Violence in Chicago has reached historic levels with a 57 percent spike in murders between 2015 and 2016, making last year the deadliest in nearly two decades. Homicide rates were highest in the city’s South and West Sides, which are plagued by gang-related violence.
While President Trump calls for more policing and city leaders ask for more federal aid, a locally made video game is asking for something else: more understanding.
“We Are Chicago” is a first person adventure game where players live the life of a teenage boy growing up in a violent neighborhood. In an effort to make the game more realistic, the creators interviewed residents from various Chicago neighborhoods and based the characters and storyline on them. They hired a longtime South Side resident, Tony Thornton, to write the game’s dialogue.
“We’re trying to more accurately portray what’s happening in these neighborhoods,” says Michael Block, the founder of Culture Shock Gaming, the company that created the game. “We’re trying to talk about some of the social issues that underlie people choosing to go off and join a gang or shoot a gun at somebody.”
Culture Shock’s ambitious project goes against the typical video game approach to portraying gang violence. Whereas the popular “Grand Theft Auto” series features over-the-top violence at seemingly every turn, “We Are Chicago” attempts to depict violent situations exactly as they happen in real life.
“That was my main concern,” says Thornton. “I would not have wanted to be a part of something that featured gratuitous violence just for the sake of titillation. We had to treat the subject honestly, and I think we did that.”
“We Are Chicago” isn’t the first game to try and inspire players to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. “Papers, Please” became an indie game sensation by having players assume the role of an immigration officer at a fictional dystopian border crossing. Another indie game hit, “That Dragon, Cancer” has you play as the parents of a child dying of cancer.
Culture Shock is hoping to encourage players to care about the real lives of its game’s fictional characters.
“The core message that we’re trying to strike with ‘We Are Chicago’ is that people living on the South Side and West Side of Chicago aren’t any different than you,” says Block. “They want to go to school, they want to get a job, they want to better themselves — and not have to worry about getting shot at.”
A portion of the game’s proceeds will go to the All Stars Project of Chicago and Reclaim Our Kids, whose missions are to help curb violence in Chicago’s South and West Sides.
“We Are Chicago” will be released on the gaming platform Steam on February 9.