Struggles of Chinese Evictees Turned Into Video Game

Nail Household Fighting Against Demolition Squad

by Sara Beretta

Sometimes reality exceeds the virtual, in its absurdity, strangeness and grotesquery. It also happens that the virtual realm can help in coping with the harshness of real life, by re-enacting and mocking its absurdity and cruelty. This is the case of Nail Household Fighting Against Demolition Squad, the online flash game by Mirage Games that is spreading like wildfire over China. First appearing on the popular website 17173, it’s one of the most played online games.

The so-called “nail householders,” their houses left as lonely nails in the middle of already demolished ones, have to hire people to face the demolition team men, who are milling about to crash down the remaining squatters. There’s Mrs. and Grandpa Ding (Chinese for “nail”) and their six-member family fighting against the crew – with slippers, homemade tools and other scrappy objects – in order to keep their houses standing. What is unusual for a video game is that there are but a few chances to win: after strenuously fighting for six levels, the player hits the “survival level,” set up so that the player is all but doomed, something that rather closely resembles the game’s real life basis.

It’s a funny, easy game, in the style of popular satirical videos (“e-gao”), but what’s compelling is its similarity to daily life, where a lot of families have to face eviction and forced relocation, or to accept money as a refund for being removed from their houses. And many of them refuse, opposing the oncoming bulldozers, sometimes with tragic results. A recent incident in September 2010 involved heavy injuries to a family in Fenggang town, Yihuang county.

An actual "nailhouse" surrounded by a development site

For the past several years, the character destroy (“chai“) painted on walls brings drama and misfortune: it means that the house has to give place to progress as dictated by local authorities: a huge new road, a bus station, etc. Residents opposing the demolition are an increasingly urgent social topic, their tragic struggle, grotesquely depicted in the video game, have even carved out a space within Chinese mainstream media. But independent media, in the form of un-official documentaries and amateur videos, have covered this issue far earlier and with far more urgency.

One critical example is Meishi Street (2006) by visual artist Ou Ning, which documents the resistance of some Beijingers to the knocking down of their nail house in the name of 2008 Olympics urban projects, not only filming them but allowing them video cameras to film their plight from their own perspective. It is also worth mentioning Ou Ning and Cao Fei’s San Yuan Li (2003), an experimental documentary concerning the modernization threatening the former farming village of San Yuan Li, situated in the outskirts of Guangzhou. Meishi Street and San Yuan Li (both distributed by dGenerate Films) offer powerful images and voices to better illuminate a crucial contemporary public issue – one that, ultimately, is not a game.

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