Saturday 18 March 2017

First they came for the gamers

Gaming doesn’t normally make the front pages of the Mumbai Mirror In fact, in the Indian media, the existence of serious gaming is rarely acknowledged at all, and this is something I am rather grateful for. After all, if the quality of movie reviewing is anything to go by, I would hate to read anything by them on Skyrim or GTA.

But the few paragraphs in the Mirror today were not about gaming. They were about that fundamental right that India seems to be forgetting it has in rather a hurry – the freedom of speech.

EA, one of the biggest, if not the biggest game distributor in the world, chose to not release it’s marquee game of the season, Dragon Age: Inquisition in India, due to fears (an euphemism, obviously, for arm-twisting by officialdom) of falling afoul of India’s obscenity laws.

But what exactly about the game is it that EA fears would offend India’s notoriously thin-skinned sensibilities? Apparently, the existence of a gay character in the game is what’s to blame.

Ah, India and it’s sensibilities. Gays don’t really exist in "Indian culture", you know. Our so-called ‘culture’ is somehow simultaneously the best in the world, the oldest, the holiest, the vibrant-est (and all those other superlatives that my vocabulary falls short of adding here), and also the most prone to destruction by things we say, read, wear and do.

And so there won’t be any legal way for me, and such other gamers as exist in India, to play the much-anticipated follow-up to Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II.

The first of these was, quite simply, brilliant. DA:O managed to take a clich├ęd story and tell it so well that we fell in love with medieval RPG’s all over again. Witty, self-deprecating Alistair and acerbic, arrogant Morrigan, maternal but fiesty Wynne and stranger-in-a-strange land Sten, even the OTT bi-sexuals Zevran and Leliana were strongly-written, each with a personality well beyond just being the support cast for the player character. And the player character – well, the ‘Origins’ in the title was there for a reason, allowing you to choose from six possible origin stories to make the whole game your own personal redemption arc. It had the lost prince, the Kingdom at war, the Big Bad, in short, all the stereotypes, and mixed them into a stew that made for a game that swept awards across the board and was a commercial monster success.

Dragon Age II suffered from one shortcoming – it was the successor to Dragon Age: Origins.  The developers dared to do something different – DA:2 did things differently – the graphics were not just better, they were different, the storyline was very different, with a pre-defined character known as Hawke…and not all the things they did differently were good. But they still got their characters right. Varric the story-teller dwarf, Isabella the promiscuous pirate, Merill the sweet abomination, Ser Aveline the gender-stereotype-busting Knight, Anders the bisexual militant – the game still did a great job of making their characters believable, relatable characters. It had a braver story too, eschewing a conventional good vs evil narrative to make Hawke essentially a pragmatist, forced to choose sides between factions and fated to see the consequences of his/her (you get to choose whether you play a male or female version) choices pan out, often tragically. I’ve said before that DA:2 suffered from not being it’s predecessor, and perhaps that’s part of the reason it didn’t win as many awards as DA:O, but it still did well commercially and was reviewed positively.

Both games did a brilliant job of showing the underlying politics behind the combat, the ideologies behind the battles. The scene is set superbly for the expected third and final installment of the series as well – the game that we are fated not to see on these shores, and why – because it has one gay character? If Zevran and Leliana were fine, if Anders passed muster, what’s the deal here? However much we rationalize it, it's going to come down to a Government that thinks it's people are incapable of rational thought, or fears what will happen if they do become capable of it. 

Oh, I suppose there’s an argument to be made that there is no explicit ban on the game, and that this is a simple case of the distributer not wanting to end up in the situation faced by the publishers of Wendy Doniger’s books.

The thing is, why should such a fear hang over companies at all? A game is a discretionary purchase, something that we can choose to buy or not buy. If the existence of a homosexual character offends you, don’t buy the bloody game.

After all it’s not someone’s “Mann ki Baat” being forced down your throat whether you like it or not.

The saddest part is that no one seems to be overly bothered. Whether it's Rang Rasiya, Wendy Doniger, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Ugly, or even the sanctimonious anti-smoking warnings we have to put up with, we've just assumed that it's not worth fighting about. And DA: Inquisition is, after all, a game, which isn't on anybody's radar but gamers - and in India we haven't stopped thinking of games as being something beyond a way for children to pass their time.

Real life's moved on, you know. Games are art, Homosexuality is a reality and not a crime (whatever the ancient men in wigs sitting at Tilak Marg, New Delhi have to say about it). And it's high time we realised that a 'development agenda' cannot be pursued at the cost of becoming a nanny state.

As for me, I’d appreciate anyone helping me out with using a VPN so I can buy the game legally on Steam or something.

When in doubt, ask yourself - "What would Morrigan do?"
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me 
- Martin Niemoller

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