We Are Chicago is a game about how gang violence in Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods affects people’s lives. In particular, the game follows Aaron, a young man trying to make it to his high school graduation. But where the game tries to be inspiring and heartwarming, it is treacly and patronizing.
My biggest question about We Are Chicago is: who is this for? In developer Culture Shock Games’ presskit, they say one of their aims is to “create a deeper understanding, motivate and inspire change, and cultivate a larger conversation surrounding the issues of violence and income disparity,” indicating that the game isn’t for the residents of such neighborhoods, who would of course be aware of the problems. Is it for the people unaware of the violence on the South and West sides of Chicago—an increasingly small demographic after the aforementioned violence became a repeated topic of conversation during the 2016 Presidential election? Most likely.
The problem is that We Are Chicago is Respectability Politics: The Game. You play as Aaron, who seems deliberately modeled to be a “good kid” who doesn’t succumb to stereotypes of blackness. He’s well-versed in black poetry, can quote Malcolm X at will, and respects his family. During a family dinner a character muses that kids these days don’t listen to their parents anymore, instead modeling their lives after rappers and sports stars. Late in the game, Maya, Aaron’s mother, tells you that it’s your choices that make you good or bad. That’s a phrase you might hear a lot in video games, especially ones in the Telltale mode of narrative storytelling, but not one that really seems applicable to the political situation of Chicago’s South Side.
On the whole the game is hamfisted in its attempts to cram in details about what it’s like to live on the South Side. While walking your sister home from school, she says to you, “I love my home and I wouldn’t want to leave it. But I do wish I had my own bedroom, and another bathroom.” Minutes later, you do indeed see that Aaron lives in a small home, where his sister sleeps in his mom’s room and they only have one bathroom. Having his sister say this out loud before you even see it undercuts this reveal. In another scene, after hearing a gunshot during dinner, Aaron’s friend James says, “We shouldn’t have to live like this!” and it has a similar effect. It feels like a ‘no duh’ moment, rendered even more impotent by having a character say it out loud. But nothing feels more out of place than the repeated emphasis on the importance of the choices Aaron makes, which do not feel meaningful, nor have a huge impact on the plot. There’s no choice for Aaron to join a gang or be sympathetic to the friends that do—We Are Chicago’s flaccid writing has made Aaron a “good kid” who only does “good kid” things, like go to slam poetry competitions.
We Are Chicago puts the onus of stopping gang violence on good kids like Aaron, who don’t join gangs. Understanding violence solely as individual acts rather than infrastructural fails to actually understand the realities of being black in not just Chicago, but across America. Yes, going to college is a way to escape an impoverished neighborhood, but students like Aaron—who would be the first in his family to go to college—have a hard time staying in school once they get there. And if the problem of gang violence could be solved by kids just not joining gangs, well, the non-profit programs promoted in the game probably wouldn’t need We Are Chicago to raise awareness about them. But for South Side residents like activist Ja’Mal Green, the problems run far deeper than individual acts.
At a recent MSNBC town hall meeting hosted by Chris Hayes, Green stepped up to the mic to explain where he feels the root of Chicago’s violence comes from. Referring to Rahm Emanuel, he said, “This mayor we have in the city of Chicago does not really care about black people,” to growing applause from the crowd. He continued, “When you can invest $100 million in the DePaul basketball center when they can practice at the United Center for free, and $16.4 million into Uptown to build upscale apartments, when you can build these new bus stops we got now downtown, but in our neighborhoods … we’re walking past boarded-up schools, boarded-up houses with red x’s with no plan to redevelop, mental health facilities shut down. ...When you talk about violence, you got to talk about the economics.”
We Are Chicago pays lip service to these issues, and in particular the family jokes darkly about the amount of abandoned buildings on their block. But every time you pick a conversation option that goes deeper into the problem of governance, the conversation circles back around to black youth needing to rise above.
The game does not end with Aaron making it to college, but attending a vigil for a recently murdered friend. He stands there, being preached at in the local park, before the player can turn around and look at pamphlets for The All Stars Project of Chicago and Reclaim Our Kids. These non-profits have noble goals, in tune with We Are Chicago’s stated intention of helping those in economically disenfranchised neighborhoods. But it’s missing the forest for the trees. When Aaron leaves his block, his sister will still live among abandoned buildings and closed schools.
If this game is for well meaning people who want to be educated on the Chicago’s gang violence, then, what are they supposed to do in response to that? Beyond supporting and donating to the non-profit organizations that the game gives very blatant plugs to, the only options seems to be hoping that good kids like Aaron make it out.
In the face of unceasing violence as it exists in neighborhoods like Chicago’s Englewood or Austin, hoping simply isn’t enough. Raising awareness is not enough either. When the residents of these neighborhoods know exactly where to point the finger, know exactly who to blame, donating a little money to a mentorship program means nothing. When the mayor’s office helps to suppress a video of the police murdering an unarmed black man, shooting him sixteen times, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s biggest infrastructural plans for the South Side are merging two smaller golf courses into one large golf course, when he closes schools across the West and South Sides with no plans to reopen, We Are Chicago isn’t enough. These issues are known, and we know who to put pressure on, and we know what isn’t being done.
In an excerpt from his memoir Parallel Time, New York Times writer Brent Staples recounts the moment he realized that his black body made white people uncomfortable on University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus. For a time he learned to whistle Vivaldi as he walked, attempting to broadcast to them that he wasn’t, you know, one of those black people. Early on in We Are Chicago, a character says to Aaron that most gangbangers that end up in prison don’t even know how to read or write, and that education will take you anywhere you want to be. At this moment the game revealed to me who it’s for: the people who still need black Americans to whistle classical music to assert their basic humanity. It’s for people who need reassuring that “good kids” like Aaron exist. But the problems of violence aren’t about good kids making good choices and bad kids making bad choices. The question of “good” and “bad” is bigger than We Are Chicago presents, and it fails to address a broader issue of violence: one that is systematically embedded.