How a successful indie developer is pouring his time and money into a game about gang violence on Chicago's South Side.
It was a Tuesday in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood when Michael Block realized he was successful.
Block was sitting in the audience at a small, nonprofit theater built into a storefront. A high school student was on stage. Block doesn't remember his name, but the student launched into an emotional narrative poem about how, instead of living in poverty on Chicago's South Side, he wanted to live on the North Side. The young man's singular aspiration was to live in a high rise on Lake Shore Drive — where Block lived.
It felt to Block like the author was speaking directly to him, pointing a finger at his privilege. Singling him out.
"Things are going pretty well for me," Block says as he retells the story. "I'm living an average life, especially relative to my peers. But when you have somebody [say] that's their dream in life, to live where you live. ... That's a really weird feeling."
Block is one of The Men Who Wear Many Hats, a successful Chicago-based team of independent game developers. He was at that poetry reading trying to learn more about the city he had lived in for nearly seven years, a city whose citizens, he had come to realize, he barely knew. And at that moment he says he woke up to his place in it all, to what his role could be in making Chicago a better place to live.
Michael Block grew up in Sheboygan, Wis. where it's cold in the winter, hot in the summer, 85% white and middle class all year round. In 2005 he was accepted into DePaul University. He could have gone to school closer to home, but DePaul's location in the heart of Chicago had a much more cosmopolitan feeling, and that sold him on the school. Along the way to his computer engineering degree, he thought for sure he had come to know the city.
He was wrong.
Block's first job out of college was for a company that made commodities trading software. He had hoped to make games and took classes through DePaul's Game Dev program. But he hedged his bets, went the safe route. Instead of platformers and first-person shooters, he settled for pork bellies and wheat futures.
It was depressing. Block wasn't naive about who his customers were. They were people who already had a lot of money, and his company's software helped them play at making that money grow. It wasn't the kind of game he had hoped to develop.
In 2010 he left his job to join Phosphor Games, helping to push more features into the Unreal engine, one of the biggest and most modern toolsets available to game makers at the time. As a creative outlet Block spent nights and weekends building little games with two friends from DePaul — Ben Perez and Ryan Wiemeyer.
One night they decided to take the old educational game Oregon Trail and mash it up with a modern zombie survival simulation. Organ Trail was born. The game was an overnight viral success, and the trio was blessed with one lucky break after another.
Today The Men Who Wear Many Hats, as they call their company, is a well-established indie studio on Chicago's North Side. Block no longer works at Phosphor, in part because their game won't stop making him money.
Now Block wants a personal project that can be something more than just a gag about zombies. He wants to make a game that gives back.
The game was an overnight viral success, and the trio was blessed with one lucky break after another.
Louder than a bomb
In 2012 Block began to design a game engine that would support what he describes as sophisticated, resilient conversations. Graphics be damned, Block thought his characters could be as good or better than those in other games. His goal was to make a biographical game. He only lacked a subject.
At first Block thought his opus could be about someone from an exotic location like Afghanistan. He realized quickly that his plane ticket would be the smallest part of the budget. Just finding a person willing to talk about their life, and then contextualizing that story for Western audiences, would require a huge amount of time and money.
He wondered if maybe he could do something similar, but keep it local. The goal was to make a narrative adventure game that told the story of someone in Chicago. But who? That's when Block began to realize just how little he knew about the city he'd lived in for so long.
Enter the work of writer Alex Kotlowitz. Block devoured There Are No Children Here, Kotlowitz's book about two boys growing up in the late 1980s in Chicago's government housing projects. Then Block moved on to a film that Kotlowitz produced in 2011 called The Interrupters, which profiles a Chicago organization called CeaseFire whose members try to stop gang violence with the help of former gang leaders.
Eventually, Block came across a documentary called Louder Than a Bomb. The film profiles Young Chicago Authors, a nonprofit dedicated to giving urban youth a voice through poetry workshops and spoken word performances. That documentary is what led him to the poetry reading that night in 2012, the event that flipped his perspective.
Suddenly the evening news meant more to Block than ever before. It wasn't just an endless string of killings and arrests that plagued Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. There were areas of Chicago's South Side where the cycle of poverty remained unbroken for generations. There were people lost in there. To his mind, already tuned for numbers by years spent coding, the arithmetic suddenly became very simple.
"People must get shot at more often than someone dies from a gunshot wound," Block says. "These things have to happen more often than we think.
"These things are actually happening every day, and it's such a different life than the life that I live, and I'm 10 miles away. It's not even ... somebody living in China or somebody living in rural Afghanistan. It's my neighbors that are 10 miles away from me. How is this such a drastically different life?"
And so Block began to volunteer with charities in Chicago. It was a way to get involved, to see more of the city and be a part of his community in ways he couldn't have explored while attending DePaul. Perhaps along the way he would meet the right person, or people, to build a game around.
One of the first things Block did was volunteer to be part of Chicago's Community Action Day, a kind of social census held in 2013. It was during that day of volunteering that he met 27-year-old recording artist Sean Young, also known as "Solo Xquisit."
"The way I look at it," says Young, "God placed me [in front of] Michael at that moment, you know what I'm saying? To connect, and to be a part of this project."
Young has lived his whole life on Chicago's South Side. When he met Block last May the pair were taking the train back from Community Action Day. They were both tired from standing on street corners with a clipboard, drained from asking commuters about their neighborhoods, about their job opportunities, city services, gang violence and poverty.
As the pair started talking, Block realized that sitting next to him was someone nearly his own age with roots in the very community he was trying to make a video game about. More importantly, Young was involved in the same kind of community service and mentoring activities that Block wanted to support with his work. Block asked Young if he was interested in helping with his game. Young eagerly said yes.
Block finally had a compelling subject for his video game. Through Young's experience, he had found a way to understand life on Chicago's South Side, a lens through which he could accurately view the community.
Young spent most of his youth in government subsidized housing with his parents and two sisters. When he was 12, his family transferred their housing voucher to the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood. They had heard rumors about the area's active gangs, but with family already living there they thought they would be able to float above the conflict on the streets.
Rising above those gangs ultimately proved impossible for Young. For the next 10 years of his life, he was embroiled in near constant conflict with gang members. He says he was once even mugged at gunpoint when an acquaintance led him into an ambush after a pickup basketball game. It got so bad that, at times, he was afraid to even leave his house.
The Gardens is a 2,000-unit housing complex. Many residents there live at or below the poverty line. With one of Chicago's major highways to the east and a water reclamation plant to the north, the 157-acre complex is pressed against the Calumet River to the south. That means there are very few ways into and out of The Gardens.
"One way in, and one way out," Young says, ominously. "If you are driving then you can go out three ways. But if you're on the bus you can only go out one way."
The bus line that Young rode to get to school, and later to and from work, became a choke point. Every day he had to ride the #34 bus with known gang members. And if he missed his usual ride he had to take the #104, which picked up gang members from other neighborhoods outside The Gardens. It was difficult to avoid confrontations; shouting matches, intimidation, threats of violence and actual physical fights.
Young describes his life there as a constant struggle for acceptance and domination.
"When I moved to The Gardens I started hearing shootings," Young says. "There was a lot of gang banging going on. People would come up to me on the street and be like, 'Are you in this gang? Are you in that gang?' And I had no idea what they were talking about. ... They were looking at me like I'm the crazy one."
It was difficult to avoid confrontations; shouting matches, intimidation, threats of violence and actual physical fights.
Earning your stripes
As Young explains the situation, he also begins to explain how gang activity has changed over the last 20 years in Chicago. Many older gang members are either dead or in prison, he says. That means the city's larger gangs have broken up. The result is that many smaller groups have formed to fill the void. The members of those groups are younger than ever before, with less experience running a criminal organization and less control over their members.
Gang culture on the South Side looks like chaos to those who don't live there, but Young was able to translate for Block how it all makes a kind of sense. It's this first hand information that Block will need to get across to those who play his game.
In order to be initiated into a gang, Young says that other young men and women in The Gardens allow themselves to be beaten by older gang members. Once initiated, the easiest way to move up in the ranks, to "earn your stripes" as he puts it, is to commit petty crimes or violently assault people. Young says he was always in danger of being attacked, that by choosing to remain unaffiliated with gangs he made himself an easy target.
Each individual block of The Gardens has its own miniature gang. Just walking from where Young lived on Block 17 to where his cousin lived on Block 2 required him to move through multiple gang territories. He remembers his first time being caught in the crossfire.
"They just went to shootin'," he says. "I stopped. I didn't know what to do. Because I had never been exposed to that type of environment until I moved out there. I started looking around, and other people yelled to me; 'Get on the ground! Get on the ground! Get under the car!'
"So I had to get on the ground, get under the car and wait for it to stop. And soon as it stopped, I ran all the way home."
Young says his salvation was his family. His mother and father kept him busy with sports, often through basketball and baseball programs sponsored by the Chicago Police Department. Then when he was 16 he got his first job, working the cash register at a local Wendy's restaurant. But even while at work he wasn't safe.
One of his coworkers was a gang member, and when Young accidentally flashed a common gang sign, the coworker took offense and threatened him. That's when Young's cousin, also a gang member, came into work trying to protect him.
"My cousin was a freshman," Young says. "I was a junior in high school. And he came up there to [my coworker and said], 'Look, mess with my cousin if you want to. You gonna be gone.'"
"I had to talk to him like, tell him 'No. Don't handle it like that.' Because I don't really believe in violence."
It was Young's first experience talking people down from deadly force. And it wouldn't be his last. These, and many other anecdotes from Young's life, have created the rough outline for Block's game.
Today Young is a working hip-hop artist. While those around him continued with the gang lifestyle, he found his way out of The Gardens through music. He doesn't glorify gangs in his songs, and he says he's one of the few who won't degrade women. The man who now calls himself Solo Xquisit feels lucky. And he knows that music might not be the best way out of gang culture for everyone.
"To be truthful," Young says, "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.
"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."
In addition to his music career, Young works as a mentor for Chicago's All Star Project, Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting self-esteem and leadership skills to children through music and dance. Young helps counsel teenagers away from gang violence, but he also teaches them the technical aspects of recording, coaching them to create stage performances. Together with other mentors and instructors, the All Stars create an educational curriculum that teaches South Side kids independence and self-respect. Then they partner with corporations around the country, like Direct TV, to get kids internships and, later, jobs. It's a sophisticated approach, and there are more organizations like them trying to make a difference on Chicago's South Side.
But Block says that the Chicago All Stars, and other nonprofits in the city like Young Chicago Authors, need money to keep performing their mission.They also need volunteers, community activists and leaders like Sean Young.
Block sees that need as an opportunity to do more than just make a game that promotes empathy across racial and class divides. He thinks that his game can raise money as well as support for South Side nonprofits, that it can help to fund the next generation of leaders like Sean Young.
By choosing to remain unaffiliated with gangs he made himself an easy target.
After meeting Young on the train that day, the idea for his game finally crystallized. Called We Are Chicago, it relies on multiple interviews conducted with Chicago residents. From these first hand accounts, Block says he has created a composite character. Players will experience the game from the perspective of a teenage boy on the South Side, a boy who lives in a single-parent household struggling with poverty.
We Are Chicago will take place over a single week. Block says that a branching conversation system will be combined with non-player characters who remember past interactions, much the way things worked in Telltale's The Walking Dead. Characters will include the player's mother and younger sister as well as other friends, some of whom will have gang affiliations. Players will be invited to make deep personal connections with these characters and, over the course of the in-game week, step into the shoes of a South Side resident.
Then, in the game's conclusion, Block plans to break down the wall between the player and the game. He plans to provide space there for Chicago nonprofits, like the All Stars and the Young Chicago Authors, to appeal directly to the audience. We Are Chicago will actually invite players to get involved in helping stop the cycle of poverty and violence in Chicago. Proceeds from the sales of the game will also help contribute to building up resources for intervention, community organization and after-school activities for at-risk youth.
But the game isn't yet in good enough shape to be shared widely. Block wanted to have it playable at the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Neither the script nor the art assets were ready. Worse still, Block doesn't yet have the buy-in of any Chicago nonprofits. They need to see the game first, and he's hesitant to show them a demo that is in such an early state of development.
"I know there's been a lot of people that have tried to help [on the South Side]," Block says, "and have messed things up very badly. So I'm trying to find that balance of how do you help in the best way that you can without either overstepping your bounds, trying to do too much or trying to do things in the wrong way.
"I think it's really hard to find the right balance. And so I'm hoping 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's had the effect I want it to have, and that's really frustrating."
In the mean time, Block is busy engaging other residents of the South Side, like writer Tony Thornton. A retired postal worker and current youth mentor, Block met him through contacts at Chicago's Kennedy King College on the South Side. He's under contract to help Block revise the game's narrative. While Young and other South Side youth help to keep the game fresh and current, Block says that Thornton provides an uplifting balance.
Block says it took him six months to find someone like Thornton to provide the authorial voice he needed.
"Trying to find a writer has been a long process," Block says. "When I really started ramping up the project ... I was hoping to have a writer in a few weeks or a month at most, but it ended up being more than six months before I found Tony.
"Having someone with direct life experience [living on the South Side] working on the whole script ... has been incredibly helpful and has already led to a more accurate narrative and more compelling characters."
The game is functional right now but sparse, given its early development. Character models are rough, the camera angles are slightly off and the placeholder art makes the interior environments look a bit like knock-off Barbie dollhouses. All of this is to be expected.
What is unexpected to playtesters, Block says, is how real the street scenes feel already. Those who live on the South Side say they are consistent representations of their neighborhoods. With their feedback Block knows he's on the right track.
I'm trying to find that balance of how do you help in the best way that you can without either overstepping your bounds.
In March, the Young Chicago Authors' Louder Than a Bomb poetry competition concluded its 14th season. Now that the cash-strapped organization is free of their event schedule, Block hopes to be able to take more meetings with them, to continue to sell them on the idea of being deeply involved in We Are Chicago, to embedding their cause in the conclusion of his game alongside other nonprofits.
And more than anything Block wants to use the voices of YCA poets in his game. He wants to hear voices like those of the high schooler who opened his eyes years ago to his privileged position in the city. He wants to bring their talents to the center of the game's experience. In the meantime, Block is hard at work trying to make a narrative game that is respectful to their lives.
"I don't know if I'm going to have another success like Organ Trail," Block says. "While I have this opportunity, I need to take full advantage of it. I need to try and make something [meaningful].
"If there's something we can do to stop them from gang banging, or to stop other things from keeping people in poverty, then we should do that as well."
But his game is risky. It's an experiment that could easily fail. It could be boring, or shallow or just not any fun to play. Worse still, players could reject a conclusion that feels like a public service announcement. The narrative design, the story, is what Block is most concerned about and where he's spending the bulk of his energy right now.
Soon Block will be able to tell if a real, biographical game can have the kind of reach and impact that a fake zombie apocalypse can.
"I think that the empathy-expanding and educating part of the game, in some long-shot, pipe-dream sort of way," Block says, "will help people that are privileged and are active. People that vote.
"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."
"I'm not a director of movies. I'm not an author. I'm bad at writing," Block says. "But I can make games. I can make a game that gets people talking about issues [like poverty and violence in Chicago] and takes those issues and helps players see ... if our roles were just swapped, those could be all of my friends."