Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Activists vs. Game Designer... Fight!
Reprinted from the August 18, 2005 edition of Spare Change News
Video Game Divides Activists
By Paul Rice
Spare Change News
A forthcoming video game has some anti-homelessness activists up in arms over its portrayal of a homeless black man caught in an apocalyptic day in Los Angeles.
“Bad Day L.A.,” currently in development, puts the player in the well-worn shoes of Anthony Williams, a former Hollywood agent who voluntarily rejects the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown to live on the streets and ignore a society he despises.
During the story, the worst possible disasters that could happen to a megalopolis like Los Angeles all occur in a 12-hour period: the release of a bio-weapon that turns people into zombies, meteor showers raining down on skyscrapers, plane crashes and a tsunami, as well as numerous riots induced by such events.
Through all this tribulation, Williams inadvertently finds himself fighting for the lives of people about whom he could care less – people who would normally avoid him at every turn.
Homelessness in the game, however, seems to be more than just a character trait. The first video game to feature a homeless main character, “Bad Day L.A.” is drawing a lot of interest from a variety of communities.
“Do we really want our children to see homeless people as gun-toting, African-American ‘wackos’ and ‘bums,’ despite the failed attempt at some veiled redeeming moral theme?” asks Bob Erlenbusch, head of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness in a letter to city and state officials. The letter calls for Enlight Software, the game’s distributor, to cease production immediately.
Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., agrees.
“This is really bad,” he said. “It’s a bad product probably thought up by some people who have stereotypical attitudes and beliefs about low-income and homeless people. We will do all we can to fight it.”
American McGee, the game’s designer, responds by saying that “being homeless is what gives [Anthony] his strength – it is his superpower.”
There are advocates for the homeless who would agree, like Tim Harris, executive director of Real Change News in Seattle. “Alienated homeless guy saves city and reluctantly defends people who normally wouldn't give him the time of day,” he said. “What's not to like?”
James Shearer, a formerly homeless person who is a co-founder of and columnist for Spare Change News, shared Harris’ sentiments.
“I’m an activist, but I’m also a realist,” he said. “And there are times when I wish these agencies would just shut up. [These] are the same types of homeless activists who didn’t want to see Spare Change News survive.”
“I believe that the reason why people have such a hard time with this video game is because [homeless people are] a segment of society that has basically been ignored, and now society has to rely on them for survival,” Shearer continued. “And I think people are uncomfortable with that.”
American McGee is a legendary figure in the gaming community, known for creating unusual, narrative-based gaming. His largest success to date is a game called “Alice,” which let players take on the role of Lewis Carroll’s famous fledgling as she fights her way through a twisted looking glass.
In an interview with SCN, McGee explained his decision to create a homeless main character.
“The choice came out of my initial thoughts about what sort of person would really be able to survive, alone, on the most apocalyptic day this side of Armageddon,” he said. “And when you think about it, the homeless are the closest thing you've got to urban survivalists.”
Questioned further on Anthony Williams’ choice to embrace homelessness rather than a rich lifestyle, McGee said: “The concept of ‘homeless by choice’ is something that is alien to Americans who aren't familiar with homelessness beyond throwing a quarter into a cup from time to time.”
“This game is saying, ‘if you aren't happy, you have other options. Even options that sound as insane as giving up on everything you've ever been told is right. Go and find your own solution.’”
Finding solutions is the only way to progress through a video game. Although “Bad Day L.A.” won’t offer a solution to homelessness, perhaps it will “start a conversation,” as McGee put it. And for some homeless advocates, that’s more than they could ask for.