Swallows: Spring in Bishkek is a gaming app designed to do more than just kill time. It has a special mission: to stop girls and young women being abducted and forced into a marriage, a practice known as bride-kidnapping, or ala-kachuu in Kyrgyz.
Created over 12 months by the Open Line Foundation and a team of activists, the developers expected the app to get roughly 25,000 downloads in its first year. Instead, it has racked up more than 70,000 in its very first month.
The app wants to convince those who see bride-kidnapping as a Kyrgyz tradition to see it instead as a crime
An interactive story — based on the real-life experiences on abducted women — the game guides users through a scenario where their choices shape the virtual outcome. The game begins when the main character sees her best friend kidnapped into marriage. The player then has to decide what to do next, aided by notes prepared by journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and psychologists.
Initially, developers were concerned that the notes — which include emergency contact numbers — could distract users from the game. Instead, in the testing stage, they saw players taking screenshots so that they could share the information with their friends, reveals the game’s artist, Tatyana Zelenskaya.
Importantly, players can also enter their own name into the game, putting themselves at the centre of the saga. “When a girl writes her name, she gets that sense of being a saviour, a superwoman. If abduction touches her life or the lives of her loved ones, she will know how what to do, and she can defend her right to freedom of choice,” Open Line Director, Munara Beknazarova told The Calvert Journal.
But the game isn’t just designed as a new way to share important info. It also wants to actively change attitudes to ala-kachuu — convincing those who see bride-kidnapping as a Kyrgyz tradition to see it instead as a crime. The app’s creators tried to make the game authentically Kyrgyz, with Kyrgyz names, visuals, and interiors. The script for the first chapter was rewritten nine times by the game’s co-founder and screenwriter, Maria Sereda, to make it sound as natural as possible. Meanwhile, the game’s interactive format helps users realise the kind of consequences that each of their choices can spark, explains Irina Leu, the game’s co-founder and UX designer.
“Before the Soviet era, bride-kidnapping could occur if the groom’s status was much lower than the bride’s, and her parents were against the marriage,” explains Beknazarova. “When that happened, the girl’s parents would gather relatives to organise a pursuit, as kidnapping was not the norm.”
Yet despite being criminalised in the Soviet Union, bride-kidnapping has continued and has even become normalised. Open Line has been fighting against abductions in Kyrgyzstan since 2009. In that time, the maximum punishment for ala-kachuu has risen from 2000 Kyrgyz soms ($25) to 5 to 10 years in prison. Yet while more abducted women are now turning to help from human rights groups, organisations like Open Line believe that Kyrgyz society remains too lenient.
“The punishment does not work much in practice,” says Beknazarova. “Most representatives at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and within the judicial system are men. They grew up in the same society with these traditional stereotypes: that stealing means love, and that’s what a real man does,” she says.
But while even Beknazarova admits that the game won’t wipe out bride-kidnapping on its own, the game is already having an impact. After the app’s release, the team received a message of gratitude from a Kyrgyz woman who said that the information inside the game helped her to rescue her younger sister from a forced marriage. Soon after, a girl from Kazakhstan reached out to reveal that she knew a family preparing to abduct a bride. The charity was able to contact organisations in Kazakhstan to come to her aid. “We were so happy,” says Beknazarova.
Today, the app has been downloaded by users of all ages from across Central Asia and Russia — and surprisingly, some 20 per cent of players are men. “One of our favourite reviews was from a 19-year-old guy. He thought the game was ‘a girl thing’ at first, but soon caught himself thinking about how to save his female friends,” says Irina Leu.
“Sometimes I go to read comments on our Instagram to cheer myself up. When I do that, I understand that we have launched a remarkable project. We put our souls into it and users can feel that,” says Tatyana Zelenskaya.
Six of the app’s planned 11 chapters are now available online, with the launch of the remaining five expected in October.