Women clad in saris, with flowers in their hair, try to climb up floors in their bid to visit the temple at the top. As they make their ascent, they have to battle priests along the route, desperate to thwart their efforts, if the women are menstruating.

This is the world of Darshan Diversion, a video game created by Padmini Ray Murray, Joel Johnson and KV Ketan for the Global Game Jam, an annual game-creation event, in 2016. Gamers can play either as the priest or a woman attempting to enter the temple. A red light blinking near the women indicates they are menstruating and can be stopped from proceeding.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it is because Darshan Diversion draws its inspiration from the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, where recent events have mirrored the game’s premise. The ancient shrine has been the scene of violent protests since a Supreme Court judgement in September struck down an entry ban on women of menstruating age. Supporters of the traditional ban have kept women between the ages of 10 and 50 out of the temple, claiming that their entry would be disrespectful to the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, who had taken a vow of celibacy.

Darshan Diversion is particularly relevant today. “To be perfectly honest, we never imagined at the time that the controversy would be raging two years after we made the game,” Ray Murray said. “There was never that much forethought. At the time, we figured it was an interesting idea, and ran with it.”

A screen grab from the game.

Using humour

Darshan Diversion was shown at a Bengaluru event on October 7. Curated by journalist Barkha Dutt, the event aimed to bring together feminist perspectives, and the game was part of an exhibition arranged in collaboration with the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. The game attracted attention after Dutt tweeted about it, and was attacked by trolls on social media. It was scheduled to be displayed again at the Mumbai edition of Dutt’s event on November 25, said Ray Murray, but was not shown for fear of backlash, given the volatile situation at Sabarimala.

The creators are reluctant to speak about the game. While Ray Murray works at Srishti, Ketan is an independent game designer based out of Bengaluru, and Johnson is the founder of game company digiKhel. “On a professional note, usually, when you make something from a hackathon or a jam, it’s not refined because you throw it together in a couple of days,” said Ray Murray. “So it’s not something that I imagined was good enough to put out there. [Also] I did feel a bit uncomfortable about the kind of undue attention that it would garner from the people who were preventing women from entering the temple.”

The Global Game Jam simultaneously occurs at several sites around the world. Game developers are given a theme, and challenged to make games within two days. The theme for the event in 2016 was Ritual, “chosen because of its rich cultural connotations, personal connections, and conversely, its connection with the mundane and ordinary,” according to the event website.

Devotees stop a car to check if any women of menstruating age are headed towards the Sabarimala temple, at Nilakkal Base camp in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, on October 16, 2018. Photo credit: Sivaram V/Reuters.

While attempting to conceptualise a game that would fit the theme, Ray Murray came across a news article describing the entry ban at the Sabarimala temple. “There was this amazing quote by [Travancore Devaswom Board president, Prayar Gopalakrishnan], who said that the only time they would consider allowing women into Sabarimala is when there is a scanner that checks if they are menstruating,” said Ray Murray. She was also inspired by a woman activist who bragged that she would use helicopters to storm temples that banned female worshippers. “Both the statements are kind of hyperbolic, almost hilarious,” said Ray Murray. “We were playing with the idea that they are such ridiculous comments, that we could probably work that into what we were doing.”

Darshan Diversion can be freely downloaded from the Global Game Jam website. Ray Murray says that most people, including women, who played the game have found it funny, a validation of the idea behind its creation. “Ultimately, you want a playable game that people will enjoy,” she said. “If anything, I like working with humour, and I believe that this whole situation is quite absurd.”

Darshan, the event of seeing a holy person or a deity, has significance within Hinduism. But Darshan Diversion is less about women not being permitted to engage in the act of seeing a deity, and more about them being denied access to a physical space. “I was coming at it from a feminist position, and attempting to address the idea that women are prohibited from entering certain areas – not just by scriptures, but also physically by men,” said Ray Murray. “In the game itself, there’s no god. It’s not like you get to see anything even if you win. It’s not a fully fleshed-out game, of course, but the emphasis is on the act of being able to dodge the priest.”

A screen grab from the game.

Ray Murray says that Darshan Diversion wasn’t built specifically to raise awareness – a purpose that is at the core of several games, such as Leena Kejriwal’s Missing. “I never really had any intention to make a serious statement. It was just a riff on how absurd I found the situation.” She and her team were also attracted to the idea because temples are an established trope in the world of gaming, with several popular video games, such as Temple Run and Gateway to Apshai, offering variations of the theme. Darshan Diversion is a culturally-specific and socially-relevant nod to that recurring motif.

Changing perceptions

Ray Murray says that Darshan Diversion initially made male players at the Global Game Jam uncomfortable because of its explicit reference to menstruation. “It was not that they were aghast by it, but just embarrassed by the fact that it [menstruation] was such a visible feature of the game. But most people who played it enjoyed it, and found it funny. The humour helped people, mainly men, overcome their discomfort at the idea that it had something to do with menstruation.”

She hopes that the women who are actively attempting to enter Sabarimala temple get a chance to play Darshan Diversion. “I want them to feel that there is solidarity, and make them feel a little better about the situation,” she said. “I hope it will make them feel supported, because I do think of the game as a feminist intervention.” And if the organisations restricting women’s entry to the temple reevaluate their stance after playing the game, it would be a “jackpot”. “I don’t know if it has that kind of potential, but there is always a hope.”