• Indie Video Games, Women Gamers and Feminism

    The discussions and debates regarding the nexus between the gaming industry and gender-related issues have been gaining popularity since some years now. Some of the most common issues being the ratio of women gamers to men gamers, the representation (or lack thereof) of women characters in games, the freedom (or not) to choose a protagonist as somebody other than a male, women game developers and so on.

    Rahul Sehgal, a game design teacher, an indie game developer and founder at Roach Interactive, feels that the state of gaming scenario in India with respect to female gamers and female protagonists is rather dismal. “As a proportion, female gamers (the hardcore kind, not casual mobile game players) are very rare. When it comes to female protagonists, the number is even worse.” In a bid to try and change the scenario, he has designed a game called ‘Bird of Light‘. He believes that his game ‘is the first ever game made in India with a solo female lead.’

    I asked Rahul about his reason behind choosing the set-up of a farm, he said, “A very important part of the game’s story revolves around the relationship between humans and animals. I wouldn’t like to say more, as the story and theme are a bit abstract and hopefully as non-judgemental as possible, but it would have been possible only on a farm. Also, Tara is a loner. She could never really make any human friends.”

    Also read: The perils of video gaming sexism

    I then probed further to know about his inspiration for designing such a game. He thinks that “It has to do with the fact that my (sic) first-born is a girl. When she was born, the stakes became very personal. This was the world that my little girl would live in, and at some level I (sic) realised that I had to do something tangible apart from merely being indignant on Facebook. I (sic) wanted to tell a video game story from a girl’s point of view, because that is a voice that is almost never heard.”

    Here, it is necessary to flag that an introspection on the problems with this discourse of, ‘I Became A Feminist The Day I Became A Father‘, is a task for another day!

    In terms of the response towards the game so far, Rahul says that “We (sic) were aware that it was going to be a struggle to market an action game without gratuitous violence and a female protagonist, so we (sic) needed the gameplay to be rock-solid. Nobody buys a game if it’s not fun and interesting. We took two years to make, test, polish, repeat. On release, as expected, the mainstream game media has ignored a game that fails to fall into any of their slots, but smaller sites have given Bird of Light a standing ovation, as have the small (but increasing) number of players.” He believes that this is a very interesting review by a woman gamer and how she was able to relate to his experiences.

    Rahul adds that, “While it isn’t possible to find out the age and gender of players, we do know that the game is being played and enjoyed by mostly young male players that are ‘really pleasantly surprised’ that a game that looks like this can be so fun and challenging. The point of making this game was to show the usual male-dominated game audience that they won’t be emasculated by playing as a little red-haired girl.”

    After getting the developer’s view, I talked to some of the people who are gamers or video game enthusiasts, in some way or the other and asked them what they felt about the trailer of ‘Bird of Light’. Almost everybody unanimously agreed to the graphics of the game being ‘cute’ and the look of the game being largely like that of a ‘kids’ game.’ But, out of all the reviews, two of them were particularly interesting.

    Neha Mathews, a writer based in Mumbai, shared with me her thoughts about the game’s trailer and some of her other thoughts about the game’s intention to be the carrier of a social message. She began by negating the claim that ‘Bird of Light’ is the first video game in India with a female protagonist and added that there was a game called Anaksha released in 2011, which revolved around a female vigilante. However, she commended the developers for fighting against odds to keep a female protagonist and not including a gender option.

    “It’s amazing to think that a little girl can now play a game with a female protagonist that isn’t about dressing up; it’s kind of like Dora that way?”

    But, she expressed her reservations as to why she’s Caucasian! She pointedly asked, “Do publishers get angtsy about brown characters?” Also, after reading the review of the game at Woodbangers Entertainment, she says,

    “It’s hilarious that the review of the game talks about how heartening it is to see a character break out of gender stereotypes while the wallpaper of the review website features images of up-skirt shots and impossible boobs.”

    Also read: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…It’s an American Muslim Superheroine!

    Other than that, she rubbished the developer’s point when he says that the protagonist isn’t hyper-sexualised. She says, “It seems super strange to talk about it not being violent or her not being hyper-sexualised. She’s an 8 year old girl and this is a children’s runner game (at least it seems like it?) and thankfully the vilest video games don’t show ‘sexualised’ 8 year olds.”

    She interjected to add a personal comment, “I get very, very annoyed when people half-assedly talk about the Delhi gang rape as a reason for them creating a project or pretending that their project has ‘a message about the girls in India one day being able to run free’. This game existing despite the odds IS a message in itself but a red head running through a farm is hardly relating a message, no?”

    She then exclaimed “Okay, cynicism over!” and expressed how she finds the graphics to be super cute and how some stills seem like illustrations from a children’s book. She added that it’s quite well done for a runner game and “It does indeed look like it’s more fit for mobile but to be fair, I don’t think any kid would mind playing this on their PC.”

    Rahul wrote about his game on Gamasutra where he said, “The Universe has helped; I’ll give it that. Strangers from across the world appeared, willing to collaborate with us for little or no money. A Romanian composer agreed to do the music. A schoolboy from the Czech Republic who happened to be a video editing wizard, made the trailer. There is a stunning nobility to the community of independent video game developers across the world, connected intimately via social media, cooperatively creating fantastic content.” Neha shared how this was an absolutely delightful feeling and she thinks that it is a great step ahead for indie games that lack big publishers.

    In yet another post on Gamasutra, Rahul wrote a piece about his game where he shared that, “The boys in my class showed a flicker of apprehension when shown the game character for the first time that evaporated quickly as the gameplay started; in a short while, the gender of the protagonist was forgotten as they immersed themselves in solving puzzles and running around the game world.”

    This, Neha exclaimed, was a fantastic thing to read. She concluded by saying,

    “More than anything, I think (the most important thing to be noted here is) how the publishers were so against a female character. We don’t have good focus group testing in India and I personally think most decisions about children target groups are made by middle-aged men assuming little boys wouldn’t play as girls whereas the boys themselves couldn’t give two shits, they just want to play a fun game.”

    Next, I would like to quote Sahil Rastogi, an engineering student and a hardcore gamer. At the onset, he shared how ‘Bird of Light’ looks more or less on the lines of Subway Surfers and Temple Run, both of them having the option of a female protagonist. He added that there are a lot of games which have a female protagonist (admittedly not Indian though), plus there are a lot of role playing games as well, where you can design your own characters, the way you want them. He also shared that now the bigger games like FIFA also allow you to play with a women’s team.

    Also read: Feature Video: Let girls play again, make public spaces safe

    “Having said that, the gender of the protagonist does not concern me personally. The story should be gripping and the game should be challenging enough.”

    He then added, “As far as this particular game is considered, I hope there are some pre-designed levels, because it needs to be interesting and fun enough to make someone design their own levels.” After which he said that the only way to show that a particular game is fun is to have the option of pre-designed levels. And he finally concluded by saying that the rest can of course be inferred only after he has played the game.

    After incorporating the views of the people I talked to, I believe that till the time criticism is meant to be constructive, having such discussions seems like a promising step ahead, precisely because we have at least started having these discussions in India. To keep these discussions going, we would love to have reviews about this from our readers who are into gaming. You can also connect to Rahul Sehgal directly at rahul@roach-interactive.com.

    About the Writer: Adishi Gupta

    Student and lover of English Literature. The latter because it lets me chase the imaginations of my mind and adds a spark of resonance in my life. Constantly chewing on new ideas that hit me, I am fidgety about knowing the depth of them. My people, music and food get me going. A feminist envisioning a society sans gender bias, without necessarily burning bras or abusing men. *yes, as opposed to popular opinion*

    Originally published on Feminism in India and re-published here with their permission.

    Feature Image Credit: digitallydownloaded.net