This article appeared in The Guardian in November 2016.
Building my first high-rise tower wasn’t too difficult. I threw up some studio apartments, hooked them up with power and phone lines, arranged for a rubbish collection, and welcomed my first tenants. I packed the people in, stacked the units, and the profits soon began to pile up nicely.
It’s fun being a virtual landlord. I’ve been playing Project Highrise, a PC and Mac real estate management simulation, since the game’s release in September.
It gives cash-strapped renters like me a chance to indulge the wild fantasy of owning property. It also offers members of Generation Rent some insight into how real-world landlords and larger developers actually do business.
Despite its cutesy appearance, the game is surprisingly detailed and utterly unsentimental.
You begin the game by managing the costs of building infrastructure, and trying to avoid taking on too much bank debt before your tenants can provide a steady revenue stream. Before too long, you’re hiring consultants to lobby city hall for a metro station and wondering whether “prestige” artwork in the hallway might attract higher-paying residents.
In becoming a digital Donald Trump, I learned some interesting, if slightly depressing lessons.
For one thing, it’s costly to lose tenants. You don’t want a day to go by without any rent; and you don’t want to have to reach into your pocket to refurbish an empty flat to make it rentable again. So it’s best to keep all current tenants happy, if you can. But fixing up occupied flats that have turned grimy is also expensive, so it’s worth trying to hold out as long as possible without doing repairs.
I also learned how easy it is to dehumanise your tenants. At first, each new tower resident was an intriguing little person I cared about. I customised their names so I could remember their characteristics.
Phyllis, who didn’t seem to go out much, became “Phyllis the Quiet One”. Mildred, who always complained about the smell of the rubbish bins on her floor, became “Smell-sensitive Mildred”. Dave was simply “Tank Top Dave”.
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