I remember when I first booted up SimCity 3000 at the age of 6 or so. I was instantly blown away by the sheer scale of the simulation. At the time, a video game to me was something like Super Mario Bros., a fixed game with a set challenge. But instead of bite-sized levels, SimCity had you building an entire magnificent metropolis! And the soundtrack wasn’t just 8-bit chirps, but an grand collection of jazz and New Age which I still play fondly to this day. For the longest time, I considered it my favourite game, along with Super Mario 64, because of how ambitious and imaginative both games were for their time.
Of course, being young and stupid, I didn’t understand financial management yet, so my early games consisted of me constantly running my cities bankrupt with loans. But when I tried again at age 11, I was able to build a decently sized city with a population of 600,000. It was disorganized and a prime example of urban sprawl, but I was proud of it. Still, I looked on in envy at that perfectly organized Metropolis example city with 2.1 million residents and Astronomical land values (even destroying it a few times).
Speaking of financial management, I would also get a hold of SimCity 2000 later in my life, which had quite a nasty Hard mode in which you had no money except for a $10000 loan which kept draining money from you until you raised $10000 to pay it off. It was much more restrictive than SimCity 3000’s Hard mode, which had loans that expired after 10 years and the ability to offset them with Business Deals. At first, I tried playing the budget cautiously, but the money kept draining. It was only after I went all in that I was able to raise enough taxes to stay in the green and eventually pay off the loan. At that moment, I finally understood how Keynesian economics worked, despite how counter-intuitive it seemed, and why economists consider austerity bad policy.
Naturally, when I heard they were reviving SimCity for a new generation in 2013, I was thrilled. It was going to be online, and each city was going to be part of an entire interconnected region! It was an immediate purchase decision for me…and most of us know how that game turned out. I tried convincing myself I was having fun, but it didn’t work out, and each time I made a city, I quickly hit a ceiling in which I had no desire to expand any further.
I could blame the small city sizes, the myriad glitches that constantly gridlocked the roads and limited what you could actually accomplish in the game, and various other forms of mismanagement. But looking back, I hit a similar ceiling with the other SimCity games as well, despite the series’ promise of endless gameplay and no true end goal. I’d build up my population and land value numbers, and that was it.
Part of the shift in my opinion of SimCity came with a similar shift in my own life. No longer did I spend my life alone in the outskirts of some isolated small town, through which SimCity fulfilled my urban fantasies. Now having moved to major urban environments, I have come to understand city life a lot better, and realized just how simplistic SimCity’s model truly is. It’s not segregated Residential-Commercial-Industrial indicators that make people passionate about the city, and in fact, dense cities like Vancouver routinely blend those sectors. Nor is it about ever-increasing land values. In fact, such gentrification has been a detriment to the culture of cities like Vancouver and San Francisco, and citizens routinely protest this favoured treatment of the rich while depriving lower-income residents of homes. Yet you’ll never realize this from SimCity, which treats gentrification as merely a gaming ideal to aspire to.
No, city life is about interaction, about the ingenuity of the quirky folk displaying offbeat clothing and personalized artwork in East Vancouver and Edmonton-Strathcona. It’s about architecture, open markets, walking and soaking in the sights. SimCity is so focused on the macro-management that it doesn’t consider the micro-scale of the human experience. Indeed, the city structure portrayed in the 2013 game seems firmly stuck in the past. It’s dependent entirely on roads, with few transit options, and relies on resource extraction as a primary source of income. This urban planning vision looks less appealing in the environmentally conscious post-recession age, even more so in Canada as it came out during the notorious reign of Stephen Harper and his own backwards addiction to natural resources as the backbone of Canada’s economy.
Some say we shouldn’t talk politics in video games, that it’s purely escapism. But as George Orwell said, all issues are political issues, and when you’re dealing with something as real as city planning, discussing a game’s politics is inevitable. SimCity may be great in scale by video game standards (aside, funny how we as a gaming community tend to set such low standards for ourselves), but it’s lacking as a city simulator and its vision is overly conservative. I’m grateful for the game for introducing me to budget management, serving as the impetus for my passion for city planning, and expanding my horizon when stuck in small town life, but I’ve outgrown the game and am now looking for a more in-depth city simulation game that more accurately represents the joys of urban life. I’ve heard the SimCity 4 community has modded the game far beyond its original scope, and if so, good for them. Other titles have also popped up, and it’d be good to know where to start.