Designing games as research tools: Enabling women in rural India to speculate preferred futures through snakes and ladders
As games fundamentally create temporary worlds within which players explore alternate realities, this article highlights the merits of using games as a medium for speculation of preferred futures amongst players. While co-designing futures with marginalised communities as seen in rural India, there exist several challenges and issues such as the inability to critically reflect on current situations and aspire for better futures. The article aims to highlight how some of these challenges can be addressed through the elements of game design, derived from personal experience of conducting speculation through the redesign of an indigenous game known as snakes and ladders. The idea is not to create a framework for designing games but positioning games as a promising method. The article stages early reflections and an in-depth description of the design of the game and how its elements enabled players to consider alternate futures.
There is an increasing discourse in the research community about the role of speculative design as a research tool. Following a Research Through Design approach , researchers have designed artefacts that support generative inquiries of preferred states through reflective practices of the current state  . Speculative design research within the Western context has seen examples such as data obsession , climate change , robots as domestic products , healthcare services  to name a few. These enable us to understand how the methodology has emerged as a way to critique the reductionist, problem-solving approach to design  and shows promises of engaging in ‘wicked problems’ that cannot be reduced 
When considering countries of the Global South such as India, these examples of speculative design projects are a language understood by its privileged sections . In other words, minimal literature has been written about applying speculative design methods for research amongst marginalised communities. While the methodology brings forth the potential of engaging in complex problems in developing countries, its adoption is at a nascent stage. Communities are experts in their local environment and needs , particularly their pasts that inform their present and future. Since what designers perceive as speculations of better futures for the communities will be based on their own world-view, communities become an indispensable part of co-creating ideas of these preferred futures.
In this article, I reflect upon my own experiences during a speculative design research project with low-income groups of women in rural Bihar, where preferred futures were collectively imagined. These groups of women live within complex systems of disadvantage , often making their engagement in speculative activities difficult.
Appadurai  and Freire  discuss the challenges faced by marginalised sections in future-oriented thinking. They highlight that communities that have been pushed to the boundaries do not inherently possess the capacity critically analyse current situations and aspire for better futures. I discuss how it was possible to overcome some these challenges through the redesign of an indigenous game, Snakes and Ladders.
I draw upon game design practices to reflect upon elements of the board game that enabled speculation. Games are inherently about exploring alternate worlds . They create a playful space, known as ‘magic circle’, an enclosed space that is separate from the rest of the world  This property of games encourages players to be explorative in the safety of the elaborate worlds created by the game. Another intrinsic element of games in the system of conflict born out of the goals that the game constructs to achieve. While conflict outside of games can sometimes be destructive, in games we find the wonderful paradox of a staged conflict, resulting in meaningful play.  There is an increasing interest in designing games, known as serious games, for purposes outside pure entertainment . Brandt   discusses the credibility of using of exploratory design games to organise participation in participatory design projects.
The goals of our study were to (1) critically analyse current situations of mothers in rural Bihar to understand how perceived roles and responsibilities of mothers affect early childhood education and care (2) identify issues stemming from personal as well as socio, cultural, political backdrops that their livelihoods belong to (3) speculate preferable futures where these issues were subverted (4) reflect on ways (interventions and solutions) in which the current reality and preferred futures can be bridged. We conducted a five-day workshop with the women from the community, gradually unfolding the context through a mix of methods such as interviews, games, script-writing and street play. Among these, the interviews conducted informed the game design and street play was a way of staging women’s voices to the community. For this article, I will focus on the elements and design of the game that enabled speculation amongst rural women.
Participant access and recruitment
Access to women of the community was facilitated by Project Potential, a local not-for-profit organisation. Project Potential works on a varied number of projects such as youth unemployment, education, entrepreneurship, and leadership. The organisation also arranged for local volunteers from the community who helped in bridging cultural differences and language barriers between the researchers and participants. The game was played in three different settings. The first one was a couple in a private home setting. The second group comprised of 7 women in the courtyard of one of the players, where the players were from the same neighborhood and knew each other very well. The third group comprised of 25 women in 5 teams with a representative from each team rolling the dice. The setting had 30–40 onlookers as the game took place under a tree in the village square. The teams were divided on the basis of age groups.
Redesigning Snakes and Ladders
The objective of the original game of snakes and ladders is for a player to navigate his/her pawn, depending on the roll of dice, from the bottom square (number zero) to the top square (number hundred), hindered by snakes or accelerated by ladders at different nodes. A prototype of the redesigned model of the game was made where both the snake and ladder were placed on the same box. These boxes were made of paper cutouts with situations/scenarios written inside. These situations hindered Early Childhood Education and Care and gathered from the interviews conducted with the mothers. If the player’s pawn (modeled as children) landed on such a square, she had to justify whether the given condition was a ‘snake’ (a metaphor for deterrent) or a ‘ladder’ (a metaphor for promoter) for her child. To climb up the ladder, the participant had to speculate a better future and suggest the necessary steps that needed to be taken to convert the ‘snake’ into a ‘ladder’. The input given by the player needed to be approved by the majority for it to be considered as a better future. If unable to do so, the condition would be considered a snake that brought her child down.
Speculating through games
In this section, I aim to highlight elements of the game ‘Snakes and Ladders’ that enabled women from the rural community to speculate within the context of the play. While some of these elements are common to all games (such as the magic circle and games as systems of conflict), other designed elements highlight how a familiar indigenous game was tweaked to augment speculation.
The magic circle
A game creates a boundary or ‘magic-circle’, the idea of a special place in time and place created by the game. It is a finite place with infinite possibilities within its ‘frame’.  This frame allows players to explore alternate worlds within its safety, unaffected by the constraint of real-world situations.  In the play-state players experience a protective frame which stands between them and the “real” world and its problems, creating an enchanted zone in which, in the end, a player is confident that no harm can come. It was in this ‘magic-circle’ that the players navigated their pawns (modeled as children between 0 to 6). The game created a playful subversive space for the women to imagine possibilities of futures that were not constrained from their real-life conditions. This nature of games helps a player live a new reality — a temporary world within the ordinary world
The metaphor of ‘snake’ and ‘ladder’
As far as Plato, metaphors have been a common means to express complex topics . Metaphors by their mere nature, they can stimulate imagination, arouse feeling, and prompt action and change . In the game, ‘snakes’ were used as metaphors for deterrent and ‘ladder’ were used as metaphors for promotors. The metaphor of ‘snakes’ in the game helped players critically look at their current situations. This according to Freire  is a skill that the oppressed do not exercise due to years of oppression. He argues that this critical analysis of current situations is something that needs to be cultivated in the oppressed to stir a change such that the poor can change their own
Placing snake and ladder on the same box
By placing the snake and ladder in the same box, the rules of the game pushed the participants to choose whether the mentioned situation was a promoter or deterrent for the child. Even though the game’s ‘magic circle’ created an alternate world (where possibilities that are constrained by other factors in the real world exist), the situations mentioned in the box were stemming from their realities. Thus by having to decide whether the box was a ‘snake’ or ‘ladder’, players were made to critically analyse current situations. In the event that the situation was decided upon as a snake, to convert it into a ladder, the player had to speculate a better future and suggest necessary steps that needed to be taken. The end goal of the game and competitiveness pushed participants to speculate better futures.
System of conflict
Conflicts are an indispensable element of games, born out of the goal constructed by the rules of the game. Here, the goal for a player was to reach number hundred first, either naturally through luck or by overcoming the snakes and turning them into ladders. Upon reaching such a box, the preferred future suggested by a player had to be agreed upon by the majority. The player was expected to fight her case with other players, which created dialogue and debate amongst players. This staged conflict surfaced many possible futures informed by each player’s past. The conflict also brought to light many socio, cultural factors that affect the possibility of change in a complex system.
Associating with the pawn
The pawns were designed as young children, between the ages 0 to 6. Before the start of the game, players were asked to pick their pawn. Invariably, the players (mothers) picked the pawns that identified with the gender or their child. If a mother had a girl between the ages 0 to 6, she preferred the girl pawn over the boy. This association with the pawn during the game meant critical reflection of their own children’s lives within the game boundaries.
Potential of games for speculation
Within the temporary world of the game, women were empowered to express their desires and engage in dialogue about preferred futures for their children. For example, in reality, the girls of the community do not attain education beyond the tenth grade and get married before the age of eighteen. Within the world of the game, one of the girl pawns climbed up the ladders by continuing education until twenty-four and choosing to stay unmarried to pursue her career and service for the community. The capacity to build connections between complex issues by the participants was another outcome of the snakes and ladders game. The players, during the gameplay, articulated and realised for themselves for the first time how many of the issues were interrelated and were quoted as saying so. For instance, one of the players saw more than three children in the family as a ‘ladder’ for her girl pawn. The same participant upon reaching the box of education negotiated it as well as a ‘ladder’. This caused debate amongst the participants about the conflict in her decisions: if the girl were to be amongst two or more siblings, she would automatically take up responsibilities of the younger ones at a tender age. This, owing to the busy nature of her parents, results in lesser focus and time spent on education. Instances like these helped the participants make connections between family planning and increasing number of dropouts in girls. Finally, in societies like India where subaltern power structures and hierarchy exists within the family/community, to engage in conversations with an individual of ‘lower power’ (women in this case), it is essential to create a ‘safe space’. Playing a game with the women was looked upon as a harmless activity, avoiding cynicism from the male members of the community. Within the group of players, power differences existed due to the difference in age, class, and caste. This was regulated by the successive turns taken by each player. The player was meant to speculate only during her turn, while the others could agree or disagree and validate their argument.
Speculative Design is a form of research methodology that is gaining momentum within the research community due to its future-oriented approach. Since the research is generative in nature, the methodology shows promise in working with ‘wicked problems’ that cannot be reduced. Critique of the method challenges its current contribution which is reflective of Western ways of seeing. Conducting speculative design research in contexts whose socio-cultural backgrounds are different from the researchers themselves calls for collectively co-imagining better futures for and with the communities. Amongst communities who have faced oppression, the capacity to critically think of current situations and aspire for better futures is often a leap in imagination. In this pictorial, I aim to highlight ways in which elements of games help in bridging these challenges. As with any design strategy, there is a wide variety and possibility of games that can be designed for speculation. The aim of the pictorial is to not create a framework for designing games that enable speculation but position games as a promising method for speculation through early reflections from the field. Further, I have detailed out the design and rationale behind the redesign of snake and ladders, as a starting point for other researchers working with similar demographics.
I thank my group member Arjun Rao, local volunteers and faculty member who were an indispensable part of the research. I thank the local not-for-profit organisation for their help and support in our experiment. Finally, I thank our course leads Shreya Gupta and Kshama Nagaraja for their guidance, facilitation and constructive feedback before, during and after our engagement with the community.
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