Mapping Sharing Networks and Cyber Corners in Informal Settlements
This is the third research note by Swati Janu, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2016.
I missed it the first time I passed by it. As if by Rowling magic, the game parlor appeared before me the second time I looked for it because this time I knew where to look, thanks to the two boys who enthusiastically kept pointing at it from their end of the street. One moment I am in the narrow, sunny lane of the Bhoomiheen camp in Govindpuri and the other, in a dark and dingy room filled with young boys exchanging expletives who are as surprised to find me in the midst of them as I am at first. After convincing them I am not lost, I am able to strike up a conversation with them on their favorite games. A young girl has trickled in after me, made curious by the presence of another female in the dark room usually occupied solely by boys. I talk to them over the sounds of frantic jabbing of push buttons and the experienced jostling of joysticks to find out more about video gaming parlors that have become obsolete over the last two decades in Delhi and today can be found only in informal settlements such as JJ clusters or slums.
The previous post looked at the different digital networks in informal settlements and in this one I look at their intersection with the social and spatial meshes within communities. By tracing the origin of video game usage in informal settlements, from the fabrication of game arcades in Lajpat Rai market to the few that remain in use today in Delhi, I draw the links between the older digital networks of video gaming and the latest ones created through smartphones. The digital realm within an informal settlement occupies its street corners, its communal and clandestine hubs and also creates unchartered connections that I map out further in this post.
Social and Spatial Networks of Digital Usage
I am in the Jagdamba Camp in South Delhi that came about in the 1970s when migrant workers building the Apeejay School settled along the drain behind the school. The whole slum, three to four floors high, is built over the drain and once you enter, the only way out is either backwards or forwards, from the other end. I am peering over the shoulders of a few young boys looking into a gaming parlor deep enough only to seat a player in front of a screen with an arcade controller. There are only two such systems on one side and a computer on the other and I find that the shop is being ‘manned’ by a young boy called Rajiv, who would not look much older than ten if not for the heavy gold chain around his neck. He tells me that the shop is owned by his older brother and has been around only for the last 6 years though there used to be a video parlor here a decade back too. With declining business, his brother had instead set up a cyber café only to convert it back into a game parlor as everyone in the settlement soon started accessing the internet over their phones and some also setup WiFi connections.
The video parlor is an amalgamation of the old and the new with LCD computer screens connected to game controllers through hard disks. A middle aged man, who tells me he is an auto driver, is surfing the internet on the computer there. Jagdamba is a small settlement and the kirana stores here do not provide top-ups, only coupons for small amounts of Rs 10-30. Rajiv’s shop is the only one here with a computer, providing downloads of media content such as films. While the video arcades at Bhumiheen Camp required only a one Rupee coin per game for their coin slots, here game coins or tokens need to be bought at the rate of 2 for five Rupees. Standing next to the store talking to the boys who are sitting in the doorways on the other side of the street which is only a metre wide or so, it feels as intimate as sitting in someone’s living room except for the steady stream of pedestrians and cyclists selling wares from bedsheets to home-made chips, cutting through.
On the left: Gaming parlor in Jagdamba camp
On the right: The scale of a typical street in a JJ cluster in Delhi, here in Sundernagri
Today, digital networks are carving out shared community spaces within the public domain of settlements such as Jagdamba and Govindpuri. Just as men sitting in groups and often playing cards typically occupy the community nodes and parks here, teenage boys can be now found on street corners or staircases, huddled over videos or listening to latest songs on mobile phones. Walking around these settlements, I have found kids playing carrom on street corners and hopscotch on streets, just as much as I have come across groups of kids (largely male) discussing the latest apps, mobile models and exchanging media content. These groups can be found in the streets late into the night, huddled over the light of their phones or within the aural space of shared music, the digital media creating immersive and intimate shared spaces here. These communal ‘cyber corners’ of data exchange and sharing can be found existing alongside the public network of phone stores for data purchase and the underground gaming parlors – closely connecting the dense communities.
New sharing networks are created between different demographics through the sharing of movies, video clips and songs facilitated through Bluetooth and more recently, apps such as SHAREit and Xender. For instance, older men often rely on the network of younger boys for access to pornographic content which they themselves may not feel comfortable buying from the local phone recharge stores or know how to download themselves. Commonly referred to as ‘bf’ for blue films, teenage and young males are considered common customers of pornographic content from phone stores that offer digital downloads of several 10-15 minute long movie clips sold for corresponding amounts of Rs 10 to 30. Many teens download such clips themselves, which they then might share with friends in proximity through SHAREit or online through Whatsapp for shorter clips with friends outside their neighborhood. There is often sharing of handsets within a family with the older brother owning the handset which his younger siblings might use or with the children using their father’s phone, and thus many resort to keeping separate memory cards for pornographic content.
Females, however, have to resort to a more private mobile usage that is regulated through the male members of their household, be it in the ownership of the phones or getting recharges from the local stores. Speaking to a group of teen girls sitting together in Sundernagri, some of them drawing henna prints while the others read, I learnt that none of them owned phones and that only their brothers or fathers did. Usage for them was limited to playing games or listening to songs on their male relatives’ phones and they did not use apps such as Facebook or Whatsapp. I have also come across several young women who do own phones as they are formally employed, but still they have to rely on their male relatives to get their phones recharged within the community as it is not considered socially appropriate for them to frequent the phone stores on their own.
Gaming Dens and Drugs
Lajpat Rai market in Old Delhi is the go to place for electronic goods and parts, being one of the oldest wholesale electronics markets in Delhi set up soon after Independence. Sundaram describes it as one of the three main media markets that form the urban network of digital pirate trade in Delhi. From CCTV cameras, music systems and television sets to mobile phones (genuine, second hand and duplicate), CD & DVD players and video games – all kinds of electronic items can be found in this market bustling with manufacturers, technicians, distributors, customers and loaders heaving cartfuls of new and recycled parts. It is here that all the arcades in use in the informal settlements of Delhi have been made and are repaired. Today it is only a handful of shops here that supply video game machines all over India – mostly in slums in urban centers, peri-urban areas and smaller towns.
The shop keepers told me that they have been selling video game hardware for over two decades now though business has reduced to a quarter of what it used to be, due to home video games that can be brought online and the spread of mobile usage. The cost of an arcade cabinet with all its parts is around Rs 15,000 today, half of what it was a decade back, with only one shop that fabricates the entire system today by assembling the parts inside the arcade cabinet. The other shops sell game controllers and consoles, PCBs (printed circuit boards), spare parts such as joysticks, buttons and cassettes or cartridges for the older system boards still in use in a few states, instead of the newer DVD or hard-disk based system boards that I have come across the slums in Delhi. While most of their customers are retailers for home-based video games, a few buy parts for arcade systems set up in the kind of parlors I have come across. These are found mostly in lower-income areas where people can’t buy personal sets, except for a rare order or two for more expensive arcade sets in malls for which many of the components used are of a superior quality and need to be imported.
msOn the left: Ready to be sold arcade cabinet
On the right: A video game cassette or cartridge used in the older system boards
It is from here that the matrix of the gaming parlors in low-income settlements originates, with possibly one such den in every slum. Young boys are hooked onto video games through the parlors, spending 5-10Rs every day after school or by bunking, much to the ire of their elders. This addiction to the older, more clandestine web of video gaming has been taken up by the newer circuits of mobile data addiction amongst teen boys whose data plans are dictated by affordability, access and addiction. Rangaswamy talks about the ‘digital lives’ of the teens in Hazeezpet, a slum in Hyderabad where one interviewee’s line ‘mental karta hai’ aptly summarizes this addiction. While video gaming offers an embodied digital space between virtual and material, a more dynamic version is created by mobile technology, providing freedom and privacy within dense areas constrained in resources.
The transition from video gaming to internet surfing is something Prakash, the owner of a cyber café in Navjeevan Camp in Govindpuri, is trying to bring for the kids of his neighborhood. With an open door letting in light and a shoe rack at the entrance, I can tell that his café which is filled with boys and girls playing games or watching Youtube videos on computers is different. Previously a gaming parlor, Prakash decided to convert it into a cyber café despite lowered profits in an attempt to create a better learning environment for the kids. He told me that he wanted to rid them of the addictive gaming culture and the bad influence from the profanities used. From the terrace of his three storey house, I can see all the roofs around and he begins to point out the various houses where smack or marijuana can be procured. He calls the area the centre of drugs in Delhi, tracing the network in air with a finger as the monsoon clouds begin to roll in. I see the colorful kites flying from a few of these terraces and try to imagine the digital web of cyber corners on the streets below.
The skyline of Navjeevan Camp in Govindpuri
 Term for squatter settlements in Delhi
 All names have been changed in the post
 See Sundaram, R. (2009). Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism (Routledge Studies in Asia’s Transformations). Routledge.
 Nehru Place and Palika Bazaar being the other two
 See Rangaswamy, N.; Yamsani, S. (2001). ‘Mental Kartha Hai’ or ‘Its Blowing my Mind – Evolution of the Mobile Internet in an Indian Slum (Proceedings of the 2001 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, American Anthropological Association). 285-298.
 Hindi for ‘makes me go crazy’