Writing Games to Test the Waters of My Identity

This year’s Nebula Awards included an inaugural category for Outstanding Game Writing, honoring storytelling in games. The new award was presented by Ajit George, the Director of Operations for the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, a non-profit school program that includes gaming as an educational tool. His speech highlights the unique ways gaming gave him a space to explore his Indian heritage, as well as helping him develop a deeper empathy for others, which in turn has enhanced his work as an educator.

The speech was given at the 2018 Nebula Awards, which were held from May 16th-19th, 2019 in Woodland Hills, California.


 

I am honored to be presenting the inaugural Nebula for Outstanding Game Writing. It represents a conversion of two powerful forces in my life: literature and games. Because it is the very first year of the historic award I’d like to take a minute to speak about why it’s so important.

I am the first member of my family born in the United States. Growing up I was the only brown kid at school, which left me torn between two cultures at war; a liberal American one in the classroom, and a conservative Indian one at home. I felt deeply alienated and often confused. I hated every part of me—my weird name, to my dark skin, to my curly Malayali hair. I remember looking in the mirror as a teen and wishing I was white, wishing I was more American. During that time, books and games were my solace. It was through games that I began testing the waters of my identity. My first characters were white, almost unthinkingly so, because that was normal and because I wanted to be normal. But after some time I began to experiment with Indian characters. I did it because some part of me longed to be myself, and games were the safest place to try. Indian spies, Indian sorcerers, Indian vampires—I played them all and more as I explored my Desi identity in these imagined worlds, and came to realize how important my ethnicity was to me. I found peace with, and then love for, my Indian American heritage. I am thankful for games, for giving me that space to explore, without it I do not know where I would be today.

Games also offered windows into experiences not my own. The game How We Came to Live Here let me thoughtfully explore the legends of Indigenous people of the American southwest. Monsterhearts put me in the body of a horny teenaged queer monster—that was fun. And the game Bluebeard’s Bride thrust me into a world of feminine horror I did not have an understanding for. These games and others like them helped me grow. They shaped my understanding of the world and made me a more empathetic person. Games are now an integral part of my life.

Some of you are familiar with my work with the impoverished marginalized communities in India through Netflix’s documentary series, Daughters of Destiny. In the final episode, there’s a scene where I speak to a group of boys about feminism. What you don’t see is a part where we play games together—roleplaying games that explore the often harsh and unfair lives of their sisters and their mothers, where the boys confront misogyny prevalent in the urban slums and the rural villages where they come from, where they wrestle with the toll that the Indian patriarchy exerts on everyone, men and women alike. Playing these games becomes part of the boys journey away from toxic masculinity and towards a life filled with healthy relationships.

I am thankful for games for giving me the tools to help those young men and women who look up to me for guidance and support, whether it is by allowing us to wrestle with parts of ourselves we’re not entirely comfortable with or imagining the world through different eyes games transform us. And that’s why I’m so excited by this years slate of nominees.

Ajit George is Director of Operations for the international non-profit the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. He has spoken at numerous events including TEDx, the International Monetary Fund and NPR on the topics of education, gender equality, community development, and poverty alleviation. He is featured in the Original Netflix Documentary Series, Daughters of Destiny. Ajit attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and has written for various game companies, organized international collaborative larp events, is the co-founder of Gaming as Other, is a diversity consultant, speaker and activist, and has run and organized games at conventions across the United States. Find him on twitter: @ajitgeorgeSB

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