At the start of December, I attended The Surrogacy Act – an event hosted virtually by Modern Art Oxford. The Surrogacy Act is the title of a new, interactive, online game developed by self-described playwright and game-maker Rhianna Illube, and researchers Zaina Mahmoud and Meera Somji, exploring the legal complexities of the UK's current (highly criticised) surrogacy law (see BioNews 1010), through the eyes of both surrogates and intended parents. At this event, attendees were not only given the chance to test out the game but also to learn about the research that underpinned it and the process of creating it.
Illube, Mahmoud and Somji reflected candidly on the potential concerns about the 'gamification' of a deeply personal and emotive topic like surrogacy. I use the term 'game' in this review for clarity – as this was the term used in the event description – but am inclined to agree that it could be beneficial to seek an alternative label.
Introducing the research that informed the game, Mahmoud provided a really comprehensive and accessible overview of the current legal regime, and the wider ethical issues associated with surrogacy – no mean feat given its complexity. Somji's presentation was more theoretical. She considered how surrogacy can be framed as labour or work, while recognising the nuances of the feminist debate on the matter.
Before being given access to the online game, we (the event attendees) participated in an interactive introductory exercise, facilitated through Zoom chat. This put us in the shoes of Taj and Kamilah, a couple who were seeking a surrogate through an app designed to connect intended parents with potential surrogates. We were shown a number of potential surrogate's profiles, and asked to consider whether we wanted to connect with them and to share our reasoning in the chat. This was incredibly useful as it allowed people to explore their own, and discover others' underlying preconceptions about what makes a 'good' surrogate. Reasons for rejecting candidates included the surrogate being too old, having no experience of pregnancy or wanting too 'intense' a relationship beyond the birth.
This interactive preamble was also an effective theatrical tool to help attendees get into the mindset of the intended parents. Were this game to become accessible outside of a facilitated event setting it would be beneficial to work out a way to incorporate this component.
This was followed by the opportunity to individually 'play' the game. This involved working through an interactive story by clicking on different links and making decisions on behalf of both the intended parents and the surrogate, with the ultimate aim of facilitating a successful surrogacy. The links either allowed you to make a decision and progress through the story, or provided information to help inform those decisions.
One thing which stood out was the extent to which the story at the centre of the game was grounded in the lived experiences of the surrogates that Mahmoud had interviewed. This was a real strength as conversations about surrogacy can so easily get lost in legalistic discussion; and where lived experience is missing from these discussions, space is created for misconceptions and biases to flourish.
You experienced the story as the intended parents and the surrogate concurrently; to move the game along you had to make decisions for both parties. This was clever, as it exposed some of the 'unspoken' tensions which exist between the desires of each party – and hidden concerns that each side had about upsetting the other. This was illustrated, for example, when a consultant in the story suggests the surrogate may want to consider a planned c-section and you (the 'player') were given the opportunity to explore the responses of the different parties in the game to this suggestion.
Playing through 'The Surrogacy Act' at the event, it struck me how effective a medium this was for exploring topics that are both legally complex and highly emotive. Firstly, the narrative aspect of the piece facilitated engagement with personal aspects of surrogacy, by allowing participants to 'experience' some of the frustrations and pitfalls associated with the law – as informed by Mahmoud's interviews with surrogates. At points, you wanted to access more information before making the 'decision' that moved you on to the next stage, but none was available. This was not an omission, rather it was a clever decision aimed at emphasising some of the 'clunkiness' of the current system, and reflecting the frustration felt by parties to a surrogacy about the lack of information available.
Secondly, the step-by-step nature of playable theatre provided an insight into how the surrogacy process would be experienced by surrogates and intended parents, and helped strengthen practical understanding of how the law works (or, doesn't!).
Finally, the piece offered wider reflections on societal perceptions about surrogacy. This was starkly illustrated when participants were asked to consider the expenses that we (as the surrogate) would ask for. Clicking on items such as 'prenatal massage' or 'maternity clothes' revealed concerns that this would lead to being viewed as 'money-grabbing'. As Mahmood explained, this demonstrates the 'cultural mismatch' between the media rhetoric of the 'greedy surrogate' and the reality that most surrogates are driven by a motivation to help others.
I also really liked that (spoiler alert!) no matter what choices were made in the game, every 'story' ended in a successful parental order. I agree with the creators that this is important to help dispel the 'horror story' myths about surrogacy going wrong that are rife in the media, but which, in practice are extremely rare.
'The Surrogacy Act' is engaging, informative and a great example of how effective it can be to think outside the box disseminating academic research. If anyone gets the chance to experience the piece for themselves, I strongly recommend they take it!