The violence in Chicago has been splashed across headlines, been the focus of documentaries, and been presented in popular music. South Side hip-hop hero Chance the Rapper, who grew up on 79th Street in Chatham (nicknamed "Murderer's Row"), told heavy-hearted stories throughout his second album/mixtape Acid Rap: people being murdered for phones, funerals for little girls, and firefights with police (who shot first). On the second track, "Paranoia," he spits: "They’ll be shooting whether it’s dark or not, I mean, the days is pretty dark a lot / Down here, it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot."
The latest media to depict the city's violence is a new video game developed by (the appropriately named) Culture Shock Games, which puts you in the middle of this reality. We Are Chicago is a first-person adventure, in which gamers play as Aaron, a black teen living in a single-parent household on the South Side. The game—which will be released for PC, Mac, and Linux in 2017—challenges gamers to survive in an environment rife with poverty, crime, and deadly temptations. In the latest trailer, gunshots ring out as Aaron, his mother, sister, and friend James sit around the dinner table enjoying a pasta dinner.
"I’m so tired of all these shootings," Aaron’s sister says. "It’s like we’re prisoners in our own houses."
"We hear shots all the time," says his mother, turning to look at her son. "But we don’t hear police sirens half as much."
While reports of homicides and shootings continue to pile up in record numbers, arrests are down in Chicago—in fact, as FiveThirtyEight reported recently, they’re "dropping to a level unseen since at least 2001, the earliest year of available data."
"To be truthful, what the South Side needs more than anything is a leader—someone that can come out here and be a mentor, create after-school programs at the community centers," long-time Chicago resident Sean Young told Polygon. "I feel that if they have community centers, or different types of organizations to occupy kids and teenagers, then people will know there is hope."
Young, who grew up in the middle of gang-related violence in Chicago’s 2,000-unit Altgeld Gardens housing project, has helped inspire and shape the game’s main character, Aaron, since 2014, when he met Culture Shock founder Michael Block.
"I think that the empathy-expanding and educating part of the game, in some long-shot, pipe-dream sort of way will help people that are privileged and are active, people that vote," says Block. "I hope I'm doing the best that I can, but I don't know. Until the game's released I'm not going to know whether it will have the effect I want it to have."
There have been plenty of public (even presidential) pleas and press conferences advocating for change, there are no simple solutions to the city’s deadly challenge. Almost 3,000 people have been shot in Chicago since January; more than 500 people have lost their lives to gun violence.
Culture Shock Games has said that a portion of the proceeds from We Are Chicago will support nonprofit groups working to curb violence and provide positive solutions in the city's toughest neighborhoods. If nothing else, that would be a net positive. Effective anti-violence interventions do exist and these community-focused organizations can always use a few extra dollars. And in some cases, this cash goes a long way: earlier this year, Co.Exist covered a Chicago-based nonprofit that treated violence like a disease in the West Garfield neighborhood, and succeeded in reducing the number of shootings by 67% in a one year.
The best-case scenario is that We Are Chicago attracts huge numbers of players across the country, who'd walk away not only with a better understanding of the South Side struggle, but also an appetite to turn conversation into action. Perhaps the video game could be used in schools to complement study of poverty, urban design, or public policy.
If Block’s game can inspire even a little change and slow the flow of bullets in Chicago, it can’t be released soon enough.
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[All Images: via We Are Chicago/Culture Shock Games]