global scene to victimize its minorities. As the journalist Karan Thapar
writes in a recent Hindustan Times article, "by continuing to do so we make a mockery of our commitment to human rights leave aside all the Geneva conventions we have signed up to. So, for the sake of our democracy, this must be repealed."
On a lighter note, some of my interviewees, especially the older ones, were very
uncomfortable with what they felt were the Westernized aesthetics of the younger
generation. One of them was particularly dismayed at the younger lot's disdain for body hair and mustaches, something that he described as inherently Indian.
How are shifts in the status of gay people in India being represented in Indian popular culture, especially in Bollywood films?
I'm not at all satisfied with the way gay people are currently being represented in
Bollywood films. Given the number of gay people within the film industry itself, I'd
have liked that the representation be more nuanced! However there have certainly been
some shifts over the years and these give me hope there will be progress in future.
We should remember that Bollywood has a long tradition of having comic sequences or songs featuring cross-dressing male stars. For instance, Amitabh Bachchan in a sari in
1981's Laawaris (The Orphan), Rishi Kapoor in a dress in 1975's Rafoo Chakkar (The Runaways), Aamir Khan in a gown in 1995's Baazi (Game), and there are so many more
examples. Post the economic reforms of the 1990s, we begin to see the gay sidekick as a regular comic character in many Bollywood films, like Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke (Companions on the Road of Love, 1993), Raja Hindustani (Indian King, 1996) and Taal (Rhythm, 1999). These markedly effeminate, comic gay characters are ridiculed but also indulgently patronized by the protagonists, and effectively neutralized. Thus, the camp phenomenon Bobby Darling (who often plays himself in his on screen appearances) is teased and mocked in whatever film he is a part of, but his place in the youth gang is never in doubt. It is of course understood that he will never behave transgressively with the hero, coo over him or insinuate desire for him. He is accepted, despite being different, because his loyalty as a friend and overall integration into the master narrative overrule his effeminate behavior and implied homosexuality.
In recent years, the camp comic has been replaced in films like Page 3 (2004) and Let's Enjoy (2004) with the debauched, decadent gay designer, hitting on straight men with impunity for his own sexual gratification. I suppose all of this mirrors Hollywood and its initial portrayals of gay men as comic characters or villains. It is still very rare to find somewhat complex gay characters, as in films like Bombay Boys (1998) and Split Wide Open (1999). I want to point to three films that make me hopeful about change, and one trend that I believe is going to accelerate the process. These three films are 2003's Kal Ho Na Ho (If Tomorrow Does Not Come), 2005's My Brother Nikhil and 2007's Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.
In Kal Ho Na Ho, there is a funny 'gay' subplot between the two lead actors, played by stars Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, who form the two corners of the love triangle in the film, with actress Preity Zinta as the third. Shah Rukh and Saif's characters pretend to be gay throughout the film, much to the disapproval of Kantaben, the housekeeper. They constantly caress each other and spout double- entendre dialogue to shock old Kantaben, and they take us on the ride with them. It is not us, the viewers, but Kantaben who is old fashioned. Shah Rukh and Saif also camped it up with each other as emcees of the annual Filmfare Awards in 2004 (India's Oscar equivalent) - a show that was broadcast to millions of viewers over television. I find the casual breeziness with both these stars treat gayness, both on film as well as on stage, energizing. What's the big deal, they seem to suggest. Get over it. (The film, incidentally also featured a gay kiss between two white New Yorkers in one song sequence, and an overtly camp Indian wedding planner!)
You can read the rest of this interview at www.henryjenkins.org
Henry Jenkins is the co-Director of the MIT Program in Comparative Media Studies and Principal Investigator of the Convergence Culture Consortium. He is the author and/or editor of twelve books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Jenkins writes regularly about media and cultural change at his blog, henryjenkins.org.
Parmesh Shahani is based in Bombay, India, where he works on new media, venture capital and innovation for Mahindra & Mahindra and also serves as the Editorial Director of Verve magazine. He is also a research affiliate with the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. His prior work experiences have included founding India's first youth website, business development for Sony's Indian television channel operations, writing and editing copy for Elle magazine and the Times of India group, helping make a low-budget feature film and teaching as a visiting faculty member at a Bombay college. Parmesh holds undergraduate degrees in commerce and education from the University of Bombay, and a graduate degree in Comparative Media Studies, from MIT. His first book - Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India (New Delhi, London, Los Angeles, Singapore: Sage Publications) was released in April 2008.