Just Can’t Get Enough: Money, Pleasure, and American Dream


Quaaludes and cocaine ener­gize the debauched repro­bates of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 effort The Wolf of Wall Street, yet the pri­ma­ry drug in the film is ulti­mate­ly the allure of money itself. The film’s por­trait of real-life penny stock­bro­ker Jordan Belfort express­es the debase­ment and friv­o­li­ty of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism, dis­play­ing both its attrac­tive and repul­sive qual­i­ties at the same time. The 2011 flash game American Dream1 may pre­date The Wolf of Wall Street by two years, but its sim­i­lar mock­ing damna­tion of American wealth lam­basts this kind of ideal in an engross­ing yet decid­ed­ly grotesque result.

American Dream boasts 1980s retro styling and stripped-down game­play, decep­tive­ly sim­ple and harm­less ele­ments that nonethe­less cloak the deep­er lam­poon of con­sumer cul­ture and the trap­pings of a stock trad­er sim­u­la­tor and home fur­nish­ing game. The game also takes a dis­tanced irony atop its seem­ing­ly out­mod­ed aes­thet­ic yet remains bit­ing­ly droll in its satir­i­cal jabs. American Dream por­trays cap­i­tal­ism as infan­tile, fleet­ing, and hap­haz­ard, trans­form­ing icon­ic fig­ures of 1980s celebri­ty cul­ture into lit­er­al com­modi­ties to be bought low and sold high. Thus, the game warps cul­tur­al fig­ures like Blondie or Arnold Schwarzenegger into cal­cu­la­ble num­bers to be eas­i­ly con­sumed, evok­ing the wild fun­house dis­tor­tion of moder­ni­ty of a J.G. Ballard novel.

A com­i­cal­ly brief expo­si­tion iden­ti­fies your char­ac­ter as just anoth­er shal­low dis­ci­ple of a get-rich-quick scheme, extend­ing his loose­ly doo­dled hand towards a tele­vi­sion screen dis­play­ing a cor­po­rate train­ing video­tape like the curi­ous apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey sur­round­ing the mono­lith. The dry pro­pos­al “I will make a mil­lion dol­lars” sug­gests the ease with which cor­po­rate sleaze can eas­i­ly fill the aver­age per­son with the single-minded obses­sion for attain­ing wealth. Moreover, the game admits that its epony­mous American Dream has now become quan­tifi­able and reach­able. Attaining one mil­lion dol­lars in the game is both the objec­tive and the metaphor­i­cal dream, clos­ing off the entire game world with­in the con­text of money.

American Dream pro­vides the play­er with a sparse­ly dec­o­rat­ed four-room apart­ment, and it encour­ages the play­er to fill these rooms with fur­ni­ture, elec­tron­ics, and other fix­tures in order to keep up with fash­ion­able trends. Yet unlike sim­i­lar fur­nish­ing games such as The Sims, buy­ing fur­nish­ings sig­nals not aes­thet­ic plea­sure or the tro­phies of hard work, but serves rather as a means to stay rel­e­vant in the social sphere. Acquiring all the lat­est styles trig­gers wild par­ties that unlock lucra­tive insid­er stock tips. Material goods thus serve as a means to make more money.

americandream1

In addi­tion, the game intro­duces peri­od­ic trends that can ren­der your belong­ings sud­den­ly out of date, marked by a style cat­a­log rep­re­sent­ed by an image of the Holy Bible that asserts, “Everything you own is now out of fash­ion,” once the sea­son pass­es. There’s zero per­son­al ful­fill­ment in pur­chas­ing dec­o­ra­tive fix­tures and other home goods. Rather, the com­mod­i­fied deca­dence of American Dream proves decid­ed­ly super­fi­cial, ren­der­ing con­sumer goods with the repack­aged same­ness that marks a shal­low con­sumerist soci­ety.

It’s telling that the ini­tial idea for American Dream swapped the stock­bro­ker game­play for straight­for­ward killing sprees, albeit with the same com­mod­i­fied home fur­nish­ings that com­prise half of this game: The Wolf of Wall Street born from American Psycho. Perhaps these two sides are real­ly just kin­dred spir­its though, trac­ing the imagery of vio­lent blood­lust to the dog-eat-dog rage of the stock exchange. Either way, both games invoke the absur­di­ty of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism. The game already reduces celebri­ties to com­modi­ties read­i­ly exchanged, trans­form­ing all facets of every­day life into ele­ments in the pur­suit of mak­ing and spend­ing money.

The game becomes incred­i­bly easy to com­plete once enough cash is saved to con­stant­ly upgrade your home and unlock insid­er tips on stocks, but the ease with which the game cor­rupts play­ers with the allure of stream­lined suc­cess becomes part of the satir­i­cal absur­di­ty. There’s no penal­ty for insid­er trad­ing, reflect­ing the real-life ills of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Even the typ­i­cal “buy low, sell high” rule of stock trad­ing breaks down over time, and the rapid­i­ty of mak­ing money ren­ders the pop cul­ture names of these stocks entire­ly unim­por­tant. Words become mere­ly sig­ni­fiers attached to num­bers, pro­duc­ing a total­iz­ing com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of every­day life.

americandream2

Additionally, the lo-fi aes­thet­ic of American Dream mir­rors its absurd game­play, con­vey­ing the hedo­nis­tic yet infan­tile nature of cap­i­tal­ism. The dis­rupt­ing party time antics pro­duces a fever dream of crude, Keith Haring-esque fig­ures locked in the parox­ysms of wild bac­cha­na­lias à la Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. American Dream fil­ters its mon­eyed excess through these vul­gar, child-like draw­ings like hazi­ly sketched mem­o­ries of last night’s rev­el­ry. Meanwhile, the fleet­ing com­mute to work antic­i­pates the neon flash and synth of Hotline Miami, inject­ing anoth­er dose of retro styling in the game’s bizarre mem­o­ry of 1980s American cul­ture.

American Dream skew­ers the out­landish lifestyle and cap­i­tal­ist excess of the mon­eyed elite, dredg­ing up an absurd, infan­tile car­i­ca­ture as caus­tic as it is plea­sur­able to play. The com­i­cal­ly rev­er­ent dénoue­ment with the brief state­ment “I am a mil­lion­aire… and I made it all doing some­thing I love” ulti­mate­ly sug­gests that the dreamed mil­lion dol­lars doesn’t amount to any­thing but a hol­low vic­to­ry, as unre­al as a dream.

Notes:
  1. Developed for a TIGJam event at Cambridge, UK, by Stephen Lavelle (Increpare), Terry Cavanagh (dis­trac­tion­ware), Jasper Byrne (Superflat Games), and Tom Morgan-Jones (Inkymess) []