Guns, gangs, and violence are unmistakable themes in Michael Block's latest video game, but those expecting "Grand Theft Auto: Chicago" will be greatly disappointed.
In "We Are Chicago," the DePaul grad's indie project about life in Englewood, to be released for PC in September, there are no drive-bys or beatdowns depicted onscreen. The game's main character, an African-American teenager named Aaron, doesn't lay a finger on a gun. Instead, gamers will experience everyday life: walking to school, working at a fast-food joint or hanging out in a park while talking with friends and family. The idea, Block says, is to let players walk in the virtual shoes of someone growing up in a neighborhood that's been narrowly defined by its high homicide count and gang problems.
"We're trying very hard so that you'll empathize with Aaron and show that just because you live in Englewood, you still have a sister, you still have a mother, and they feel the same to him as yours do to you," said Block, 26, of Lakeview. "We're all Chicagoans, and if [violence] is affecting some of us, it affects all of us."
If chatting with your little sister or walking the halls of a high school don't exactly sound thrilling, well, that's kind of the point. "We Are Chicago" is the latest example of an emerging genre dubbed "serious games," titles that typically deal with real-world situations and events with the aim of educating players and provoking debate. One such game, 2013 indie darling "Papers, Please," won critical acclaim by exploring the thorny issue of immigration. It forced players to inhabit the role of an immigration inspector at a fictitious country's border checkpoint, deciding whom to allow through.
The term "serious games" might sound like an oxymoron, but Jay Margalus, a 29-year-old indie game developer who also teaches at DePaul, compares them to documentaries.
"When you talk about `Tetris,' `Super Mario,' games like that, they're more like toys," Margalus said. "But as games become more of art forms, they're being designed as not just a way to consume entertainment but convey feelings and emotions, much like films and TV can do."
Block believes these games have a special potential to affect change due to their interactivity.
"If you're a passive observer of a movie or a book, you're getting this information but it's not something you're internalizing necessarily," he said. "But if you're playing a game, you're making decisions for characters. You're not just a spectator."
The Sheboygan, Wis., native's last effort was the opposite of serious. As part of local indie outfit The Men Who Wear Many Hats, he helped develop "Organ Trail," a zombie apocalypse themed mashup of the '80s game "Oregon Trail." It became a minor hit on mobile devices.
But for his next project, Block wanted to go beyond satire. He began exploring the idea of turning a game into a individual biography. The initial plan was to profile someone overseas, but a friend suggested looking closer to home. Block found his subject after volunteering last May for Community Action Day through the All Stars Project of Chicago. There, he spoke with residents of the South and West sides about how violence affected them on a daily basis.
"There were so many depressing stories and terrified stories of people getting mugged and jumped and robbed and shot at. It's not something that happens to everyone on a daily basis, but often enough that people have had an experience with it or know someone that has," he said. "It's such a different experience than living on the North Side or more affluent neighborhood. It kind of got to the point where it's like, `OK, this is something that needs to be told.' "
Soon after forming independent studio Culture Shock Games to begin work on "We Are Chicago" last year, Block realized that, as a white person living in Lakeview, he needed more than just a few interviews to accurately depict life in Englewood.
He is collaborating with Englewood musicians on the game's soundtrack, and is seeking out voice actors from the neighborhood. He also hired longtime Englewood resident Tony Thornton, 59, a former postal worker turned communications student at Kennedy King College, to help write dialogue and add authentic details.
Thornton admitted he was skeptical when Block first approached him.
"At first I was like, `why does this young white guy want to make this game with a young black man from the South Side in it?' " Thornton said. But after meeting with Block, he became a believer. "It won't make you an expert on black life in Englewood. Hopefully people will play it and see a commonality and think, `If I lived in those conditions, what kind of reaction would I have to it?' Just working on this game has affected me, so now I hope it has an effect on other people."