It's pop culture's triumph when video games cease to be the domain of gaming enthusiasts and are extended to serve as a narrative of artistic expression. Imagine this: a game that uses the Bengal Famine as a backdrop, where Rhitwik Ghatak appears to interpret ideologues to the protagonist. Chances are that you are more likely to put your money into it than Grand Theft Auto 5.
That’s artist Akshay Raj Singh Rathore’s The Encyclopedia of Minor Conflicts for you. Part of a project based on conflicts that riddle an agrarian society, Rathore's game came out of a five-week residency on gaming, Of Games, by Delhi's KHOJ Studios. The residency that started in mid-June was curated by Prayan Abhinav, and sought “to explore gaming as a new medium of creativity”.
Based on three levels, the game proceeds from the countryside to an urban space, engages the player as a farmer who moves across the levels by performing various tasks, like providing food grains to needy farmers, confronting greedy warlords and exploring an eventual urban space.
Rathore says he distilled the game “from inherent ideas of exploitation deeply ingrained in Indian agriculture.”
"Conflicts play out in the background, refreshing our memories about events at that crucial point leading to the Bengal Famine. My game is an archive of these minor conflicts,” he says.
Rathore, who comes from a farming community in Madhya Pradesh, uses agriculture as a recurring theme in most of his works. For instance, in Rai ka Pahad (2010), he uses mustard seeds to build a floating organic mountain as a sign of immutability.
Filmmaker Rhitwik Ghatak's appeal amongst West Bengal's communists is legendary. To employ someone like the late Ghatak, as a “bedazzled, deeply introspective” interlocutor is to reinforce an altogether new trope on the famed rural-urban conflict of the state.
“Remember, famine was man-made and avoidable. When you explore history through gaming,
you can push certain parameters and see how the story plays out. What's better, you can also employ it as a teaching tool to re-enact the period to disinterested school-children,” says gaming academic Souvik Mukherjee.
"Rathore's Minor Conflicts is treading a path that few in the gaming world have. Games likes these — games of the dispossessed and the oppressed — are just a handful. Cloud (developed by University of Southern California's Interactive Media Program, has a patient in a sanatorium staring from a window into clouds to eventually become one), Flower (a game where by selecting a flower in a pot on a city apartment windowsill the player is taken to the dream of that flower) and Omerta: City of Gangsters (a simulation game) are games that have ventured into that space,” adds Mukherjee.
Pooja Sood, director at KHOJ believes that now is a great time to engage in the medium. “There is a fair amount of pop culture relevance in gaming, apart from it being an important methodology.
Works of many artists, too, fit into the medium.”