Meghna Jayant Changes The Narrative

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If you ask narrative designer and writer Meghna Jayanth, the apocalypse has already arrived. The “darkest timeline” has arrived now, and it is driven by two forces: capitalism and colonialism. During her ten years in the gaming industry, Jayant, a British-Indian immigrant, became known for covering the aftermath of British colonialism, as well as for her award-winning work on games such as 80 Days by Inkle and Horizon: Zero Dawn by Guerilla Games. . As a British-Indian immigrant, studying colonialism and capitalism, two inextricably linked concepts, became an act of self-discovery for Jayant, and now working with it has become a natural part of her work and life.

“Now we live in the era of the late stage of capitalism. We are experiencing an apocalypse with complex systems that are often difficult to understand, fail us,” she says. But Jayanth is not going to give up.

Jayanth grew up between the UK and India, which led to her feeling like a “foreigner in both houses” despite loving both — a common feeling among immigrant children. Being the only one among her friends in Bangalore who has a gaming console, she realized early on that gaming is a privilege that many cannot afford, and the huge investment required is one of the reasons why she now calls video games potentially the most capitalistic occupation. .

But what are capitalism and colonialism and how are they related? Under capitalism, private individuals own the machines and tools necessary to produce goods, and they hire workers and pay them to use their machines. Colonialism describes an era that began in the 15th century, when Western civilizations forcibly occupied different countries and imposed their values on people already living there. You can see that in both cases a small number of people decide for many, and in both cases this small number of people will probably put their interests first. Capitalism-colonialism almost always leads to the marginalization of people of color, because the privilege established by colonialism continues to live in capitalism. The Powers that colonized large parts of the world retained this power.

Capitalism cares about maintaining the status quo, constantly making demands on our time. Breaking this could free up these resources and create space for people from these traditionally marginalized groups to survive and thrive.

Jayanth gave several talks on capitalism-colonialism and, in particular, on the white protagonist, for example, at the Indian branch of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) in 2021, drawing attention to the many ways in which white male creatives and colonialism shaped the gaming industry. from the idea that violence and conquest are a form of entertainment, to the predominant expression of Western cultural values, up to the racial composition of the industry itself.

“When we continue to play the same games and build the common canon that we have, we keep all the components of colonization.”

This is a complex, extensive topic, but Jayanth, a fascinating speaker, talks about it with her usual optimism, drinking, by her own admission, too many cups of coffee and blowing cigarette smoke directly into the camera while we speak remotely.

“In particular, the gaming industry is defined by Anglo-American forces,” explains Jayanth. “There are gatekeepers for creative work, who receives funding, how it is distributed and who is considered a reliable pair of hands. These people are becoming more powerful as [the industry] also consolidates more and more,” she says, referring to large—scale acquisitions of companies such as Embracer Group or Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision-Blizzard. “Few teams do the work that interests me, they have different goals or themes or even representation in the team, what do you need to tell a South Asian immigrant story.”

 

By telling these stories of immigrants from South Asia, Jayanth wants not only to offer a point of view different from most games, mostly created by English-speaking and European teams, she also wants to broaden the horizons of her colleagues and players. Her efforts to decolonize narratives are evident from Jayanta’s very first publicly available game, the interactive fantasy game Samsara, which she created on the StoryNexus platform from Failbetter Games. Samsara combines fiction with warnings about colonization, as does 80 Days, Jayanth’s first paid job in the gaming industry. The novel “80 Days” decolonizes Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in 80 Days”, turning it from a narrative glorifying British imperialism into a journey in which different cultures are not depicted as conquered by the British.

Jayanth is currently working as a narrative designer on Thirsty Suits as part of the minority-run Outerloop Games studio. Thirsty Suits tells the story of Jala, a South Asian woman who returns to Washington to mend her strained relationships with her family and exes using the power of food, socializing and fistfights.

“We want a variety of players to play our game, but it’s like we invite them into our house — take off your shoes at the door, come visit, we invite you into our culture,” she says. . “I think that in 80 Days we have already changed the story of a white British man visiting the colonies by looking at the player as a tourist. But what is possible changes completely when you rethink who the player is — this idea that we are developing and basing the industry on this idea of a model white player who enters the world to take things is a toxic concept, and it’s not. It doesn’t reflect the reality of who is actually playing games.”

Although Jayanth has previously worked with Outerloop Games on the anticolonial Falcon Age simulator, she sees the experience of working on Thirsty Suits as completely different — as a game published by Annapurna Interactive, publisher of games such as Stray’s Cat Adventures, the mystery of the Twelve Time loop. Minutes and a walking simulator of What Remains of Edith Finch, it’s on what she describes as the “more mainstream end of indie,” which has resulted in the largest diverse team Jayant has worked with to date and significant media attention.

“I think at the heart of every game is teaching players how to play.

“I wish there were more such studios. I would like to see more minority representatives in these leadership positions,” she says. — I think I can speak on behalf of the team and say that none of us expected such a feeling: “Oh, we are doing a brown game, we are better.” be good” — because suddenly the burden of representation falls on you. Suddenly you need to prove that brown games can sell.”

Jayanth again emphasizes that if the Anglo-American culture does not prevail in the game, it does not mean that it is not designed with all the requirements in mind. “Games are like a social contract, right? This game space is actually a dialogue between us, the designers, and the players when we give the players feedback on how to play your game. I think every game, in fact, teaches players how to play,” she says.

Jayanth immediately agrees with the assumption that this is fundamentally similar to the development of accessible games. “The rights of disabled people are fully consistent with what we are talking about in terms of representation, inclusivity and racial justice, especially within capitalism. We all want to fight the narrow view of a particular player who is welcome in this space.”

The struggle for diversity and against racial, economic and gender inequality, whether it’s public speaking or simply existing in the gaming industry as a minority, is often difficult and can mean uncomfortable conversations with those who cannot see their own privileges. But Jayanth, as far as she knows, it is also a privilege to start such a conversation without fear of consequences such as losing her job. Instead, she focuses on the deep joy that she believes these efforts can bring to people.

“Bell Hooks talks about marginalization not as a place of sacrifice, but as a place of strength,” she explains. “And if we think about marginalized people, colonized people, immigrants over the centuries, we learned to survive in a hostile environment, in places that didn’t want to hear our voice; that didn’t want to respect our bodies, minds, souls, ideas, thoughts. I want to help someone not because we are victims who need to be saved, but in fact [because] this is a collective liberation project. If we’re going to get out of this, we have to do it together.”

“We are experiencing an apocalypse with complex systems that are often difficult to understand, let us down”

“It” is a gaming industry shaped by capitalism-colonialism and its ideas. According to Jayant, anyone who thinks outside of this “narrow circle of experience” can make games and the gaming industry as a whole better. As an example, she uses Sable from the Shedworks studio in North London, consisting of two people.

Sable is the story of a young woman who goes on a pilgrimage to explore the world and help others; she ultimately decides which clan she wants to belong to, although the final decision—if she chooses at all- remains with the player. He was originally introduced as “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild without a Fight”, which already represented a significant risk, since at the time of Sable’s conception, games still mainly wanted you to fight with opponents – although, of course, there are exceptions, some of the most popular games of 2017, including Horizon: Zero Dawn, Cuphead and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, there is a violent conflict. But Sable is more than a lack of fighting. He represents a world that does not revolve around the player, and offers emotional, not monetary rewards for good deeds.

Although Shedworks founders Gregorius Kitreotis and Daniel Feinberg both worked in the gaming industry for many years before founding their own studio, both drew inspiration from outside the industry, such as the art of French artist Jean Giraud (Mobius), Studio Ghibli films and Kitreotis’ architectural background.

“Greg and Dan both have an artistic education. I think that in our industry, so isolated and isolated, it is very important to look for inspiration outside of it and come from different traditions of critical thinking, knowledge and approaches to the world,” she says.

So what does Jayanth think about the emergence of “useful games”? Useful games — a term coined by the Twitter account of the same name, which has turned into a well-known online community — are usually nonviolent, colorful and compassionate — all words that can be applied to Sable or even to 80 Days.

“I think that useful games deserve attention and, of course, are a kind of counter—reaction to the broader cultural orientation of the industry,” says Jayant. “In addition, since it became especially popular during the pandemic [the twitter of Wholesome Games was founded in February 2019], it was very pleasant for many people to just immerse themselves in this very beautiful, fantastic world in which the stakes were quite low. away. It’s not something that interests me personally, which is funny, because people sometimes talk about my work as useful. I think of it as joyful and hopeful, not healthy.”

Similarly, Jayanth doesn’t like remakes, no matter how beloved the series may be, because instead of perpetuating games with colonial-capitalist themes, she wants the industry to invest in new voices and ideas.

“I think it’s such hubris and arrogance to say, ‘Oh, we’ve already done all the innovations,'” she says. “We are such a young industry and we have explored such a tiny part of this space of opportunity. So why are we so obsessed with looking back and recreating?”
However, Jayant admits that the urge to recreate is fueled by the gaming industry itself.

“We want a variety of players to play our game, but we kind of invite them to our house — take off your shoes at the door, come visit.”

Sable is an example of a very successful experiment, but it is difficult for many developers trying to create an alternative to well—established games to find funding. This is the fate befell Vodeo Games studio, wholly owned by workers, which announced in September that it was closing its doors because it could not secure funding for its next game.

“We are a new industry and it is difficult to make everything work and take creative risks in a cautious environment where you need to present a vertical slice and you need to unlock the next part of the financing. All this is much easier if you have already established yourself as a reliable assistant,” says Jayanth. “But risk reduction is not a creative strategy, you know? And I think if you watch the movies right now, you’ll see a clear example of risk reduction that stifles creative practice,” she adds, referring to Hollywood’s penchant for remakes and sequels. “I think it’s likely that the gaming industry will go down this path if we’re not careful.”

Wanting to encourage rather than discourage, Jayanth immediately gives a positive example of how things can look when independent creators have successfully proven themselves.

“So, I recently played Immortality. I think it’s so brilliant, and so wonderful to see how Sam [Barlow’s] work has evolved from ‘Her Story,'” she says. “This is such an object lesson of how to actually do something new. You want to be able to repeat it several times, learn and grow, and not start from scratch every time. And that’s how the industry and the environment move forward.”

When asked if adherence to the requirements of a capitalist system, such as the requirements of a game publisher, ever disappoints, speaking out against such structures, Jayanth gives a clear answer: “Historically, art was created in spite of and in collusion with capital – this is not new, but I really think there is something particularly intense in the gaming industry. because it is a laboratory of technological breakthroughs and capitalist “innovations” that then seep into other sectors.”

By other sectors, Jayanth means efforts such as job gamification or the historically unstable boundary between military technology and video games that influence each other, one well-known example is the use of game controllers to pilot drones.
“However, recognizing the structural forces at work in the gaming industry, including capitalism, is part of surviving in it, especially as a marginalized person or designer engaged in anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist design.”

“We are such a young industry and we have explored such a tiny part of this space of opportunity. So why are we so obsessed with looking back and recreating?”

Jayanth notes that games and other art forms are always a reflection not only of their creators, but also of the state of the world. In the current political climate in large parts of the world, people are increasingly aware of the forces of capitalism and are beginning to reject them. This is manifested in the widespread rejection of NFT and blockchain-based games, even when the market itself is growing.

“I think games are based on understanding systems, structures and creating opportunities for people,” she tells me. “I think there is a place here to understand what the world is: to see its real and true reflection in games. I am also deeply concerned about the future of the industry in the sense of leisure financialization — you see this with NFT, exploitative practices and games as a service: pay to earn, and all that.”

To combat these systems, Jayanth suggests treating games not as a capitalist space associated with the sale and purchase of goods, but as a community that treats its players as people, not as customers. “As designers, especially those of us who somehow pretend to be artists, we have to think of ourselves as collaborating with our players and colleagues against these structures, dark algorithms and forces of exploitation,” she says. “A lot of what we think about design, the game, what a game is, what the mechanics of progress are, is imbued with this way of thinking.”

What might help is to raise awareness of such practices — Jayanth mentions the recently released book You’ve Been Played by Six for founder and CEO Adrian Hone as a resource. However, the question of whether the gaming industry and the world as a whole can be a place free from capitalism-colonialism may come down to something that sounds as simple in theory as it is difficult in practice, to foster empathy and community.

“We really need to develop a real sense of community,” she says. “And what capitalism is doing is constantly giving us false pleasures, sometimes material pleasures, instead of what we really need. Every effort in this regard matters.”

“I am also deeply concerned about the future of the industry in terms of leisure financialization.”

Jayanth stresses that now is probably the best time to do this, during this apocalypse, which is the late stage of capitalism. The egregious consequences of capitalism are now evident in what even casual observers are beginning to realize, for example, when you compare the cost-of-living crisis with the profits of energy companies, or how young people and advanced Covid workers are increasingly refusing to buy a house in the UK. At a time when the UK has opened “warm banks”, warm places where people who cannot afford to heat their homes can spend time, it is becoming increasingly difficult for many to understand why taxes should be reduced for the richest.

The gaming industry, itself still predominantly young, white and male, needs voices like Jayanth if it does not want to remain another space in which the privileged few decide for the many, more interested in endless growth than in providing experiences to people around the world. the world can identify itself with.

“As a narrative designer, I spend a lot of time creating worlds and thinking about our world. Now we live in a capitalist-colonial dystopia, and I have nothing more to say about it. The real world speaks for itself, even to the point of satire, so I would prefer to put things in the world that contradict this and in which there is some humanity, because this is what is being destroyed in the world right now.”

As one of the leading advocates of the fight against capitalism in games, Meghna Jayanth is actively experiencing the changes she wants to see in the gaming industry, using her work and her platform to raise awareness, as well as to give herself what she lacks in games. . In an industry that is often fixated on sales figures, where the crisis and the mistreatment of workers are a sad reality for many, it’s nice to hear that someone cares about both players and employees as real people who need alternatives to systems that do not serve them.

Does Jayanth ever get tired of fighting? She smiles.

“I have to feel good about my contribution and not feel like I failed because it didn’t go as far as I would have liked. That’s how you also live to fight another day. It’s okay to just be. Both in games and in real life. Our survival and well—being is something we have to cherish and protect, because the industry won’t do it for you.”

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