We do all sorts of things for fun. Some of us watch films or TV shows. Others listen to music. Some read. Many play games. Some like doing all of these things. While we want these activities to be fun and engaging, we often also want to learn more about ourselves and the world around us. But what if these popular activities are communicating negative messages about the world and people around us? Sadly, when we look more closely at some of this popular media, we may feel confused, disappointed, and shocked. But what can we do, people ask? We can only consume the media that is in front of us. What’s more, we enjoy this media! Children, in particular, want to watch, read and play things which are fun and interesting.
A team of us who work on ‘content’ for young children at Pratham Education Foundation had a discussion along these lines. Specifically, we had noticed the negative messages communicated by frequent gender stereotypes in popular nursery rhymes. This led to various conversations about them with people in the wider organisation. We talked about making changes to existing content for young children, whether it was stories, poems, rhymes and games. But also, how about making something new? Enter digital games. None of us had any experience making them before. But why not, we thought. What better place to challenge gender stereotypes in a fun and interesting way?
Both our own review of educational content in India and wider research and documentation of educational content has shown that gender stereotyping and discrimination is common and frequent. For one, male characters have featured far more frequently than female characters through the 20th century (and before, we can be sure). Apart from this gap in frequency, there is also a pointed difference in how they are portrayed. Specifically, in the roles they occupy and the characteristics they assume.
We know that young children’s dreams of future professions are restricted by gendered expectations. When young children imagine certain jobs and professions, they give them a specific gender. Watch this video to see their surprise when reality did not meet their expectations. Out of 66 of their drawings, children drew men in 61. For this reason, our game on professions, Meri Pehchaan (My Identity), is specific in its depictions. For example, the cricketer is a woman and the dancer is a man. At the end of the game, the player gets to dress up the character according to their profession. There are no restrictions based on gender. An older child or adult can help guide this conversation!
Another of the games, Aakaron ki Khoj (In Search of Shapes), combines two things which are often present in our daily lives, but which we often fail to notice. One of these is shapes. The other is gender stereotypes. After learning to identify basic geometric shapes, the player gets to choose from a series of situational scenes which show people of all ages and genders in non-traditional roles and activities. Within these scenes, the player is required to search for a specific shape in the form of a real-life object. For example, where a boy is making a roti, the player has to click on a circle. Similarly, where a woman and a man have stepped off their boat after fishing, the player has to click on a crescent.
Socio-emotional education has become an increasingly popular buzzword in education circles. But the intersection of emotions and gender stereotypes is talked about less often. The danger of popular phrases and beliefs, such as ‘boys don’t cry’, are now being more widely discussed. For this reason, in Bhavnayen Superhero (Emotions Superhero), ‘sad’ is depicted using a boy’s face, while ‘angry’ is depicted using a girl’s face. In our conversations with parents of young children, many said they felt ill-equipped to speak to their children about difficult emotions, such as anger. In particular, with their sons. In this context, audio-generated questions were designed to break barriers and encourage such discussions between parents and their children.
The last of these games is one of celebration. At a basic level, the message of Janamdin ki Shopping (Birthday Shopping) is that boys and girls’ birthdays should be celebrated equally. The game gives children a chance to have a good time, choosing from a range of items that they would like to buy when celebrating their birthday. The characters that appear on the screen are from a range of backgrounds and abilities, with a diverse range of fashion choices that will offer identification for all children.
So, go ahead and try one of these games with a young child in your family or circle of friends. Just as we do when reading stories or watching films, ask questions about what they are seeing, hearing and thinking through the game. You could even play one of the games with another adult. Play Meri Pehchaan and talk about the jobs you dreamed of doing and saw around you as kids. Maybe think about how your own gender and the gender of the professionals around you made a difference.
Our hope is that the games are challenging and thought-provoking while also being fun and accessible. In fact, I am sure you will not be thinking about ending rampant gender discrimination and gender-based violence when playing these fun games. But maybe you are, little by little. Crumb by crumb.
Author Of The Piece Is Zubin Miller
Zubin Miller is currently working on content and research in the area of early childhood education at the Delhi-based NGO Pratham. Views in the article are personal of the author. For any feedback, he is available at email@example.com.
PraDigi Innovation Centre is the creator of these games. They are available on the PraDigi for Life app, a learning platform that prepares you for school, work and life.