Chicago’s gun violence has garnered national headlines, been the focus of a Spike Lee movie and will soon be featured in a new video game.
The game, We Are Chicago, is expected to be released this year and it will not be in the same vein as games like Grand Theft Auto. Instead, We Are Chicago is an empathy game, an emerging genre that presents realistic problems or scenarios for players to work through. Creators of the game say We Are Chicago allows players to make similar decisions that some Chicago teenagers have to face every day.
Game designer Michael Block and story consultant Tony Thornton talked to Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia about what they hope to achieve when the game hits the market. Below are some highlights from their conversation.
How does one play We Are Chicago?
Michael Block: In the game, you can walk around the space -- home, work, school, park -- and interact with people, and the main gameplay mechanic is conversation driven. When you talk to somebody, you pick how to respond, so those conversations influence how other characters in the game feel about you as the story progresses. You can think of it like a choose your adventure where you're defining the path of the character and how they exist in the world.
What's the main theme you wanted to draw out of this game?
Block: With this game, the characters have to find a way to survive without resorting to violence. There are a lot of people on the South Side who don't have guns, who aren't trying to get into fights all the time and aren't in a gang -- and those people are very underrepresented on the South Side.
The point to this was to talk about those stories and experiences and how society is setting them up for these situations, where they're being put in positions to join a gang or committing acts of violence. We're trying to talk about this other side of it that doesn't get much coverage in the media because it's not a homicide figure.
Tony, you lived some of these experiences. How did you decide what stories would be included in the game?
Tony Thornton: I lived (through) everything I wrote. We couldn’t walk two or three blocks in any direction without being challenged by a gang. (Kids today) are still going through that; walk a few blocks and you’re in a different hood. And you’ve got to roll with someone or else you’re out there on your own. But (with guns), it’s escalated to unimaginable degrees.
When I came into the project, Michael and his staff had already crafted how the story wanted to go, but I filled in the details. Every step of the way, they'd send me the framework and I'd flesh it out with my editor. There were moments where I had to say, 'Wait, hold it,' because I wanted the game to be real to those who wouldn't know.
Block: There were some situations, like gun shot reactions. We had this expectation that everyone is gonna have a reaction, and people actually don't have a reaction if it's far away…
Thornton: ...Because we're used to hearing gun shots. And if we stopped every time we heard a gunshot, we'd never get anything done. It's common -- and I'd say it still is today -- to hear gunshots in the distance. If you hear them outside your door, that's different.
Who is the game crafted for?
Block: One of our original intents was to educate people who don't live this experience to build empathy, but the end goal of that is to get people to change. Change the way they think when they go out to vote, the conversations we're having when we're talking about people in these neighborhoods, and how we're treating people who live in these neighborhoods.
When you buy the games, the proceeds support the efforts of two nonprofits: All Stars Project of Chicago and Reclaim Our Kids, and in the game you learn about what those organizations are doing in the community. I don't think the game is going to change mindsets immediately.
Thornton: I hear black people who live in these neighborhoods say all the time when they see guys on the corner, ‘They don’t wanna work.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. If you see people beating buckets for dollars, that’s a job. If they had the educational and job opportunities, they’d be your best neighbor; not selling drugs and shooting people.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.