Gaming the system: A Wknd interview with author Lavanya Lakshminarayan - Hindustan Times
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Gaming the system: A Wknd interview with author Lavanya Lakshminarayan

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Jun 07, 2024 10:13 PM IST

The 35-year-old is the second Indian to be nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award. ‘It’s all just a social experiment,’ the former game developer says.

Lavanya Lakshminarayan has always loved a good story. As a child, she carried a notebook around and scribbled in it, building fictional worlds about supernatural beings and people spirited away to magical realms.

Lavanya Lakshminarayan has been building imagined worlds for over a decade. In her first job, in 2011, she worked with California-based videogame developer Zynga, designing side quests in their games, fleshing out characters, and helping design plotlines and gameplay. PREMIUM
Lavanya Lakshminarayan has been building imagined worlds for over a decade. In her first job, in 2011, she worked with California-based videogame developer Zynga, designing side quests in their games, fleshing out characters, and helping design plotlines and gameplay.

She went on to study English literature at Christ University, Bengaluru, and that’s where she first encountered the work of Ursula K Le Guin, creator of genderless future worlds in which hope and goodness could be wielded like superpowers.

“She was so far ahead of her time, and just for that, she was an all-time inspiration,” Lakshminarayan says.

The 35-year-old now has a science-fiction work of her own that has been adjudged ahead of its time. Her debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief (published in India as Analog / Virtual: The Other Simulations of Your Future, by Hachette), has been shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, making her only the second Indian writer ever nominated. If she wins, she will be the second Indian to win; her predecessor on both counts was Amitav Ghosh, who won for The Calcutta Chromosome, in 1997.

“I still find it hard to believe,” Lakshminarayan says. “It took me several minutes and re-reads to believe the news when it broke. It has been rather surreal.”

Published in India in 2020, and then by Solaris Books for the US and UK in 2023, The Ten Percent Thief is set in a Bengaluru of the future. One of the few urban centres to survive an apocalypse, it has been renamed Apex City, and is now ruled by a corporation, via a technocratic caste system that ranks all individuals on a bell curve.

Technology isn’t just key to survival in Apex City, it is also a sort of socio-economic currency. Algorithms dispense justice and allocate resources. Failure to keep up with their targets results in banishment; one must then eke out a short-lived life in analog. Lakshminarayan’s heroine Nāyaka fails on some of these targets, and is given a taste of what this life would be like, as she is imprisoned in a dark cell. This is where we meet her, as the novel begins.

Lakshminarayan has been building imagined worlds for over a decade. In her first job, in 2011, she worked with California-based videogame developer Zynga, designing side quests in their games, fleshing out characters, and helping design plotlines and gameplay. Lakshminarayan went on to work on a series of Zynga games played via Facebook, including Farmville, Fishville, Mafia Wars and Vampire Wars.

Working closely with the art and technical teams, she drew satisfaction, she says, from seeing a story through from start to end. She believes these years contributed to her ability to make it through the gruelling, two-year process of writing her book.

“Ideas are easy. You may have a million of them. But sticking to one, from start to finish, and imposing a structure on the telling of that story, that is where gaming really helped me,” she says. “It taught me how to turn thought clouds into stories etched out on paper.” It also made her less afraid to take on a sweeping project with several moving parts.

***

Lakshminarayan’s novel The Ten Percent Thief was published in India as Analog / Virtual: The Other Simulations of Your Future.
Lakshminarayan’s novel The Ten Percent Thief was published in India as Analog / Virtual: The Other Simulations of Your Future.

What she hadn’t expected from gaming was an altered worldview. But she gained that too, as she watched how people played the games that she had helped build.

“All games are simulations. You give people a situation and set some rules, and you tell them that within these rules, they must solve this puzzle or find a solution within six minutes. I viewed gaming as a social experiment in some ways,” she says.

It struck her, at some point, that the real world worked a lot like this too. Isn’t it all just a social experiment? “If you look at the rules within which we function as a capitalist society, that’s gamified too, isn’t it? We’re told the steps we must take, promised certain rewards, told which assets to corner in order to be valued within our society. Warned of ‘obstacles’ and ‘enemies’ who might ‘distract us’ along the way.”

It dawned on her that reality and gamification had coalesced such that, even in our leisure time, we were accumulating, chasing, accruing — and doing as we were told. In a surreal case of wheels within wheels, the economy of infinite growth continued to make its demands. And gaming, of course, was just one example. There was also the infinite scroll; social media; the endless rows of items on the supermarket shelves.

In her imagined Apex City, individuals are compelled to stretch themselves thin to reach required productivity levels, which include virality in social-media posts. Falter for even a brief while, and one’s position on the bell curve slips. Slip far enough, and the dark prison cell beckons. There is no room in this world for you, if you cannot deliver.

***

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to go.

What autocracies, real or imagined, rarely account for is the human spirit.

Lakshminarayan says she was always surprised to see it rear its head, as the games she worked on were rolled out.

Players so rarely did exactly what they were expected to do, she says laughing. They scampered off on side quests of their own making. The reason videogames have so many pathways and multiple endings? It isn’t just for fun, or extended play. It’s partly because makers can’t really control how their maze is used, and they know it.

In her novel too, Nāyaka starts out afraid, intimidated, compliant. And then something else kicks in. Is it defiance, despair, a drive to know what else is out there? As in gaming and in the real world, it is hard to say. What is certain is that it fuels the plot.

Up next in Lakshminarayan’s own tale, is a lighter story. Her next book is about a budding chef who finds herself competing in the galaxy’s most-watched and most-prestigious cooking show. Interstellar MegaChef is due out by the end of the year.

“Seeing dystopian realities come to life with such urgency and immediacy in the pandemic made me want to take a break from mulling over all that,” she says. “I do mull over the politics of food, which is also disturbing in many ways. But I try to do that in a lighter manner in Interstellar MegaChef. It is a lighter book because I wanted a breath of fresh air. And because, eventually, it can help to see the world in a more positive light.”

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