musings on geek culture in the developing world


This is a biweekly review of free independent games that include developing countries 
as a key setting, or feature gameplay elements related to Third World experiences.

Angry Brides (, 2012)   * requires Facebook login

Let's get the obvious part out of the way: yes, that is quite a groan-inducing title.

Having noted that, i'll get right to the heart of the issue. Angry Brides was designed as a social marketing campaign to raise awareness about dowry harassment in India. It received Bronze honors for Innovative Digital Marketing Solutions at the 2012 Internationalist Awards. So likewise, i'm gonna discuss it on those terms.

Regardless of intent, the dev team -- working alongside the campaign sponsor, dating site -- opted to use a casual flash-based Facebook game to get their point across. So the real question to ask is: was it an effective medium for their advocacy? My short answer is: it depends on how familiar you are with the Indian dowry system.

Before I can even begin to discuss the game, let's be clear about the main issue: a dowry is a sum paid by the family of a prospective bride to her groom-to-be, as an unspoken condition for legitimizing the marriage. Usually, it comes in the form of money, but it can also be an set price worth of jewelry or consumer goods that the newly-weds can use to set up their home. Needless to say, this is a massive burden on the woman's family, and in India, it has reportedly led to sex selection and female foeticide, enough to upset the country's sex ratio. It has also resulted in an unprecedented number of "dowry deaths" -- suicides from pressure or harassment, and outright murder committed by the husband or his family.

Paying a dowry is still widely regarded as a standard custom in India, despite a 1961 law banning the practice, and the government's commitment to honor the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. So the campaign is not aimed at making people realize what's happening -- the goal is to convince users (Indian singles, in particular) that the dowry system is wrong.

And just in case you believed this is some antiquated rural tradition, consider that this game is only playable via Facebook. If that wasn't enough to clue you in, one look at the game's visual design will surely dispel any further misconceptions about its prevalence in contemporary society.

The game's landing page sets the tone for what's to come: an eight-armed bride in a red dress (resembling the Hindu mother-goddess Durga -- thank you, Wikipedia!) stares fiercely at the player. In her hands, she juggles implements of conventional feminine domesticity: a rolling pin, cooking pot, shower head, and broom, among others. And she looks just about ready to hurl them right at you. Below her, a message reads:

"A Woman will give you Strength, Care, and all the Love you need... NOT Dowry!"

And so we move on to the Game-and-Watch-simple interface. The player takes on the POV of the bride, as she is presented with three suitors: an engineer, a doctor, and a pilot (or maybe a ship's captain -- it's not clear to me). Bottom line: these are affluent -- or at least upwardly mobile -- professional dudes. Each guy is labelled with a 'bride price', which functions like a de facto life meter. In short order, you pick your weapon of choice and throw it at the recalcitrant men -- complete with FPS-style cross-hairs for targeting -- until all three give in, and the dowry meter is reduced to zero. At which point, justice is presumably served and you win. Like any arcade-style game worth its salt -- or cumin, if you prefer -- the men will attempt to dodge your blows, while a countdown timer ramps up the pressure. Meanwhile, a cartoonish little girl watches from the sidelines, mocking any of your failed efforts.

Let me say outright that Angry Brides is poorly implemented, even for a casual game. You're given an eclectic range of weapons to choose from, including high-heeled shoes, a flat iron, a laptop, and a cheeseburger(!). However, the controls are sloppy. The physics are off. Response times and damage levels do not correspond intuitively with the choice of weapon.  But really, all of this is so much nit-picking. The more fundamental question is: how well does it present its advocacy?

To a player who takes a more legalistic view of domestic squabbles, the game presents an obvious ethical quandary: how does mauling a prospective spouse address the systemic issue of economic violence and the threat of physical abuse? Maureen O'Connor at Gawker was especially unforgiving:

Here's a peculiar internet phenomenon that leaves me unable to discern ironic offensiveness from earnest idiocy from cultural paradox ... To express contempt for dowries, Shaadi encourages Facebook users to bludgeon their virtual husbands with virtual household objects.

But that's really only a problem if you take the game at its most literal face value. I don't believe Angry Brides recommends that men be litterally beaten into sense, any more than Max Payne 3 endorses global vigilantism.

For my part, I'm willing to treat the game as entirely figurative; a means to destroy the practice of dowry itself, with the suitors representing dehumanized avatars for this oppressive tradition. If anything, the violence comes across like fully motivated acts of indignation  rather than a stereotypical tsundere harpy rage-fest. From a purely goal-oriented sense, it might even be quite admirable. The imperative to beat the game reflects an uncompromising view of the situation; to pay dowry literally means Game Over for the bride.

However, for all its convictions, the game falls short of its main aim. By eschewing a more simulationist view of Indian social dynamics in favor of a vicarious power trip, Angry Brides fails to address the institutionalized cultural reasons why the expectation of dowry continues so pervasively, even among India's modern yuppie set. But perhaps a format that could explore more complex inter-personal relations -- say, a mock dating simulator, or a visual novella -- would expose some of the lop-sided power structures that underpin Shaadi's own business model. Heck, it might just convince players to take a third option, disengaging from marriage altogether -- surely a Bad Ending for India's self-proclaimed "#1 Site for Matchmaking Services".

Gaming In The Free World returns on March 18 with Oiligarchy


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