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Nova Alea: A Gentrification Demonstration

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Nova Alea [official site] is the most recent Molleindustria game. It explores/demonstrates gentrification and property market forces through a tiny patch of city land, its skyscrapers infecting one another with wealth as they climb, at first unimpeded, then with restrictions designed to slow or stem the tide of gamified buying and selling.

You have a square patch of land with blocks on it. As they increase in value they rise, going from stubby houses to skyscrapers. When their bubble bursts they vanish. You can click on them to buy them, marking them as purple and click again to sell.

As you play you learn to invest in the stubby ones near the rising ones as the wealth bubble infects its surroundings, then you start to see the height at which they become the most valuable in order to sell. A bar at the side keeps track of your liquid capital as well as what’s tied up in buildings.

But the voiceover adds information and human context. There are weirder, new communities which can crop up in the spaces where the bubble has burst but which lead to further bubbles nearby. Residents start to fight back with little trade restrictions or regulations which pop up as yellow impediments atop your buildings that mean you can’t resell yet. It’s about exploiting systems in a kind of economic demonstration.

I only recently moved out of London so discussions of these market forces, of gentrification, of the destruction of communities and the displacement of communities who can no longer afford to live in their home space have occupied a significant part of my life.

It’s not always conscious. I don’t mean I was having a lot of conversations about market economy, although there were a few. It’s more that it was this drip drip drip of awareness. I was there for the best part of a decade and I slowly moved further and further from the centre of town in order to afford my rent.

I read and skimmed and overheard news in the free papers or on the telly about the effects of property prices on communities, about flats built with oligarchs from overseas in mind, about which areas were up and coming because students could only afford poorer areas but their presence was attracting coffee shops and art happenings, like they were these brightly-coloured flowers that business bees wanted to sup on.

Deptford. Tower Hamlets. Brixton.

There were tweets about the price of train fares for those who couldn’t afford London at all.

Far more insufferable were the blogs about why people were leaving London.

I guess, to me Nova Alea feels like a playable version of the editorials and tweets and conversations that have surrounded me for years. It’s a useful tool for understanding the basic forces at play (although an economist would need to chip in to tell me if there was anything vital that was being missed or if the popular understanding was correct).

But I feel like there’s a larger cycle at play here. I don’t know how far it would run or how damaging it would be for communities or individuals, but my own feeling is that eventually, when London has spoiled itself all over again there will be another movement of people back in. Maybe that’s daft and the wealth will just get entrenched and become this moneyed cocoon. Maybe this standoff which Nova Alea leaves you with will come to be the default but I dunno. It got to the point where the omnipresence of the conversation about those problems became this separate problem – a kind of smog that affected people’s mood in addition to the shitty reality.

Without this devolving fully into an insufferable “why I left London” of my own – because there was so much good about London – I wanted to explain why it was… strange? not so helpful? to play Nova Alea as someone who lived in a city wallowing in that conversation.

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Philippa Warr

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