Four students stood in a large multimedia hall with masks tied around them and there were eight more students sitting down on the wooden floor. The walls of the hall were lined up with fans, cuboid black speakers, tube lights and switch boards and neatly hung flags of different countries. The participants were students of the Theatre, Gender, Identity and Film summer program at UWC Mahindra College in Pune, between 14-18 years of age. The participants had been initiated into the conversation about intersecting identities the previous day as part of their course and had pondered over the questions of class, race, gender, privilege and power. At 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, the Made to Order session commenced.
Made to Order is a game developed by Fields of View that looks at the intersections between caste, class and gender. The purpose of the game is to give the player an immersive understanding of the intricacies of these three aspects of one’s identity. The game is set in the garment industry in India. The game was first developed for Gender Bender 2017, a production of Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institut Bangalore. The game draws from real-life qualitative and quantitative data.
The game session involved 15 mins of briefing, 50 mins of game play and another 45 mins of debriefing.
People understand gender better than they understand caste
“My caste is Bestha, so does this apply to me?”asked one of the players. The game involves the players to make certain choices based on the profile that is given to them. These profiles are stated on the profile cards. While four players play the roles of garment factory workers, the others play the role of the upper management. The above-mentioned question is a common occurrence in a game of Made to Order. People more often that not are unaware of which caste is Scheduled and which is not. In the game those who play the role of garment factory workers have to achieve 5 goals. One player who managed to achieve all his 5 goals in the game, expressed happiness over the fact that he had made some good decisions during the game. He also however acknowledged the fact that his profile being that of a male, didn’t involve any of the impediments women had to face. His profile also entitled him to an SC/ST certificate because of which he could get free eye surgery for his parents. Sometimes your caste in the game held you back while sometimes it helped you move ahead.
Where some perceived caste and gender as labels affecting their movement in the game, for one of the players there seemed to be a disconnect between her perception of the profile she was playing and the life of that very person in the profile. While playing the role of a transgender person employed in the factory as a helper, she decided very consciously to apply for vocational training even though it required her to dress up as a man – “I had to get money for gender reaffirmation surgery and that was a lot. So I had to save and I couldn’t achieve a lot of goals because of it. I thought getting more money was more important for me than to dress up as a woman if I ever wanted to achieve that particular goal”. Would someone struggling to express their gender to the world actually go through with such a decision like that? How much would a person compromise in order to make their ends meet? Speaking from their own personal experiences, one of the participants talked about how gender and sexuality are not understood where he comes from and why he needs to hide his sexuality from his own family because of the trouble he might face if he discloses it.
Power as a process and not an event
During the debrief one of the participants said “As a woman I think it’s not just that instance when I feel threatened or violated, but I can do something about it after that instance has passed. And my caste and class support me in that.”For another player the act of making choices was just about survival as he pointed out. He was making the least amount of money as a sanitation worker, that combined with him playing as a woman who belongs to a scheduled caste, made it extremely difficult to achieve anything in the game. In the game the players are required to respond to certain questions and make choices. And the very labels of one’s caste, income and gender tend to weigh in on all these choices throughout.
Does Industry and development go hand in hand?
“We had no consequences whatsoever for ourselves. And there was nothing to stop us from making the choices we made. I think we had a lot of power in the game”.Turning to the participants playing upper management, there was a unanimity in how much power they felt in making the decisions they had to. On being asked about their choices as the management another one said “I made the decision of moving out the factory to a rural place. Because as the employee turnover is high in the city anyway and the workers are more likely to switch jobs in the city, I thought they could easily find a job even if the factory shut down here. Instead we could take it to a rural area and set up there. It would not only generate employment but also develop the area, schools etc would come up.”On questioning further, discussions emerged on whether such development models even function in the real world and how much do industries that are setup in rural parts of the country actually contribute to the education or overall growth of the people in the rural areas.
Claustrophobia and decision making
Some participants pointed out that “the game was mentally exhausting and having to constantly think about the decisions was tiring. I can only imagine having to face that on a day-to-day basis.”One of the girls playing the role of a transgender helper at the factory mentioned how restricted and stuffy the mask and the impediments made her feel in the game. “The impediments felt very real for me. It became more and more difficult to move. I am somewhat claustrophobic, so the masks were also a difficult thing for me.”
We wound up the session, thanked each other for their time and participation and left for the day to do other things. I saw those four students leave, the participants who played the roles of the workers, with smiles on their faces like the rest of their classmates. And here I was packing their very masks with labels defining the caste, gender and income stuck on them repeatedly. Those masks had managed to make them feel suffocated in this air-conditioned hall. The impediments had restricted their movement so much that even a 10 feet distance had become a struggle to tread. The questions and decisions in the game had drained them enough for that hour if not the rest of the day.
But I guess that’s how it is in real life, for some the claustrophobia lasts an hour and for some it is their lifetime.