Meghna Jayanth is switching the narrative

Meghna Jayanth

If you ask narrative designer and writer Meghna Jayanth, the apocalypse is already here. The “darkest timeline” is now, and it’s driven by two forces, capitalism and colonialism. During her decade in the gaming industry, Jayanth, a British-Indian immigrant, has become known for highlighting the effects of British colonialism as much as for her award-winning work on games such as inkle’s 80 Days and Guerilla Games’ Horizon: Zero Dawn. As a British-Indian immigrant, learning about colonialism and capitalism, two inextricably linked concepts, was an act of self-discovery for Jayanth, and now dealing with it is a natural part of her work and her life.

“We are now in an era of late-stage capitalism. We are living through an apocalypse, with complex systems that are often difficult to understand failing us,” she says. But Jayanth isn’t going to take it lying down.

Jayanth grew up between the UK and India, which led to her feeling like “a foreigner in both homes”, despite loving both – a common feeling among immigrant children. Being the only one among her friends in Bangalore with a gaming console, she understood early that games are a privilege many can’t afford, and the enormous investment required is one of the reasons she now calls video games potentially the most capitalistic past-time.

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

But what are capitalism and colonialism, and how are they linked? Under capitalism, a private individual owns the machines and tools needed to produce goods, and they hire and pay workers to use their machines. Colonialism describes an era from the 15th century onwards in which Western civilisations forcibly occupied different countries and imposed their values on the people already living there. You can see that in both cases, a small number of people decide for the many, and in both cases this small number of people is likely to put their own interests first. Capitalism-colonialism almost always results in the marginalisation of people of colour, as the privilege that colonialism established lives on in capitalism. The powers that colonised large parts of the world have retained that power.

Capitalism makes sure that the status quo stays intact, by making continuous demands of our time. Disrupting this could free up those resources and create space for people from these traditionally marginalised groups to survive and thrive.

Jayanth has given several talks on capitalism-colonialism, and the white protagonist in particular, for example at the Digital Games Research Association’s (DiGRA) India chapter in 2021, drawing attention to the many ways white male creatives and colonialism have shaped the gaming industry, from the idea that violence and conquest are a form of fun to predominantly expressing Western cultural values, right down to the racial makeup of the industry itself.

“When we keep playing the same games and building that shared canon that we have, we’re keeping all the ingredients of colonisation alive”

It’s a difficult, extensive topic, but Jayanth, an engaging speaker, talks about it with inherent optimism while drinking what she admits are too many cups of coffee and blowing cigarette smoke directly at the camera as we speak remotely.

“The gaming industry in particular is defined by Anglo-American forces,” Jayanth explains. “There are gatekeepers for creative work and who gets funding, how that’s dispensed, and who is considered a safe pair of hands. These people become increasingly more powerful as [the industry] is increasingly being consolidated, too,” she says, referencing large-scale acquisitions by companies such as Embracer Group or Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision-Blizzard. “Not a lot of teams are doing the kind of work that I’m interested in doing, they don’t have the same sort of goals or themes or even representation in the team, which you need in order to tell an South-Asian immigrant story.”

In telling those South Asian immigrant stories, Jayanth wants to not only offer a different point of view from most games, predominantly made by first-language English speakers and European teams, she also wants to broaden her colleagues’ and players’ horizons. Her efforts to decolonise narratives are visible from Jayanth’s very first public game, the interactive fiction game Samsara, which she created on Failbetter Games’ StoryNexus platform. Samsara combines the fantastic with warnings about colonisation, much like 80 Days, Jayanth’s first paid work in the games industry. 80 Days decolonises Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days, elevating it from a narrative glorifying British Imperialism to a journey that doesn’t paint different cultures as subjugated by the British.

Currently, Jayanth is working as narrative designer on Thirsty Suitors, as part of minority-led studio Outerloop Games. Thirsty Suitors tells the story of Jala, a South-Asian woman who returns to Washington to mend her strained relationship with her family and her exes using the power of food, communication and fisticuffs.

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

“We want all sorts of players to play our game, but it’s almost like we’re inviting them into our home — take off your shoes at the door, come be a guest, we’re inviting you into our culture,” she says. “I think in 80 Days, in a way we’ve already changed the story of a white British man visiting the colonies by looking at the player as a tourist. But what is possible completely changes when you rethink who the player is — this idea that we are designing for, and basing the industry around this idea of the model white player who enters a world to take things is a toxic concept, and it doesn’t represent the reality of who actually plays games.”

While Jayanth has previously worked with Outerloop Games on anti-colonialism simulator Falcon Age, she sees the experience of working on Thirsty Suitors as distinctly different — as a game published by Annapurna Interactive, publisher of games such as cat adventure Stray, time loop mystery Twelve Minutes and walking sim What Remains of Edith Finch, it sits at what she describes as “more mainstream end of indie” resulting in the largest diverse team Jayanth has worked with to date and significant media attention.

“I think every game fundamentally is teaching players how to play,”

“I’d like to see more studios like this. I’d like to see more minorities in these positions of power,” she says, “I think I can speak for the team and say that none of us anticipated this feeling of ‘oh, we’re making a brown game, we better be good’ – because suddenly the weight of representation is on you. Suddenly you need to prove that brown games can sell.”

Jayanth again stresses that just because a game doesn’t feature the predominant Anglo-American culture, that doesn’t mean it isn’t designed with everyone in mind. “Games are like a social contract, right? This space of play is really a conversation between us as designers, and the players, giving the players feedback on how to play your game. I think every game fundamentally is teaching players how to play,” she says.

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

Jayanth immediately agrees to the suggestion that this is fundamentally similar to developing accessible games. “Disability rights absolutely fit in with so much of what we’re talking about in terms of representation, inclusiveness, and racial justice, especially within the framework of capitalism. We all want to fight the narrow idea of a specific player that is welcome in this space.”

Fighting for diversity and against racial, economical and gender inequality, whether it’s through public talks or by simply existing in the gaming industry as a minority, is often difficult and can mean uncomfortable conversations with those unable to see their own privilege. But Jayanth, for all that she knows, it’s also a privilege to start such a conversation without the fear of repercussions such as job loss. Instead, she focuses on the profound joy she feels these efforts can bring to people.

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

“bell hooks talks about marginalisation, not as a place of victimhood, but actually the place of power,” she explains. “And if we think about marginalised people, colonised people, immigrant people through the ages, we’ve learned to survive in hostile environments, in places that did not want to hear our voices; that did not want to respect our bodies, minds, souls, ideas, thoughts. I want to help somebody, not because we’re victims that need to be rescued, but really [because] this is a collective project of liberation. If we’re going to get out of this, we need to do it together.”

“We are living through an apocalypse, with complex systems that are often difficult to understand failing us”

“This” is a gaming industry shaped by capitalism-colonialism and its ideas. Anyone who thinks outside of this “narrow range of experiences”, can add to making games, and the gaming industry as a whole, a better place better, Jayanth says. She uses Sable, by the two-person North London studio Shedworks, as an example.

Sable is the story of a young woman who goes on a pilgrimage to explore the world, and help others; ultimately she decide which clan she wants to belong to, though the final decision– if she chooses at all – is left up to the player. It was originally pitched as “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild without combat”, already a considerable risk, as at the time of Sable’s conception games still predominantly wanted you to battle opponents – while there are of course exceptions some of the most popular games of 2017, including Horizon: Zero Dawn, Cuphead and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus all feature violent conflict . But Sable is about more than its lack of combat. It presents a world that doesn’t revolve around the player, and offers emotional, not monetary, rewards for doing good.

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

While Shedworks’ founders Gregorious Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg have both worked in the games industry for many years before founding their own studio, both drew on influences outside the industry, such as the art of French artist Jean Giraud (Moebius), Studio Ghibli movies and Kythreotis’ architecture background.

“Greg and Dan both have artistic backgrounds. I think it’s so important in our industry, which is so siloed and so insular, to look outside of it for inspiration and to come from different traditions of critical thinking and knowledge and approaches to the world,” she says.

So what does Jayanth think about the rise of ‘wholesome games’? Wholesome games, a term coined by the eponymous twitter account that grew into a well-known online community, are generally non-violent, colourful and compassionate, all words one could apply to Sable, or even 80 Days.

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

“I think wholesome games are worthwhile, and definitely also a specific counter-reaction to the broader cultural focus of the industry,” Jayanth says. “Also because it became especially popular during the pandemic [the Wholesome Games twitter was founded in February 2019], it felt very pleasurable to many people to be able to just go into this very beautiful, fantastical world that was kind of low stakes, in a way. It’s not something that I’m personally interested in, which is funny because people have occasionally talked about my work as wholesome. I think of it as joyful and hopeful rather than wholesome.”

Similarly, Jayanth isn’t one for remakes, no matter how beloved a series may be, because instead of perpetuating games with colonialist-capitalist themes, she wants to see the industry invest in new voices and ideas.

“I think it’s such hubris and arrogance to say ‘oh, we’ve already done all the innovating already,” she says. “We’re such a young industry, and we’ve explored such a tiny fraction of this possibility space. So why are we so obsessed with looking back and recreating?”
Jayanth admits however, that the urge to recreate is fuelled by the games industry itself.

“We want all sorts of players to play our game, but it’s almost like we’re inviting them into our home — take off your shoes at the door, come be a guest”

Sable is an example of an experiment gone very well, but many developers trying to create alternatives to well-established games find it difficult to find funding. It’s the fate suffered by fully worker-owned studio Vodeo Games, which announced in September that it was shutting its doors because it couldn’t secure funding for its next game.

“We are a new industry, and it’s hard to make things work and to take creative risks in a cautious environment where you need to present a vertical slice and you need to unlock the next piece of funding. All of this is much easier if you’ve proven yourself as a safe pair of hands already,” Jayanth says. “But risk mitigation is not a creative strategy, you know? And I think like if you look at movies right now you see a demonstrable example of risk mitigation that’s stifling creative practice,” she adds, referencing Hollywood’s penchant for remakes and sequels. “I think that’s likely the way that the games industry will go, if we’re not careful.”

Wanting to encourage rather than discourage, Jayanth immediately follows up with a positive example of how things can look when independent creators successfully establish themselves.

“So I’ve been playing Immortality recently. I think it’s so brilliant and it’s so wonderful to see how Sam [Barlow]’s work has evolved from Her Story,” she says. “It’s such an object lesson in how to actually do something new. You want to be able to iterate upon it multiple times and learn and grow, rather than be starting from scratch every time. And this is how the industry and the medium moves forward.”

Asked if it ever gets frustrating to adhere to the demands of a capitalistic system like that of a game publisher as someone opposing such structures, Jayanth has a clear answer: “Art has historically been made in defiance and collusion with capital – that’s not new, but I do think there’s something particularly intense about the games industry as it is a laboratory for technological disruption and capitalist “innovations” which then percolate through other sectors.”

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

By other sectors, Jayanth is referring to efforts like the gamification of work, or the historically volatile boundary between military tech and video games, both influencing each other, one well-known example being the use of gaming controllers to pilot drones.
“However, recognising the structural forces in operation in the games industry – which include capitalism – are part of surviving in it, especially as a marginalised person or a designer vested in doing anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist design.”

“We’re such a young industry, and we’ve explored such a tiny fraction of this possibility space. So why are we so obsessed with looking back and recreating?”

Jayanth notes that games and other art forms are always a reflection, not only of their makers, but also of the state of the world. With the current political climate in large parts of the world, people are becoming more aware of the forces of capitalism and begin to reject them. This becomes visible in the widespread rejection of NFTs and blockchain-based games, even as the market itself is growing.

“I think fundamentally games are all about understanding systems, understanding structures, and making them possible to people,” she tells me. “ I think there is a space there to recognise what the world is: to see it reflected in a real and truthful way in games. I’m also deeply worried about the future of the industry in the sense of the financialisation of leisure — you see that with NFTs and exploitative practices and games as service: pay to earn and all of these things.”

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

In order to combat these systems, Jayanth suggests treating games less like a capitalist space all about selling and buying goods, and more like a community that treats its players as human beings, rather than customers. “As designers, especially those of us who have any sort of pretension towards being artists, we need to think about ourselves as in collaboration with our players and our colleagues against these structures and dark algorithms and forces of exploitation,” she says. “So much of what we think of as design is, as play, what a game is, what progression mechanics are, are steeped in these ways of thinking.”

What can help, then, is to increase awareness of such practices — Jayanth mentions the recently released book You’ve Been Played by Six to start founder and CEO Adrian Hon as a resource. However, whether the games industry and the world at large can be a place free of capitalism-colonialism may come down to something that sounds as simple in theory as it is difficult in practice the fostering of empathy and community.

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

“We really need to foster a real sense of community,” she says. “And the thing capitalism does is constantly provide us with false pleasures, sometimes materialistic pleasures, in lieu of what we really need.. Every effort in that regard counts.”

“I’m also deeply worried about the future of the industry in the sense of the financialisation of leisure”

Jayanth stresses that now may be the best time to do so, during this apocalypse that is late-stage capitalism. The egregious effects of capitalism now show themselves in ways even casual observers are becoming aware of, for example when you compare the cost of living crisis to the profits energy companies make, or how young people and Covid frontline workers are increasingly priced out of buying a house in the UK. During a time when the UK has opened ‘warm banks’, warm spaces people who can’t afford to heat their homes can spend time in, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand for many why there should be tax cuts for the richest.

The gaming industry, itself still predominantly young, white and male, needs voices like Jayanth if it doesn’t want to stay another space in which the privileged few decide for the many, more interested in endless growth than in providing experiences people all across the world can identify with.

Meghna Jayanth
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

“As a narrative designer, I spend a lot of time building worlds and thinking about our world. Right now, we live in a capitalist-colonialist dystopia, and I have nothing more to say about that. The real world is saying it all, to the point of satire, so I would much rather put things into the world that are counter to that and that have some humanity to them, because that’s what’s being destroyed in the world right now.”

As one of the leading voices on counter-capitalism in games, Meghna Jayanth is actively living the change she wants to see in the gaming industry, using her work and her platform to raise awareness, but also to give herself the thing she’s missing in games. In an industry often obsessed with sales numbers, where crunch and worker mistreatment are an unfortunate reality for many, it’s soothing to hear someone who cares about both players and workers as actual human beings in need of alternatives to the systems that fail to serve them.

Does Jayanth ever get tired of fighting? She smiles.

“I have to feel good about my contribution and not feel like I’ve failed because it hasn’t gone as far as I would like it to. That’s how you also live to fight another day. It’s okay to just be. Both in games and in real life. Our survival and wellbeing is something that we have to cherish and protect, because the industry won’t do that for you.”

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