Everything I learned about cities, I learned from SimCity.
In an era of video franchises like Halo and Call of Duty, there is one that predates nearly all of them: SimCity. Designed by Will Wright and then published in 1989 – that’s about 5,00 years ago internet time – SimCity took concepts of city building and urban planning and distilled them into game form. Gamers could lay roads, power lines, and zone areas. It was awesome.
I remember buying the game at the beginning of a family camping trip in 1989, when the game came out. Buying a computer game at the beginning of a camping trip was a horrible idea. I spent the entire week in a sweaty pop-up trailer pouring over the manual (back when video games had manuals), waiting for the day that we’d return home and I could boot up and play. The hefty book began “SimCity is the first of a new type of entertainment/education software, called system simulations. We provide you with a set of rules and tools that describe, create, and control a system.“ It had me at system simulation. The manual even included an essay by Cliff Ellis entitled “History of Cities and City Planning” as well as a hefty bibliography.
When I did finally play – and boy did I play – SimCity taught me that cityscapes were pliable. SimCity taught me economics. It taught me that decisions have great consequences. And I’m not alone. The game has inspired thousands, many of whom entered urban planning because of SimCity.
Today Electronic Arts is releasing a new version of SimCity again, the first one in a decade. They’ve dropped any pretense of sequel; presumably this is the definitive version of the game. I haven’t played it yet, but I’ve bene pouring over the previews like I did the manual in that tent nearly 25 years ago. Maxis, the creators of the game, have made some big changes.
What can real-life city planners learn from these changes?
- Cities are too big. In SimCity 3000 you could make a huge city. This guy even figured out how to populate the landscape with six million people. That’s about the most anyone’s ever stacked into one SimCity map – not that his digital inhabitants enjoy living in a totalitarian sim-nightmare. And maybe that’s why the designers of the new SimCity trimmed things down, only allowing for a comfortable 300,000 “sims” (but up to one million). Likewise, the American city is shrinking. Cities – digital or otherwise – aren’t about growing anymore, they’re about focusing. Those are different things.
- Think in terms of regions, not cities. Because of the map size restriction, the designers want players to focus more in regions, not city boundaries. This means you might have a downtown “region” connected to several other regions. Some might be industrial, others feeding tourism in, another serving as research district. Maybe it’s time Indianapolis start thinking more regionally as well. Would it would it look like for Indianapolis to regionalize? The biggest cities – Chicago and New York – already do this.
- Cities are connected. You can’t play the new version of SimCity without being online. If your internet connection is off, tough luck. Your city won’t work. And when you do play, cities from other real-life players will appear next-door. In some cases they might help by feeding in educated citizens to run your nuclear power plant. But in others, this reliance might prove problematic, as it did for Mike Fahey. His coal city supplied power, while the neighboring and more prosperous city supplied waste management and emergency services. But when Fahey went to restart and cleaned house, it devasted the neighboring city. Whoops. Maybe we should be watching Carmel’s back on more than just transporation.
- Citizens are the new spreadsheets. Previous versions of SimCity relied heavily on top-down advice, with complicated spreadsheets and snotty advisors spouting often useless advice. This new version lets you tail a “Sim” from the time they wake up to the time they go back to bed. Or you can follow a specific police car on its beat. The city is smart. Real life isn’t quite like that, but it’s closer than it ever has been, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Moreover, the concept of the “smart city“ means that “smart citizens“ aren’t far behind.
Of course, in the end SimCity is just a game – its rules contort urban planning to fun. It will never be as accurate as some of us want it to be. So maybe the best thing to do with the new SimCity is let it inspire a whole new generation of players into becoming urban planners in twenty years, maybe even future mayors. Someone will have to fend off Godzilla attacks on Indianapolis.