Game designer Ashlyn Sparrow Credit: Max Herman

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Ashlyn Sparrow, 29, game designer.

For my birthday one year, my dad bought me a PlayStation. There were ending credits in the games, so I knew someone was making them, and I remember saying, “I want to do that.” I thought I had to learn to draw, since that’s the first thing you see in a game, so my mom got me an art teacher. After a couple months, I realized, “Oh crap, I’m actually not into art.” That was the moment I realized the thing I am passionate about is computers.

I got my master’s in entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon. Every year the students would go on a west-coast trip to visit game companies and talk to industry veterans, who were from a completely different time period, when people who didn’t even have a college degree were like, “I want to make this game. Are you interested?,” and that’s how they got into these companies. That is not the way the world works right now. For me, it was like, “Let me join this game design club. Let me take some programming classes. Let me get my master’s. Maybe that’ll get me closer.”

After I graduated, I did a lot of interviews with companies, but something felt stagnant with their games. There wasn’t enough diversity in terms of the characters and the stories and even the mechanics of the game. One of my professors was like, “Hey, there’s a job at the University of Chicago. They’re looking for designers to do social-impact games.” This was after, like, my 20th application, and I was like, “Well, I’m here for games. Always here for games. Maybe this is a place where we can start bringing out some diversity. Whatever, I’ll apply, they’ll say no.” And then they didn’t. They hired me.

So we’re the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, and we’re focused on creating games around health. We are trying to see if these games can change people’s attitudes. And we’re trying to see what games actually do, beyond the question “Do violent video games make people more violent?” I grew up playing violent video games and I’ve never punched anyone in the face just walking down the street, so I think we should move beyond that question.

We have a game called Caduceus Quest, where you play as a medical intern who’s trying to solve the mystery of a disease that’s broken out in her town. The only reason she’s able to do this is that she grew up there and knows how to talk to her community members. We have a game called Prognosis, where you’re the director of health in a city and you’re looking at different neighborhoods, trying to balance their resources. We also have a game called Bystander, about sexual assault intervention.

Probably one of my favorite games is Baby Town, where your character can become a teen parent. But unlike other scenarios, where it seems like teens are told “If you have a baby, your life is over. You just disappear from the planet,” this game continues. You don’t automatically lose if you have a baby. You get a new goal card, and you have to satisfy your baby’s needs before you can satisfy your own. Yes, this game is going to be hard, because being a parent at a very early age is hard. You can do it, but the real question is, After you experience this game, do you really want to?   v