According to a Boston Magazine article from February 2016, Boston’s cost of living is 39.7 percent above the U.S. average, with groceries and health care running 26 percent above average, while the median household income in the city remains on par with the rest of the country. Only nine percent of today’s rental housing listings are within reach of households with $50,000 annual incomes, while a tiny one percent of listings are affordable to households with $25,000 annual incomes. 

Where do you fit in? 

Click here to play Broken Bootstraps

Today was Northeastern University’s School of Journalism hackathon Urban Tensions, run by professors Matt Carroll (of Spotlight fame), John Wihbey, Dietmar Offenhuber and Aleszu Bajak. The program itself was split into two halves: three 5-minute “lightning” talks followed by about 4 hours of actual creation. The idea was to build visualizations based on data available in Boston specifically.

We had three guest speakers, and I’m going to focus solely on Christine Dixon’s talk as it was what sparked my idea. (If you want to know more about the hackathon itself, Rowan Walrath posted a Storify from the event. Check that out here. 


Initial solo-spitballing for Broken Bootstraps

So Dixon works with Project Hope, an agency in Boston that focuses on helping families break the cycle of poverty. She was presenting on the organization itself and the data their team had collected about evictions in Boston. I jotted this particular point of Dixon’s results down:

Most tenants in housing court have subsidized housing and thus aren’t likely to qualify for [Massachusetts’] emergency shelters.

[[Let’s pause for a second to break this down a little. Subsidized housing is different from public housing. Public housing is owned and managed by the Boston Housing Authority, while subsidized housing (aka Section 8 housing) is privately owned housing. The owners of Section 8 housing receive a government subsidy for renting to low-income citizens. Okay, carry on.]]

This struck me instantly. What happens to the families that get evicted from subsidized housing? Where do they go if they can’t go to emergency shelters? If you get evicted, what happens to your kids? What precedes the eviction itself?

My first thought was how do we build empathy for people who are facing eviction? As a society, we paint low-income folks as lazy, foolish, or otherwise at-fault for their financial situation. But the reality is, most Americans are one unexpected bill away from financial insecurity. (Funnily enough, this has been heavily reported in the past few months, but my mother has been saying this to me for years.)

At the beginning of the event, Bajak had joked that we didn’t have to create the next Call of Duty, just create a visual of some sort. But why build a chart when you can build a game? And hey, I’ve never created a video game before, so why not today?

Last November, The New York Times released a game cleverly titled The Voter Suppression Trail that had the player wait in line to vote. That’s it, that’s the game. Yet, I played it over and over again. By picking different characters in different areas of the country, you could experience a range of experiences outside your own. And isn’t that the point of all games, all fiction, to give the audience an experience they haven’t had? As David Foster Wallace put it, “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves.”  The Voter Suppression Trail is rather simple and two-dimensional but it doesn’t need to be complex, because it’s an engaging enough interface to explain to people that their easy voting experience is not the case everywhere. It doesn’t need to be, say, another Depression Quest.

Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest is the second game I thought of when approaching our game. The player controls a character who suffers from depression and moves through the game struggling with their disease. The game was intended to build the player’s capacity for empathy by forcing them to understand what the world looks like through the eyes of someone struggling with depression. It is, in a nutshell, a brilliant game and one I suggest you go play; it’s pay-as-you-can and yes, you can play it for free. [[I actually think it may have been made on a platform similar to Twine.]]

These two games stuck with me because Quinn’s was very much an example of building the player’s capacity for empathy and both games are what we call ‘pro-social games.’ Perhaps the most compelling proof of this is in a set of studies by Tobias Greitemeyer, a professor of social psychology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. The first paper is about the effect anti-social video games have on the player’s aggression levels, while the second focuses on the effect pro-social games have on the player’s empathy levels. [[Highly recommend the read, both are fascinating.]]

Honestly, I didn’t really pay attention to the talks that the other speakers gave because I was too busy brainstorming for Broken Bootstraps, and trying to figure out how to pitch the project idea to the rest of the audience, because I certainly could not pull this off by myself. I immediately turned to Paxtyn Mertens, Rowan Walrath and Rowena Lindsay, three journalists I know from Northeastern to soft-pitch the idea. They all liked the idea enough to sign on, despite none of us having experience in development. We brought on Macy Quinn-Sears, a high school junior visiting from Washington, as well as Joe Cusack and Zhengyan Yu, both Northeastern graduate students.

We got to work developing the game on Twine. Frankly, building the game itself was relatively easy thanks to a) Twine’s simple interface and b) to Paxtyn’s thorough reading of the fine print in the tutorials that I skimmed over. Rowena, Rowan and Macy set about doing research for the piece, ranging from the average salary of a bank teller to whether racial bias played into eviction courts. A lot of their work didn’t even make it into the game from a truly data-based perspective, but it was huge in informing the details of the narrative and had to be cut for the sake of time.

Our storyboard for Broken Bootstraps

Thankfully, Twine is pretty simple, so I was able to get our content onto the platform and write the storyline with relative ease. Again, the goal here was to break away from the idea that struggling with financial security was somehow the person’s fault, so we gave the player difficult decisions like choosing to buy groceries or paying for the heating bill. Pay the bill? Your daughter fails a test because she can’t focus in school. Put food on the table? The collection notice comes calling and you can’t make rent.

There is no winning in Broken Bootstraps. The game loops intentionally, showing the cycle of poverty and financial insecurity that low-income folks face.

Had we had more time, it was our hope to address hidden biases–players choose in the beginning of the game whether they live in Roxbury or Dorchester, two Boston neighborhoods that are predominantly black and white respectively. Our intention here was to create gender neutral and racially neutral characters to enhance the level of immersion in the game, and reveal later on whether racial/gender bias effected your character’s chances in various scenarios. While this is definitely possible, in the 4 hours we had to build the game and do all of our research, it wasn’t a feasible goal. But Twine’s interface does make it incredibly easy to build games of this nature, and perhaps with more narrative driven games, we can help people to lower their guard and truly see the world through someone else’s lives. I’m definitely proud of what we created today and could see this being a project I return to in the future. Want to play Broken Bootstraps? Click here.



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