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Playing games with child trafficking in India

The computer game (UN)TRAFFICKED puts the fate of a 13-year-old potential trafficking victim in the player’s hands, without ever allowing the girl to speak for herself. 

All images are screen captures from (UN)TRAFFICKED. Fair use.

(UN)TRAFFICKED is a browser-based, choose-your-own-adventure video game that allows players to control the fate of Alisha, a 13-year-old Indian girl at risk of being trafficked into slavery. Developed by the foundation of Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, and available in both English and Hindi, it is designed to raise awareness of child trafficking as part of a much larger campaign. It has been reported that the game has been played more than 100,000 times since its launch, with most players being based in India.

While the Satyarthi Foundation’s efforts have been widely praised, there are problems with the way in which players get to toy with the exploitation of a girl child. Like so many recent campaigns to raise awareness of trafficking, the design of the gameplay invites players to see themselves in the story as the potential hero, rather than concentrating on getting them to empathise with the victim. In this game, the player is not acting as the victim, they are acting upon the victim.

The gameplay follows the well-trodden path of ‘innocence lost’ found in many media reports, press releases, and popular movies. It begins by giving players the option to choose a name for the girl and the region of India she is from. These choices have no impact on the events of the game, but do grant the player a troubling element of ownership over the child, in the same way that a player might customise their avatar’s hair colour or clothes. If players decline the choice, we are introduced to “Alisha”, who lives in “rural Bihar with her family”.

In her clearly defined role of victim, Alisha is ‘ideal’: young, female, virginal, and passive. The abuses she is forced to suffer, meanwhile, primarily trace back to adult strangers with criminal intent – the villains of the game. This overall setup inescapably makes her the victim of individual ‘baddies’, and in doing so truncates any sustained reflection upon the larger forces working to put girls in positions of vulnerability and precarity in India, such as poverty, debt, or dispossession.

The inevitability of Alisha’s exploitation, and powerlessness of her situation, is emphasised through a ‘hearts bar’ positioned at the top right of the screen. In a traditional video game, this would represent an avatar’s ‘health’ or how many ‘lives’ they have left. When bad things happen in this game, such as a policeman refusing to help or a neighbour remaining silent, Alisha loses two hearts. An animation shows the hearts break and then fall away, accompanied by the sound of a gasp or sob.

This momentary sob is the only voice afforded to Alisha in a game where she is both the central character and a mere prop illustrating the consequences of the choices of others. While this may be an intentional demonstration of the helplessness of the victim, it creates a completely disempowered Alisha who is victim not only to exploitation, but to a life in which none of the choices were ever hers. The only characters in the game with any agency are those who make decisions about her: the victim’s father, the victim’s friends, an employment agent, the wife of an employer, a sex work customer, or a police officer. For Alisha, there are no choices, no options, no agency.

The depiction of the characters empowered to make choices in Alisha’s story does, however, set (UN)TRAFFICKED apart from the majority of anti-trafficking awareness campaigns. So often in public representations of trafficking the hero is a rescuer from the Global North. They are the anti-trafficking NGO worker one step behind local police in a brothel raid, the former military commando posing as a brothel client who ‘buys time’ with a girl in order to rescue her, the white western journalists like Nicholas Kristof writing his own saviour story, or the Northern anti-trafficking advocates raising money and lobbying governments to save the girl child or wounded woman of the Global South.

In (UN)TRAFFICKED, however, the potential heroes of the story are members of Alisha’s own community. At home, they are her parents and friends. In the city they are the employment agent who decides where she will be sent. In one scenario, she is sent to work in a massage parlour, where a customer is framed as a potential hero if he refuses to have sex with her. In an alternate scenario Alisha is sent to be a domestic worker at the home of a man who sexually abuses her, while his wife is offered the choice to send her home. In both scenarios, the police have the choice of recognising her plight or looking the other way. If these characters fail to act, or make the wrong choice, the story ultimately leads to the sexual assault of Alisha, reinforcing a stereotypical understanding of sexual violence as a mandatory feature of the trafficking experience.

The binary options that the gameplay relies upon are extremely limited from a learning standpoint. They fail to capture the complexity of the larger factors that condition ‘choices’, and suggest that every decision has a purely right and a purely wrong side. For example, at the very beginning of the game Alisha’s father is offered the choice of sending her to the city with a strange man, or of keeping her at home. If the player makes the ‘correct’ choice and keeps her at home, the text simply reads “well done, Alisha’s safe”. The game has already been ‘won’, but it then proceeds to play out the ‘wrong’ choice anyway as a didactic exercise. If the player chooses to send her to the city from the get-go, the player is provided with an information box explaining that parents of children aged between 6 and 14 years old are “legally obliged to make sure they have access to an education”, and that children over 14 years of age can investigate “skill-building programs”.

The choice presented to Alisha’s father in this opening scene greatly oversimplifies the conundrum faced by parents struggling to provide an education or a future for their children. This binary choice also subscribes to a frequent assumption of anti-trafficking policy that potential victims can be saved by keeping them at home. Seeking opportunities elsewhere, especially for young women, is defined as unacceptably dangerous without much consideration of whether or not the situation at home is any safer or better. This deflects attention from the task of ensuring that young women can travel, migrate, and pursue opportunities, while also remaining safe.

Browser-based and app-based games are increasingly used by advocacy organisations as a form of ‘virtual humanitarianism’, designed to raise awareness and mobilise popular and political support. (UN)TRAFFICKED is not the only game to have been released to deal with child labour and slavery in recent years. In 2014, the European Union supported the creation of the Balkans ACT Now online and smartphone game depicting trafficking into a range of exploitative practices, while in 2016 ‘Missing: Game for a Cause’ was released portraying the story of a girl trafficked into the sex industry.

These games are all designed to educate, however the practical impact of these efforts are hard to measure. Just like more traditional advertising campaigns on television or in print, they have the chance to expose audiences to previously unknown issues. The key sticking point, however, remains the kinds of stories that games such as (UN)TRAFFICKED convey to players. While Alisha’s story is based on real experiences of Indian girls who have been exploited, it is not the only story. Games that claim to allow insights into the lives of others in radically different circumstances need to be very careful about reproducing simplistic and potentially damaging narratives.

About the authors

Erin O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Justice, Faculty of Law, at the Queensland University of Technology. Her research examines political activism and advocacy, and her new book Challenging the Human Trafficking Narrative, was published by Routledge in 2018. You can follow her on twitter at @eringobrien.

Helen Berents is a Lecturer in the School of Justice, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology. Her research is centrally concerned with youth, peace and security, and her new book Young People and Everyday Peace, Routledge, was published in 2018. You can follow her on twitter at @hmberents.


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