Q: How do you make a video game about Ferguson?
A: You don't.
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Earlier this month, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. What's happened since then has played out loudly on the small town's streets and echoed across national and social media.
Like millions of others, game creator and animator Nicky Case watched the events in Ferguson unfold over Twitter as citizen journalists sent out pictures, Vines, and by-the-second tweets. But Case was dismayed to find that Facebook's algorithms seemed to be hiding any news related to Ferguson from his feed, while Reddit users took to mocking journalists and protesters. Perhaps worst of all, some news organizations were trying hard to demonize the victim, Mike Brown, as a petty thief and drug addict who deserved those lethal bullets.
It brought Case to a realization: "Ferguson showed the world the best and worst in journalism." It ended up inspiring him to create what he knows: games.
After a few days of taking in the events at Ferguson, Case turned his thoughts into a succinct cartoon. He was inspired by an illustration he had seen that shows how the framing of a television camera can radically alter the story it depicts. (Both Case's image and its inspiration are the header for this piece.) Case's subsequent drawing was a context-specific update of the same idea, featuring a black citizen being beaten by a riot cop, but an inner frame makes it seem that the cop is the victim of the attack. After tweeting the image himself, Case saw his drawing shared by others, amounting to more than 3,000 retweets in just a few hours. His image sat among many others on Twitter that had become popular for their perspicuous message regarding the "Ferguson narrative" and the issues it brought to the fore.
What is unique about Case's image, however, and what isn't largely known, is that it's actually derived from the video game he's making, which is based on the same premise. He doesn't have a title for it yet, but he's already set on a subtitle: "How you frame the story, will change the story."
Case didn't always mean to create this particular video game; it more or less fell into his lap. It started off with envy towards Lucas Pope's Papers, Please—a game filled with ethical dilemmas, yet one with an accessible central conceit that informed the narrative through play. When the news surrounding the devastation of the Gaza Strip escalated about a month ago, that's when it hit Case: journalism. He could make a game about framing a narrative in a literal sense, with a camera's frame, and the consequences that can have, as well as tell the human stories on both sides of the conflict, Palestine and Israel. This might be his own Papers, Please. It was to be called "Gaza Strip Selfies," and a quick sketch of an Arab / Israeli couple that would have been in the game made it so.
Creating a game based on such a heated topic required research and real stories as close to the source as he could get. So Case got to work, as a researcher, journalist, and game developer all at once.
"I happened to have a couple friends who had lived in Israel and Palestine, and one friend who volunteers for the UNRWA. (They're all safe and sound, fortunately). So I interviewed them, focusing on the human side of the story, while I did the more factual research elsewhere through books, articles, and documentaries," Case told me.
"For three days, I was an amateur journalist. And, goddamn, it is tough. I had bitten off way more than I could chew. It's complex, it's messy, and it's a very tragic and sensitive topic I don't think I'm skilled enough to handle respectfully."
With that, Case decided to drop "Gaza Strip Selfies" altogether, despite loving the idea and wanting so badly to "show peace" within a conflict where it was hardly visible. Also having delved into the practice of journalism himself very briefly, he was further enthused with the potential of exploring its ethics inside a game. "So I still loved the idea of a game about journalism, but had no topic to center it around," Case said. "Then Ferguson happened."
Video games have a problem. There's a stigma attached to them that usually prevents them from getting anywhere near current affairs or real tragedies, as somehow an inappropriate medium for such explorations. So while Case's cartoon was praised and spread around on Twitter for its appropriation of events in Ferguson, adding animation and systems to it in order to create a video game adds the "too soon" factor. It'd be understood by many, and possibly reported at large, as an opportunist capitalization of a hot topic, either that or as cheap entertainment that lacks any sensitivity. It wouldn't stand a chance.
To be fair, many video games are highly problematic in how they deal with serious issues. War games indulge in disaster tourism and often make thrilling the murder of an "other" with a different skin tone. But it goes beyond this, too. We know that shooters and the companies behind them are involved in funding arms manufacturers. One of the latest, Battlefield Hardline, has been questioned widely for its unabashed glorification of police militarization, especially now that Ferguson showed how scary that can be. Case is all-too-aware of the effects that these games have and how he must stay clear of their superficial approaches to these sensitive topics.