Nova Alea & Other Gentrification Maps

          Chinatown, NY has gradually become a production of cultural exoticism sculpted for the consumption of community outsiders. It joins many former ethnic enclaves where tenants are priced out from real estate speculation and businesses that have not foreclosed, adapt to the changing tides of the times. One of the last remaining row of storefronts owned by Fuzhounese American immigrants serving its own community, East Broadway, becomes vulnerable to these rent spikes as the area becomes highly coveted for market rate housing. It was previously believed that Manhattan’s Chinatown would be protected from the dominating powers that overcome communities in other Chinatowns, like that of Boston, because a handful of the property is Chinese association owned. The reality is, some of these landlords and community leaders, despite their roots within the community, believe incoming “diversity” (meaning young professionals with diverse occupations in tech, finance, and banking) is a positive shift. With time, tenants would come to face aggressive housing courts, buyouts and refusal for repairs. In studying this site that cultural practices and family owned businesses rely, it always bewildered me how these individuals could cultivate this mindset, so intensely distancing themselves from their people, in order to feed themselves these shallow narratives of gentrification guised in new “diversity.”

          Nova Alea allows you to engage in how the other side lives. It is a city simulation game that places the player in the mindset of real estate speculator in modern cities like downtown New York. This game acts as a foil to city builders like SimCity that showcase centrally controlled, utopian, and modern smart city designs. Nova Alea gives opportunity to players to experience the rush and drive of buying and amassing capital and selling before markets burst. Elements of game mechanics, game play and rules within Nova Alea motivates players to treat living spaces as interchangeable, mere sleek blocks that appear and disappear- prioritizing the player’s own financial precarity over the all encompassing vulnerability that comes with mass displacement and eviction. These controls and mechanisms are in stark contrast to narrative that provides social commentary. The game becomes procedural rhetoric- as the player experiences the procedures in place by the game designer, they are able to interpret the implicit convincing language.

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         Design choices that the player interacts all converge to corrupt the user’s moral compass. The game takes place on a constant dull, dark blue background with futuristic white and grey rectangular shapes jutting out of the city grid map to imitate city skylines. On the left, there is a glowing pink bar that represents your liquid capital. On the right is a yellow bar that represents your progress within the game. When you have invested in a property, the building turns pink. These buildings are rendered in sleek, faceless, 3D on a platform that the player can revolve to examine every property. The high angle the player experiences the map instills a sense of superiority and elevation. Despite these tools that offer varying levels of details, no intimate characteristics of buildings or signs of life can be found. The game also offers dynamic rates of play. The game warps time through an hourglass function that allows the player to speed up time before making any buying or selling decisions. On my second round of playing, I was able to use this function more heavily as I became more accustomed to the patterns of housing bubbles. These two design decisions paired together create a passive landscape that encourages mindless repetitive clicking, but one that also rapidly plunges, creating a sense of urgency to buy better, buy more and sell sell sell!  

          Other design elements reinforce and shape this player behavior. For example, when a profitable investment has been made, pink streams of light float out of the structure and soar into your capital cube that reigns above the city. The cube absorbs this light and pulses with life. This along with digital twinkle sound effects and tallying points being added to your capital bar on the left, create an exhilarating experience that the user chases to recreate over and over again. With these reinforcements, it is easy to get lost in the capitalist game removed from the realities of city life.

          What makes the game special is the social critique that shatters the player’s real estate high throughout the gameplay. The narrative voice forces the player to finally become conscious of the effects of their choices: “reshaping habitats and habits, making Nova Alea unrecognizable to its own residents,” “impossible prices drove old residents away and drained the ones who couldn’t leave,” “neighborhoods that made Nova Alea unique were replaced with dull repositories of wealth.” Despite these striking chronicles, the voice is hollow, female, robotic and much like the city map- cold and lifeless.

          Another disruption to game play comes from game mechanics that arise mid way through playing. At this point, the controls begin to feel natural and my wealth amassed in grander increments and fast, I was really getting the hang of the game! Then, the narrator speaks: “the masters traded properties feverishly, so the people of Nova Alea forced them to slow down.” This represents legislation that prevents speculators from avoiding property depreciation by immediate turn over when there lacks potential for growth. In game, these are two yellow blocks floating on your buildings when you buy. You must wait two turns before selling a property. Within these two turns, the player can anticipate a market burst but is unable to withdraw their capital and must watch their skyscraper shatter and disappear. Eventually the player faces rent control, represented by a floating yellow square on top of your buildings that physically prevents your building from growing. Towards the end, buildings turn yellow to prevent you from interacting with them- ah! the rent stabilized housing units have come. These fixtures prohibit satisfaction responses and the player begins to vilify protective measures that help prevent gentrification and displacement. I embarrassingly caught myself grunting, “ugh… gross, rent control.”

          How to win the game in unclear. The game decides when you have learned your lesson- when you’ve interacted with its functions enough to fill up the yellow bar. You cannot win, but you can lose- your pink bar empties signifying going bankrupt. If you avoid going bankrupt for long enough, the game ends in mid conflict while the last words sober you and you’re whole and good once again. It leaves you with parting words: “and that’s how Nova Alea became what it is now: a city of the people growing within a city of capital. It’s dwellers never completely slip the chains of its masters but their enduring resistance prevented the city from becoming its enemy.” You are no longer possessed!

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          Overall, the abstract representation and aesthetic within the game, meant to create space for racial and class divides (that form most US cities) to be imagined, created unintended consequences. This particular decision made it much too easy to remove yourself from the suffering you have caused, despite narration and ominous background sounds. The narration comes so sparingly and the player, similar to gentrifiers and real estate speculators, can comfortably move past moments of tension to focus again on the precarities in their own lives- housing, class, labor. Its strength is not in highlighting the realities of gentrification but in the way it helps players see the economic vortexes that warp these spaces and experience and control these invisible powers.

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The game reminds me of data visualization graphic design like Herwig Scherabon’s The Atlas of Gentrification. It is beautiful and analyzes issues that contribute to gentrification but also is abstract and impersonal. It showcases intense research and dedication but alone, the haunting experiences of real people are hidden behind data and clean lines. In contrast to both Nova Alea and The Atlas of Gentrification, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project supplements clean, research driven maps with interactive points that introduce stories. These stories are read in the voices of community members that describe their accounts of gentrification from the ground level- offering intimate details like names and memories that the viewer can relate to and empathize with despite not having experienced this form of displacement personally. While Nova Alea is incredibly engaging and immersive, it can also be distancing, lacking an element that drives players to utilize a critical approach towards their own movements in their environments and everyday lives. Should I be buying cake pops from this cute but clearly out of place coffee shop? Should I be visiting this art gallery that no surrounding local natives can access? Should I refocus my apartment hunt? Would my presence in this neighborhood make it a better place?

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~ by lilsvills on March 16, 2018.