Too many of the top news stories out of Chicago deal with gun violence. The Tribune reports that, so far, homicide numbers are outpacing last year’s, and there have been nearly 500 victims of shootings since the start of the New Year, including seven killed on Wednesday, the deadliest day of 2017.
We Are Chicago, a new PC game released earlier this month on Steam and Humble, offers players an unprecedented digital look at the South Side, where so many of the shootings happen.
The game, from producer Michael Block and Culture Shock Games, presents America’s most segregated city through the eyes of Aaron, a high school senior who’s a week away from graduation.
The game is designed to raise awareness about the underlying social issues that spark gun violence. And Block says that nothing influenced the direction and voice of We Are Chicago more than the city’s own people, including its kids, who shared their stories with the development team over countless on-street and in-depth interviews, as well as after play-test sessions.
“People on the team from the South Side, and partner nonprofit groups, helped to make sure the game is accurate to the experience of people on the South Side. We wanted to do this in the right way, and not fall into stereotypes and tropes,” Block tells Co.Exist. (We previewed this in September.)
“There’s a scene where everyone sits down to dinner and gunshots go off outside. Our initial thought was that people would get freaked out, and we’d have a discussion about how often gunshots happen. But our lead writer, Tony [Thornton], who is from the South Side, said, ‘It happens so much, if it’s not close to your house, people just keep doing what they’re doing.’ “
That’s not to say that violence is some faraway threat during the action. On the contrary, players–spoiler alert!–live through beatdowns and stickups. But as much as it’s a first-person story about gang and gun violence, it’s also about outsized responsibilities for teens, who, like Aaron, grow up in single-parent homes. Poverty is inherited and manifests itself everywhere, from cracked and broken cell-phone screens (in the game, the time and date on the display never change) to the vacant lots and boarded-up homes Aaron sees on his way to school, where uniformed police officers and metal detectors greet students at the front door.
We Are Chicago is fun, overall, if short–playtime is about two hours. The dialogue-driven game is at its best when it allows players to freely explore its handful of locations, where little touches like posters of Neil deGrasse Tyson, recognizable album covers, and glow-in-the-dark star stickers that cover bedroom ceilings make the South Side and its personalities feel less like a world away. But playing the game can feel like a chore when Aaron is asked to set the dining room table, which involves making multiple trips to kitchen cabinets and drawers, or gets called in to work at the last minute to work a cash register. There is tension, and characters remember your choices and responses throughout. There’s also a feeling of inevitability that something terrible is waiting for Aaron, which had me racing to the story’s conclusion.
The game’s engine, along with its graphics (shader tech, facial expressions, and more), don’t stack up to its competition on either PC or console. Lucky for We Are Chicago, breakthrough visuals aren’t the point—it’s about helping to contextualize the black experience in the city.
This makes the game, five years in the making, especially relevant in 2017, where the message being trumpeted by the White House is that inner cities are stages for “American carnage.” This is, obviously, a facile take from the nation’s highest office, which has threatened to “send in the Feds.”
“Tell us what ‘the Feds’ means,” says Block. “If it means providing federal funding and housing, and and community development and nonprofit after-school programs, then yeah, do it. If it’s sending in the FBI and the ATF to crack down on gang violence, well, they’re already here doing that.”
Block says that too many people try to treat the symptoms (shootings and gun-related deaths), not the cause.
“The thing that seemed to come out of all our interviews, almost consensus, is the lack of educational and job opportunities, which are directly leading to people choosing to join a gang. People have to pay bills, pay rent, and buy food. Without job opportunities that are reasonably close to you, where going too far from your house can get you shot, there arises a situation where being promised protection and a paycheck from a gang is a compelling offer, given the circumstances.”
Even if “We Are Chicago” doesn’t generate mass appeal (Polygon rated it 7 out of 10), Block hopes the game will find its way out of the South Side and into classrooms and households around the U.S.
There’s interest locally, already. Patrick Sabaitis, the head of Reclaim Our Kids, a Chicago nonprofit that runs a program for at-risk kids at Clark High School on the West Side, wants to use the video game as a teaching tool. Sabaitis and Block are working together to develop a curriculum around the experience and keep teenagers off the street. “To have a real impact, contextualizing it and having good discussions afterward is important,” says Block. The most straightforward link involves lessons on conflict resolution, as Aaron can either be dismissive or supportive of his friends who find themselves in trouble. Hearing from former gang members would offer kids context and practical real-world guidance. Another possibility could focus on resilience. Each of the black role models that help shape the story from President Barack Obama to astronaut Mae Jemison to Aaron’s favorite poet, Claude McKay, serve as examples of excellence stemming from humble beginnings.
“At the end of the day, we want to build a better understanding of what’s happening in these neighborhoods, and the reasons that people are choosing to join gangs or shoot at each other,” says Block.
“You’re having an impact on these neighborhoods whether you realize it or not. Hopefully, you’ll have this perspective in mind when you’re going to vote, or talking about politics with friends, or even when you’re hiring.”
[All Images: via We Are Chicago/Culture Shock Games]