Game writer Ajit George: Role-playing as Refuge and Representation
“Growing up with games was sort of my pathway to self exploration. Building my own competence. Role-playing allows you to explore identities that are not your own, but also to maybe form your identity better, with less of the fear that you’re gonna be judged because you’re not playing yourself, you’re playing a character and so you can experiment with how your voice may sound, and who you are. And as a brown kid growing up in a deeply white set of schools and communities, I felt alienated constantly and really, really had a hard time with it. It was very, very painful for me growing up. And role playing games were one of the few refuges along with books that I could find that gave me my own space and my own voice and to experiment. But all of these role playing games were like made by older, white men that had no context of my lived experience.”
In the following clip, watch nonprofit Director and game writer Ajit George discuss the significance of role-playing games in his childhood. He reflects upon how his science fiction game writing explores his own experiences with class, gender, and city building in a way that he hadn’t seen before he picked up the pen. Or, if you prefer, you can read the transcript here.
(1) Check out the syllabus for your Creative Writing, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Color, or Feminist Dystopian Authors course … or, think of any class you’ve taken that has revolved around speculative fiction and/or writing in the past. Have any of those syllabi ever featured non-traditional forms of authorship, such as game writing? To specify, have you ever been in writing classes where you’ve been asked to explore and/or consider science fiction games or movies as narratives? In which format do you think sci-fi and fantasy writing is most impactful to its audience?
- If you haven’t been in formal education, or haven’t had access to speculative fiction classes, think instead of the authors and work you’ve heard of often.
(2) We often think of representation in terms of categories of identity: gender, sexuality, class, race, disability, and so on. The black feminist theoretical framework of intersectionality has demonstrated how this categorical thinking can be incredibly limiting to our understanding of how systems of oppression and privilege interact with each other. In turn, such an approach often neglects to acknowledge the importance of representing space and place. In this clip, George described how the games he found refuge in as a child were written by white men who could not possibly understand his own lived experiences — and also how most games were set in Westernized places.
- Why are the concepts of space and place important to include in conversations about representation?
- In your opinion, what is the significance of George’s first guide for the city of Bangalore?
(3) George mentioned that he draws much of his writing from what he witnessed working with communities through the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project in South India, and later on in this interview, author S.B. Divya states that every story and novel she writes includes a character or event drawn from her own experiences. As a writer, do you find yourself drawing inspiration and/or material from your own life? Is reflecting your own lived experiences in your writing important to you? Why or why not?
(1) George spoke about the predominance of Westernized cities in city-guide games — including how he was the first person (as far as we know) to write a city guide for Bangalore. Take a couple minutes to jot down some characteristics of a non-Western place that you want to see represented in the science fiction genre (in literature and games alike).
(2) Partners: Share your thoughts from the previous question with each other and compare. Are they similar? Did your partner’s idea shed light on a lack of representation you hadn’t noticed before?
- If you’re working through these exercises on your own: using your notes from the previous question, write a persuasive email to a game designer about why they should create your city.
(3) For a more in-depth exercise, take some time to consider how the world of science fiction provides a refuge for kids (and adults) to envision other possibilities for themselves than what they see in “real life.” Then draft a short story that could be used as the foundation for a science fiction game. The only guideline is:
- You must write yourself as your own main character. You can explore whatever corporeal form you wish (be that human, robotic dragon, or wicked fairy). You can be as extraterrestrial or as pragmatic as you want during this exercise — the point is to imagine a role for yourself that you haven’t seen in your “real life” thus far.
- For more of George’s thoughts on literature and games, read the transcript of his speech at the 2018 Nebula Awards.
- Check out other projects George has written for, including Misspent Youth (teenage rebellion in a dystopia) — you can download it here — The Warren (a community of rabbits working together toward survival), and Invisible Sun (surreal fantasy about the fabric of reality).
- Click here for more information about the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project.
Ajit George is the Director of Operations at the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project and a graduate of Clarion West, an intensive program for science fiction and fantasy writers. He has written for several game projects (see Additional Readings) from the perspective of an Indian American and is currently working on a novel manuscript based on his work. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, or his website. Check out his full interview, recorded alongside author S.B. Divya, here (32:44).
Tags: game writing, representation, lived experiences
Ajit George: Yeah. Growing up with games was sort of my pathway to self exploration. building my own competence. Role-playing allows you to explore identities that are not your own, but also to maybe form your identity better, with less of the fear that you’re gonna be judged because you’re not playing yourself, you’re playing a character and so you can experiment with how your voice may sound, and who you are. And as a brown kid growing up in a deeply white set of schools and communities, I felt alienated constantly and really, really had a hard time with it. It was very, very painful for me growing up. And role playing games were one of the few refuges along with books that I could find that gave me my own space and my own voice and to experiment. But all of these role playing games were like made by older, white men that had no context of my lived experience.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Was this kind of like classic D & D … ?
Ajit George: Sure, exactly a lot of D&D. I eventually moved to stuff like from White Wolf, which is more like 90s gothic horror and that was great. And a little bit better about gender representation, but not about people of color, specifically not about Indians. And in the last couple years, I got back into gaming. And, you know, the field hadn’t really changed a whole lot. There was some exotic, exoticisization of Eastern culture or South Eastern culture or South Asian culture, but not any great representation and not being written by, you know, people of color or Indians. And I started approaching some of these game designers and said, “Hey, like, you know, this is, this is a real issue, this is a problem.” And, weirdly, I think, maybe times had just changed.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Yeah.
Ajit George: Instead, they were like, okay, would you like to write for us? And I was like, Okay, yeah, I will.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Mmhm. [laughter]
Ajit George: I’d be happy to do so. And so I think I wrote – role playing games are especially, especially White Wolf is really famous for their city guides. And D&D also has, like, the city of Waterdeep, or whatever.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Mmhm.
Ajit George: But they’re all like Western cities or Western inspired cities. And so I wrote, as far as I know, the first city Guide to the City of Bangalore, and what that looked like from a supernatural perspective. I also explored class and past issues through it. And I go to Bangalore twice a year. I’ve been doing it for the last decade of my life so I know the city pretty well, and I’ve seen its evolution. And that was really exciting. And I wrote for another game called Misspent Youth, which is sort of like, it’s kind of an outgrowth of a punk movement of like, you know, taking on the machine or the man or the government. And, but I took it from rural – I wrote a piece about five women living in rural India, and the struggles they had against rural patriarchy, their husbands, the chicken farm that they work for … And really, I know these stories personally because that’s the communities that I work with, so I was able to speak authentically from my witnessing of that. They’re not my lived stories myself, but I’ve got as close as I can as an NGO worker working directly with those communities. That was incredibly powerful too …
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Sorry. I was just gonna ask if you can, for people who don’t know your organization and what you do …
Ajit George: Sure. Yeah, I work with the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. I’m its Director of Operations. And we work with marginalized communities, mostly Dalit or untouchable communities within South, South India, that are under the poverty line. So multiple levels of marginalization, caste discrimination, and then of course, income or class issues. Fifty percent of our community are women, so there’s gender discrimination as well. And there, the complexities of problems that they face are so enormous that it’s hard to you know, you know encompass, but a lot, a lot of different complexities there.