Updated: Nov 2, 2020
What's going on everyone?
I am currently in the midst of teaching a unit on housing issues in New York City. One of topics in the upcoming weeks that we will touch upon is gentrification. Gentrification is a process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses; this process typically displaces current inhabitants in the process. Most major metropolitan areas are well aware of this phenomena and the effects it can have on disadvantaged communities. There is a decent chance that a lot of people reading this might be doing so from a neighborhood that fell victim to gentrification because they themselves were looking for cheaper rent. Donut County presents this very complex issue as a simple, fun, and intuitive puzzle game. You can find the lesson plan for Donut County here.
At first glance Donut County seems like a simplistic puzzle game: The player controls a hole that gradually gets bigger as it eats up more items throughout various locations. As the game progresses however, it becomes clear that Donut County is actually a metaphor for gentrification. The hole the player controls symbolizes the influx of more affluent residents who move in and drastically change the neighborhood. As it gets bigger, it gradually displaces the people who were originally living in the game’s levels. Using video games to teach concepts like gentrification can be tricky. The last thing a teacher wants to do is gamify trauma, especially if the content directly impacts the students in the classroom. Donut County works because it acts as an analytical piece. It is a fun game that only reflects gentrification when observed with a more critical eye. Students will have the opportunity to play the game and decide for themselves if the game adequately or fairly depicts gentrification.
The developer of the game, Ben Esposito, deliberately created this game as a means of discussing gentrification and one's role in the process. Many of us are perfectly aware that this is something that happens, but it can be more challenging for someone to take ownership of their own contributions and enabling of gentrification at large. These conversations are especially important as gentrification, by and large, is caused by more affluent white residents moving into communities that are predominately people of color. This inevitably causes rent to increase, likely closing business and forcing people of color to move out of their homes and migrate elsewhere. Ben Esposito was inspired to create Donut County after moving to Los Angeles and discovering numerous mom-and-pop donut shops throughout the city. They were independent businesses that had not yet been eaten up by larger chains. In the game, donut shops and other restaurants and businesses serve as hubs where community members gather. The hole that the player controls is the destruction brought in by gentrification and mass consumption caused by capitalism.
In Donut County, those responsible for gentrification are not affluent white people, but snarky and selfish raccoons. They move in and use the hole in the ground to steal other people's "trash"as a means of building funds in order to buy themselves silly toys. The player takes on the role of BK, one of the newly arrived raccoons. BK has a complete and total disregard for the well being of the local residents whom he is displacing. All he cares about is earning enough money to buy a new drone. He dubs anyone and anything in his way as "trash." He does have a soft spot for one local, Mira, one of his employees. Mira wants BK to become a better person/raccoon and takes it upon herself to teach him why what he is doing is wrong. This complicates the situation even further because Mira recognizes that she is also somewhat complicit in the gentrification process due to her role as an employee of BK. The situation is not always so black and white. Even good people may unintentionally cause harm to others. By putting the player in the shoes of BK, the player has to reconcile with their own enabling of gentrification. We aren't playing as a hero. We are playing as the gentrifier. And for most of the game, our avatar is completely dismissive of listening to the concerns of the people he is actively harming.
All that being said, this game is rated for people ages eight and up. It is a game perfectly suitable for children. It's cute, funny, and a blast to play. The dialogue is funny and super cheesy, but carries real meaning. We know what it really means every time BK calls a local or their belongings "trash," or when he claims that he is actually saving the town. We know the significance of Mira feeling guilty for being an employee for BK's business despite seeing first hand the negative effects on the community. Gentrification is an extraordinarily complex subject and Donut County does a remarkable job presenting it in such a simple fashion. Obviously, the concept of gentrification cannot just be taught using this game. It needs to be paired with a number of other texts. Your students should know what gentrification is before even touching this game. From there, students can play the game and discuss how the game presents the material. They can make connections between the game and the content they already learned in class.
Thanks for reading,
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