Urban Playing

My SimCity experience can be summarized in a single picture. I have a well-developed town, down the highway from my friend's two cities—I'm playing online because everyone has to play online—one a small town, one a thriving collection of skyscrapers. It's all depicted using gorgeous facsimiles of modern American architectural styles, and at the proper angle, I can see all three cities in a row. My town demonstrates my achievement, and the other two towns show that I'm part of big, living world. But beyond the beauty and symbolism is a disjointed mess: A massive traffic jam is ruining my city—there's a burning building my fire trucks can't get to!—and the cause is impossible to discern. This is the new SimCity: It looks fantastic, but I cannot derive any political or strategic meaning from it.

One town has mines, so the next town is zoned residential in order to attract these mine workers, who then commute out. The problem is, with the information given by the game, it's not clear whether this is actually happening. You can see a population chart that indicates some workers may be commuting in and out, but if you or a friend checks the other city's commuter numbers, they don't align.

This is not a lone, detached criticism, but rather the gateway to understanding the inner non-workings of SimCity. The real-world systems of education, employment, and travel, for instance, do not connect to one another in a comprehensible fashion. You can see that you have far more job openings than you have workers, but you can't actually see what jobs are going unfilled. Factories build freight, which appears to get shipped to commercial buildings to sell—except that they don't, actually do anything but just get shipped. It's a time sink in which your citizens apparently only have these jobs because they need jobs, and industrial zones are otherwise useless. It would be an amusing satire of modern capitalism if there were any indication that it was intentionally funny. 

For more than 20 years, SimCity has been a model video game. It's smart, appeals to both adults and children, is nonthreatening, and also is probably the best game to get slapped with the “educational” label—but what exactly makes it so educational isn't obvious. It doesn't teach facts and trivia or train players in traditional educational disciplines. Instead, its draw comes from its real-world setting and classically liberal or technocratic ideals. The SimCity series is built on the concept that towns and cities—and thus our society in general—are rational and comprehensible and that our societal problems can be solved with research and planning.

Throughout the course of the series, this ideal has been achieved in reasonably consistent fashion. You play a mayor attempting to build a new town by zoning residential living space, commercial shopping space, and industrial employment space, next to the roads that bind everything together. These components are supposed to act in concert. Commercial zones should be near residential ones. Industrial zones drive down land values, so they should be farther away. Roads serve as a geographical counterbalance—distance and traffic force constant compromise. Finally, you collect taxes, with which you purchase necessary services, like power plants, police stations, or parks.

This collection of interlocking systems combined with real-world applications is what makes SimCity so compelling, both in the simple terms of playing it as well as its wider political implications. Game designer and theorist Eric Zimmerman has described the “ludic century,” where the world is increasingly a collection of interacting systems—education, government, regulation, crime, taxes, and more generally, economics—rather than the responses of individuals. (The Wire's depiction of these interacting systems, and its catchphrase “It's all in the game,” make it an excellent depiction of the ludic century.)

Second, as the Prospect's Monica Potts gets at in this 2011 piece, the rules of video games tend to follow certain ideologies. Because video games exist in the binary world of programming, they have to follow the rules set by their programmers. Strategy games make these transparent and occasionally can marvelously demonstrate their political implications. For example, in the real world, we may find it difficult to separate lower or higher taxes from what makes a municipality appealing or not. In SimCity, that's a specific variable—your citizens will be happier with taxes lower than 9 percent, but you, as mayor, will collect less money. What makes 9 percent the tipping point? As far as I can tell, it's a SimCity tradition as opposed to any particular current ideology, Herman Cain aside.

See problems at the macro scale, fix them at the micro scale—the SimCity gameswhen they work as games, are like a dream for politicians and players. Improving things is fun, after all. The “when it works” caveat is critical. When a game like this works, with actions and reactions occurring in comprehensible fashion, it's fantastic. But what happens when it doesn't work?

After the high point of 1994's SimCity 2000, the series went into a slow decline, with increasing complexity making it less and less appealing. The new SimCity, advertising suggests, is the return of SimCity to its proper position as a game that can entertain as a spectacle, as an urban-development model, and simply as a great game. It's certainly simplified; roads act as multipurpose connectors, negating the need for streets and power lines and water pipes and sewage pipes from earlier installments. And it's certainly a spectacle. This is a good-looking game, and the joy of watching your shacks turn into mansions and your pizza joints turn into office towers buys the game a great deal of goodwill. Preview events and early reviews even suggested that it had a deeper meaning and tackled important questions of sustainability and urban living.

Yet the new SimCity also needs to sell well for its publisher to call it a success, so it was also designed to work within currently popular concepts of game economics. Hence, the Farmville similarities.

The Farmville-style social game is new, popular genre of game, played primarily on Facebook.  These kinds of games are accessible, relatively simply games of strategic building, from which you can send or demand messages and help to your friends when they log in. In Farmville, your friends with their own farms might help by directly sending you crops. In SimCity, your friends theoretically provide workers for your factories using more complicated interactions.  

In practice, this creates an arbitrary set of external systems on top of the core simulation of a city. Once your city reaches a decent size, what you compete against is not just managing its growth but managing its growth within the tiny confines given to you by the game.

Most important, a much-hyped system of being able to follow individual citizens—Sims, to reconnect them to that best-selling franchise—reveals a core lack of simulation in the simulation. Instead of living in the same home and traveling to the same job, every day each Sim just travels to the nearest workplace, shops at the nearest store, and goes to sleep in the nearest house. This is enough to give the appearance of consistent simulation. That facade would be sufficient if everything else still worked, but instead, the facade drives the game via its traffic system. Hundreds of Sims getting in their cars to take the shortest distance to the nearest place of employment leads to massive traffic jams, which prevent core services, like my firefighters, from doing their jobs.

What the new SimCity models is not the technocratic dream of a potentially efficient urban environment. Instead, it's a capricious model of an urban environment driven primarily by the whims of an imaginary foolish mob, taking place within too-small boundaries set by external marketing necessities.

This is not to say that SimCity is a bad game—many reviewers have managed to break through the opacity of the game's internal systems and figure it out as a game, the charming presentation facilitates a great deal of forgiveness, and the game's developers claim to be working on patches to fix the most egregious issues. But right now, the near-total disconnect of its systems from the real-world logic they purport to represent renders its potential political and economic message arbitrary and meaningless. 

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