Originally published here.
Going into this weekend, I knew I wanted to make a game that would serve as a statement about the intolerable state of civil rights in the present-day United States. It seems like almost every day there’s another story about police using excessive and all too often deadly force, often unnecessarily or for very little provocation. We live today in a police state where citizens rights are routinely denied, due process and the right to a fair and speedy trial have been forgotten, and out government doesn’t merely seem unwilling or incapable of doing anything about it, it refuses to do anything about and then punishes those who speak out and demand it — as evidenced by a mockery of a Grand Jury investigation into the police shooting of an unarmed 18 year old named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last month, and a 12 year old boy in my home town of Cleveland, Ohio that happened just as the news hit that there would be no trial in the Michael Brown shooting incident. No trial, and then force used to break up peaceful demonstrations which turned them into riots.
One of the finalist themes was Color Is Everything, and I thought that would work perfectly if it was chosen, but for some reason I didn’t expect it to — I just never feel that lucky, I guess. So I looked at the other themes and considered how I might fit my protest statement into a game that satisfied the other themes, and I thought that I could use “Entire game on one screen” if it came up, but I never expected that it would. When it did, I was surprised, but happy because out of all the other themes it was the one that afforded the most freedom of game concept, so long as I could fit everything on one screen.
In designing the game, I focused almost exclusively on the message that I wanted to send, and the actual game play was secondary. I wish I could have spent more time on refining the game, because as it is I don’t feel that it plays very well. But I needed to be very careful about the content of the message. I’m not sure if I got it right or not, but I tried as best I could to come up with a statement that I could put into a game that I could create in under 48 hours.
Early on I choose to sacrifice graphics, and go with a purely abstract game. I did not want to sensationalize with blood splatter, and after briefly considering creating animated anthropomorphic figures, but worried that whatever I might create in a short timeframe would be insufficient and might resemble offensive stereotypes. I decided to go fully abstract and use simple squares of symbolic, literal black and white to represent my people. While it was very easy to make, it afforded me time to consider how to put the message I wanted into the game. I wanted to drive home the point that you can’t tell whether a person is a criminal based on their appearance, that it is their actions that make a person a criminal. Although, really, crime is almost incidental to the reality I’m depicting — the game is really about a dystopian society where police who are sworn to protect and serve the public are allowed to get away with killing people because a corrupt system looks for any excuse to look the other way when they happen to be black.
I had a basic idea that you’d be a policeman, and you’d just patrol around on the screen while people stood about or walked around, and you’d have to figure out who among them is a criminal, and then try to arrest them or, if you wanted, you could shoot them. I gave the game three ending conditions: if you run out of bullets, if you are killed, or if you kill an innocent (white) person. And I implemented a scoring system which I felt reflects the real-world valuation we place on white and black citizens. Arresting or killing a black innocent has no consequences in the game. But arresting an innocent white person deducts points, while killing an innocent white person ends your career in an instant.
I struggled quite a bit with figuring out how to value the arrest and kill scores for black and white criminals. In the end, I took a base value of 100 points, because it’s a nice, round number, and then I adjusted it to reflect the bias in the legal system. I don’t know how well I did, there, but here’s how I came up with the point values: Using wikipedia, I found an article dealing with race and crime in the united states. In it, I found that the data presented in the article was fairly messy, taking numbers from different years, etc. but it said that the incarceration rate for black males is 4749 per 100,000 — about 4.8% of all black men in this country are in prison — while the incarceration rate for white males is only 487 per 100,000, or about 0.5%. I also needed to adjust for the proportion of the population that these groups represent. According to the 2010 US Census, the population classified as white represents about 63% of the total population, while blacks represent about 12%. Multiplying these percentages together, I got 0.63*0.05 = 0.00315, and 0.12*0.048 = 0.00576. Dividing these two numbers into each other, I got 0.00315/0.00576 = 0.546875, and 0.00576/0.00315 = 1.828571428571429, which I rounded to 0.5 and 1.8, respectively. I took those numbers and multiplied them by the base point value of 100, to make a black arrest worth 180 points, and a white arrest to be worth 50 points. Coming up with these numbers gave me a sick feeling.
Killing a person scores much 100x as much points as arresting them, to reflect that ending a person’s life is a higher stakes proposition than simply arresting them. Perversely, this creates incentive to shoot people, if you’re going for a high score, and for the highest score, to preferentially seek out black targets.
I never tell the player that they ought to try for a high score, but I allow the structure of the game to suggest to the player that this is what they ought to do. I expect that most people will try to play this way at first, and perhaps if they think about what the game is telling them, they might try not to shoot as much. It’s possible to play with a strategy of only arresting people, although you will score much slower, you can play longer as long as you manage to avoid being shot yourself by criminals. If you don’t care about arresting the wrong people, you can probably survive indefinitely, and in the long run the extra points you get for arresting black criminals will outweigh the penalty incurred for arresting innocent white people. In thinking about this more, it makes me question why I gave the population equal proportions of black and white people, and criminals and innocents. It might have been a more accurate simulation to give these populations the same proportions as the census and crime statistics show. But while the census figures are less likely to contain institutional bias, the crime numbers really only track incarceration, not criminality, and I don’t know where to find numbers that would reliably measure the proportion of a population that are criminals, broken down by race. So, it’s a limitation of the design, I suppose, but I’m not sure how to do better there. If I had done this, though, it would have pushed the bias toward targeting blacks much higher, because white criminals would be very rare, white innocents would be very common, and blacks would be the only safe targets for arrest and/or extra-judicial killing. This might need to go into the post-compo update, if I continue developing the game.
To provide the player with a bit of incentive to use their gun, I gave the criminals guns as well, with which they can commit murder, and some of them will try to shoot you, so there is some of the self-defense and defending the lives of others in the game, just as it is talked about in the real world whenever one of these shootings takes place. If I had to do it over again, I’d probably use the crime statistics tracked in the game to penalize your score, so that you would have a bit more direct reason to try to identify and stop the criminals. This will probably be addressed in a post-compo version as well.
The Play Experience
My process in coming up with this design was slow and meditative, so I probably spent more time thinking about the design, what it implied in terms of the message it would send, and then carefully creating a design that imparted the right message. Comparatively speaking, I spent very little time actually playing the game, and I think that shows in the play experience. I’m not really satisfied with how the game plays. The AI is extremely rudimentary, and if you allow the game to continue spawning people and don’t wipe them all up by constantly arresting or killing them, very quickly it gets to the point where there’s too much happening on the screen, and you can’t take it all in, which makes your decisions and actions less meaningful. As well, when the screen fills up, very quickly you end up accidentally colliding with people who are walking around oblivious to you, and obviously that removes the aspect of intentionality from the act of arresting them, detracting from the game’s message.
I think, if I did the design over again, I’d try to make the game slower, so that the player would be able to think about their actions and decide to do them, rather than react in a twitchy manner. Perhaps I’d reduce the number of people that can be on screen at one time (there’s currently no limit, which is bad), and I might also slow down the action so that only a smaller number of people are actively doing anything — I considered making the AI’s move in a turn-based fashion, so you could have time to monitor each individuals actions and try to figure out if they’re a criminal or not, which would give the game more of a detective-y feel to it. I’d definitely like to improve the AI a bit more so that it would make the game less random.
Overall, I’m not all that satisfied with the game as a play experience, I think it could be much better — but working on the project allowed me to work through my feelings on the current events. And, working through those thoughts was a more necessary thing for me this weekend. There’s a lot that is wrong with our country right now, especially in government and law enforcement. Reform is badly needed, and seems like a remote possibility at best. It seems like the system of checks and balances, and the rights that we are all guaranteed exist only on paper right now.