Missing is a serious game worth your attention

August 26, 2017 by Vivian Kane

Indian artist Leena Kejriwal is working to bring her successful mobile game on child sex trafficking to a wider audience.

The trafficking of women and children is a booming business. It’s the fastest-growing criminal enterprise on the market, with approximately 20 million women and girls in sexual slavery today. Every 26 seconds, another child is sold in the world of trafficking. That might not sound like the most natural material on which to base a videogame, but Indian artist and activist Leena Kejriwal is doing just that, with Missing: The Complete Saga.

Kejirwal has spent the last decade documenting the sex trade industry in India, nearly half of which operates out of a small area in West Bengal. Missing: The Complete Saga is a disturbing deep dive into that world.

Missing follows a young girl named Champa, a composite character of the approximately 2 million girls in her position right now worldwide. Starting from her childhood in a small Bengali village, her choices, as well as the invisible contextual forces around her, affect the world she grows into. Events Champa encounters in the game are based in real-life experiences, gleaned from the lives of real people, as told both by those victimized by sex trafficking as well as social workers and other types of investigators.

As you move through the world of the game, the threat of kidnapping and slavery are ever-present. Going through your daily chores and even just walking to collect water, your world is never without risk. To present this sort of realistically dangerous, perpetually exploitative world as a game, and to do it in a way that is genuinely entertaining on a basic gameplay level, feels impossible. But Kejirwal has done it once before, in her mobile game Missing: Game for a Cause, which was downloaded more than half a million times.

For this expanded edition, Kejirwal is reteaming with her same programmer, Satyajit Chakraborty, to bring the same message and story to a much larger audience, in the form of a roleplaying game. As of this writing, the game’s modest Kickstarter budget is still falling about $15,000 short, so perhaps give that a visit if you see this story as worth being told. Admittedly, the match of an artist/activist and a game developer can result in some missing essentials. Kejirwal knows her Kickstarter lacks convincing game footage. But she hopes her dedication to the material appeals to potential backers in its stead.

There may be some muddied clarity in development and audience, which may explain the shortfall in funding, but there’s no doubt that with this important, delicate subject, dedication to authenticity is admirable and paramount in the game’s creation. Kejirwal made sure her team visited the district where the game is set and met with the girls they’re portraying. They are not interested in indulging any degree of voyeurism. The entire focus here is on the women and girls, with the game’s main goal being to create empathy in the audience and bring awareness to the epidemic of human trafficking and sex slavery, especially as it affects children.

Is the game meant to appeal to gamers or to the social justice world? I’m not sure Kejirwal fully knows, but as she told Brock Wilbur (my partner) at Gamasutra, “We have support from a fraction of the gaming community. We could use more. And I understand there is criticism that our video doesn’t show much of a finished product. So I’m asking people to take my word on it: my developer Satyajit does not promise anything that he cannot deliver.”

Looking to that gameplay, it’s not immediately clear what the end goal of the game is. Kejirwal compares the looming threat of sex trafficking to the boss in any other game, but what exactly constitutes “winning”? It’s not evading traffickers altogether–that would undermine the seriousness of the epidemic on the most basic level. Instead, your character exists in a world that seeks to exploit her at every turn. From childhood on, as you live through your daily life, you are always potentially falling victim to, but also fighting the world of sex trafficking.

I’m not sure what this game will look like in its fully funded final form, but it feels like something that deserves a shot to find out. The “trust us, we know what we’re doing” argument is not often a great convincer on Kickstarter, but the team of a passionate, experienced artist and activist, alongside a talented developer, seems like a combination that could tackle this big of an idea. It also lends itself to potentially poignant new ways of telling this story.

Games that hinge on capture and exploitation aren’t anything new in and of themselves. But if those with the talent and experience necessary to create a great, engaging game also have a dedication to shine a light on the very real experiences happening all around us, all over the world, and give us a clear window into that world–that seems worth investing in.

Missing: The Complete Saga concludes its Kickstarter this Wednesday, so if you are interested in learning more and perhaps backing this project, consider heading over to its Kickstarter page!