|The video game “Arnona Race” skewers Israeli bureaucracy and the country’s housing crisis. Courtesy of Alon Simon and Oren Rubin|
In most video games, players battle dragons or space aliens, or engage in modern warfare. The goal in the Israeli-made game “Arnona Race” is mundane by comparison, yet equally heroic: paying Jerusalem’s municipal property tax.
The game begins when Yigal, a Jerusalem university student, comes back from vacation in India and discovers that his feckless roommate has failed to pay 8,000 shekels (about $2,100) on their basement apartment’s arnona (the local government tax tied to the size, location, and type of property).
To avoid eviction, Yigal needs to run a gantlet of paperwork, local government officials, and shady landlords.
The game’s creators, Alon Simon and Oren Rubin, both 30, started “Arnona Race” in 2009 as a senior animation project at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. After graduation, Simon and Rubin continued working on the game until it went online Feb. 11.
“Arnona Race” is inspired by “point-and-click” adventures made popular in the ’90s by Bay Area developer LucasArts. These games rely on good writing as opposed to frenetic action, and ask players to solve puzzles by exploring the environment and finding inventive ways to use objects.
Since its release, “Arnona Race” (www.arnona-race.co.il) has received a lot of attention in the Israeli press, over 40,600 unique visitors, and 6,700 “likes” on Facebook.
Few games are developed in Israel, and even fewer are entirely in Hebrew because of the limited potential audience. But it is exactly this specific, local perspective that makes “Arnona Race” relevant and funny to many Israelis in situations similar to that of Yigal’s.
It pokes fun at the expected stereotypes: an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Mea Shearim, an old Arab woman from east Jerusalem, an Ethiopian security guard. The punch line, it seems, is that all of them stand in the same long line, waiting to resolve equally dull issues at the city council.
“Arnona Race” is apolitical in its humor. Everyone is equally ridiculed. But the game’s conceit is inherently tied to the country’s ongoing housing crisis, which came to a boil with the tent protests across Israel last summer, which were focused on deteriorating public services and the cost of living.
The obstacles before Yigal are seemingly endless. In order to get a student discount on his taxes and bring them down to a manageable sum, he must navigate the local government bureaucracy, known for obtuseness of Soviet proportions.
“But I’m a student,” Yigal pleads with the stone-faced clerk as melodramatic violin music illlustrates his despair. “I don’t have money… pita bread with dry rice is all I eat!”
Yigal must also obtain his lease from his surly landlord, Moshe, who isn’t even willing to cooperate on a leaky sink, let alone a nuanced municipal dispute.
“I know plenty of people that would die to move into that apartment for that price,” Moshe threatens Yigal. “And I’m raising it by the way!”
“The story is a little exaggerated, but it’s based on reality,” Simon said. “It’s true that the bureaucracy is complicated and clumsy, but the bottom line is that as a student you really are entitled to a significant discount when paying the arnona.”
“I don’t know how it is in the United States,” Rubin adds, “but here in Israel customer service is not good. There’s a feeling that [government employees] are doing you a favor as opposed to doing their job.”
What’s most telling about “Arnona Race” is that the player doesn’t get to win. Different games tell different stories and sometimes address real issues, especially in student and independent projects. However, one thing they all have in common is that with skill and time they allow the player to overcome the obstacles and succeed.
However, helping Yigal solve all the problems, get all the paperwork, and deliver it to the city council on time doesn’t make a difference.
In the end, Moshe sells the apartment to a real estate agent who, we can assume, will renovate and make it unaffordable, a common practice that was one of the tent protesters’ main grievances.
Simon and Rubin, who live in Tel Aviv, took part in the massive demonstrations connected with the tent protests, the largest in the country’s history.
“There was something moving about being there,” Simon says. “The feeling was that the rules of the game have changed and that the Israeli public understood its ability to influence the country’s conduct. Now, it seems that the movement evaporated without apparent results.”
It’s another way the game reflects the hardships facing young Israelis. In the epilogue, we see Yigal spending a few weeks sleeping on friends’ sofas, then living in a tent with the protesters, and finally moving back in with his parents. “It’s not so bad,” Yigal admits. “I have my own room, my parents feed me, do the laundry, and most importantly – I don’t have to pay arnona.”