A talk about the socially-conscious game We Are Chicago proved that it’s not “if” our works will change the world, but “how.”

Too frequently we group games in to two large categories when it comes to topics of social change: those meant to make changes, and those that aren’t. Often, critics cite the creator’s intentions when talking about a work’s effect on the world: did the author mean to bring up gender issues in that essay? What did the director of that movie mean to say about socio-economic class? In a world where a single book, song, or game can reach millions of people the creators will never meet, how much do the creators’ intentions really mean? As the Founder of Culture Shock Games, Michael Block spoke during this year’s Game Developers’ Conference to suggest that the attitudes we convey in our works reach far beyond our intentions, particularly in the world of gaming.

We Are Chicago - Family Portrait

We Are Chicago is definitely what Block calls a “social change game.” Set in a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, players control Aaron, a high school student who realizes his best friend has gone missing a week before graduation. Worried about Robert’s safety, Aaron investigates what’s happened while learning more about Robert’s friends and the neighborhood they both live in. Keep in mind that L.A. Noire it’s not; We Are Chicago grounds players in a realistic experience by immersing them in conversations, locations, and narrative taken straight from interviewing real people living in those neighborhoods.By taking this approach, the game provides insight to those who live outside of the community about part of life there.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Block’s approach validates and represents the experiences of those currently living in the south and west sides of Chicago, a predominantly-black group used to mainly appearing in games as drug dealers and uneducated “thugs.”  During his talk, Block told stories from his experiences demoing We Are Chicago at PAX Prime in Seattle, WA and IndyPopCon in Indianapolis, Indiana that displayed the positive effects of taking “social change” into account when creating a game alongside the negative consequences that come from reusing old, tired stereotypes instead of doing actual research.

We Are Chicago - IndyPopCon

Mainstream media tends to take surface-level impressions of groups of people and use them to suit its needs. This theme dominated many of the panels and talks during GDC (particularly one about Muslim representation in gaming), and Block acknowledged the uphill battle a game like his has to fight. During his experience demoing at IndyPopCon, he met many people who actually came from Chicago’s south side, and many of them talked about their dissatisfaction with Watch Dogs and Grand Theft Auto V, both games which tended to use black people as ignorant backdrops instead of fully-fleshed out characters. Watch Dogs felt especially painful because of its “near-future Chicago” setting; though many expected the game to somehow channel a piece of life in inner-city Chicago, the characters populating the streets felt hollow and cheap (though that’s pretty representative of the game as a whole). One could argue that GTA V and Watch Dogs were never supposed to be “social change games,” but that was exactly Block’s point: regardless of whether a game tries to discuss social themes on purpose, the attitudes the game carries still affect the players.

Culture Shock Games’ experiences showcasing We Are Chicago left distinctly different impressions, however. Not only did players frequently stay engaged with the entire 25-minute long demo, but they often told their friends about it and encouraged them to come try the game as well. There was an additional spillover benefit, to the extra eyes, too: people talked not just about the game, but about the subjects IN the game.

“By respectfully representing people of different backgrounds, it encourages discussion by everyone that’s properly informed and respectful.”

While roaming the show floors, members of the Culture Shock Games team overheard people discussing their game, going beyond the gameplay and graphics. “They were talking about things related to race representation and economic opportunities and violence…and it’s happening at a gaming event,” Block said. “That’s crazy to me, that these politically-charged topics are being brought up in discussion between gamers at a gaming convention…it’s proof to me, even if it’s small and anecdotal, that games do have an impact and that they can shape discourse.” The presence of dense subject matter naturally created spaces for discussion about and around the game…even when it wasn’t always positive.

We Are Chicago - Work 1

Leading into his final introductory story, Block said:

“This one is slightly less surprising: racism is still a problem in gaming communities. But to me, what was surprising was that some people felt very safe openly expressing it…”

It’s worth noting at this point that Michael Block is white (in case the picture didn’t give it away). It seems that, because these non-black people walked up to the booth and saw it manned by a non-black person, they assumed there was a level of comfort that allowed them to make racist comments…even just hearing Block talk about it at GDC months later conveyed the discomfort he felt. However, he noted that those people generally stuck around to try the game because he was demoing it on an Oculus Rift (which was fairly uncommon at the time):

“They would see the Oculus and say “Hey, I don’t know anything about your game but I want to play Oculus, can I play Oculus?”…they would play through maybe five-to-ten minutes of the game, and the people who sat down to play would consistently express more nuanced statements about the characters and about the environment and about the game in general after they were done playing…

It’s not a scientifically rigorous study, but to me it’s additional proof that the game is effective at changing people’s minds. And this is what we were hoping for, but we had no idea if it was going to be possible, especially on this scale of people who were already expressing racist ideas and sentiments to actually have a complete 180 and say, “Ok, no, these are human beings now and we’re gonna actually talk about them as human beings.”

Block continued on to provide scientific backup of the effects games can have on people: one example he cited talked about Kognito, a company that designed a game to help convince family members of soldiers suffering from PTSD to ask them to get help: 79% of the family members who played the game actually tried to convince family members to get help, and 22% of those veterans got help within a month. But even with standard retail games, the fact goes towards what most of us already know first-hand: behavior in games influences behavior in reality. Block was quick to point out what I’ll also reiterate: this does not mean that violence in games causes violence in reality. (This abstract he cited also touches on the point, but the full article is behind a paywall.) Still, this played to Michael’s overall point: all games are effective at changing and informing discourse, and the design choices made in games convey subtle ideas about life and our role in it.

We Are Chicago - IndyPopCon 1


He brought up an interesting point near the end of his talk: the design choices made in games subtly convey ideas about the world of the game, as well as the world around us. Pushing players to rack up high scores or obtain more currency incentivizes reckless capitalism, while always playing the hero conveys that the world revolves around us, that we can solve every problem. That’s certainly not to say those systems should never be used in gaming, but it’s worth considering how those underlying statements affect players and gameplay, especially if a game aims to be socially-conscious. His recommendations on how creators can best tackle their subject matter effectively: examine your own biases, make friends with various backgrounds, and collaborate with people from the backgrounds that your game draws on.

This is worth noting, too: even though Block is from Chicago, he specifically sought out black writers from the south and west sides of Chicago to be part of the We Are Chicago project. It’s likely not a coincidence that his game, even before it’s been released, has already affected so many people for the better.

 We Are Chicago is slated to release in “Early 2016” according to its press kit. Learn more about the game at its website.