By Isabella Estrella
Nova Alea is a free game available for download on most computer platforms, by Paolo Pedercini with independent game developer Molleindustria (About). Nova Alea seeks to highlight the technicalities and injustices of gentrification to its players by employing the player as a property investor in a neighborhood, given the responsibility of following trends to acquire or sell properties in order to grow their own wealth. With this greedy goal as the player’s only main objective, throughout following the game, the player learns how their actions affect the other people living in the neighborhood, many of whom had been living there their whole lives and were happy and comfortable prior to the arrival of and destruction by the property investors.
This game features sleek, simple graphics that serve more as symbols rather than realistic representations. Buildings are represented by block rectangles that can grow or shrink based on their ever-changing monetary value, and areas inhabited by so-called “Weird Folk” are represented by amorphous green structures that constantly move and change shape, while also expanding as their value increases. A cube hovers above the properties that the player can click to select a building to sell or purchase. The game also uses a minimal amount of colors, keeping everything fairly uniform and only using color changes to distinguish different properties or represent significant changes occurring in the game. The main color change is from pale gray to pink, with the pale gray signifying that a property can be bought, and pink signifying that you already own the selected property. The game employs a singular voice actress made to sound soothing but also somewhat robotic or automated. The game also features understated sound effects when the player clicks on objects or when the buildings grow. Otherwise, the game is quiet and without many surprises. Essentially the only mechanics are clicking once on the property or hovering cube to buy or sell the building, clicking on the hourglass in the top right corner to advance time round by round in order to observe changes in property value, or clicking and dragging the plane the neighborhood exists on in order to keep an eye on all of the properties 360 degrees around.
This game is relevant in today’s socio-cultural climate because gentrification is a rapidly growing and spreading phenomenon that more and more people are beginning to suffer from. Gentrification, unfortunately, has been spreading rapidly, and perhaps I could attribute this to two main reasons. The first is most likely because property investment has so much appeal because of the opportunity to gain incredibly large amounts of money and hold stakes or make a name for oneself in a big city. The compounding reason for gentrification’s wide reach is the fact that many big cities possess a gigantic disparity between the rich and the poor, all in a fairly small area, meaning that many properties in poorer areas located near more attractive areas can be obtained for cheap. Those who are savvy at observing change in the property market and population and are good at making predictions can make big money in the property investment game. Although gentrification can affect many, not all consider the effects a priority when the chance to gain so much money is at hand. Therefore, people have been displaced, have seen their homes and communities demolished, have remained in a neighborhood that no longer wants them there, or have lost tremendous amounts of money while trying to keep their property. All of these basic elements of gentrification are discussed in Nova Alea.
I have lived almost the past decade in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, a town that is growing very rapidly. The change in the sorts of businesses around, the increasing number of young families, the noticeable change in driving traffic, and the spike in costs of homes and properties in neighborhoods once viewed as unappealing has been extremely evident. The fact that this negative phenomenon has surrounded me and many like me, although I have luckily never personally faced its negative effects, shows just how dire the need is for awareness of gentrification. People need to know that although it seems appealing, participating in it directly ruins entire communities and the lives of those who live(d) there. This game serves as a great educational tool that sheds light on gentrification’s atrocities. The game even opens with a poignant line about gentrification, stating that “Nova Alea was a mixture of shelters, connections, memories, longings [for its dwellers],” but “for its masters, the city was a matrix of financial abstractions” (Nova Alea). The game then forces the player to be on the offensive, starting a war with the citizens of the city as a result of their greed and inconsideration. It forces the player to be a villain who disregards the feelings and lives of others in order to gain money, because their only concern becomes to purchase relatively cheap properties and sell them “before the bubble burst[s]” in order to turn a profit (Nova Alea).
I think the mechanisms the game utilizes are very successful in proving the point that gentrification is an evil embodiment of greed that has very real, very devastating effects on individuals and entire communities. The game being so readily available helps in spreading awareness already, because those who have heard of the game can quite easily find a way to play without paying money or needing a specific computer. Because this game is pretty educational, it does its job in giving players a simple crash course on gentrification without being didactic, boring, inaccessible, or confusing. Along with its availability, the game is simple, allowing the message to come across clearly without being muddled or covered up by difficult techniques, flamboyant and detailed graphics and sound, or complicated controls. Therefore, the game’s purpose is obvious, forcing the player to reckon with the topic. The game also does an excellent job in making the objective extremely appealing, turning the player into someone who is quite greedy for money. This shows just how easy it is to be roped into being a perpetrator of gentrification in the real world and how people must force themselves to acknowledge the negative aspects of gentrification to avoid getting involved. The game also responds to the player’s actions fairly immediately and drastically, showing the player that their actions are significant, just like a property investor’s actions might hold plenty of weight in the real world. The game’s quick, tailored responses to various actions show how powerful a property investor is and how much change they can incur, making them much more than merely a player in some sort of gambling game.
One can apply Gordon Calleja’s player involvement model to this game, as it exemplifies the macro and micro phases of involvement perfectly. Out of all methods of involvement that Calleja lists, this game taps most heavily into ludic involvement, “which expresses players’ engagement with the choices made in the game and the repercussions of those choices” (Calleja 44). Because this game is somewhat of a simulation of property investment, housing situations in urban spaces, and gentrification, the players not only reflect on how their actions create particular responses within the game, but also on how real-life property investors’ decisions can change the lives of a neighborhood’s inhabitants. Furthermore, in terms of macro-involvement, the game surprisingly also offers ways to prevent gentrification or solutions to the problem. Sometimes the game ends stating that the original citizens’ “enduring resistance prevented the city from becoming their enemy” (Nova Alea). This observation and suggestion is not meant to be applied to the game, because the player will never play as a victim of gentrification. Rather, this suggestion serves as one to be applied in the real world and one that may call people to act against gentrification. Therefore, ultimately, Nova Alea achieves its desired end in spreading awareness about gentrification through both illuminating its dark aspects, and providing a light at the end of the tunnel.
“About.” Molleindustria. Molleindustria, n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2017. <http://www.molleindustria.org/blog/about/>.
Calleja, Gordon. “In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2011): 35-46. MIT Press. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
Molleindustria, 2016, Nova Alea, video game, computer.