American Dream, a game by Stephen Lavelle, Terry Cavanagh, Jasper Byrne, and Tom Morgan-Jones, is, appropriately enough, about the American Dream. You play the part of an anonymous individual with next to nothing – an apartment and a few hundred dollars to your name. From the very beginning your goal is clear – to make your fortune on the stock market. Specifically, to become a millionaire.
You start every week at home with a view of your apartment, and the option to buy various pieces of new and increasingly expensive furniture. Then you go to work to buy and sell stocks. Buy low, sell high, you get the idea. The market fluctuates from week to week, and it quickly seems a good idea to heavily invest in whichever option has hit its low. At this point you’re a small fry; your bank balance is insignificant and your apartment is furnished in a cheap and markedly unfashionable manner. But as you buy new and more socially accepted fitting for your apartment you’ll grow in importance. You’ll get invited to wild, extravagant parties where you’ll be given insider information about what to buy and when.
If you follow this advice and invest in something at the appropriate time you’ll see its value sky-rocket. And if you play your cards right you’ll have made a million in no time at all.
It’s actually pretty easy to make a million dollars. Stocks will rise and fall in value often, and you can be quite sure that what has just fallen will rise again after a relatively short length of time. Buy low, sell high – that’s really all there is to it. But if you lose that insider information your rise to the top will be slow and tedious.
Every so often a new catalogue will arrive, meaning all your current furniture will go out of fashion. and once that happens you’ll no longer be invited to these sordid, lucrative gatherings of the elite. It’s only when you jump through the social hoops and re-furnishing your entire apartment that you’ll regain favour. Once you do this everyone will forget your past fashion-based indiscretions, and you’ll be the life and soul of the party. More importantly, you’ll be party to those vital financial tips once again, and only by following them will you start to make big money, and be on your way to making your first million dollars
It’s compelling to play the stock market, even if it is just a simple numbers game, and there is a sense of achievement as you get richer and richer. It’s fun. However, that’s not really the point of the game – if it were it’d just be a fun little ten to twenty minute distraction. Instead, American Dream has much to say about the American Dream, and its meaning today.
Everything in American Dream is pointless, and I think deliberately so. At the start of the game you are challenged to make a million dollars, and once you do so that’s it. There is a brief celebration, and I’ll let you see that moment for yourself, but it’s really rather empty. In addition, playing the stock market is easy, and the market is fairly predictable, so after a time it becomes nothing more than moving numbers around while waiting for them to become bigger numbers. You’ll also see from the screenshot above that the stocks in which you can invest are named after various celebrities or characters, most of whom are hardly in their prime. They’re not named after corporations because what the stocks actually are doesn’t matter to you at all – they’re just names with numbers behind them, and all they represent to you is a means to expand your own personal wealth. And as mentioned before, the only way to realistically make the kind of money needed to complete the game is to get into those exclusive parties and hear insider information from fellow party-goers. Unless you’re willing to spend a long, boring time grappling with the game your victory won’t be based on your own wits or strategies – it’ll be based purely on your social position among the elites of this financial world.
And again, your social standing here, again, is not down to your merits as a person or as a player; it depends entirely on whether or not you buy all that expensive, in-vogue furniture you’re told you need. You’ll only be given one option – to buy new furniture or not, and there aren’t any choices of style or colour. It’s all just numbers increasing, and its only effect is to lubricate your movement through the social strata of this new world. Once you buy all the season’s newly fashionable items you’re immediately accepted by the right people, and you can enjoy the fruits of that acceptance in the form of depraved soirees and illicit stock market information. How you make your money never matters, to you or anyone else, and so long as you play your part appropriately things will go your way with the smallest amount of skill and acumen on your part.
So it’s a particularly bleak portrayal. It suggests that the idea of the American Dream, the promise of opportunity and success, can be understood in much the same way as success in this game; it’s not about building anything, or doing anything of some inherent value – it’s about playing the game, knowing the right people, getting very lucky, and making a lot of money for yourself. And it makes this statement purely through the interaction of the player with the game. It never comes out and says ‘all this is meaningless’. It doesn’t try to drive its point home, and instead it lets its mechanics speak for themselves.
This is one of the most (justifiably) self-assured games I’ve played. While many other games try to delivery their own political, environmental, or ethical lessons they’re so often heavy-handed, and their mechanics so rarely make a statement. But American Dream just gives you a system to play with and lets you draw your own conclusions. And if you take it at its surface level it’s a quietly positive game about becoming a financial success. It’s only be interacting with the game, and coming to directly experience its emptiness, that the message comes to you. And I think that’s quite the accomplishment.
You can play American Dream for free online at : http://www.increpare.com/2011/02/american-dream/. Check out Increpare’s other games as well if you’reinterested – they’re unique and, I think, uniquely valuable things.