Comic book illustration of a blonde haired white man holding a bag with a dollar sign and a briefcase while a bombshell in a red dress behind him says, "My hero!"

Fortunate Son: What an NES Game Can Teach About Privilege


Comic book illustration of a blonde haired white business man with sunglasses holding a bag with a dollar sign and a briefcase while a bombshell in a red dress behind him says, "My hero!"

In 2017, politics are unavoidable. With President Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp” of corporate interests in Washington and then his immediate inductions of corporate lobbyists into cabinet positions, he isolated both sides of the political spectrum. Greed has proven itself to be, once again, the status quo. And to better understand the path we’re taking, or the one we need to prevent, we can look no further than the Reagan administration.

The 1980s in Western culture celebrated conservative ideals. Movies featured individualistic action heroes who fought against the bad guys just as much as they defied the government by taking matters into their own hands. TV sitcoms celebrated the “working man” (Cheers) or nostalgia (The Wonder Years). Dramas lifted men in positions of law and order (Hill Street BluesMiami ViceThe A-Team) and strayed from moral ambiguity. Popular music of the time (which is revered by my generation of older millennials) avoided complicated political matters in favor of powerful and/or angsty love songs. This isn’t to say that the culture didn’t have its own counter-culture; indeed, punk music flourished, as did anti-establishment comedy continue to spread. Plus the post-Sundance indie film movement delved into more complex subjects and experimented with structure in fascinating ways. However, the popular culture (as it were) continued to praise the ideals of President Reagan and his neoconservative administration.

With that in mind, we are going to take a look at a game that celebrates excess in a comically self-indulgent manner. Yet, underneath the surface, is the perfect example of how “privilege” works.

The Game

An 8-bit rendering of a desk with a clock, flower in a vase, old computer, and newspaper with a window.
The game is played from the home office of the “Kid”

Wall Street Kid takes place at the home office of the titular “Kid”. That’s right: Wall Street Kid does not take place on the trading floors of Wall Street — the manic, claustrophobic center of frenzied arms shaking and snatching of tiny paper slips. No, it takes place at the Kid’s home computer.

The player gets the option to move a mouse cursor over the different items to accomplish different tasks. If they click on the clock, they’ll proceed to the next day. If they click on the newspaper, they get news that might affect certain companies’ stocks. If they click on the computer, they can buy and sell stocks. As time passes, certain stocks will be worth more and certain stocks will be worth less. The game gives clues as to which ones will change, but a large part of the game involves educated guesswork.

All of the game’s goals are identical: within X amount of time, make Y amount of money. The only things that change (at least, in terms of gameplay) are the specific values of “X” and “Y”.

Greed is Good

8-bit rendering of newspaper headline which says "Gangster shoot up."

At the beginning of the game, the player is told that the Kid will inherit billions of dollars from his deceased uncle, but only after proving himself. The Kid is given $500,000 in “seed money” and must make 1 million. However, the Kid must also marry into a respectable family. So, during the course of the game, the player must keep accomplishing certain tasks in order to keep the Kid’s girlfriend happy. This can be things such as taking her on a picnic, buying her a dog, buying her a car, or buying a yacht. Even though the Kid only needs to make $500k more, that money keeps getting spent on other things. The final challenge is to purchase (at auction) a mansion that once belonged to the Kid’s family.

However, when the Kid buys something, he never needs to pay in full. When he buys a car, he makes a down payment and agrees to pay the rest of the loan in a few week’s time. When he buys the house at auction, he only needs to pay 10% and can pay off the rest in a month. The lesson that is quickly learned from Wall Street Kid is that it’s really easy to make money under one condition: you already have some.


Comic book illustration of a blonde haired white man holding a bag with a dollar sign and a briefcase which says "Top Secret."

The Kid earns every penny he makes. There’s no doubt that all of the money flows in as a result of his decisions. So, to separate the Kid from the video game setting, if he were accused of being “privileged”, his first reaction might be anger. He might get offended at the notion and say something that is absolutely true: he earned his money. All of the money he made came as a result of his decisions and no one else’s. The beauty of the stock market, especially on a computer screen, is that it perfectly masks the people who make it possible. Numbers get larger or smaller. Currency flows from one account into another. But on the other side of those numbers, are thousands, sometimes millions, of people, all of them milling about like ants in a maze.

Directly on the other side of the computer screen are the floor traders. These are the men and women who you might have seen in ’80s movies such as Wall StreetTrading Places, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off who physically sign and exchange pieces of paper representing “stock” in a company. The Kid types on his computer, but the floor traders are responsible for making the transactions.

Aside from that are the other stockholders. Every time someone buys a stock, that stock is sold by someone else. Those slips of papers on the floor represent pieces of a corporation that are owned by a person. Millions of those company owners are trading those little pieces of paper. Some of them are just like the Kid: day traders in a home office. Others are traders at large firms. But still, the majority of the people are folks like you and me, regular citizens who have some sort of portfolio.

In reality, the Kid did not make all of his money on “his own”. He relied on floor traders and other stockholders, not to mention the countless people who work for these corporations and the customers who keep them in business. Despite not interacting with anyone else, the Kid has actually made money off the work of millions of people! To say that he did it “all by himself” is not only delusional, it’s factually incorrect.

This, in essence, describes the problem with privilege: those who have it don’t realize it. Not only did the Kid make money off of millions of other people, he was given $500,000 to start his business. After he buys a car, he can use that as collateral in order to buy a yacht, which he can then use as collateral to buy a mansion. To someone who is privileged, “privilege” just looks like the “default” setting. If the Kid doesn’t know any other way, then how can he understand that he has it better?


Comic book illustration of a blonde haired white man holding a bag with a dollar sign and a briefcase while a bombshell in a red dress behind him says, "My hero!"

Wall Street Kid perfectly encapsulates the ’80s neoconservative mentality. Not only does it normalize greed and nepotism, it obfuscates the 99% who work at the bottom so that corporate shareholders can rake in millions of dollars and feel like they earned it. Privilege comes in a lot of ways and can still be felt by people who otherwise face hardships.

As I write this, I currently make less money than a full-time Wal-Mart employee. However, I own my house. And I was able to buy my house without a down payment because I bought it from my wife’s grandma. I also have the lowest possible interest rate because I’m not borrowing my mortgage from a bank: I’m borrowing it from grandma in what Kentucky calls a “Family Mortgage”. Because of this, my mortgage payments are half of what I used to pay in rent. So even though I am dirt poor, I took advantage of family resources that I just happened to marry into as well as state law. And now that I own a house, I am able to use it as collateral against buying a car. From here on out, no matter how much money I make, I will still be able to use these assets to gain more assets in a never-ending game of borrowing money with collateral, paying it off, and borrowing more.

Despite being aware of some of my privilege, I am certainly oblivious to others. Just like others who grew up in a country with running water and available electricity, I need to be attentive to other people’s stories. The only way to solve the problem of “privilege” is to listen to other people. Don’t make excuses, and don’t apologize for what you have. Just listen to someone else speak. You don’t have to give a response. In fact, please refrain from giving a response other than “Thank you”, because it’s only going to make you sound bad. By listening to other people’s stories and gaining their perspectives — especially those, like the Kid, who sit at the top — we can better understand the problems and work towards the solution.

Images courtesy of Maze Rats, Take on the NES Library and SOFEL Co., Ltd.


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