Can a video game be the ultimate empathy machine? 

With the new Englewood-set video game We Are Chicago, indie developer Michael Block attempts to convey the psychological experience of living in a high-crime neighborhood.

click to enlarge We Are Chicago protagonist Aaron Davis and a friend are confronted by gang members in virtual Englewood.

We Are Chicago protagonist Aaron Davis and a friend are confronted by gang members in virtual Englewood.

Courtesy Culture Shock Games

You're seated at the kitchen table, chatting with your mother, sister, and a classmate between bites of spaghetti when a gunshot rings out from somewhere near your house. Are you in danger? It's possible, but you've lived in Englewood all your life and now that you're 18 years old, you're relatively used to the disruptive sound of random gunfire. And so you remain seated. "I'm so tired of all these shootings," your ten-year-old sister, Taylor, says. "It's like we're prisoners in our own houses!" "We hear shots all the time," your mom says, "but we don't hear police sirens half as much." Eventually dinner continues as usual, though the mood of the room has darkened considerably.

If that scenario had taken place in a typical video game, a player would've been given an opportunity to grab a pistol and leap from the table straight into a gunfight. But as the ordinary teenage character Aaron Davis in the not-so-ordinary video game We Are Chicago, you resume conversation as if nothing had happened. When James, your classmate, brings up the subject of post-high school aspirations, you're presented with some dialogue options: Do you prompt Aaron to declare that he's hoping to get away to college—or will you let him joke and say he'd rather stay home and annoy his family?

With We Are Chicago, which will be released February 9 on PC through the Steam distribution platform, independent local developer Michael Block of Culture Shock Games has essentially built an antigame: a stubborn retort to the massacre-happy action titles that tend to top best-seller lists. While the Grand Theft Autos and Call of Dutys rely on gunplay and fisticuffs as the primary language for interacting with the world, acts of violence in We Are Chicago feel like aberrations that distract from the game's real concern—managing the interpersonal relationships between Aaron and those around him, including two friends who are members of rival gangs. Ultimately, We Are Chicago attempts to give a gamer some modicum of insight into the everyday existence of marginalized African-Americans living on the city's south side, who cope with joblessness, divestment, and violence at disproportionately high levels.

As Aaron traverses a virtual version of Englewood the week before graduation, a player chooses phrases for him to utter during scenarios such as a slam poetry competition, a confrontation between gang members in a park, and a candlelight vigil for a friend who's been gunned down. Will Aaron be polite and honest, or callous and selfish? Those choices in turn affect how others treat him. In the end, no choice Aaron is confronted with is kill-or-be-killed, and there's no tidy or conventional narrative arc.

"Most gamers will say, 'I need more violence and more action and more things happening,' but we are trying to go a different direction. To me the interesting stuff comes out of experiencing the discussions people are having [in the game]," Block says. "I think if people are questioning whether or not your game is a game, you're probably doing something right because you're pushing boundaries."

click to enlarge Culture Shock Games developer Michael Block (right) tapped longtime Englewood resident Tony Thornton to heighten the realism of the dialogue and setting in We Are Chicago. - CAROLINA SANCHEZ
  • Culture Shock Games developer Michael Block (right) tapped longtime Englewood resident Tony Thornton to heighten the realism of the dialogue and setting in We Are Chicago.
  • Carolina Sanchez

We Are Chicago isn't a total anomaly. It's the latest "empathy game," a small but influential genre trying to change the industry's status quo by aiming directly at players' hearts instead of their adrenal glands. The game Papers, Please earned critical acclaim when it was released in 2013 for its exploration of immigration policy by way of putting the player in the role of a fictitious country's border patrol officer, who decides the fate of migrants based on the government's arcane and circuitous laws. Illustrator Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life (2011), another empathy game, offers a study of working-class poverty from the perspective of a crudely animated street vendor the player inhabits.

We Are Chicago represents a big change for Block, a 28-year-old designer whose previous effort was as a programmer on a Chicago-made zombie-apocalypse-themed parody of the 80s "edutainment" game Oregon Trail. Block wanted his next game to be something more serious. He found inspiration in May 2013 during a stint volunteering for the All Stars Project of Chicago, a nonprofit focused on aiding youth in low-income communities. He listened to what he describes as "depressing and terrifying" firsthand accounts from residents who'd been assaulted, robbed, or shot in their neighborhoods, and he felt compelled to tell their stories.

That summer, Block began conducting interviews with disadvantaged black residents on the south and west sides about their day-to-day lives. He then hired Tony Thornton, 62, a longtime Englewood resident and former postal worker turned communications student at Kennedy-King College and aspiring writer, to help fashion a narrative around those discussions. As a white north-sider, Block relied on Thornton to add a sense of realism to the dialogue and setting.

"I'd note things like that black folks don't respond the same way to gunshots ringing out as white folks because we've experienced it," Thornton says. "If we freaked out every time a gun fires, we'd never get anything done. That's the world we live in."

The game's stark realism also dictates that witnessing acts of violence is a rarity, although the threat of a shooting or other turbulence hangs over the community like a dark cloud. A gun is fired only twice in the four hours it takes to complete We Are Chicago, and the player isn't directly involved in either instance—though he is jumped and held at gunpoint briefly. Much of the game feels like regular life, which is to say, it's mostly a chore: Aaron walking his sister to and from school, taking math tests, helping his overworked single mother with chores. A significant portion is devoted to the teen's time behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant—taking orders, completing transactions at a cash register, and delivering food to customers.

The idea of employing forced tedium to heighten the sense of realism was inspired by a talk Block heard by Hofmeier, the creator of Cart Life.

"He wanted the [games within the game] to feel tedious to the player, because that was what his character was feeling," Block says. "I loved that idea, so I wanted to duplicate it by having Aaron doing all these boring things like setting a table and manning the cash register. Then when drama, when the violence does happen, you can feel the contrast in a greater way."

Block is working with the antigang organization Reclaim Our Kids to use We Are Chicago as a teaching tool as part of a pilot program for at-risk youth, but the game was initially designed for people like himself: middle-class or affluent whites for whom Chicago's violent-crime statistics may seem like a distant abstraction. As a virtual slice of the lives of those directly affected by street gangs and rampant gun-related homicides, Block reasoned, the game could potentially help those removed from the violence consider the complex web of socioeconomic factors that give rise to and reinforce those conditions.

"We have these deep, complex characters instead of stereotypes—it helps to break down the idea that everyone on the south side is violent, a criminal, or lazy and not getting a job," Block says. "I think putting privileged people in this space makes you identify more and not just say, 'Hey, why join a gang? Why wouldn't you just go out and get a job or go to school?' "

The objective, Block says, is also to refute the kind of law-and-order approach that people like President Donald Trump take when addressing problems in Chicago's most violent neighborhoods. "Police may be a part of the solution, but they're not going to fix it. There are deep underlying social problems we talk about in the game—about [lack of] employment and educational opportunities."

Block believes that a video game like We Are Chicago can be a tool for creating compassion—one even more effective than a newspaper article or documentary film because of the medium's interactivity.

"It's much more impactful to make a choice rather than simply watch someone else make it for you," Block says. "The power that games have is that they give you agency and force you to think more deeply about what's happening in order to make decisions to progress the story."

But there's no evidence that even empathy games successfully engender empathy. Video games, particularly first-person shooters, are thought to function in the opposite way, corroding our humanity despite designers' attempts to flesh out characters and add depth to story lines. That's one reason games are such an easy target for politicians and media commentators in the aftermath of a school massacre.

Proof of video games' influence on our minds is scant perhaps because walking in someone else's shoes in a game means pushing a control stick to move a character's pixelated feet rather than identifying with their attitudes and emotional state. The emotional response evoked by a game is usually more physical than psychological, the result of some kind of a simple external thrill: the giddy rush while leaping across rooftops in Assassin's Creed or the white-knuckled anxiety that comes from navigating a sharp turn at high speed while behind the wheel of a sports car in Gran Turismo.

Using a video game to influence someone's deeply held stereotypes about a segregated city's marginalized communities is infinitely more complicated—but that's not to say it's impossible. Roger Ebert once described film as "a machine that generates empathy." If We Are Chicago works as intended, the next great empathy machine may run on Windows.   v

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