Strangling on Bootstraps
There’s this adage our mission mom used to tell us. This was prior to 2019, when a mission president’s wife finally became an official calling rather than one inequality among countless others. She didn’t have an official role despite fulfilling numberless functions, among them an ambiguous blend of cheerleader, guilt tripper, and motivational speaker. Every couple of months, dozens of nineteen-year-old Mormon missionaries would crowd into a tiny room to be scolded and encouraged, sometimes in the same breath.
“According to scientists,” she would say, in a voice that made one suspicious she hadn’t conferred with a scientist on the matter, “the bumblebee is so heavy and un-aerodynamic that it’s incapable of flight. But nobody ever told the bumblebee that. Whether you’re a bumblebee, a person out of a job, or a missionary hoping to bring others to Christ, all you need to do is pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”
Steve Dee’s The Rent is an autobiographical microgame about pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. It has a somewhat dimmer outlook on letting the ignorance of bumblebees stand in for economic theory.
There is exactly one choice in The Rent. You’ll make it over and over again. It’s a simple choice, and with even a modicum of forethought it’s unlikely to lose you the game. So why does it always feel like you’re sliding downhill?
It goes like this. You draw two cards. Both represent something good in your life. Pets and Family, perhaps, or Privacy and Exercise, or Safety and Entertainment. You’re behind on your apartment’s rent. Your health — represented by four tracks for your physical, emotional, social, and financial safety — is failing. You can’t lose your home. Time to make a cut. You throw away one of the cards; the other sticks around. Both trigger an effect. If any of your health trackers fall off, you lose. If you can’t pay a year’s rent, you lose. If you win the game by surviving the entire year, you’ve still lost significant portions of yourself in the process.
This is life below the poverty line. Crud, it’s life above the poverty line sometimes. I’ve never been destitute, but one card, Kindness of Strangers, made me tear up at the memory of the family that paid for my meal at a fast food joint. All they knew is that I’d waved them ahead of me at the drive-through. They couldn’t have known I’d recently undergone an expensive surgery and could barely afford to eat. If they had, would they have questioned why I was eating fast food rather than buying day-old bread at the grocery store? Would they have wondered why I hadn’t planned my day better? Why I didn’t ask my parents for help? Why I had such a long commute only a month after an invasive abdominal operation? Or would they have trusted that every question had an answer, even if that answer was as simple as “I didn’t plan on running late that day.”
I don’t remember what I preserved when I sacrificed Kindness of Strangers, but it must have been important. My Partner. Friends. Medicine. Something too precious to cast away. Then again, sometimes the choice is between two things you never thought you’d have to pick between. That’s when The Rent hits home, although even then it only works when played on its own terms, as reflections of personal reality rather than as beats in somebody else’s tale. The concepts represented on the cards must be accepted as parcel with the game’s lusory attitude, as essential to the player as rules and victory conditions. Anything less makes them too abstract. This isn’t merely Rest, the card that lets you shuffle a sacrificed card back into the deck or lose emotional health to advance the calendar. It’s your rest. Your sleep. Your ability to recharge. Winning is hardly the point. It’s about looking through the discards afterward. Seeing the things you lost. Reflecting on how those things are lost daily in service of survival.
In that sense, it predates but is highly reminiscent of Jon du Bois’s Heading Forward, another game that asks the player to barter their health as reluctant currency. They move along opposite trajectories — Heading Forward is about recovery, The Rent about sacrifice — while still arriving at the same conclusion: that it is perverse for a society to treat illness as an opportunity rather than an obligation, to encourage the wringing of human lives of all their substance, to harp about religious values while exhibiting their exact inversion.
But inversion has always been essential to the process of justifying why wide swaths of the population cannot be helped. It’s easy to forget that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was originally an aphorism for futility, absurdity, sheer impossibility. Physics textbooks once used it as a word problem: Why is it impossible to pull yourself into the air by your bootstraps? Why, when Baron Munchausen pulls himself (and his horse!) out of a swamp by his hair, are we meant to laugh? Come to think of it, the concept calls to mind Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Not only because both phrases express something impossible, but because both were soon repackaged to soothe the genteel conscience. Ever heard of a “needle gate” that lets the wealthy unburden their camels on their way into Jerusalem? My mission mom sure had. Along with that nescient bumblebee, it was a cornerstone of her faith. She, with her multimillionaire husband, who spoke disparagingly about the poor and the desperate, who told me once that she was prosperous because of her valiance. But such a gate never existed. It’s an utter invention. A lie. Because it isn’t enough for the barons to take and take and take. They also need to persuade us that they’re in the right when they do so. That we should be grateful for the rake they scrape over us.
The Rent isn’t much of a game. It’s a scrappy thing, more message than plaything. But it’s determined to put the lie to that façade of rightness. It declares that impoverishment is inhuman and unnecessary, that its renter is not thriving for all his cleverness and hard work, and that you cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you never had boots to begin with.
A complimentary copy was provided.