It’s a pleasant summer evening, and the fragrant smell of spaghetti and meatballs wafts through the air as you sit down to dinner with your mother and sister. The food is warm and so is the conversation. Suddenly, gunshots erupt in the street outside your apartment. Your mother warns you to stay away from the windows. Your sister wails that she’s tired of all the shooting. You’re tired, too, of the crime and the fear and the poverty.
Welcome to the world of Aaron Davis, high school senior, denizen of the Chicago ghetto—and a character in a video game aimed at stanching the blood from Chicago’s murder epidemic.
With 762 murders in 2016—a nearly 60 percent spike from the year before—and this year’s homicide rate outpacing that, Chicago has become one of the country’s most violent major cities. It has also become one of President Donald Trump’s newest obsessions. In January, after watching an “O’Reilly Factor” segment on the city’s murder rate, he offered to “send in the feds” to stop the “horrible ‘carnage.’” When seven people were shot to death there on February 22, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, Trump responded with a tweet the next day: “What is going on there – totally out of control. Chicago needs help!”
Turns out a team of Chicago-based video game designers had the same idea. Not to send in the Feds, but to help their city by combating the ignorance and apathy of the rest of the country. That’s how We Are Chicago was born.
The goal of the video game is to give Americans a taste of inner city challenges by putting them in the shoes of the people who live there. Based on extensive interviews with the inhabitants of the city’s badlands, We Are Chicago is part of a growing number of “serious games” focused on using the fun and interactive nature of games to tackle social justice issues such as poverty, the environment and the Syrian Civil War. “We hope that We Are Chicago will create a deeper understanding, motivate and inspire change, and cultivate a larger conversation surrounding the issues of violence and income disparity,” say the designers, who will contribute some of the proceeds from the game to anti-gang programs.
In the middle of studying at home for your finals, you get a message from your boss at the fast-food joint: Come to work or go find another job. You wearily put down your books and head to the shop, where you work the cash register while the locals wander in to place their orders and snarl at you when the food takes too long. Suddenly, you see your friend come through the door, followed a few seconds later by a posse of gangbangers waving pistols in your face as they grab the money from the register. And then you realize that your friend is one of them.
We Are Chicago takes players on a ghetto journey through the eyes of Aaron, an African-American high-school senior just a week away from graduation. Players don’t slay monsters or grab treasure; the game is mostly dialogue-based, consisting of a series of scenes in which Aaron encounters family members, friends and enemies. In each scene, he is given a choice of dialogue responses, ranging from caring and supportive to cold and self-centered.
Raised by his widowed mother (his father died of cancer, not gunfire), Aaron is a decent kid. Yeah, he doesn’t always like doing chores, and he does like to tease his ultra-precocious little sister Taylor (whom he calls “Tater Tot”). But he’s also a poetry whiz and a bright student, who juggles school, part-time work at the fast-food restaurant and caring for his sister while his mom is working. If Aaron can pass his finals, he has a shot at going to college and entering a better world.
The question is whether Aaron can survive the world he’s in now. His workload would tax any teenager in suburbia, and most suburban teens don’t also live in an environment where the adults can’t find jobs, the kids join gangs and the only well-paying work is selling drugs. So far, Aaron has been lucky enough to steer clear of gangs like the Gangster Disciples and the Stones. In fact, the game begins with Aaron bringing his friend James home for dinner, as kids sometimes do. Except that Aaron’s mother warns him that James’s sister had been accidentally killed by a gang and that Aaron maybe shouldn’t hang out with him.
Your friend points a gun at the head of another friend, his finger just a twitch away from snuffing out the life of someone you care about. By your side is your little sister, and she’s imploring you to do something. You don’t want anyone to get killed, but you don’t want to get killed, either. What should you do?
Aaron’s luck runs out when he’s walking to school one morning with his best friend, Justin. As they discuss why they haven’t heard from their friend Rob, they are jumped and beaten by some members of the Stones. Aaron can’t understand why—until Justin confesses that he has joined the rival Gangster Disciples.
A few nights later, Aaron is working at the restaurant when the place is robbed by the Gangster Disciples—and Justin is one of the robbers. When Aaron confronts Justin the next morning at school, Justin can only stammer, “I had to prove I was down” to his new gang. When Aaron tries to persuade him to leave the gang, Justin shakes his head and replies, “Dude, I wish it was as easy as you make it sound, but it’s not.” Soon Aaron discovers that Rob has also joined a gang. Except that his gang is the Stones—mortal enemies of Justin’s Disciples—which leads to a tragic climax.
This is certainly not a life that most Americans are used to—a world in which today’s friend is tomorrow’s gunman. But the reminders take subtler forms, too. It’s the uncle at the dinner table who complains that he can’t start a business because the banks won’t loan money to the neighborhood. It’s the high school boy hanging out in the hall instead of sitting in class, who declares, “My brother makes as much money as a doctor or a lawyer hustling. I don’t need to go to college.” It’s the high school girl who has figured out that “An ‘A’ in math here is a ‘C’ at the white suburban schools.”’
The question is whether a serious game can make a serious difference. We Are Chicago illustrates some of the limitations of that approach. Instead of shooting terrorists, the only thing that Aaron and his friends shoot off is their mouths. The game’s dialogue-heavy nature makes play a bit dry, which isn’t helped by speeches that sometimes veer into stilted or preachy (when one of the adult characters blames the capitalist system for the problem, it sounds less like like the ghetto and more like a night at the college Starbucks). In the game’s zeal for social justice, the plot often seems scripted, as if the player’s decisions don’t make a difference. (I don’t know if they actually do or not.)
In some ways, We Are Chicago is most profound not when it delves into weighty issues like crime and poverty or the capitalist system, but rather when it illuminates an existence without the little certainties that make life tolerable. For most of us, dinner time interruption is a telemarketer calling. For Aaron’s family, a luxury is eating dinner without gunfire erupting outside their apartment (“I’m so tired of all these shootings,” wails Taylor. “It’s like we’re prisoners in our our own house.”) For all that the game depicts a harsh and violent world, it is also a world possessed of a fundamental humanity. These are people who know they are in a bad situation. They know there is a better life out there, and that awareness makes them angry and despairing.
Which brings us back to Trump’s threat to send in the feds. Better policing would help—Aaron’s mother laments, “We hear shots all the time, but we don’t hear police sirens half as much.” But more importantly, as We Are Chicago makes clear, people need to know things can get better. Not exhortations or threats, but a realistic hope for a brighter future. As Justin tells Aaron, “You got a way out. But I ain’t getting out of here alive.”
A video game won’t solve the problem, either. But it can offer a glimpse, and perhaps a little empathy, into a world where people often make bad choices because they don’t see any other kind. U.S. presidents don’t have much time for games. But if Trump were to spare an hour to play We Are Chicago, his time wouldn’t be wasted—and neither would the taxpayers’.
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