The mention of games brings to mind images of family gatherings – countless cousins huddled over a game board in the family drawing room and the most awkward visions of oneself.
They’re not exactly the tools that come to mind when someone says “dissent”. And yet, that’s exactly what New York based game designer, Nashra Balagamwala, has turned her games into.
Shortly after she began studying at the Rhode Island School of Design five years ago, Balagamwala turned her childhood love of game design into a career. Along the way she added projects for National Geographic and board game giants Hasbro Inc. to her resume.
Balagamwala often addresses complex cultural and social themes in her games. Five years into her journey and a list of her endeavours reads like a cascade of remarkably fearless projects.
For her most experimental ventures, she turned homeward. First, to document the dark comedy that is the nation’s political scene, and then to turn her own struggles into her magnum opus.
Granted, all the publicity hasn’t been positive. ‘Arranged!’ in particular, brought out the morality brigade
Paltering Politicians – laughing till it hurts
Morning show hosts may be selling their kidneys for ratings, but let’s face it, when it comes to reality television the nation looks no further than politics. “For a while now, all the horrible things that Pakistani politicians do have been bothering me,” says Nashra. But she also realised that despite the indignation, we are all quick to forget and, by default, forgive.
So, in a bid to “eternalise” the most notorious spectacles, she designed ‘Paltering Politicians’. A role playing game that provides an immersive experience – especially into the less savoury aspects of doing politics in Pakistan – it takes inspiration from ‘barking’ news madness
Like most of her projects, this is ultimately a light-hearted mask for a rather sombre topic.
“It is a game of moral dilemmas,” explains Balagamwala. For material in her games, she draws upon actual incidents that have been widely reported in the media, such as such as the issue of documents in Calibri font, a politician saying “corruption is our right” or the famous “a degree is a degree whether fake or real” line.
The look of the game screams Pakistan too. The ballot box, thumb-prints and the official-looking Pakistani logo all make their cameos. Of course, Balagamwala cleverly made some subtle changes to the logo. The floral silhouettes are replaced with their more menacing counterparts like guns and bombs, “to show what these politicians have done to our country that was formed on the basis of peace and purity.”
But the crux of the game is every politician’s dilemma. Players have to collect five tokens; these can be hero tokens or villain tokens. The villain’s route is easier, but your guilty conscience makes it difficult to take the easy way out – or so it is hoped!
The game ends when, one player proves to be either the saviour of Pakistan or its undoing. That’s right: either we’re all saved, or we lose everything! There is no middle-ground.
Arranged! Rishta Aunties Beware
Because the political climate wasn’t the only thing on her radar, Balagamwala’s next project has been sparking global debate about arranged marriages. Building on her own experience, the game revolves around three teenage girls and a ‘Rishta Aunty’. Again, it looks quintessentially Pakistani.
Over the course of the game, the most ridiculous realities of arranged marriages take centre-stage.
The matchmaker tries to get the girls married off to the would-be suitors scattered around the board. These include every cliche that women across the nation have had to deal with (and reject). Even the notorious list of “desirable characteristics” is included.
Taking a cue from the 24-year-old designer herself, the girls dodge the matchmaker by using excuses such as gaining weight, pursuing a career or wearing a fake engagement ring.
The game reaches a bizarre climax with the entry of the Golden Boy, that is, “the guy with the light skin, light hair, who studied abroad and has a foreign passport.” This is the guy that all the girls want.
The game ends when all the girls are married off. Interestingly, they can go ahead and actually choose someone for themselves. But the rules make it clear that this is a near impossibility.
When it comes to expressing dissent, Generation Y gets a bad rap. Allegedly, we spend our days locked to the computer screen: surfing social media and not getting anything of great consequence done.
But as Nashra’s journey proves, today’s most vibrant young minds can use the online world to start difficult conversations. She combines her talent with the very local panache for controversy and, in doing so, has appealed to Pakistanis everywhere.
Granted, all the publicity hasn’t been positive. ‘Arranged!’ in particular, brought out the morality brigade. But such is the nature of discourse. In Nashra Balagamwala’s entertaining and thought-provoking games, perhaps we’ve also found a new route to dissent.