The Video Game That Turns Everyone Who Plays It Into A Gentrifying Raccoon
Gentrification in Los Angeles, especially in the Eastside neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and Highland Park, has been front and center stage activists, residents, politicians and politicians. Now, it's the star of a video game.
When your fire up Donut County, you become a raccoon named BK, a new hire at a startup that uses remote-controlled holes to steal people's trash. The game is filled with bright, poppy colors and cute graphics. But don't be fooled. It has a deeper message.
"A bunch of raccoons have this app that lets them open up holes to steal people's trash," the game's designer, Ben Esposito, says. "They're displacing everyone in Donut County, stealing their trash and putting in new raccoonified, tech versions of everything," he says.
BK eventually falls into a hole where he's trapped, with the other residents of the fictional Donut County, 999 feet below their homes.
Before Esposito moved here from New York in 2011, he had only experienced Los Angeles through movies and media. When he arrived, he was hungry to dig into issues that people who live here are facing.
"The themes of erasure and enewal, the portrayal of the place defining the place is something that I thought would be really cool to mix with this concept of an ever-growing hole in a natural disaster," Esposito says.
Esposito lives in Highland Park, a neighborhood tat has seen a wave of high-end coffee shops, yoga studios and pricey apartment complexes spring up in recent years.
"When I go for a walk in the morning, I always see something new or plans for something new," he says.
The elephant in the room: Esposito's complicity in that gentrification.
As a tech worker moving into an area largely inhabited by people of color, many of them working class, he knows he's part of the problem. That's what motivated him to create Donut County.
"I'm changing the place that I live," Esposito says. "So I really wanted the perspective of it to be, Hey, you are the gentrifier. Here are some of the impacts and consequences on the community. That was as far as I wanted to go in terms of having a moral to the story because I don't think the scope of my game can really fit the solution to gentrification in it."
While he was developing the game, Esposito, a cis white male, learned a few lessons about allyship and ways to explore identity. In 2015, he spoke at the Failure Workshop (part of the Game Developers Conference) about the pushback he'd received toward an earlier version of the game, Kachina, which was inspired by Hopi dolls.
"I'd always been fascinated by [the dolls]," Esposito says. "So I was like, Oh, let me talk about like the erasure of indigenous people in the United States, and let's focus on these interesting characters like the Kachina dolls and their stories. Let me do some research about it. I was developing the game with that theme. The problem was that the more I dug into the actual nature of the Kachina dolls, the more I learned that this is a real and serious subject that I'm not equipped to talk about."
In Donut County, instead of hitting players over the head with his message, Esposito prefers to deliver it in a subtle way. Hence the donut shops and adorable animals.
"I love the bittersweetness of that," Esposito says. "I love how the game is really cute and it's meant for kids to play. But also I love the end when you're kind of left with somber music and there's just nothing left."
You can download Donut County on your phone from Apple's App Store.
Editor's note: A version of this story also on KPCC's The Frame. Listen to it here.
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