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Think India Can’t Make Kickass Video Games? These Developers Will Prove You Wrong

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A demon sprints through a labyrinth of corridors and rooms, hacking away at waves of enemies. One enemy gets lucky and gets a killing blow – bringing the demon down. Or does it?

The demon reincarnates, this time with a whole new set of skills, ready to take down the next set of enemies.

You’d think this is one of the many stories from India’s rich mythology, but nope, this is actually Asura –  a video game by the Indian game development studio, Ogre Head Studios.

It has received positive reviews and generated a fair amount of buzz, receiving a ‘Very Positive’ rating on the widely used online marketplace Steam, where 85% of the reviewers rated the game favourably.

As a gamer, I was instantly attracted to Asura for its interesting game systems. But more importantly, for its setting and characters. It’s rare for games to be set in India. Rarer still for them to come from Indian development studios.

Not that India doesn’t have a gaming scene. Games like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive still remain quite popular and there is a growing market for e-sports. Yet, gaming still hasn’t found its way into the mainstream consciousness. Which means, for those who want to make games, the idea of developing games in India can be quite daunting.

Gameplay from Asura

But that didn’t stop 27-year-old Zainuddin Fahad, designer at Ogre Head Studios, from pursuing it. For him, it was all about passion: “I used to play a lot of games as a kid and [gaming] was a big part of my life,” he says, “and that’s how I ended up as a part of the games industry.” It was this love that drove him to quit his job at an art services company and establish his own studio. Easy accessibility to new software also made things easier.

Passion has been a common denominator for others too, with many describing a childhood spent playing video games as becoming a later push for their dreams. “One day, I was playing Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time and it just blew my mind,” says Vidhvat Madan, game developer at another Indian studio, QUICKTEQUILA. “I remember pointing at the screen, looking up at my dad holding the controller, I said, ‘I want to make that’.” He would later go on to become part of the team that made Lovely Planet, another Indian game that was received well internationally.

Gameplay from Unrest

For game designer Arvind Raja Yadav, of Pyrodactyl Studios (which made Unrest), the motivation was even simpler: “I started to make games I wanted to play.

Indian Culture In Video Games

As much as game development studios remain a niche in India, so does India within games as well. I still remember the excitement when I discovered a tiny bit of India in any of the video games I played – from the mythological figures in the Persona series to Arbaaz Mir, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed: India. It was an excitement that was only marked by how rarely it actually happened.

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India

Despite the abundance of games made in and about Asia, India and Indian culture/mythology rarely featured as a part of them. Gamers will remember the level in Hitman that was set in Amritsar and what looked uncannily like the Golden Temple (which was not without its fair share of controversy), or the depiction of Indian mythological figures such as Kali in Smite (again, controversial). But India isn’t a sum total of its gods and goddesses. What about everything else?

When we started [our] game, one of our mantras was that we have to put India on the map,” explains Avichal Singh. He, along with Shruti Ghosh and Ian Maude, formed Nodding Head Studios which is currently working on Raji: An Ancient Epic. Their game is now one of the first Indian games to be supported by Square Enix Collective, an initiative which helps promising independent developers promote their products. It’s a sign of recognition for Raji and hopefully, for Indian game development as well.

But making games in India still remains a difficult task, what with the exorbitant costs. Video game budgets have swollen over time and can often vary wildly. In 2014, gaming website Kotaku reported the cost of developing a big video game to be anywhere between $20 to $50 million and the 2014 sci-fi shooter Destiny made headlines for its supposed budget of $500 million dollars.

Finding a good team to pull together is also a difficult task. From art to game design to storytelling, a video game occupies that unique spot where it needs people from wildly different fields. As Avichal explains: “Our team has [members from] traditional arts background, graphic design and more…” And while Nodding Head Studios was lucky putting together a team which was equal parts talented and passionate about their project, most Indian developers aren’t so lucky.

Then, there is the larger concern of the viability of running a gaming enterprise. Says Diptoman Mukherjee from Zombies Indie House and Piranha Games, “Is the market Indian? I don’t think so, we don’t have a good track record of buying games. So the west is the market – where our mythology doesn’t have the advantage of familiarity, so it’s going to be a niche thing, unless the game and marketing backing it up is absolutely spectacular.

Apart from expense and accessibility, there is a trickier thing for developers to handle. What about censorship?

Are We Censoring Our Video Games?

In the past, well-known games like Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and Dragon Age: Inquisition had pre-emptively chosen to not release in India, citing ‘cultural sensitivities’ and ‘breach of local laws’. While none of these was banned by the Indian government, it showed a sense of caution from the sides of the publishers’, a caution not unfounded if you remember the reactions to the depiction of Kali in Smite.

Kali as she appears now in Smite

It’s possible that this (and more) is why Arvind Raja Yadav strikes a cautious note, when he says that, “Art works in an environment that is supportive. The current environment doesn’t support art.

Avichal Singh is aware of what happened with Smite and more recently, with the popular online shooter Overwatch (which depicted Indian character Symmetra dressed as Kali.) “It’s quite unfortunate… Smite had made Kali how she is. A garland of skeletons, a leopard skin skirt… that’s Kali to me. I don’t think anyone should dictate… who gets to define what is what.” he said.

Which is not to say that this isn’t a worry for the Raji team; as Avichal puts it, “We do take this as a concern. We’re not planning to have a beheading of gods or any sort of thing because we know it will start a controversy which is not required for the game.

Zainuddin Fahad shares Avichal’s concern, “We released a poster for our new expansion…and there were people contacting us and asking, ‘will this hurt sentiments?’” He, however, adds that it’s not something he sees as a major issue. “I have not seen anyone getting hurt because of Asura. It has not been a problem.

Which is actually great to hear, especially since censorship has been the watchword of the hour this past year.

The Future of The Indian Gaming Scene

Despite these very daunting obstacles, India is seeing a boom in mobile gaming, on account of being the world’s second-largest smartphone market (with 220 million users!). Mobile games are the go-to-plan for most Indian studios, especially as a chance for easy money and success.

This has been a major gripe for Mukherjee as well, as he explains: “While the big foreign studios (EA, Ubisoft, Zynga etc.) use Indian offices for mainly support work, our desi big studios just keep on making casino and social games. So the onus for good, original content falls on the indies – who often lack the resources.

Avichal Singh agrees, adding that while “there has been a lot of trend following, when it comes to the mobile games”, the Indian game development scene has matured, so that there are people who “are really making an effort to put a game better than their last game.

Vidhvat Madan breaks it down further: “If we want the world to see our games, we need to be making good games.” Video games often have a big impact on their home countries (unbelievable as it sounds). For example, The Witcher 3 is treated akin to a national treasure in Poland. With a culture as rich and deep as India’s, is it so unthinkable that something similar could happen here?

With more and more Indian developers gaining international recognition, it doesn’t seem that impossible anymore. Here’s to a brighter future for the Indian game developers (and gamers!) out there!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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