I reached out to the makers of Virtual Beggar to ask them a few questions, but received no response. I’m not mentioning this to sound like a salacious journalist: I genuinely felt like I should speak with Treetop Crew—the game’s Finnish developers—before writing this review. Why? Because I find Virtual Beggar utterly confounding. It’s exactly the kind of mobile game I should be tired of by now: it revolves around tapping, waiting, and collecting. And yet throughout the day I find myself dutifully booting up the app to check on things and make sure I’m still ‘progressing’. But that’s not really what confuses me about the game.
“Failure is non-existent, replaced with the risk of slowing down.”
First I’d like to explain where Virtual Beggar fits in the video game landscape. It belongs to a surprisingly successful genre of ‘incremental’ games that our very own Tom Chatfield explored in his recent article, The Importance of Being Idle: Cookie Clicker & Games That Play Themselves. Basically, Virtual Beggar is part of a growing amount of games that involve very little skill. You tap or click repeatedly, wait for numbers to go up, and then decide how to spend or accumulate whatever the game’s currency happens to be (in this case, gold coins and ‘virtual cards’). Success means faster-rising numbers; failure is non-existent, replaced with the risk of slowing down. These are, in essence, ‘endless games’, not just in the way an MMORPG like World of Warcraft shirks narrative finality, but also in that there is no ‘endgame’—no loop or cycle that adds meaning or depth to the world therein. The game ends when you walk away, usually out of disillusionment, boredom, frustration, or all of the above.
Virtual Beggar has a confusing paradox at its core. Its app page on iTunes states: “There’s a beggar in every device. Your goal is to help him out of the poverty.” (Emphasis my own). This seems to indicate that your role as a player will be that of the benevolent hand, the gaze upon the beggar in question. Later in the description, however, the text seems to imply that you are the beggar: “spend your money in the way that suits you best; buy new apartments, pets or clothes – or visit different places such as the moon.” Later: “chat with random beggars from around the world.” This references the player-to-player chat component in the game, and it could again be inferred that the players are the beggars. The gameplay only furthers this confusion: you pick up coins that passers-by toss at the beggar’s feet, but you also tap on the screen to toss coins at the beggar yourself. The beggar avatar often speaks to pedestrians—mostly to complain that they aren’t giving him enough money, or to exclaim how important money is to him—but he never acknowledges the player.
“Could the underlying anxieties of Finnish young adults be related to the game’s bizarre treatment of poverty and the act of begging?”
Accumulation of wealth is undoubtedly the player’s main goal in Virtual Beggar. The game’s tagline on its Facebook page reads: “start with nothing, end up with everything.” Its choice of theme (poverty and destitution) and its definition of progress (to become rich) embodies a form of utopian capitalism that I think most would view with warranted cynicism: who truly believes that a beggar can go from being penniless to living in a mansion, owning a yacht and traveling the world besides the most delusional among us? Even more unexpected is the fact that its developers, Treetop Crew, are from Espoo, Finland. Although the small Scandinavian country is known for its low poverty rate, this study by the second largest Finnish university indicates it could be on the rise. The apparent main cause? “The cost of housing”. Could the underlying anxieties of Finnish young adults be related to the game’s bizarre treatment of poverty and the act of begging? Hard to say. Again, Treetop Crew did not respond to my email. It might be telling, however, that one of the signs of progress in the game is your avatar’s progression from begging in the street to begging in front of a motel, then a house, and finally a mansion.
In the end, Virtual Beggar generates more questions than I can answer. Is the game a purposeful satire of capitalism (with integrated micro-transactions)? Is it a ‘light-hearted’ right-wing parable about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps? How did the developers decide on its theme, and who wrote its minimal, mixed-message narrative? Did the developers sit in long meetings debating the ethics of the game’s mechanics in light of the growing disparity of wealth across the globe? Or did they just lazily slap the word ‘beggar’ on the game, thinking it would be funny? Why don’t ‘coin cannons’ exist in real life and what’s the weather like in Finland?
Eventually I lost interest in Virtual Beggar. I had reached the point where hired workers (gardeners, computer programmers, Santa Clauses) were doing all the work for me: I rarely ‘tapped’ at all. I had accumulated ‘virtual cards’ (earnable by playing, but also purchasable with real money) and subsequently blown all of them on gas-station scratch cards. I owned a turtle, the best pet you could buy with gold coins to boost the generosity of pedestrians (presumably through its incredible cuteness). I lived in a mansion, went on yacht rides, and sent other beggars on bus trips to nearby cities where they begged for money, which they brought back to their beggar lord (me). My avatar wore a ‘fine shirt’ and several other expensive pieces of clothing, along with a handlebar mustache, sunglasses and a gold chain. I had chatted with another player who simply typed “gift plz?” and nothing else. And I had decided once and for all that if a Real Beggar in downtown Los Angeles—a person whose life had been crippled by systemic inequality and a broken social system—reached their hand out to ask me for a coin, only to have it go unnoticed because I was totally engrossed in a game called Virtual Beggar… they might rightfully punch me in the teeth.