Nova Alea: A Gentrification Demonstration

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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  1. harley9699 says:

    Played it a few times, it was okay. But, it’s the same story over and over, that got boring, that you can’t shut off.
    Got very monotonous, very quickly. Uninstalled.

    • CarthAnne says:

      I didn’t get the sense that it was something that was meant to be played more than once, but maybe that’s just me.

      • Llewyn says:

        I can’t decide if harley has somewhat missed the point of the work, or is perhaps artfully commenting on the wider circumstances around it.

        • CarthAnne says:

          I feel stupid for not even recognizing the latter interpretation as a possibility.

  2. Alberto says:

    Other great games from them like ‘Unmanned’ are also meant for a single play.

    They (succesfully) want you to think about stuff after the game is finished, more than re-playing it.

    It’s bit of hit or miss, but Molleindustria is always worth a try.

    • CarthAnne says:

      Ooh, this was by Molleindustria? I didn’t even realize that, I loved playing Oiligarchy on Addicting Games all those years ago.

  3. RaunakS says:

    This is an interesting little experiment. I can’t quite say I have seen the effects of gentrification first hand even though my city and its suburbs (Kolkata + Howrah) have some 15 million people squeezed into it, so I am learning new things here.

    From what I understand, much of the effects can be mitigated by having blocks of streets and some individual houses be designated as ‘heritage’ or ‘antiquated’ or some such tag that forces developers to build around these restrictions. Helps stabilise the masses that come in from the villages and makes the weekly population swell.

    Another thing is powerful trade unions. They can easily stop big money and big businesses buying up property by the simple expedient of refusing labour and murdering labourers who come in from far away. They protect the right of little people quite well as long as you bribe the right thugs. Checks and balances.

    Also, the game is flickering quite a bit on my GT 740M. I think my laptop is running out of juice.

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    Cooper says:

    Okay, so, a little essay from your local Geography lecturer:

    If we think of this small area in Nova Alea as synonymous with a wider metropolitan region (i.e. a city and its subrubs and environs), it kind of much models what is known as a the ‘rent gap theory’ which attempts to expalin gentrification in purely economic terms.

    Investors come in when there is an exploitable difference between existing rental income and possible future rental income. In the game this is the decision making about when to buy: Is this area likely to rise in price soon, if so, buy it up.

    Basically, what you get from this is the see-saw effect you see in the game. Areas go up in value, this effects nearby areas, eventually the ‘bubble’ bursts, areas massively de-value, but, after time, become viable investment opportunities again.

    This model has been used to explain the kind of to-and-fro of wealthy middle class families moving in and out of surburban areas over the 20th and 21st Century in the US.

    There is also a somewhat mroe abstract argument which disputes the idea that it’s all about ‘buying low and selling high’ and you just wait in-between for the prices to rise (which is basically the rent-gap theory). Instead, the argument suggests that ‘regenration’ is a necessary by-product of the contradictory nature of capitalism. Basically, capital produces a surplus, this needs to go somewhere. ‘Run-down’ areas of the city are then argued to proide what has been called a ‘spatial fix’ for capital investment. Investors pump their surplus into these areas, the after-effect of this is that they raise in value, producing more profit (and more surplus…)

    The model only kind of works in this context, and doesn’t really work in many nother cases.

    In the UK, at least, this purely economic model doesn’t really work. This game suggests that as prices rise, this radiates out from the area. Anyone living outside of London and near ex-industrial areas will tell you this is not the case. Many places simply will not be viable areas for ‘regeneration’ until public governance and money go into developing these areas. It’s big business for councils now to basically package up market areas as viable investment opportunities for regeneration firms. What you note, Pip, with regards to the narative that runs “first the students, then the coffee shops, then the middle class” is a familiar story. And it’s now been latched oto by many planners who see what they term the ‘creative class’. Basically: try to fil your warehouses with artists by renting them as cheap studios. This will encourage the kind of services that the local artists want (nice coffe shops, interesting shops, a littly bit ‘quirky’ etc.) which, then, makes it viable for those warehouses to be replaced by apartments, as the area can be sold to the middle classes because of its ‘character’ and the nice shops / coffee bars.

    What happens to the artists renting the cheap space? Well, if they’re not successful enough to afford the new space, screw them; they’ve done their job in laying the framework for regeneration! It’s a horribly intrumentalist attitude, but it’s rife amongst planers.

    What the game does that’s interesting is that it takes the economic model of rent gap theory and places you in the position of someone for whom that model is basically ‘the way the world works’ (quite literally, that’s the code of the game). But then starts to make it awkward as the messy, difficult processes of people, politics, communities and legislation ‘get in the way’ of your nice investment-wait-profit system.

    Through the game we start to see gentrification as something that happens on many scales; something social, cultural, political and econnomic, something that involves many different actors all exerting agency on the processes.

    The problem is, this idea of the nice neat economic profit-maximising model being ‘disrupted’ by local forces doesn’t ring true.

    Go back to the idea of the ‘creative class’ I mentioned earlier. Neoliberal planners have already found ways to make best USE of nice ‘community’ aspects. We might see an artists commune, with artists, startup tech companies, community projects etc. We might even see ‘counter culture’; projects emerging out of these tech companies and artists that are explicitly challenging the kinds of economics and poltics behind neoliberal regeneration.

    Except, the planners and dveelopers want this! They know that these kinds of communities will make the area appealing to the aspirant middle classes, who are looking for ‘quirky’ shops and bars rather than costa and weatherspoons.

    Planners & developers don’t see these kinds of communities as a challenge as the game sets them out to be. They see them as part and parcel of the ‘regeneration’ process. By setting the groudnwork for making the area marketable. The same processes that up-roots communities and understands the poorer working class areas not as existing communities but, despite people living there, as some kind of run-down ‘urban wilderness’ for ‘urban pioneers’ to move into (seriously, these are the kinds of collonial terminology developers use!).

    Basically, the kinds of communities that ‘get in the way’ of developers, as in this game, have become the kinds of communities develpoers want to encourage. yet again, neoliberal captialism has found a way to absorb its criticisms and sell them back to us!

    • Scurra says:

      An excellent summary of the paradox of development and the cynicism of the modern urban cycle.
      Another part of the problem is that land is not just another scarce resource that can be held subject to classic economic principles such as competition, simply because it can’t be picked up and moved somewhere else. (Hence the common call for land taxation as the most equitable form of tax since it’s pretty much impossible to dodge.)

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      cpt_freakout says:

      Thanks, that was a great post!

    • kromeboy says:

      Excelent analysis. One thing about the game: it is possible to exploit the creative class. When a blobbing of creative (wild folks) move into a poorer zone of the city if you click on them they will start to attract more people and the price will rise (there is also a voiceover about the “animal spirits of the market”) . In term of gameplay you can buy the poor zone ahead.

    • frogulox says:

      When someone decides to a put a little extra into a response, to have that sudden burst that makes them want to contribute to a conversation like this, the world is a better place.

      Thank you for a simple, straightforward, helpful explanation to some complex issues that i am interested in but would have no idea where to start learning.

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      Benratha says:

      Thanks for the brilliant exposition! Sort of what I expect from RPS posters, but most excellent summary.
      Also, if my geography lecturer had talked about this rather than dikes & polders I may not have decided to study chemistry….

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      The Almighty Moo says:

      Blast, mis replied. Thanks Cooper- this was ace.

    • molleindustria says:

      Hi, excellent comment. Yes, the main mechanic is loosely modeled after the rent-gap theory but with some corrections. The “bubble” moves around randomly representing the collective investments and other public policies that catalyze development. It’s entirely possible that some parts of the scenario don’t ever regenerate. The “weird folk” is a reference to the creative class, first wave gentrifiers, and all the social actors who can potentially contribute to real estate value via cultural capital but that don’t directly participate to the market. They don’t have any effect in the game until they are harnessed (bought) by the player; at that point they increase the value in the neighboring blocks. The actual disruptive forces appear a bit later in the game, in form of: 1) anti-speculation policies that prevent you from buying and selling immediately (inspired by proposals like the “stop-the-flip” tax in SF) 2) “rent control” policies that simply cap the value of certain properties in proximity to the hot spot 3) The appearance of unbuyable/unsellable lots referring to public housing, co-operatives etc.
      Obviously other interpretations are possible, I left it abstract and fable-like to let players relate it to their own mental models and experiences, but that’s what I was thinking, more or less.

  5. barefeet says:

    Hello friends! If you have, how did you get the (green) Weird Folk building to grow? I haven’t seen it grow at all in my own noodling about, but there it is, tall and thriving in what I presume to be Pip’s screenshot.

    • kromeboy says:

      you can click on the green blob and the tiles around the blob will start to grow (so buy them before clicking on the blob)

  6. Alamech says:

    Meh, the house I live in has been bought by an investor and of course they want to turn into a building for the upper middleclass. Don’t know if I want to play this game myself, I know what’s going on, I’ve seen it all around me for two decades now, but I’m happy games are tackling this kind of subject.
    I read about a economy/sociology scientist the other day, she’s researching the way urban areas are changing and like many others, she has a bleak preview for London. There was an interesting article in the guardian last year: link to

  7. Saii says:

    Without offering too many spoilers, it’s probably more fun playing to maintain balance rather than to *win*.

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    The Almighty Moo says:

    Thanks Cooper- this was ace.