I always thought those mall security bots were hilarious. You know, like the one that drowned itself in D.C.? Who in their right mind would ever buy one? That was until I watched 40 businesses in my own mall crumble before my eyes. For a mere $20,000, a security robot could eliminate two whole jobs from my balance sheet–forever.
I bought the talking garbage-can-on-wheels in desperate earnest. Shortly thereafter, it fell down an escalator and died.
I’m playing American Mall, a web-based video game released by Bloomberg to promote several features it’s published on the desperate future of retail. And while the game should just be a silly, two-second gag, it’s actually a superbly immersive piece of social criticism that puts you into the shoes of a mall owner trying to survive in the age of Amazon.
In other words, it’s a game you cannot possibly win.
What’s it like to own a mall in 2018? At first, a few businesses threaten to close unless I lower the rent. Crisper Image. Paylittle Shoes. I oblige. I’m a nice owner! I know times are tough. But then a tsunami of threats follow, and from the big chains, too, like GARP, Pangolian Express, even Old Gravy. With every discount I give retailers, my ability to cover my own costs diminishes.
So with the assistance of a very slick assistant who still wears Oakleys and uses a Nokia 6500 Classic, I try various Hail Marys. Woo the seniors with walk clubs and discounts. Incorporate healthcare facilities instead of gem shops. Build “services” and “experiences” like bowling with craft cocktails that the digital world can’t subvert. Go green. Novelty pens. Novelty slides. Self-driving buses that shuttle people my way. Along the way, I even pierce ears and make Subway sandwiches in attempts to keep everyone happy.
Occasionally, my maneuvers work. A giant, novelty aorta installed by a health nonprofit is a surprise viral hit. But nothing works all that long, or all that well. Because my competition is not just with other businesses in the community; it’s with the most profitable global monopolies in the world. As my Oakleys-wearing assistant is astute enough to point out in a rare moment of honesty, who would open a movie theater in the age of Netflix?
Less than a year into my tenure, my mall is closed. A pixelated Jeff Bezos, complete with aviator shades and puffer vest, comes onto the screen to laugh at my failure. If only the game had offered me the option to open an Amazon Go!