Two things had been bothering Hunter Fine, a graphic designer who had been living “in and out of Bushwick for the past ten years,” most recently near the Jefferson L stop. High rents and lanternflies.
He was not alone. In Curbed, the writer Matthew Schneier bemoans “we’re crawling with them,” in reference to the lanternflies. Every second month, a story would surface in the New York Times that rents have increased yet again, all over the city. Fine was dealing with this himself; his landlord had demanded another thousand dollars a month and it was pissing him off. He decided to do something about both problems: make a video game.
“It’s basically a social commentary on how lanternflies are taking over New York, combined with soaring rent prices,” Fine told me. The video game was called Landlord of the Flies. He had made it with two friends of his who he said also worked in advertising, but actually aspired to design video games, a couple named Yoko Hayashi and Adam Vohlidka. (per Vohlidka’s website: “an award winning Creative and Design Director with a passion for branding.”) As for Fine, he had recently taken over a top spot at a Brooklyn advertising agency that he described as “a bit like this, subversive advertising.” It gets confused, sometimes, for another Brooklyn agency that has the same name, spelled slightly differently.
“Not only are rents increasing, but the lanternflies are everywhere,” Fine tells me. “I don’t know whose idea it was, but were like, yes, we should turn this into a video game. It’s a good social commentary, because basically, you can’t win.”
What you can do in the game is shoot lanternflies, armed with a spray container of vinegar. (“You can fill a spray bottle with vinegar and the liquid will kill the flies on contact,” reported a local NBC News affiliate this summer in response to concerns that “these bugs can avoid being stomped thanks to the eyes on the side of their head.”)
The connection to rental prices is a bit less clear. In the game, the landlord class is represented by a large, Mario-villian who takes cartoon-like pleasure in the lanternfly invasion. “As long as they keep coming I can charge even more rent,” he says before going “Mua ha ha.”
Fine tells me that the lanternflies, along with the rising price of rent are “the two worst things to hit New York city renters.”
When the game ends, the amount of points the character (“ordinary girl born in a barn”) wins killing the fictional bugs goes toward multiplying the amount she later has to pay for rent. Fine says this reflects his thoughts on the general “lawlessness” of rental prices in the current New York real estate market.
Is the deliberate pointlessness, perhaps a comment on the cycle of gentrification, where improvements in living standards are rewarded by the kind of increased market demand behind every rent hike?
“I don’t want to get in trouble and make fun of gentrifiers,” Fine says. “ it’s like we all live in Bushwick and nobody is really from here.”
“I think lanternflies are the real gentrifiers, coming in, nobody wants them and you gotta squash them.”
Top image taken from “Landlord of the Flies.”
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