• Michael Iantorno

Nova Alea and Gentrification in Games

There is no shortage of videogames that take place in urban settings, ranging from the ubiquitous Grand Theft Auto action-adventure series to arcade beat-em-ups such as Streets of Rage. The city takes on numerous roles within digital games: a colourful backdrop for action and exploration; a source of danger and intrigue; destructible terrain for players to demolish at their leisure; and, in the case of city-builders, a blank canvas to build an idealized urban landscape. It is the latter of these definitions that I am most interested in exploring in this blog post, specifically through the lens of gentrification.

Gentrification is a topic that merits some unpacking. Rather than posing a new definition, I turn toward the Urban Displacement Project for a concise summary:

“Gentrification is a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood, by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in—as well as demographic change—not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents.”

Gentrification, in a sense, is spurred on by an influx of new residents into previously neglected urban residential areas — increasing value, altering its makeup, and pushing out older (often marginalized) residents. This can be seen as a reversal of the "white flight" of the 1950s, in which predominantly white families moved out to the suburbs in search of “peaceful” neighbourhoods and affordable homes. Now priced out of these markets, many folks from younger generations have returned to the city in search of property ownership and to enjoy the convenience of shorter commutes and the vibrancy of cosmopolitan neighbourhoods. This inverted migration has brought with it investors and speculators, who re-invest in previously-disinvested neighbourhoods in anticipation of soaring home and commercial property values and rents. In the most dire situations, such as with New York City and Vancouver, this has led to astronomically high housing prices due to over-financialization. Gentrification has become an ongoing issue for cities to reckon with.

Even the most established city-builders only address gentrification in a circuitous manner. In SimCity 3000 (1999), for example, land values create distinct neighborhoods based around income bands that are roughly divided into slums, middle class, and wealthy areas. It is possible to increase the value of certain neighbourhoods by providing access to and improving services and desirable elements (e.g. schools and parks), but doing so is not explicitly labeled as gentrification, nor is the precise nature of population movement fully addressed. Many scholars and members of the gaming press have attempted to dissect SimCity’s underlying structures, reinforcing the idea that gentrification is a metaphor that can be overlaid on the title rather than a primary focus of its gameplay. Thus, for this blog post, I turn away from the ubiquitous city simulator and toward a game that explicitly addresses gentrification and its effect on urban spaces.

Nova Alea and the Abstracted City

Created by Molleindustria — who is perhaps best known for McDonalds Video Game (2006) and Democratic Socialism Simulator (2020) — Nova Alea (2016) is a game about urban development and financial abstractions. The entire play experience takes place in the titular city, an isometric white grid of skyscrapers and streets floating in a cerulean void. Metaphorizing the phases of gentrification through the rise and fall of pale white buildings, players take on the role of a “master” who strategically invests in Nova Alea’s budding neighbourhoods: buying low, selling high, and disinvesting before building values inevitably crash. The end result plays out something like a geographically-based stock market simulator, with a few added wrinkles that flesh out the dynamics of gentrification.

The first of these dynamics is a focus on proximity. Building values grow in neighbourhood-esque clusters, requiring players to: 1) identify which areas are appreciating in value; 2) purchase the surrounding edifices while they are still cheap; and 3) sell those same buildings once they have increased in value, but before the local real estate bubble has burst. Predicting these increases can be difficult as neighbourhood boundaries are not always obvious and the pace at which values increase is variable. Investing in a rapidly growing building can make it difficult to “get out” in time to turn a profit, while accidentally investing in a poor-performing building will simply waste player actions. This urban prognostication is not an exact science and is one of the core challenges of the game, although poor execution simply slows profit growth rather than bankrupting the player entirely. While not completely random, the variation is subtle enough to make perfecting gauging the market impossible.

Second, as Nova Alea moves along, new mechanics are introduced that may help or hinder the master’s drive toward profit. “Weird folk” appear throughout the cityscape as green amorphous entities, whose presence can be nurtured by clicking on them. When fostered in this manner, the weird folk dramatically increase the value of adjacent properties. This metaphorizes the introduction of creative class members into the urban landscape — a phenomenon first hypothesized by Richard Florida, who credits the influx of knowledge workers, intellectuals, and artists in spurring regional growth and driving up the desirability of urban neighbourhoods. Around the same time that the weird folk make their presence known, new gameplay restrictions are introduced in the guise of public policy. Some buildings have their growth permanently capped through price-control measures, represented through a yellow tile that physically blocks their vertical ascent. New purchases soon become immune to rapid-fire property flipping, manifesting as cubes that prevent the resale of properties for 1-3 player turns. Together, these mechanics make it more difficult (but not impossible) to turn a profit by slowing down the player’s investment strategies.

How does one “win” at Nova Alea? It is a bit difficult to say. The final city state appears to change based on the successes of the master versus those of public policy. After a few playthroughs, it seems there are a number of endings depending on player attitude — ranging from predatory capitalism to community building that falls in line with public policies — and their overall skill in interacting with the simulation. These divergent endings are further muddied by Nova Alea’s extremely abstract presentation of an urban centre, whose buildings rise and fall in waves and whose inhabitants are only alluded to through poetic narration. The parable is less about finding a repeatable method of “saving” a city, but rather about understanding the various forces that work to shape it.

Playing Gentrification

Nova Alea is a fascinating simulation as it visualizes long-term urban transformations in an accessible way. Unlike SimCity and other city-builders, the game feels less like managing a city and more like growing a bonsai tree — discussing socioeconomic class and wealth in abstractions rather than focusing on fully defined stakeholders and numerical values. This holistic approach of course, leaves many important discussions left untouched by the game (i.e. who are the people living in the city and where do they come from and go as gentrification processes unfold?). However, it would be unfair to ask such a short title to speak to all aspects of the expansive gentrification debate. In fact, perhaps one of the things that Nova Alea brings to light is the dearth of titles expounding on this topic, and the need to explore these issues more deeply.

Creating a game about gentrification also highlights how, in many ways, the housing market has been gamified already. There is a large amount of play rhetoric embedded in investing — think about how long we have used “playing the stock market” to describe overzealous investors — and flipping properties has become a gameshow-esque spectacle in the popular media. Sharing economy applications such as Airbnb have transformed chunks of large cities into highly-competitive short-term rental markets, dramatically increasing nearby rents and property values. Even the rhetoric around public policy adopts the language of games, with politicians introducing new rules and lamenting how older ones have been exploited by those intent on cheating the system for profit. What does it mean when we start thinking about cities as systems to be mastered or investments to be cultivated, rather than places where people live? By simulating gentrification in a digital game, perhaps we can begin to unpack these questions and address the processes currently unfolding in so many urban centres.

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