The Power of Play: An Essay

A board game deconstructs the mystifying traditions and abuses of power inherent in traditional arranged marriages and a game designer learns that her game is the perfect platform to start a dialogue about matters that would otherwise go unspoken.

I have always felt that play is one of the easiest ways to bring people together. Families and friends congregate around games, and the worst result might be an agitated player flipping over the board.

My belief is that if a game like Monopoly can trigger such strong emotions, a game with an underlying narrative can be the perfect platform to start a dialogue about matters that would otherwise go unspoken. This is precisely what I do with the games I design. For me, game design is a medium that provides an accessible, interactive way for people to discuss serious topics—and the most serious, nerve-wracking topic in my life has been the prospect of an arranged marriage.

When going about an arranged marriage, one cannot avoid the “Rishta Aunty:” the disingenuous matchmaker that most girls meet in order to be paired with an eligible young man. My teenage years were overshadowed by this prospect, and I grew up under the Rishta Aunty’s watchful eye. I was expected to behave and dress in a manner that would endear me to her, so that she might consider better marriage options for me. What was most alarming was that these auditions were never about who I was or what I wanted. What mattered was my appearance and family background.

I realized that being away had made no difference to the pressures and norms in my country.

After years of societal pressure, I took things into my own hands, and enrolled in an American university in an effort to escape the prospect of an arranged marriage. Little did I know that once a Rishta Aunty knew of my existence, she would play an unwanted role in my life, until death (or better, a marriage) do us part. The first time I returned to Karachi for a family wedding, I realized that being away had made no difference to the pressures and norms in my country. Once again, I felt I was being auditioned for roles that I hadn’t chosen: a submissive daughter-in-law, a doting housewife, a baby factory.

While I watched this unfold, I could see the collateral damage of the Rishta Aunty among my friends and family. Most of my friends hid their unhappy marriages from society, but would confess to me in secrecy a common wish: that they hadn’t gotten married. I was frustrated and saddened for them, while at the same time terrified for myself. Of course, I couldn’t say anything. These issues were taboo, and speaking ill of a Rishta Aunty is like signing away your future. I needed an outlet for that pent-up anger, and so I did what I knew best. I turned it into a board game.

I began by listing all the methods I had used to make myself as ineligible as possible: wearing fake engagement rings, pretending to have a boyfriend, spilling the tea tray in front of the aunties, and getting a tan, to name a few. I added issues and ideas that I’d never been able to discuss back at home.

I then turned this list into a light-hearted game dedicated to running away from the Rishta Aunty. While the girls draw scandalous cards to move away from the Aunty, she moves closer to them as she discovers their proficiency in the kitchen or their sizeable dowry. Upon landing on the same tile as a girl, the Aunty marries them off to a less than desirable man.

I created this game to renew my sense of power and to provide some catharsis.

The game reaches a climax with the entry of the Golden Boy, the dreamy Mr. Right, who supports their careers and doesn’t live with his parents. When Mr. Right appears, the game dynamic shifts as the girls switch to the Golden Boy deck in order to flaunt their talents and potentially marry him.

I originally created this game to renew my sense of power and to provide some catharsis. However I also hoped that when people play around with the lives of three fictitious women, they would realize that the lives of millions of real women are also being played with.

The most important point of the game is that you can’t escape—the game cannot end until everyone is married. This harsh reality reflects how powerless many women in these positions are.


Plato once said: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

It was when I played the game with my close friends that I experienced this firsthand. I learned things about them that I never would have, due to the safe, open space created through the gameplay. One friend revealed that she was approached by an Aunty on the day of her father’s funeral. Another friend revealed that she met her husband on the day of their wedding. I realized not only how shameless some Rishta Aunties really were, but how all of us had suffered in silence. On the other hand, when men played this game, they discovered that women went through all of this psychological trauma right under their noses and they didn’t have a clue!

Arranged! has raised awareness through its satire and commentary.

Arranged! has not only spurred a global dialogue, it has also raised awareness through its satire and commentary. It has taken women around the world on an emotional journey, and has helped South Asian women gain the courage to speak to their families about avoiding some of the misogynistic traditions that accompany arranged marriages.

Catharsis wasn’t the only benefit of this game. In bringing to light all that is wrong with arranged marriage, I have blacklisted myself in the eyes of all Rishta Aunties. If I am ever approached by an Aunty who doesn’t know me, I now only have to say: “Just Google my name, and you won’t want your son to marry me.”

They can play my board game, but they can’t play with my life anymore. ♦

(Image credits: All images of Arranged! courtesy the author.)

About Nashra Balagamwala

Nashra Balagamwala is an experiential designer whose work frequently transforms controversial and sensitive topics into unique games, designs, and experiences. Prior to working in New York and Pakistan, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design and worked at Hasbro Inc.

PLAY reinvents the rules.