Tony Thornton had never written for a video game before. In fact, he’d never had a professional writing job until his teacher asked whether he'd consider writing for a new game set in his home town called “We Are Chicago.”
Thornton was initially skeptical of the game, which gives players a first-person view of an African American boy growing up on the city’s South Side — an experience he’d lived, but one the developer proposing the project had not. “I thought it was pretty gutsy for a young white guy from suburbia to be writing a game about a young black kid from the quote-unquote inner city,” Thornton said.
That young white guy would be Michael Block, co-founder of Culture Shock Games, another Chicago native who wanted to make a game about his city but knew he needed help to tell its story. Once he and Thornton met, however, they hit it off and started to shape the game and build on interviews Block had already conducted with young people growing up on the South Side.
“We Are Chicago” is emblematic of a type of game gaining traction on the independent scene — titles that strive to offer players a window into other people's lives and to encourage empathy. Microsoft has named Culture Shock Games one of three recipients of its award honoring inclusive, independent games at this year's Independent Games Festival.
The other recipients are “I, Hope,” a game that follows the footsteps of a girl fighting cancer, and “A Hero’s Call,” a game created by blind developers for both blind and sighted gamers.
Chris Charla, director of ID@Xbox, the independent developer program for Xbox, said the firm recognized these independent studios because “all three are connecting with underrepresented voices in gaming by featuring more inclusive stories or creating experiences that a broad audience can enjoy.” They also all started their studios because they wanted to make games that showcased experiences they weren't seeing anywhere else.
Culture critics have repeatedly called on the gaming industry to depict more racial, gender and other types of diversity in their games. The industry itself is also having these discussions; at the annual Game Developers Conference over the past week, there have been several talks on improving accessibility and diversity in games.
In a 2015 Nielsen survey, most gamers said they had little problem with representation in games, but about one-fifth of gamers across racial lines said they felt strongly that video games underrepresent some races. That number climbed to 50 percent when looking just at Asian American gamers. In the same survey, 65 percent of LGBT gamers said they felt sexual orientation was not well represented in games.
Making games featuring underrepresented stories has its own challenges, developers say. For one, people don't always take games seriously as a tool for positive change. “We are as a society that is only a couple years past the time that, when there was a shooting, the first question was does this person play violent video games,” said Kenny Roy of “I, Hope,” which donates the game's revenue to the cancer charity GameChanger. “My secondary goal is to show that games are used as a therapeutic tool and to create positive experience.”
Thornton said that games can be a more effective storytelling tool than, for example, a documentary, because games place players in the character's position while also entertaining them. “A skillful writer can take advantage of that to impart a view of the world that the gamer had not considered before,” he said.
Choosing to showcase experiences of people who are rarely represented in games also puts a lot of pressure on developers to deliver. Joseph Bein, developer of the forthcoming “A Hero’s Call” -- a game that uses audio to serve the needs of blind gamers — is blind himself. And he said he still feels enormous pressure. “There were blind gamers saying they’ve wanted something like this their whole lives,” Bein said. “That really raises the bar for us, and puts the pressure on us to release a product that meets those expectations and doesn’t disappoint people.”
And there are games with messages that can be hard to design, as developers must balance communicating a message with creating an appealing game. “We Are Chicago” faced some hard reviews after it launched from players who evaluated it as a traditional game and thought it was too “on-message” and limited players' choices.
Block said that with “We Are Chicago” he was mostly focused on telling a story that people can play once and use as a learning tool. He was tired of hearing critics — including President Trump — reduce his city to its crime statistics, he said.
“I think the president has the same issue that the media portrayals do — that focus on homicide statistics. That forms these impersonal ideas about the city,” Block said. “The big issues that we talk about in the game are the underlying social issues that have been around for years and years — redlining and employment opportunities — that are the real reason we have segregation issues in Chicago and violent crime.”
Thornton is the first to admit that, at 58, he isn’t exactly a teen living in Chicago’s South Side. But he said he thinks the emotions that drive the game's characters are the same ones that drove him. “In a lot of instances, I thought about things I would tell my son, if I had one,” he said. “The words I put in his mother’s mouth were the words mine spoke to me.”
Some experts said that these kinds of games can have their limits, though. “Empathy games” in general have earned criticism from those who say they worry that players will think they completely understand what another person's life is really like from playing a game. “Games help you understand something outside of your normal experience,” Iowa State University researcher Douglas Gentile told Vice's Motherboard in 2015, “but that's different from understanding someone else's experience.”
Thornton said he understands that some gamers may be put off by a game with a message, which is why he tried to approach “We Are Chicago” with the purpose of raising awareness. “We weren’t trying to preach,” he said. “But we were trying to teach.”