We Are Chicago aims to challenge stereotypes about black people and encourage empathy. Michael Block, the game’s lead programmer, says that developer Culture Shock Games worked hard not to “perpetuate stereotypes.”
Set in the south side of Chicago and focusing on a black lead character and his family, the developer also says that We Are Chicago can help people “realize their own capacity to make a difference.”
We Are Chicago Dev on Stereotypes, Empathy and Representation in Games
Described as a “first person 3D narrative-driven adventure game,” We Are Chicago puts players in the role of Aaron, a black teenager who is just one week away from graduating high school. Wanting to focus on the future and his post-school plans, Aaron’s world is shaken up when his best friend, Robert, goes missing.
This is no happy go lucky quest to find your bestie though as We Are Chicago doesn’t shy away from the issues that a black family in the city’s south side might face in real life. The game explores gang violence, the threat of guns and racial inequality.
When this first description of the game was given – poor black folks coming face to face with gangs – understandably, some were quick to raise concerns that the game would just see white developers work to further stereotypes about black people. But speaking to me in an email, Michael Block (who is white) tells me that concerns about stereotypes were at “the top of our minds during production” and that the Culture Shock Games team “worked very hard to make sure that our representation in We Are Chicago is respectful and accurate and does not perpetuate stereotypes.”
Block also explains that the We Are Chicago developer worked with Tony Thornton (a writer from the south side of Chicago) to make sure that “the events, the narrative, and the characters were all represented well and reflected his experiences.” The developer also worked with south side residents (including on the street and ‘in depth’ interviews) to ensure that the characters and places in “We Are Chicago are depicted respectfully and accurately.”
For Culture Shock Games, this due diligence was entirely “necessary” and not just to avoid some kind of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided level of controversy. Block tells me that “media shapes our culture and we believe strongly that by leaving out or misrepresenting groups of people, media does harm to our understanding of each other” and that this understanding informs our actions towards one another.
Though, Block doesn’t have any “misconceptions” that We Are Chicago can tackle every single social issue, but the developer does think that the game “can be a useful part of the process to help someone understand more about the people we depict in the game” and “realize their own capacity to make a difference.” The developer has previously spoken of how the game can “break down the idea that everyone on the south side is violent, a criminal, or lazy and not getting a job.”
As We Are Chicago has only been available for a single day, it’s hard to say exactly how much of an impact the game will have on people; particularly those who hold deeply a negative view of black, Chicago south siders. However, Block says that the game has already had a huge influence on those who live in the south and west of Chicago. During play-testing, the developer tells me, people were “really excited to see themselves and their lives represented respectfully and accurately in a game.”
We Are Chicago can “provide encouragement to many people who didn’t see themselves in games before, help them feel empowered to tell their stories in games and to know that there are people interested in hearing and sharing those stories,” says Block.