Nova Alea (2016): A Story of Gentrification

Nova Alea (Molleindustria 2016) is a free downloadable computer game that offers a narrative simulation on the topic of urban housing. It is downloadable across Windows, Mac, and Linux to allow everyone to explore the controversial topic. The narrator prompts the user to follow the story until the very end in which the player can make his or her own choices to come to a result. The game is simplified to show the socioeconomic conditions of urban cities, especially with the rise and fall of the housing bubble bursts, regulations, and the most prominent, gentrification.

“For its dwellers, Nova Alea was a mixture of shelters, connections, memories, longings. For its masters, the city was a matrix of financial abstractions.” -Nova Alea

The story unfolds with the narrator teaching the rules of the game whilst explaining the environment housing’s boom and bust. She will then disappear for you to interactively play the game as the “master” of the city represented by the pink cube floating above the land. This is your tool to buy or sell pieces of land/skyscrapers by tapping on the building and turning it pink. You can click it again later to sell the property, turning it back to its monotone color. Another option you have is to click the hourglass button in the top right hand corner which will allow you to wait a round (or more) until you decide to buy/sell. This option is quite helpful to get profit quickly if you invest in the smaller buildings and press the wait button until it grows to a skyscraper and right before it is destroyed you can sell the property. The narrator will not continue until you have gained a bit of profit so that she can continue the story. She continues saying that the beginning of capitalism reshapes the community, making Nova Alea unrecognizable to its own citizens. Again, she disappears for you to collect more buildings. Your assets are shown on a pink bar to the left of the game. When you earn profit, there will be a number on top of the bar indicating how much you’ve earned. The higher the bar means that you are closer to winning. After a number of more buildings, the narrator returns to address the issue of gentrification. Gentrification as defined by the Merriam-Webster definition is “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents” (merriam-webster.com). The act of buying and reselling causes some residents to move and others to suffer. In the act of creating a wealthy society, the “Weird Folk” settled. The “Weird Folk” are crucial pieces to the game. They are represented by green bouncy blobs and are usually artists or freelancers that cause a new unique organization to the city. The masters or you as the player can either nurture them by letting them stay and bring organic life to the city or click them to destroy them, resulting in more price controls or resistance around the city. These price controls or resistance of the people are indicated by yellow squares above buildings which means that you could not sell immediately. You would have to wait a few rounds and perhaps risk a building being destroyed under your assets. On the right hand side now, you will see a yellow bar which is the people’s chance of winning the game. This is where the ending differs. You can either choose to win as a master, going against all odds to earn profit and build a city made of profit, or win as the people unified by resistance growing against a capitalist city.

This game was easy to understand and follow given the narration. As Egenfeldt-Nielson and other authors write in Understanding Video Games, games are supposed to be “systems” rather than “linear narratives” (Egenfeldt-Nielson, Smith, Tosca). The narrator made sure that as I was winning as the master I would then encounter the narration of the displacement of some of the residents and face simulated organized resistance in the shape of yellow squares. A medium between narrative and game, Nova Alea offers the interactivity of playing the game through its evoked and embedded narratives (Jenkins). The evoked narrative is shown through buying/selling the buildings, making you the controller of the game and creating your own narrative of an urban city. The game graphics are very minimalistic in that all the skyscrapers and buildings could easily represent any urban city. The game does not have to explicitly name a city out of controversy for people to understand the issue of capitalism and gentrification. Therefore I chose to think of New York City (Manhattan) as the patch of land because I am exposed to the problems at hand and because it is a prime area for gentrification. The embedded narrative occurs through the voiceover/narrator who guides you to follow the rules and win either as a master or the people.

The game is very efficient in describing the issue of gentrification through its simulation, allowing for players to delve themselves in the player involvement model (Calleja). The game on a microscopic level deals mostly with ludic and narrative involvements. A player is forced to make choices to continue the narration and flow of the game, either to buy and sell and earn profit for the masters or to buy and let the buildings destroy themselves without collecting profit so that the people can continue to live there through their resistance. Either choice will have its repercussions, depending on which result the player desires. The game also strongly features narrative involvement with the presence of the voiceover. On a macroscopic level, the game can end faster if the player strategically picks the “correct” buildings and if they strategically pick a side of the master or the people. The narrative develops stronger and stronger to present bigger issues not present before as the game comes closer to an end. Arguably, some people may also have a micro and macroscopic affective involvement with the game. However, I think that the simplicity of the game prevented me from being too affectively involved as I was more interested in the telling story of the game and its underlying intent.

Paolo Pedercini, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, created this game in response to the gentrification he faced in Brooklyn, NY (curbed.com). He has since moved to Garfield, PA where he also encounters rapid development (curbed.com). So when I thought of Nova Alea as a template for NYC, I thought of the Lower East Side that used to be rich and diverse with immigrants from all over the world until higher authorities started to build condominiums and raise the rent so that they could no longer live there. The removals of grassroots to make way for the more affluent rich addresses the social issue of the gap in socioeconomic conditions since the reason why some people were forced to move (as the narrator mentions in the game) is because they cannot afford the price raises and must either work harder at their current jobs or move to a different location. Similarly, the “Weird Folk” in the game perfectly portrays the freelancers or artists who have once been attracted to the growing wealth only to have been displaced later on because they too cannot afford it. Though the game effectively addresses the socioeconomic gap, I would have wished for Pedercini to also address the cultural conflict that it is mostly ethnic minorities of low income who previously resided in these areas that have since been removed even if it is controversial.

Despite the omission of the cultural context, the use of the interactive simulation, voiceover narrative, and allusion to the housing boom and bust in urban cities effectively achieved its goal in informing players the gentrification of the different socioeconomic statuses. In fact, it is the first game in the series of the Playable Cities series that Pedercini hopes will educate gamers of the housing dilemmas around the world (Molleindustria 2016). All in all, the immersive patch of land in Nova Alea is what makes it possible to think about the urban housing as we know it without leaving our computer screens.

Works Cited

Calleja, G. In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation. Cambridge: MIT, 2011. 35-46. Print.

Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S., Smith, J. H., & Tosca, S. P. 2008. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York: Routledge – Chapter 3: “What Is A Game?” Print.

Jenkins, H. 2004. Game Design as Narrative Architecture in Wardrip-Fruin, N. – PatHarrigan (eds.) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, Game. Cambridge: MIT Press. Web.

Molleindustria, 2016, Nova Alea, video game, computer.

Sisson, Patrick. “Video Game about Gentrification Lets You Play the Role of a Real Estate Speculator.” Curbed. Curbed, 10 Aug. 2016. Web.

“Gentrification.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 2017.

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