The future is either an incredibly exciting place where decentralized ledgers bring about change rapidly or a hellish landscape where organized groups can exploit vulnerabilities in rigged systems. Fourteen years ago, director Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public predicted the toxic hellscape some social media platforms have become, documenting Josh Harris’ Y2K era project “Quiet.” In a doomsday-style bunker, Harris simulated a societal breakdown in 30 days that has taken Facebook nearly twenty years to achieve. The director’s latest documentary The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution applies some of the same insights as GameStop: Rise of the Players as it explores the relationship between gaming, crypto, mediated mobilizations, and the stock market.
Timoner includes a wide range of personalities to tell this story, including the experts that misread just how volatile a market can be when retail investors have the time and the money to learn how to play the game. Simply put: if you are organized and act irrationally an algorithm won’t know what to do. When Andrew Left of Citron Research discusses why a brick-and-mortar retailer like GameStop, which hasn’t improved its store and its digital experience, is going down to zero, the subreddit WallStreetsBets smells money to be made. Financial influencers like Keith Gill (aka Roaring Kitty, aka Deep Fucking Value) go all in, diving the price higher, forcing shorts to close their position and acquire shares at a higher price and thus spring loading a stock like GameStop and AMC. For the OGs, this is playing with fire. For a new generation, it’s just another game to level up in. On the flip side, much to the horror of their families, they accept losing a few hundred thousand dollars on a trade that went wrong as a minor setback.
The film draws uneasy parallels between the rise of populism online in financial forums and January 6th. Some on-screen view it as an insurrection and others as a rebellion. The New Americans curiously shies away from national politics despite the presence of two politicians aiming to hold Big Tech accountable for gamifying aspects of their trading platforms and allowing new investors to play in options trading. The film also recounts the story of Alexander Kearns, a 20-year-old who committed suicide after mistakenly believing he owed $730,000 on Robinhood while a transaction was still in process.
One framing device employed is an exploration of the “metaverse” and the concept that reality distortion may be present for many of the subjects in the film: either they are extremely wealthy or were wealthy but, rather than see their portfolio as a means to cash out to ensure financial stability, they hold come hell or high water. ProTheDoge, a young investor who goes all in on Dogecoin, finds his investment crumbling after Elon Musk pokes at the alt-coin on Saturday Night Live. Rather than selling at the top of the market, collecting two million dollars and cashing out, ProTheDoge instead holds steady.
Some experts are betting on the promise of crypto, including the colorful former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, whose firm SkyBridge is banking on traceable decentralized currencies. While “The Wolf of Wall Street” himself, Jordan Belfort, sees crypto as the ultimate “pump and dump” (something he went to jail for). Others, like Shepard and Amanda Ferry, use their NFT artwork to benefit DAO’s decentralized autonomous organizations that aid the war efforts in Ukraine.
Perhaps there’s a little too much to digest in a feature documentary that’s as forward-looking as it is an exploration of market dynamics in a period where governments were incentivizing workers to stay home. With additional cash available to people, like Atlanta-area mom Blayne Macauley, they decide to open their Robinhood accounts and become experts in daily market moves. Robinhood itself sells data on trades to hedge funds who have an unfair advantage until Jamie Rogozinski’s WallStreetBets provides a space to discuss ways to mobilize against the shorts. Just as in We Live in Public, things go to hell when extreme and hate speech enters the mix.
The New Americans: Gaming and Revolution perhaps lays out a thesis for an America that’s unsustainable and subject to more pronounced booms and busts––where regulatory hurdles and algorithms can be exploited like a cheat code. One wishes at times Timoner dug in a little harder and tried to answer a few of the bigger questions around the sustainability of the system as public CEOs like AMC Entertainment’s Adam Aron have to carefully dance and communicate with millions of retailer investors rather than a handful of institutional investors. Democracy is messy in all sectors––but where do we go from here?
The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution premiered at SXSW 2023.