When thinking about the black neighborhoods in Chicago‘s south and west side most people will probably see death statistics. This is what the media thrusts into the public’s face time and again. It’s hardly an isolated incident; while purported to be based in fact, these statistics are trumpeted around for their racially charged implications. Bring it up again and again and those who are distant and unfamiliar with these neighborhoods can only associate them with gangland murders. What else do they have to go on? Being poor and black becomes enough for everyone else to fear you. And it seems to be fear that has driven cops to shoot young black kids walking unarmed on their own streets. That’s only the most obvious and violent consequences of this creeping prejudice.
We’re all aware of this now, perhaps more than ever, due to the past year’s events: Ferguson and Black Lives Matter especially. Michael Block and his team started working on We Are Chicago two and a half years ago before, as he says, the subject of this videogame was being discussed by mainstream outlets on a national scale. Block’s intention back then, and still to this day, is to share an engaging story of what it’s like to actually live on the streets that those death statistics are pulled from. And it’s not a Grand Theft Auto-style action romp, but a story about a teenager living life with his family, an experience about the people who exist around the gunshots, who hear them while sat at the dinner table. For this, Block and his team have worked together with people from Chicago’s South Side to hopefully provide an authentic narrative.
In the interview below, Block talks about how We Are Chicago came about in the first place, the specifics of working out the story with writers and artists from the community it’s about, as well as how he and his team is supporting non-profit groups looking to help out the kids and families stuck in these neighborhoods.
KS: You’ve been speaking to and working with people who live in Chicago for this project. But how did you determine who to consult?
During pre-production, our lead designer and I volunteered for an event called Community Action Day. This event put volunteers on the streets of Chicago at popular public transit stops to interview people about the problems they experienced in their lives and the solutions they saw having an effect in their communities.
We interviewed people in the Englewood neighborhood for the whole day and ended up hearing a lot of similar stories about violence and a lack of jobs, affordable housing, healthy food, and good education. The TV and print media, even in Chicago, typically portrays all of these stories through general statistics about gun deaths, poverty rates, and crime rates, but the personal story and the background behind it is far more compelling and impacting. After hearing all of their stories, we knew that these needed to be told in a more personal way and in a way that would follow the questions of “Why is this happening?” and “Why specifically here and to this group of people?”.
To give you some reference in case you haven’t heard of Englewood before, when we asked the people we talked to about the negative things they saw in their neighborhood, they explained to us where their friends had been mugged or where someone they knew had been shot. They would point to the end of the block we were standing on or reference a store a few blocks down. Everyone we talked to had these stories and the crime statistics that the news portrays back up both the content of the stories and their frequency. There has also been a lot of focus on Englewood over the last few years because of the stories and statistics, which has led to a huge increase in the number of non-profit groups working in the area and attempting to improve conditions around employment, housing, food, and education. Even so, the general public perception of Englewood outside of these efforts is severely lacking in context, empathy, and understanding.
After Community Action Day, we talked to one of the volunteers we were stationed with who grew up and still lives on the South Side. He was very interested in the project and agreed to do an in-depth interview with us about what it was like growing up in his neighborhood as well as put us in touch with a friend of his, also from the South Side, who we interviewed.
Later on, we brought on a writer, Tony, who we found by reaching out to colleges in the low income neighborhoods we were focusing on. Through him we were able to get additional confirmation of the stories and events we had heard from other people. From there, he was able to craft an overarching narrative out of the core topics that we found were the most common. Tony also worked for a period doing counseling for high school kids on the South Side. Those experiences and stories also provided more validation of the stories we had previously heard.
Besides the narrative portion of the game, our lead designer and I both knew two artists who were from the South Side that we had worked with on other games. We ended up bringing both of them on to the project to work on environment art. One of them also helped review the narrative and provided feedback on other content for the game like the characters’ appearances. They were able to add an additional layer of authenticity to the game.
We definitely had to focus on one particular group just from the aspect of trying to make a realistic narrative driven 3D game with a very small team. We ended up deciding on low income African Americans living on the South and West sides of Chicago. There are a lot of different demographics of people living in Chicago who are being discriminated against and misrepresented, but we felt that specifically the African American community in Chicago had a particularly difficult history that myself and most of my friends knew very little about. For context, we also started this project before Ferguson and before the Black Lives Matter campaign was in the national spotlight, so a lot of the issues that are being talked about now were very much not being discussed in the main media outlets when we got started.
While the specific narrative we chose is focused on stories from south side Chicago and particularly the African American experience, things like Ferguson and Black Lives Matter have shown that many similar difficulties are being faced all across the country in neighborhoods and cities of all sizes. It’s our hope that the game will help humanize those issues and create empathy for the communities all across the country that are dealing with similar issues. For the players who don’t live in Chicago, we hope that some of these big national movements will show them that these aren’t just Chicago specific stories and that there is probably a neighborhood close to them that is experiencing similar things.
KS: You mention that Chicago residents came up with the plot points. What kind of story did you want them to help you tell?
We set out to tell a story about the everyday experiences of people growing up in these neighborhoods, so during our interviews we would ask very general questions about what their experiences were like growing up. Usually people would bring up events or things that happened to them that sounded unusual to me or were vastly different then the experiences I had growing up. While that was usually very informative, we also made a concerted effort during the interviews to ask people about the positive experiences they had while growing up. Often times people would quickly volunteer the negative stories (probably for a number of reasons), but when we would ask about some of the good things they experienced growing up, they had plenty of those to talk about as well.
From the very beginning we knew that one of the big issues we wanted to address with misrepresentation in the media was the strong focus on negative stories and negative caricatures. Our goal with the narrative and the game as a whole was to present characters that were accurate and relatable, which wouldn’t have been possible only showing the negative events in their lives.
With a collection of both positive and negative stories about growing up in multiple neighborhoods, we figured out what were the most common themes and events and prioritized those as a key focus in the game. When we brought on our writer Tony, we discussed that prioritized list of topics and made sure that he agreed they were both important and representative of his experience as well. After that, he would write the dialogue and the branching options and we worked with him to make sure it worked in game.
During the course of us reviewing the script, we had a particularly interesting discussion about a section of the game where your family sits down to dinner in their home and a gunshot goes off down the street. Based on my personal experience, I expected the characters to react strongly and to be afraid and maybe even call the police, but Tony didn’t have them reacting at all, they just kept eating. After discussing it with him, he explained that gunshots in their neighborhood were such a common occurrence that they would make sure the gunshot wasn’t directed at their house and then continue doing whatever they were doing.
This was obviously something super important to talk about since it represented such a huge disconnect between the way I would have expected the characters to react and the way they did in real life. The trouble was that the most accurate thing to do was something that likely wouldn’t make sense to the player, it would look more like a bug that either the gunshot wasn’t supposed to have played when it did or the reaction animations weren’t playing. After going back and forth with Tony we worked out that it would be appropriate for your younger sister Taylor to be annoyed and for that to start a discussion about gunshots in your neighborhood. This allowed us to have the discussion we needed to have with the player about the gunshot and about the accurate reaction without it feeling like a bug and without the player being unaware of what was going on.
KS: What details did the Chicago-based artists you worked with bring to the virtual environments that you couldn’t have done? Why is that kind of accuracy important to We Are Chicago?
An extremely important part of understanding a community is understanding the visual landscape that makes up that community. If you live on the more affluent north side of Chicago, you will most likely see fancy buildings, nice stores with big windows, and beautiful parks, while on the south side you will often find condemned and boarded up buildings, vacant lots, and lots of bars on store windows with bullet proof glass protecting the cash register. Living in those vastly different visual spaces creates very different psychological effects on the people who live there. By accurately portraying those nuances in the game we are hoping to create some of those same psychological effects in the player.
We want the player, when they walk in to work and see the bullet proof glass, to feel the implication inherent in its presence, that they are not safe working there. As they walk down the street and see signs condemning their neighbor’s house or walk past empty lots, we want them to feel the implications, that their neighbors cannot afford to maintain their homes and that there are not enough people willing and able to take the risk of building something new in their neighborhood. Hopefully as they learn more about the characters, they will also understand on some level the pain that we saw expressed by many of the adults we interviewed. Many were so upset that these things were happening in their neighborhood, to their neighbors, and that often times it was due to circumstances far outside anyone in the community’s control.
KS: Why try to dispel the media misrepresentations you speak of through a videogame rather than any other format?
We created We Are Chicago because we believed that putting people into the difficult situations that we had heard during the interviews would require them to not just witness the results of the choices people had made, but to make and rationalize those choices internally. By presenting you with the realistic options that your character would be presented with, like your friend deciding to join a gang or you getting mugged on the street, we believe you as the player have to think about those situations and your responses on a different level then the passive observer in a documentary film.
Because the story plays out in the context of a game, you have to justify to yourself and to your character why you chose to lie to your mom about your friend or how to confront a friend that endangered your life. Unlike a documentary film where the person or people who are the focus of the film are making the decisions and you can decide whether you agree with them or not, a game removes that level of detachment and forces you to get involved. It’s our hope that through those rationalizations and that involvement, people will engage on a deeper level with the story being told and understand a little better the real life people who shared those stories.
KS: How do players progress through the game’s narrative and what interactions and other game elements inform it?
The in-game experience takes place primarily through branching dialogue options similar to the Telltale Walking Dead games. Between conversations the player usually has control to move their character around in first-person to inspect things in the environment or talk to other characters in the space.
During our interviews, numerous people described crossing the street or sometimes even walking in the street to avoid people they thought might be in a gang or to avoid places that had blind corners or were known to be hiding spots where people may mug you. We discuss the concept of always being on guard by giving the player control to choose which paths to take when walking down the street. Your character’s friends in the game will inform you if you get too close to someone who looks suspicious and help educate the player on what can happen if they’re not careful enough.
We also have a few one-off mechanics throughout the game that are used to convey emotions and feelings to the player and build a sense of empathy and relatability. For example, during a scene in the game, you set the table before dinner. While this is a rather mundane event for a video game, it helps create in the player a sense of normality and to reinforce the focus on everyday events in the game. In addition we follow this everyday action that everyone can relate to with an action that is only a regular occurrence for the characters in the narrative and not the player. Immediately after setting the table and sitting down to eat, a gunshot rings out down the street. By making the player feel comfortable and safe surrounded by family and friends and then contrasting that with the violence outside, we hope that juxtaposition of the gunshot with the family dinner has a stronger impact on the player. Through this event and its framing we also examine the normality of the gunshot to help convey the differences between the player and the character in an effort to spur contemplation and discussion.
KS: How exactly are you raising awareness of these non-profit groups working in Chicago’s neighborhoods through the game?
Our main menu takes place in the living room of the main character’s house and we’ve placed the real brochures from the organizations we are working with on the table for you to look through. In each one there will be a link to visit the organization’s website and get more information as well as donate money and sign up for volunteer opportunities. Throughout the game, we are also placing their real posters and handouts in various places that make sense for the narrative (announcement boards at school, on the wall at your work, in a pile of papers at home). In addition, towards the end of the game, but in a place that makes sense for the narrative, there is a section where a representative from the non-profit organizations explains what their organization does to help these communities and how the player can help them accomplish their mission along with further links to the organization’s website.
On top of the in-game presence, we are also contributing a portion of our revenue from the game to each of the non-profits that are signed on and featured in the game. We hope that the in-game materials will increase awareness and hopefully also drive funding and volunteer signups, but at a minimum the revenue share will mean that any sales of the game will directly help fund positive programs in these neighborhoods.
One major goal we had with this project was to ensure that the narrative experience was not only authentic and informative but also engaging. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of games that are funded or essentially heavily designed and directed by other non-profit organizations and they usually end up being not very immersive with walls of text or clunky exposition. We wanted to shift this paradigm by creating a strong game first and working with the non-profits to see how their organizations would fit in to the character’s story. We hope that We Are Chicago is able to show that our model of naturally incorporating the non-profit information into the narrative and the environment results in a better game, with greater reach, and greater benefit to the organizations and the community they serve.
The two groups we currently have signed on are:
All Stars Project of Chicago – http://allstars.org/content/all-stars-project-chicago
All Stars Project of Chicago has two primary programs, the first is a youth training program for kids from low income neighborhoods that involves workshops and paid internships with local companies. The other program is a talent show that provides kids with a positive outlet to discuss what’s happening in their lives or just provide a space for them to express themselves in a constructive way. In addition, they were also one of the groups that ran Community Action Day which was extremely influential in getting this project started. We’re very excited to be featuring them in the game because they provide a positive alternative to the negative events and choices we discuss in the game. By setting up workshops and internships with local companies, they are providing a path to a good career and the opportunities that entails, which gives the kids in these neighborhoods a very good reason to turn down gang recruitment.
Reclaim Our Kids – http://www.reclaimourkids.com/
Reclaim Our Kids is composed of former gang members who go into schools to talk to kids about the experiences they had in joining a gang to convince them not to join in the first place. They will also negotiate on behalf of kids who have already joined a gang to get them out and then make sure they have the resources and opportunities to stay out of the gang for good. With We Are Chicago, we are hoping to provide a space for the kids from these neighborhoods to test out ideas and hopefully decide that not joining a gang is the best option, but we know that not everyone will play the game and that not everyone will choose to stay out of a gang. We’re very happy to be working with Reclaim Our Kids and to be supporting their mission so that they can try to reach the kids that everyone else cannot before they join and to be there to get them out if they’ve already made the choice.
You can find out more about We Are Chicago on its website. It’s expected to be finished in early 2016.