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How one dev aims to thwart arranged marriages through game design

Returning to Pakistan after her H1B visa expired, designer Nashra Balagamwala aims to release her board game Arranged! to both raise awareness of arranged marriages -- and help her avoid one herself.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

August 16, 2017

5 Min Read

Nashra Balagamwala has been making games since she was a child in Pakistan, mixing and matching bits of different board games in a cousin's basement to create her own.

Now in her 20s, Balagamwala has designed a new game that addresses her fears about being pushed out of her budding career as a game designer and into an arranged marriage.

In a conversation with Gamasutra earlier this month (reprinted below, in condensed form) Balagamwala explained that the fittingly-titled Arranged! was designed explicitly to take advantage of tabletop game strengths: it's meant to be approachable and streamlined, colorful enough to engage a group of people but simple enough that they can comfortably chat with each other while playing.

It's an interesting look at how a game designer can capitalize on the strengths of something like a Monopoly or a Game of Life, apt comparisons given Balagamwala is wrapping up game design work at Hasbro this month to return home to Pakistan.

Her H1B work visa has expired, and she's hoping that Arranged! (which went up on Kickstarter last week and quickly surpassed its funding goal) can both get people talking about the contemporary realities of arranged marriages and give her the resources to avoid one herself.

Where did the idea for Arranged! come from?

Balagamwala: Coming from an extremely conservative South Asian family, the expectation was always that I’d get married at a young age and be a housewife. I was never one to conform to the ideals of that society, however i watched all my friends get married to strangers and accept it as their fate. I felt the need to raise awareness about how big of a problem it was and to get people to talk about it.

Being extremely playful and a board game geek in nature, I masked the seriousness of this topic by turning it into a lighthearted game. Using inspiration from my own life, I made a game that involves coming up with creative ways to avoid an arranged marriage.

What does your game design process look like?

Every game begins with multiple paper prototypes, and this was no different. 

I wanted to highlight all the problems with the society, such as skin whitening, secret boyfriends and dowries, so I started coming up with a list of everything that I found disturbing. Once I’d listed all of those out, I worked towards the gameplay: it involves a matchmaker trying to get you married off to any and every boy she can find, while you try to run away from her -- and a loveless marriage.

You can do so by talking about having a career, gaining weight, being seen in the mall with boys, or several other things that every other society would consider normal, but are seen as disgraceful in South Asian culture. So as you start to play, it seems like it's all fun and games, but it really gets you thinking about how messed up these social norms are.

The biggest challenge was to create something that could be understood by both, an Eastern and Western audience. Sure, it’s very easy to include examples from Pakistani culture, but I had to make sure the ideas weren’t so foreign that no one else would be able to play the game.

Through playtesting with people from all over the world, I narrowed it down to ideas that were both hard-hitting as well as internationally understandable.

How did you balance Arranged! to be both interesting and approachable?

I did so by making it more of a party game rather than a strategy game. The game mechanics are extremely easy to understand, so it can be played in a social gathering.  The content of the cards is what makes it very interesting and provides the players with a platform to discuss the issue present. 

Your work has gone beyond game design to encompass general design, illustration, and other mediums. So why express your feelings on this subject through game design as opposed to, say, a novel or a song?

While a novel or a song may be great, they’re not interactive experiences. People can read novels and listen to songs on their own time, and then may or may not talk about it. A board game requires everyone to be present at the same time and experience it together, and is therefore more of a conversation starter.

I’m also a lover of board games, so it felt like the most natural method.

Have you gotten any significant pushback on this from anyone? 

I’ve had Western playtesters confused about some of the cards, and with their feedback I’ve modified it to be universally understandable.

In terms of family and friends from Pakistan, they were initially fairly skeptical, since no one wants their negative traits highlighted. However, after they all had a good time playing it, they changed their minds and have asked me when it’ll be available for purchase.

Right, you mentioned that you left Pakistan to avoid being pushed into an arranged marriage and are now afraid you'll be pushed into one again. Forgive my ignorance, but if your family has played Arranged!, don't they understand why you don't want one?

I grew up in a very conservative Pakistani family, where the expectation was to get married at a young age.

"Women don't and shouldn't work" is something I grew up hearing. I had to meet multiple suitors, and I found it to be an extremely unnatural way of finding a spouse. 

I do think my family has become more liberal over the past couple of years, especially because they know I'm extremely stubborn and will do whatever I want; however, the societal pressure of getting married still remains. So even though I may not be "forced", there will be a lot of pressure to get married and fighting it off is extremely mentally draining.

So with Arranged! successfully funded, what impact do you hope your work will have?

In terms of my own situation, I hope to be able to earn enough to be independent even when I do go back to Pakistan, so that I always have my way out of the society if I’m ever forced into an arranged marriage.

I also hope that it'll encourage other girls from the same culture to be able to pursue things such as an education, a career, or a love marriage.

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