Local Government

SimCity Created a Generation of Urban Planners

Three decades later, is it time for the city simulation game to get political?


While working on Raid on Bungeling Bay—a game about bombing cities—legendary game designer Will Wright discovered that he had more fun designing cities than destroying them. Would players enjoy the same opportunity, he wondered? Four years later, the result was SimCity, a game that departed from nearly every facet of traditional game structure, exchanging levels for open-ended gameplay and clear objectives for a sandbox. Players were given an undeveloped field, a stack of cash, and a few basic planning tools before being let loose. 

The concept initially flummoxed industry leaders. Who would want to play a game you can't beat? After multiple rejections by the major publishers, Wright co-founded his own publishing company, Maxis, in 1987 and found a distributor in Broderbund, best known at the time for edutainment games like Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (A quirky fit, as slow early sales would prove.) A trickle of positive coverage in mainstream outlets like The New York Times granted SimCity an early cult following. With subsequent re-releases on the Super Nintendo in 1991 and Windows in 1992, it became a bestseller.

SimCity was unique in that it was the first video game to include an instruction manual with a bibliography. After explaining mechanisms like traffic management and municipal finance, the guide casually directs players to read city planning heavyweights like Kevin Lynch and Le Corbusier, an obtuse book on population projection, and the American Planning Association's monthly magazine. 

Wright himself has admitted that the SimCity series was heavily inspired by Urban Dynamics, a wonky text by Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer Jay Wright Forrester. The book, reviewed by William Patterson for a 1971 issue of Reason, posits that we can model out cities as inputs and outputs, for the benefit of better policy making. For Forrester, a city can be broken out into a simple set of variables—population, housing, and industry–and mechanically controlled by planners. From this framework emerges a case for controversial slum clearance and redevelopment programs—fashionable programs at the time of publication in 1969. As longtime fans will know, casually destroying and rebuilding neighborhoods in response to planning metrics is a major element of the SimCity.

Though the series is overconfident about the capacity of top-down management, its emphasis on data-driven governance is nonetheless refreshing. The metrics of SimCity provide players with clear gauges of urban success: shorten commutes, keep housing accessible, reduce pollution, and your city will thrive. As civic tech entrepreneur Devin Balkind argues at Gotham Gazette, real world cities have a lot to learn from SimCity in this regard. In awe of how the series charts key metrics, Balkind urges readers to consider how we might deliver "New Yorkers a SimCity style interface for their city."

SimCity is also uniquely preoccupied with the planning of infrastructure, such as roads, sewer lines, and parks. Every city in the series starts with a road network, built to the player's specifications. Plan out a street and park network that can handle growth in the long run, or risk game-breaking traffic and an unhappy populace.

Historically speaking, American cities planned out streets and parks in advance of growth, most famously in the case of New York City's 1811 plan, which broke Manhattan out into a grid of streets and avenues. Yet today, where cities allow growth at all, it typically occurs in an ad hoc fashion, resulting in suburban street networks larded with dead ends, confusing curves, and overburdened freeways. Outside of a handful of small towns in Texas, precious few cities are planning for the kind of orderly growth that SimCity demands of players. 

If there's a space where SimCity perfectly reflects the city planning status quo, it is ironically in its most dysfunctional institution: zoning. Cities use zoning to dictate what uses are allowed where and at what densities. In SimCity, zoning is the beginning and the end of all land-use regulation. Every city starts first with streets, immediately followed by zoning, requiring players to decide pre hoc where all the residential, commercial, and industrial is going to go, and at what densities. As conditions change over time, much of the game involves players scrambling to fix the zoning post hoc.

The trouble with zoning, both within real cities and SimCity, are manifold. As many players pointed out in response to the SimCity reboot in 2013, the mixture of uses that traditionally characterizes dense cities—such as apartments over shops—isn't allowed. Worse yet, zoning often artificially suppresses densities and blocks growth, driving up housing costs in the process. While SimCity players can unilaterally alter zoning to accommodate a growing population, the politics of zoning dictates that this rarely happens in the real world.

Curiously, the latest entry into the series, simply called SimCity, largely dispenses with this kind of politics more so than past entries, which might help to explain the series' fading relevance. Even more than when the series began in 1989, city planning is intensely political. To the extent that this keeps neighborhoods from being demolished for urban renewal or freeways, this is a good thing. If planners are going to demolish entire neighborhoods, residents at least deserve some say. But to the extent that it keeps cities from building needed infrastructure or liberalizing zoning, this is a bad thing. In either case, the growing importance of political variables like recalcitrant neighborhood groups or intergovernmental squabbles should be reflected in a simulation of city planning. 

Take a seemingly innocuous case like erecting an apartment building. In SimCity, one simply plops down the zoning and allows it to happen, assuming the demand for housing is there. In most American cities, particularly along the coasts, this would require a change in zoning, followed by an environmental study and an extensive public review. Perhaps nobody wants to play a game in which random people yell at you as part of a public hearing. But at what point does the series lose its right to be called a city planning simulator?

The trick with simulation games is to strike a balance between fun and realism. The trouble is that the SimCity series increasingly fails to achieve either. Competitors like Cities: Skylines beat out SimCity by trading off realism for fun, granting players nearly unlimited power—while still inexplicably requiring zoning. Recent spinoff entries into the SimCity franchise, including the mobile game SimCity BuildIt, dispense with the basic city planning fare altogether. 

When Will Wright first pitched the idea of SimCity to publishers, few could swallow the idea that players might enjoy planning out sewer lines and managing air pollution. Who is to say that, with the right design, fighting with NIMBYs, scrambling to accommodate e-scooters, and competing for federal grants can't be fun? Skeptics might recall that one of the most popular simulation series today is about farming

Between 1989 and 2019, SimCity inspired—or perhaps fooled—a generation of kids to go into city planning with the idea of managing cities like machines. With the next generation of city planners growing up a steady diet of cynical planning memes and YIMBY politics, returning to SimCity's roots with a bit of uncool realism might just be what the series needs. Give players the option to tinker with emerging ideas about transit and zoning reform, and a newly political SimCity might actually give rise to a generation of city planners prepared to play the game.