I Role-Play Owning a Home Because It's Impossible to Afford One

Matt Berical

Last Saturday, I rearranged my house. It’s a modest A-frame on the edge of town with floors the color of gas station coffee, poor light, and a square footage that fits squarely in the just fine category. It’s not much, but I own it. The housing market treated me fairly and I paid for the home with my own hard-earned coin, working late nights to afford the down payment. It needed some freshening up, so I decided to upgrade the living room and kitchen. I mounted a few new wall shelves, rearranged the kitchen  and slid my dining room table closer the fireplace so the flames in its hearth could lick at our backs while we ate supper. The process took an hour and I was pleased with the changes. The space opened up and felt homier.

My house sits among a cluster of similarly designed homes in Whiterun, a city that’s protected by stone walls and boasts stunning views of the Throat of the World mountain. The home is on the outskirts of the city, is a walkable distance to shops and friendly-enough merchants, and it is entirely fictional.

The Chip and Joanna-ing I did this weekend took place within the world of Skyrim, an enormous open-world role-playing fantasy video game. There are swords to swing, spells to cast, dragons to battle, quests to accomplish, and, yes, houses to purchase and upgrade. The game was at its most popular in 2011 when it first released. Back then, I spent a lot of time playing — leveling up my character, forging dragon armor, listening to NPCs tell me about how they’d fight by my side if they hadn’t taken an arrow to the knee. I picked it back up within recent months to check out some new expansions and while I did some exploring and leveling up, my character turned out to be less concerned with hacking and slashing and more concerned with HGTV-ing the houses I bought. Even he appeared amazed by space. And by he, I mean me. I’d like to buy a house, to start a life, but I can’t. Not for a while.

I’m not alone in either my failure to launch nor my fantasizing. I am a product of my generation. I am 35, which makes me a millennial — one of the oldest members of the much-written about generation, who got walloped by one recession and is still wobbling as another waits to uppercut us; who face stagnant wages; student loan debt; and a jobs market that’s about as secure as an email account with a 1234 password. I’m also part of that generation who is regularly labeled as lazy, entitled Avocado-spreaders who have destroyed everything from straws to comedy to department stores.

I am a much better position financially than the one in five millennials today who live in poverty. But, still, as Colin Hay sang, I’m waiting for my real life to begin. Real-life, to me, being some financial security and maybe, just maybe, owning a home instead of forking over more than half of my wife and I’s monthly paychecks on a lightless, one-bedroom basement apartment. This, however, is becoming more and more of an impossible dream. Because if there’s one thing that defines millennials, it’s a general who-the-fuck-knows?-ness that constantly performs its Damoclesian dangle above our heads.

Millennials are about half as likely to own a home compared to those in 1975. It doesn’t take a mental long-jump champ to make the logical leap as to why. Combined, student debt is $1.4 trillion with the largest chunk of that owed by, you guessed it, millennials (in fact, we have about 300 percent more student debt than our parents’ generation). The housing affordability index is still at laughable levels. Credit is tight. APRs are about to get higher. The housing market in general pretty much still sucks. Even if it was better, good luck socking enough money away for a down payment. Forget tech companies. The real unicorns are millennials who don’t have to borrow money from their parents to get a home.

It’s easy — and frankly, fair — to feel frustrated about the future and the past. I sure as shit do. But bitching all the time is not productive. So, I freelance to make additional income. I squirrel away as much money as I can. And during a bit of downtime, I design homes in video games. It’s a zen, 30-minute activity, but also something that allows me to escape into a world of possibility. In Skyrim I can build a modest three-bedroom home and rearrange the furniture without worrying about property taxes or school districts or where the cheapest day care is located. I don’t need to sweat about stagnant wages or the threat of another recession. I need materials and money, yes, but those are able to be found if I complete the appropriate tasks. Labor out, money in. And the wages, at least in Skyrim, are fair. From dragon slayer to armor-forger, there are plenty of jobs to find.

I’ve scratched this itch in more than just Skyrim. I dove back into the post-apocalyptic RPG Fallout 4, focusing my energies not on fighting mutated creatures but using the game’s wonky-at-best shelter creation system. I played The Sims and began to obsess over the interior of my home. I nearly bought one of those home design simulators advertised on free iPhone games until I realized that doing so would definitely give my phone the tech-equivalent of VD.

This isn’t an obsession. I haven’t lost myself in the games. It’s a thought exercise — a virtual Pinterest board that’s way more fun to use. Some people pore over Zillow listings and imagine themselves in spacious houses outside of their price range; others look at overhead views of land and fantasize about the off-grid home that, one day, maybe, hopefully they’ll build.

I rearrange fantasy homes. And it helps me unwind. Sometimes my wife watches while I play. I guide her around. Here would be the baby’s nursery. Here would be ours. Would you look at this light? You don’t like the kitchen? No problem. Let’s drag that table over here. Right? Not enough space? No problem. Let’s change houses.

She rolls her eyes. But then I watch her face as she asks me to try placing the table over there — no, not there — but right there. And I see that she understands the value in the exercise. Imagining the possibilities is cathartic. In these 3D-rendered worlds, we don’t feel stuck or threatened by anything else but the roving bands of monsters that wait in the woods and fields and mountain tunnels.

Is there hope? Of course. No amount of soothsaying or modeling can determine the future. But we, like many millennials, feel trapped. To be clear, we don’t feel stalled. We feel sludged. Slimed. Covered in some viscous liquid vomited onto us by circumstance and it slows us down, makes us spend more time and energy reaching the milestones that await down the next bend.

So, we trudge on. We postpone life events. We pay off loans instead of investing more. We save where we can so we finally reach those goal posts. Until then, we find ways to distract ourselves from this truth.  I rearrange Breezehome again and again. Recently, I placed a four-post bed upstairs and bought a long wooden table for feasts we’ll one day host. Sometimes, as I take my character outside to trade or build, I hear the flitting of dragons soaring overhead. But they coast far above me, hurtling towards some other far-away place.

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