Local Government

SimCity Created a Generation of Urban Planners

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

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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.  

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  1. Sim City has always made a number of questionable assumptions;

    1) Nuclear Power tends to be a disaster, and wind and solar work. In real life, Nuclear is a disaster only when mismanaged, and wind and solar don’t work at all.

    2) Sim City LOVES commuter light rail. My experience of it inclines me to believe that commuter light rail is mostly a toy for the political class. It seldom breaks even, and almost always skimps on maintenance.

    The entire subject of Urban Planning is rife with Progressive Authoritarian assumptions, which is why it mostly fails.

    1. You would probably get a kick out of Romance of the Rails. All about the foibles of passenger trains, mostly light rail but also mainline and subways, especially as regards government maniuplation: first banning as disruptive, then embracing and protecting for the tax revenue, and finally subsidizing for the votes. Easy read, very enlightening, but it will probably piss you off as politicians repeat the same mistakes over and over and over.

    2. Commuter light rail works fine. The game just skips the part about the federal subsidies.

      1. I think many people get a cheat that allows them unlimited dollars. That plays the role of federal subsidies.

  2. It is a really good game, I was addicted to it.
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  3. “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.”

    The reason it bombed was the forced online connectivity which earned it the name “SimCity DRM”. After getting burned repeatedly by EA people stopped buying new titles. There is a reason more people still play The Sims 3 over 4. From before the release and up to this day people have considered EA the worst game company in the US, but only because Ubisoft is in France. Cities: Skylines took the torch from SimCity and even though that game is flawed one can at least play it without having to deal with tons of bullshit resulting from EA.

    Should it get political? No. A building simulator is for building. Planet Coaster does well because it is just that and it works. People want building simulators that work. When you make it political it stops being a building simulator and a way for a game developer to force you to play the way that they want you to play.

    SimCity isn’t about politics.

    It’s about reticulating splines and building residential areas by water treatment plants and power plants.

  4. Hmm, how to make SimCity more real, at least in recognizing that the SimPeople might not be happy with their overlord?

    How about a Democracy Factor? Use some algorithms to calculate a citizen approval level. If this falls below 50%, the game is over.

    1. Happiness of SimPeople is a factor in Sim City (at least in the earlier versions from the 1990s).

  5. The next iteration of SimCity should be an online game where other players are allowed to log on to your game and substitute their plans for yours and everybody who wants to gets to vote on which plans get adopted. Some of the other players will be given extra money to pay other players to vote for their plans, some of the other players will be given secret incentives to vote one way or the other and yet other players will be given guns.

    1. And introduce race into the mix too. That would be good.

    2. And some players can take your plans to court, causing years long delays and extra costs.

  6. Used to love me some SimCity. The modern game that reminds me the most of original SimCity is Surviving Mars. Love all iterations Civilization as well, since I played the first release for 6 hours straight on my parents’ friend’s DOS machine during an all night new year’s yuppie party.

  7. 1. I loved Raid on Bungeling Bay.
    2. Try Citystate for a city builder with politics.
    3. Maybe urban planners should be picked for their affinity for a game where you have omnipotent power over zoning.

  8. Civilization games, particularly Civilization 2, are worse.

    I loved Civ 2 as a kid, but even then I recognized the absurdity of a game in which the best government system by far for managing a large empire and economy was “Communism”, while “Democracy” was essentially unplayable as it experienced far more “corruption” than any other system.

    The particularly ludicrous aspect of “Communism” was its strongest perk: Zero corruption whatsoever throughout your entire civilization. This is what made it the best government, as corruption was biggest problem a player had late in the game.

    I always switched to communism as soon as I could in order to win the game, but I always laughed at the absurdity as I did it.

    Beyond the author’s obvious preference for communism, just the fact that one could micromanage a civilization from its infancy, as an absolute dictator, taught kids a lot of bad lessons.

    But boy was that game fun!

    1. Communists don’t have to be corrupt, since the system is corrupt. The party officials don’t need your cash, so you can appease them in other vays.

    2. I can’t remember when they ditched the different forms of government, but you should try Civ 5 (or Civ 6 if your computer can handle it).
      Now, instead of researching a form of government, you earn culture points. With these points, you can buy perks for your civilization. Some of these perks represent various aspects of different forms of government that were present in previous versions.

  9. Played SimCIty for a while on my 286. When I upgraded to a 386DX it went so fast I couldn’t make any changes.

    I just spent last week in Palm Springs CA. An extreme example of urban planning. Every through street is 6 lanes, 50 MPH. The grid is spaced out by the 1/2 mile. Should be a piece of cake to get anywhere, right? Nope. Every trip took forever and not just because of the traffic. You have to drive through miles of residential subdivisions (all walled off and gated, of course) to get to the commercial section of town. Then once you’re there it’s a hunt for a parking space. Then on to the next place, another 10-20 minutes away, and more walled-off subdivisions. Or there’s a golf course in between location and destination. But it looks great on a 1 inch=10,000 ft map.

    1. Phoenix is a large city with streets (mostly) in a big grid. It lets the tumbleweeds and the sand blow through unobstructed in the high hot winds, and lets criminals get away easily.

  10. Utopia on the intellvison beat out sim city as by at least five years. And their used to be many such games on the apple computer like sim city back as early 1979 on such game I remember you had control of a chines province that was all text and no graphics and if you failed you where sent to the emperor court to be made a eunuch. And the first real time strategy game was called Mind Games and was on the Odyssey two by Magnavox back in 1975. Ok I played way too many video games in my life.

  11. Great game, even if unrealistic.

    But “scrambling to accomodate e-scooters”????
    That’s what the garbage trucks are for, cleaning up litter.

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  13. On a related note I used to get pissed off at Civilization 25 years ago when I kept taxes very low…had small govt and fucking Sid Meirs algorithms had “unhappy” people. So I then went all neocon and invaded and bombed the shit all over the place. Ran deficits and the people loved me..go figure.

    1. Yeah, the economic algorithms in SimCity and Civilization were fucked. Like they got a C in junior college intro to macro, and stopped learning there.

      On the other hand, it’s a computer simulation game. They really don’t have the resources to do a proper simulation. So they crunch loose approximations of aggregates. But the games do have some good stuff here and there. The traffic in classic SimCity uses samplings of random individual routes, for example. I think they try to do similar things with the economics, but then run them through the macro aggregates.

      On the third hand, modern western civilization does show that affluent societies demand larger and larger governments. People want the government spending MORE than they want the lower taxes. Libertarians are an extremely rare fish in the world. We think we are numerous but are not. So I think a proper Civilization game would have the populace clamouring for war, but then showing their revealed preferences as game factors start to plummet. So the player had to weigh the political (what they say) from the economic (what they do).

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  15. It’s funny because SimCity is basically dead, thanks to EA’s habit of killing properties it acquires if they aren’t always super profitable.

    Meanwhile Cities Skylines is largely filling that niche.

    1. EA takes properties that were super profitable, kills them through horrible business decisions, and then buys out more studios and does the same to make up for the losses.

    2. “” thanks to EA’s habit of killing properties it acquires “‘

      Janes. That had some good flight sims. I could fly the crap out of Longbow.

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  18. I liked SimCity, but then Tropico came along.
    In terms of simulation strategy games, an apt comparison for the two would be meter maids vs. the KGB.

  19. So is that why all our modern city plans are all about square cities with 7×9 sized blocks?

  20. One of the reasons I never played Sim City is that I knew that the underlying assumptions would drive me a little nuts. I gave Civ a try, but that wasn’t my cup of tea either. For simulation, Zachtronics games do it for me.

    1. Thank you for this. Never heard of them, but I will check them out now.

  21. Where’s the Remy song about commie video games?

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