I can still hear his mama cries
Know the family traumatized
Shots left holes in his face about piranha-sized
The old pastor closed the cold casket
And said the church ain’t got enough room for all the tombs
It’s a war going on outside we ain’t safe from
I feel the pain in my city wherever I go
314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago
The first time that I ever really thought about these Kanye West lyrics and the gun violence ravaging Chicago's black community was as I was preparing to go on an activist delegation to Palestine in October 2012. Among more than 40 others, I had the pleasure of traveling with Aisha Truss-Miller, a community organizer involved with black youth empowerment in Chicago. During our pre-trip orientation, our diverse cohort engaged in a group activity wherein we all shared a 90-second-or-less version of what our motivations for joining the delegation were. Aisha's minute-long story certainly made the most impact on me: she told us of how her 17-year-old cousin, Leonard "Man-Man" Truss, was gunned down that summer; a random, innocent victim felled by bullets from an automatic rifle. I can't remember her exact words, but I remember the chill I felt as she recounted, voice faintly cracking under the calm surface, the pain of having to bury her young cousin with a large hole in his face. You can hear Aisha and her mother tell the story of how they received the news and their initial reactions below.
"Think globally, act locally," she said toward the end of her allotted time in order to summarize why tragedy and injustice at home was motivating her to learn more about the systemic injustices leveled against the Palestinian people. I must admit what she meant wasn't entirely clear to me then; and if I'm being really honest, I should also admit that my intellectual concerns and activism more often revolves around the global than the local. But as time goes on I continue to grow in my understanding of the connections between the struggles of ghettoized, criminalized peoples from Palestine to right here at home in the United States.
It was with this backdrop in mind that a recent feature on Polygon, "We Are Chicago: A Game About Gang Violence," resonated with me. Polygon writer Charlie Hall profiles the game's designer, Michael Block, and how he came to understand how a community rendered invisible despite being a stone's throw away could provide ripe material for a narrative-heavy, biographical game. Through his nascent involvement in local charities and community improvement initiatives on Chicago's South Side, Block—a white dude from Wisconsin (which is, really, just perfect)—met a local activist and rapper named Steve Young, a black dude who grew up in the very milieu which Block was seeking to make a game about. With guidance from Young and interviews with Chicago residents, Block has created a composite character that players will inhabit, "a teenage boy on the South Side, a boy who lives in a single-parent household struggling with poverty."
I am personally very excited about this game and I wish Culture Shock Games, the studio developing it, much success. Judging from the Polygon profile, it seems that they have both their heads and their hearts in the right place; the former manifested by the seeking of voices from the community they intend to represent to be involved with the project from its earliest stages, and the latter by their apparent intent to not only feature an appeal from Chicago violence prevention and mitigation groups from within the game, but by giving some of the proceeds to such nonprofits.
Two larger questions came to my mind, though, as I pondered the development of this game. Neither of the concerns reflect negatively on the developers, mind you. They are both related to systems.
The first system-related concern is the make-up of the developers. As I've stated above, I admire the people working on this game based on what I've read so far and have every reason to believe that Block and co. are sincerely concerned with the people they seek to represent. Still, a larger question that begs to be answered is what more can be done to give marginalized peoples the means to represent themselves through creative media. Naturally, this question isn't limited to video games alone, although it is particularly salient here since the demographic homogeneity of this medium's producers seems to be peculiarly resilient whereas the same cannot be said for the demographic makeup of its consumers; not to mention the gradual democratization of production seen in other creative media. This very subject was addressed in a recent talk by Shawn Allen, an independent game developer based in New York. Unfortunately the sound levels are way off in the recording, but you should sit down, crank up your headphones, and give Allen a listen.
The second system-related concern is related to a design challenge that doubles as a political one. Returning to the Polygon article, the following two quotations touched a nerve:
This rubbed me the wrong way. The state of Chicago's South Side is not the result of a mere "cycle of poverty": it's an intentional trajectory of poverty set in motion by a business and political culture whose operative ethos was (and, to a lesser degree, remains) rooted in anti-black racism, a trajectory set in motion during the Great Migration—which itself was the result of oppressive, systemic, white supremacism of the worst kind.
While it is the images of white supremacist degradation and terror in the public sphere that live the strongest in public memory and attitudes about America's congenital racism—lynchings, segregated facilities, police brutality and the like—what has arguably had an outsized impact on the living conditions of black people in this country far grander in the scale of its detriment than the psychological, physical, and social wages of such terror is the psychological, physical, and social cost of economic exploitation and housing discrimination.
The full scope of such housing discrimination practices—red lining, block busting, restrictive racial covenants—is beyond the scope of this humble blog post. Suffice to say that this sordid and storied history of systemic, urban housing discrimination is at least as old as the Federal Housing Administration itself, established in 1934. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:
If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination.Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn't need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.
Apartheid policies that intended to segregate and ghettoize have been strikingly effective over the last century. Without denying poor, urban blacks agency over their actions on the one hand, and without gravitating to the acontextual ruminations of Paul Ryan or the concern-trolling histrionics of Bill O'Reilly on the other, we should acknowledge that these grand forces of public policy and the culture of the communities thus targeted have a dialectical impact on one another, resulting in what we see most chillingly exemplified on Chicago's South Side: an economically disadvantaged community cannibalizing its young. As Aaron Huey says in his amazing Ted Talk that documents the history of poverty of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation: "The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say: 'My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They're killing each other. They're killing themselves while we watch them die.'" For a thorough, lengthy, and historically well-informed examination of the issue of housing discrimination (and other forms of institutional racism), one could hardly pick a better place to start than carefully reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's magisterial article for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." A shorter read that can serve as a primer is "How We Built the Ghettos."
Which brings me back to my second concern: the design challenge of constructing a game whose narrative and mechanics honors the history and politics of ghettoization, or any other trans-generational social injustice for that matter. We Are Chicago certainly seems like a good start toward humanizing this marginalized population for a game-playing public that may not otherwise be inclined to reckon with the lives of people ostensibly so different from themselves. But part of me fears that designers and consumers alike are more amenable to the relatively simple and cognitively challenge-free task of sympathy for characters thus humanized as opposed to having their understanding of how large and impersonal structures impacts the intimate social lives of said individuals, and the continued resilience of "elegant racism," perturbed. But how can we design for the latter?
Honestly: I'm not entirely sure. But as I write this, I can't help but think of a talk given by the hilarious and affable game designer Brad Muir about the work of his studio, Double Fine, on Massive Chalice, which he has described as "a tactical strategy game on an epic timeline." His remarks begin 37 minutes into the video at right. He declares that one of his design goals of the game is "Character attachment through mechanics," manifested in part by the permanent death (or "permadeath") of [playable] characters who grow old and die, leaving their [playable character] children to carry the epic, trans-generation struggle against the ghouls and monsters that periodically attack the fantasy kingdom of the game's setting ("periodically" being every 5-7 years in game time). The progeny of these deceased heroes will also pass along family relics to be used in battle in future generations. Muir also states that one of his design goals is for the generational component to "inspire self-reflection" in players.
Hmmmm. Although Massive Chalice is a strategy game in a fantasy setting, I think that there's something to be gleaned from this take on mechanics and possibly applying them to not merely facilitate audience sympathy with playable characters, but to facilitate reflection about the legacy and impact of choices made long ago on the present day.
I'm not sure how this design problem can be solved, but I certainly think it's important that we try. As Alex Cox says: "The reason I care so deeply about videogames is because I believe they are one of the strongest ways to create empathy. No, I KNOW they are one of the strongest ways to create empathy." She made this statement at the end of a talk praising Gone Home and its deft portrayal of [spoiler alert] a teenage girl grappling in that unsure, exciting, scary, gleeful adolescent way with her own nascent sexuality. Maybe We Are Chicago will be the first game that helps build empathy for a believable, non-criminal, inner-city black character contending with the economic hardship and violent environment he was born into. And maybe someday a game that, through its mechanics, explores how that environment got that way will be in the offing.
And with that, allow me to close this post as I began: with Kanye West lyrics.
Imagine working so hard and you can't cut through
That can mess up your whole life like an uncle that touched you
What has the world come to
I'm from the 312
Where cops don't come through
And dreams don't come true