Image: courtesy of Molleindustria.
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Gentrify This

Video game Nova Alea forces you into the role of property developer

 

Paolo Pedercini, it’s fair to say, designs unconventional videogames. He is the brain behind Molleindustria, a small game developer that since 2003 has excelled in the creation of products that test the boundaries of gaming through social critique and re-appropriation. In Unmanned, for instance, the player takes on the role of a drone pilot, from the pilot’s everyday life to the banality of his killings. The Best Amendment, meanwhile, is a satirical four-dimensional shooting game that critiques America’s liberal gun laws. Pedercini’s latest stunt, however, is a particularly gutsy undertaking. Set in a city torn apart by social inequality, Nova Alea forces players into the role of urban gentrifier — with all the moral conundrums that come with it.

The designer says that the game was inspired by a personal experience: “I live in Pittsburg, a city that today is considered to be undergoing a period of growth after decades of post-industrial decline. Last year, I bought a house in a neighborhood that is at risk of gentrification and I faced the problem of trying to avoid contributing to a speculative housing market.” He decided to buy a house that had been empty and abandoned for several years, but the experience motivated him to work on “a series of urban themed games” of which Nova Alea is the first.

The city in Nova Alea resembles a standard urban grid, on which constructions rise and fall “according to invisible patterns.” The player can therefore choose to buy a building and then wait for the logic of the market to run its course. The neighborhood can either remain unchanged or sprawl into skyscrapers. The player can sell at any moment, while paying careful attention to sell before the inevitable bursting of the real estate bubble. The timing is precisely what makes the game anxiety-inducing: the awareness that you can lose a fortune at any moment without any warning.

Gentrification is not the direct and inevitable result of a multitude of individual choices, but rather a system of exclusion that manifests itself when the city stops being a social environment and becomes a stage for financial gambling.

“Nova Alea is intentionally abstract and fantastical,” Perdercini explains. “One objective was to correct the notion promoted by simulations like SimCity that cities are planned in order to boost the wellbeing of inhabitants. Wrong: private capital plays a central role, influencing policy and urban planning. There is a surplus of wealth that rather than being invested in public welfare activities ends up in property development and therefore financial speculation. Gentrification is not the direct and inevitable result of a multitude of individual choices, but rather a system of exclusion that manifests itself when the city stops being a social environment and becomes a stage for financial gambling.”

“In the United States,” continues Perdercini, “there is a tendency towards re-urbanization: feeling drawn to the city, middle to upper-class millennials have abandoned the suburbs preferred by their parents’ generation. Urban centers here are populated predominantly by ethnic minorities with low incomes. This dynamic not only generates cultural conflict, but also a rise in rental prices and a speculative market that increases the cost of living and forces pre-existing residents to move to areas with bad quality services (schools, public transport, hospitals…), triggering a spiral of impoverishment and marginalization.”

 

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In Nova Alea, speculators are not the only ones sharing the city with its citizens. After a few minutes in the game, so called “Weird Folks” appear on the screen. This group “represents the creative class, artists, urban countercultures, and other realities that contribute to the social capital of a city without participating directly in the market.” They are often referred to as “first-wave gentrifiers” because they often settle down in cheaper neighborhoods, revitalizing them. “It is a well-known narrative,” explains Pedercini, “artists and bohemians concentrate in working class neighborhoods, create a scene, attract hip commercial activities, they make the area more desirable to wealthier youths and then they are gradually “expelled” by rental prices they can no longer afford. This phenomenon is not central to the game, but players can invest in neighborhoods of cultural fermentation in order to accelerate the rising value of the area’s properties.”

In addition to “Weird Folks,” there is a group that represents the “city from the bottom” — lower middle class inhabitants that become the resistance. This “takes the form of measures like rent-control, an anti-speculation law that prohibits the sale of a recently purchased property (based on a proposal called stop-the-flip born out of San Francisco) and the creation of areas that cannot be sold or bought.”

In my personal experience playing the game, this is when the short-circuit kicked in: I had started playing the role of the gentrifier against my will, but soon enough the desire to play got the better of me. I was concerned about my actions, but I also wanted to win regardless of how wrong it was to want to win at Nova Alea. I found myself on the opposite side of the “Weird Folks,” my old friends, to whom I reacted with poorly-disguised irritation. In the end, I lost all my money and I watched the city, immersed in the rise and fall of dreams and new social disparities, evolve without me. I suppose this is the true message of Molleindustria’s game: somewhere inside us, there is a speculator, too; often it takes just a couple of million dollars to awaken him.

 

Translated by Chiara Siravo.