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Why one developer believes that their game can make a difference in the lives of women and girls at risk in India.

Game Developer, Staff

August 25, 2017

6 Min Read

Leena Kejriwal is an Indian artist and activist who has spent the last fifteen years photographing, documenting, and working within the Red Light districts of her country. A staggering 42% of all sex-trafficking cases in India stem from a small section in West Bengal, and that is where Kejriwal has focused her efforts.

She has spent the better part of her lifetime documenting the kidnapping of women from small villages and their eventual sale into the world of prostitution -- and the society that keeps making this so financially successful that there is a promising career in India as an actual slaver.

That’s why Leena Kejriwal wanted to make a video game out of it. And she already did it once.

Missing: Game for a Cause was released as a slice of life that aimed to show a small sliver of what the experience of being an Indian woman under constant threat of kidnapping/sex trade could look and feel like. With her programer Satyajit Chakraborty, Kejriwal released a much smaller version of what she’s looking to create now. That original title was downloaded more than half-a-million times by mobile players. Now, the team wants to make real change happen on a much larger scale.

Missing: The Complete Saga is a dramatic expansion on the original, and there is some concern in these final days that it might be the source of its downfall. “We have support from a fraction of the gaming community,” Kejriwal tells me over Skype interview from her home in India. “We could use more. And I understand there is criticism that our video doesn’t show much of a finished product. So I’m asking people to take my word on it: my developer Satyajit does not promise anything that he cannot deliver.” Satyajit agrees with her. 

The premise of this much larger game, which the Kickstarter hopes to produce for only $50k, is a narrative that follows an Indian girl named Champa (an amalgamation of hundreds of similar girls the creator has known and profiled over the years). She is raised in a small village in the West Bengal region.Taking the form of an RPG with limited choices you can make during a period of time, you attempt to improve and expand Champa’s life and place within the community.

The threat of sex trade and slavery exists just around every corner, and the dread of being captured impacts your every choice. But even if your character is captured and sold off, the game doesn’t end there. You’re now working in the Red Light district of Calcutta and the world, and your development as a person, does not end there.

The opportunity to make a better life for yourself, or even escape, is still present. It’s bleak. It’s got a bizarre RPG level-up framing. It’s otherworldly in its approach. And I absolutely trust it.

There’s also a respect here for the victims of trafficking, as Kejriwal explains: “I took my game designers Satyajit to meet survivors, to the village where we work at the ground level where there are girls who are going missing... to meet a survivor and somebody who used to have to prostitute herself and now she can talk about her life after in the red light areas of Calcutta."

"I made [my designers] walk into red lights that they had never walked into before. It was very important for me that they understands the space that we were talking about – the innocence of the girls who fall prey to traffickers and the total frustration or the choicelessness of the girl within the red light. It was very important the game not be voyeuristic.”

Kejriwal also knows of what she speaks. The fifteen years of activism and art in this space has included a number of installation art pieces, including silhouettes of a woman’s journey through this dark world framed against the clouds. But there’s also a very direct target for these games: the community that enables this to occur.

It's a phenomenon also seen in the United States. From recent personal experience, travelling across America’s busiest highways means seeing a new nationwide campaign aimed at stopping sex trafficking by asking truck drivers to stop taking part in any kind of prostitution. You have to target the people who enable the trade to occur, and the people paying for the services. Likewise, Missing hopes to target the men and the community around the red light districts by making them aware of the implications of their actions.

“How do we convey a message without being preachy, in a game, in the first question,” Kejriwal explains. “You make it unconscious but you also make it implicit in creating empathy.” When I ask her developer how you bring men into this game, the discussion turns to a question of what makes the audience for this game download it in the first place. “It isn’t fun,” he tells me. “But it is engaging, and that engagement builds to create pressure within the experiences. You’ll take on all kinds of activities that I imagine players have never seen in a game before. Those activities start piling up and making life more difficult to manage while the looming threat of sex trafficking also builds -- not unlike a boss you know is hunting you. That’s the real life scenario.”

“Psychologists have tread this ground before us,” Kejriwal says, “and they think this will work. So do I.”

Beyond this, the team at Flying Robot Studios details plans for light combat based on how much self-defense you learn as a child and how the pathways of your life can open up different options for people you might fall in love with. It adds to the number of complicated game dynamics that the team may need to reign in before the final product, including the prediction that a single playthrough might take as long as six hours to complete. Additionally, as happens in the real world, the team says that one of the strangest twists comes from how connected you are to your friends and your family.

“Your best friend might get sold into the Red Light District,” Kejriwal says. “Many women will willingly follow a friend to protect them. That’s an option within this game too, to enter that world of your own free will, because that’s how this can play out.”

As someone who tries to check out every big idea that comes through Kickstarter games, this is in a class all its own, and the intentions and possibilities for creating actual change, from an activist who has created said change before, feels undeniably important.

If you're interested in contributing, you can check out the Kickstarter page now. 

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