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Video game about gentrification lets you play the role of real estate speculator

City-building simulation Nova Alea provides a "anti-SimCity" view of development.

Game designer Paolo Pedercini believes it’s time to rethink the lessons of SimCity. Like many, the Carnegie Mellon associate professor played the smash-hit city simulation, but he felt there was something missing. The centrally controlled, city-from-scratch idea doesn’t quite gel with the messy reality of today’s cities. But to give game players a better sense of the realities of gentrification and development, he felt a little bit of magical realism was in order.

"The problem is that SimCity sells itself as a sandbox, and you end up with a North American modernist city," he says. "Class and racial conflicts are often removed from the game, even though they're central to how cities have formed in North America."

His answer, the new game Nova Alea, is a poetic, not just pedagogical, look at how cities operate, positioning itself as a kind of anti-SimCity. A counter to what he, and many critics, feel is the message and perspective pushed by the iconic game, it places players in a fake city where profit is their goal. Instead of promoting that growth and success are one and the same, Pedercini designed this abstract game to factor in the class and racial conflicts at the root of gentrification and real estate speculation.

In Nova Alea, players take the role of speculator, trying to make a profit buying and selling property in a massive metropolis, but have to factor in market forces that can spoil their plans. As rents and prices inexorably rise and homes evolve into skyscrapers, game play gets more and more tense. Fortunes can quickly disappear when the market turns and the bubble bursts. It’s sort of like house flipping on an urban scale, forcing players to act fast. There’s even a cadre of "Weird Folks" that enter the city at the outset of gameplay, representing artists and other early gentrifiers that often begin the re-urbanization of big cities.

The dynamic gets more interesting with the addition of grassroots push back, as residents representing those being displaced enact barriers to development and gentrification. As the game progresses, resistance to development comes from below, with rent control-like restrictions and other barriers slowing down market forces. Pedercini included these impediments as a way to show how certain actions could slow down and potentially mediate runaway development. Pedercini, who previously lived in Brooklyn and now resides in a home in Garfield, a gentrifying neighborhood on the east side of Pittsburgh, has witnessed the effects of rapid development first hand, which inspired the game’s creation

He feels it’s important to challenge this SimCity narrative, since he can see its influence in video games and real-world planning. The realization of the techno-utopian ideal of the game can be seen as a kind of philosophical forebearer to some of the smart city designs of today, such as the South Korean city of Songdo, a centrally planned high-tech urban center.

Via his company Molleindustria, Pedercini has a long history of using video games as tools for social commentary, having created simulations that address the moral issues of drone attacks or satirize the country’s gun laws. He sees the city, and its many layers, as a rich source for future game development. Nova Alea is just the start of a series of forthcoming projects meant to start a dialogue with SimCity, and provide new perspective on our changing metropolises. The next game, Motoria, will present players with a Detroit-like scenario, addressing issues of recovery, growth, and speculation.

"The city is such an interesting challenge," he says. "It’s the most complex human system."