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