When Evan Narcisse was approached by Rise Home Stories about making the game that would eventually be Dot’s Home, he was already well-acquainted with many of the ways in which housing injustice impacts the Black community in America.
Narcisse says he had firsthand experience with gentrification, and knew about redlining and house flipping and the ways in which those actions prioritize prosperity for certain individuals over the stability of a community. And he recalls when his own mother became a naturalized citizen and was able to vote at last, and the ways in which that participation in democracy are tied to home ownership.
“I didn't know that you could even think about some of these issues when it comes to housing differently than you already do,” he says.
As a part of the Rise Home Stories Project, Dot’s Home belongs to a larger collective of media meant to inform the public about housing policy and the social justice work connected to it, alongside a podcast, a children’s book, an animated series, and several other works. Narcisse, signed on to write the story for Dot’s Home, about a woman who travels back in time to visit moments of her family’s history, witnessing the multigenerational choices that led to her present-day housing situation and taking her own turn at a major home-related decision.
There, he found himself on a creative team that’s almost entirely composed of people of color, and where the primary vision holders and team leaders are women. Many of them also have experiences connected to the themes of Dot’s Home, which helped shape their vision of tying it into real stories. For instance, one has older family members who were sharecroppers before traveling to an urban center in the north. Another, Neil Jones, has lived in Detroit with his family, where his basement flooded repeatedly — a plot point that ended up directly used in Dot’s Home.
Narcisse, Jones, and the team’s goal with Dot’s Home was an educational one. They wanted to tell a multi-generational story where the ripple effects of decisions could be seen. But they also wanted something personal — even if individuals who play Dot’s Home haven’t personally experienced the specific issues its characters have, it’s easy enough to relate to the motivations that drive them: a desire to protect and care for one’s family and eventual progeny, but also a longing to thrive personally. Through Dot’s Home, they ask: What are the forces at play when someone needs to move on from a place they have lived a long time? How do ownership, family, money, community needs, and personal ambitions all factor into that?
“We really tried to come at this from a place of no judgment,” Narcisse says. “Some people want to own their own homes, but there may be forces of play that make it harder for people from certain backgrounds to do that than others. And as a result of fighting against those forces, you might be more inclined to think more individualistically than collectively. One of the things we explore in the game is Dot, her aunts, and other members of the family who have managed to move on economically, that was because of what their forebears did, the sacrifices that they made.”
Then, through that emotional connection, Narcisse aims to educate on the struggles of Black home ownership and touch on the multitude of issues tangled with it.
“People have to make hard decisions to secure their own futures and any kind of sociocultural movement that's trying to create broad change has to reckon with what we are asking our activists to sacrifice individually from their lives,” he continues. “If you help set up a protest or a march, or if you are calling your elected representatives, or if you're doing any kind of work that's trying to create social change, you are giving something up from your life. It might be time, it might be money, it might be relationships, but there's an element of sacrifice there, and some people are not going to want to make those sacrifices.”
Jones agrees, pointing out that he’s experienced this in his own life and career. Online, Jones goes by Aerial_Knight. It’s a name he proudly put on one of his games: Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield, which unfortunately led to hate mail and abuse. And that, he says, is just within the video game world — it doesn’t even touch the offline world of protests, organization, and social movements.
“I grew up in Detroit my whole life,” Jones says. “I've seen it. I've seen these people lose their houses. A friend of mine, she just lost her house because they auction off people's houses while they're still living in them. And then the people who buy them charge them rent equal to what they bought the house for.
“And that's the thing about [Dot’s Home]. It highlights some stories that other people in the game industry literally can't tell because they don't experience that, they don't understand that. They would have to pull people like us in to get our perspective. And specifically this team, everybody was more or less on the same page, and could really relate to all the things going on in this story. That's what I think really makes this game special.”
Narcisse is candid that with a smaller team and limited resources, Dot’s Home is far from the big budget, AAA world of, say, Assassin’s Creed. But, he says, not being an Assassin’s Creed means that they can do things a franchise like that will never do without fear of shareholders or corporations: they can tell a story that’s expressly political.
“Yes, it's about how politics and policies affect people's lives,” he says. “And it's about how these big forces that are unseen and uninterrogated affect people's lives.”
Jones, however, wants to put it more directly.
“I think the games industry is trash with hiring Black people, specifically, and getting these stories into the rooms when creating games, even the fantasy games,” he says. “Look at all the medieval games that leave out Black people. Me personally, I think…the games industry needs to do way better. And the more things like this that are made are just more examples of the things that the game industry has been hiding or missing out on just because they won't even let us in the conversation. People like [the Dot’s Home team] and all these incredible people want to step up and try to just make something happen. I think that's the future of the games industry.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.