Remember spending hours of your fleeting youth in front of the computer screen, building lively and complex towns with vibrant neighborhoods, schools, shopping centers, industry, power plants.. only to have them all destroyed by an unforeseen asteroid or UFO?
That's right - SimCity is back, full force, with its latest version debuting just last Tuesday. Although the game series has been with us since 1989, it's certainly not getting any less exciting or challenging; in fact, it has transitioned from a mere childrens' computer game to an educational simulation that anyone at any age can learn from. The new SimCity is subtly teaching its players the pros and cons of serious, real-life issues such as renewable energy, preservation of natural resources and cooperation between neighboring cities - all within an entertaining virtual interface whose fate rests at your fingertips.
Read more about the new game and what it has to teach us about city planning.
SimCity has been credited with "inspiring an entire generation of urban theorists," according to Co.Exist. The New Yorker said in 2006 that the game is "arguably the single most influential work of urban-design theory ever created," challenging its players to design and manage a successful city simulation with real-life problems instead of just theorizing about one. SimCity allows us to try out urban theories and strategies in a virtual world that actually responds to our decisions in a way that mirrors reality, making us realize that creating a utopian, problem-free society is pretty much impossible.
The latest SimCity retains most of its previous elements, but what makes this version especially unique is that it's multiplayer, meaning that players can interact and share resources with friends' cities. This implies that a city doesn't need to be well-rounded in order to succeed - it's okay for a city to specialize in only one or two things, such as coal mining and heavy industry, if it has good relations with its neighbors that specialize in something else, such as food production. It also means that you have someone to rely on in times of need - a helping hand that can buy or sell a commodity to benefit both cities, such as waste or energy.
Though it's the defining characteristic of the game, neighborly relations weren't on anybody's mind in a tournament held by Co.Exist that brought together some of America's greatest urban thinkers for a SimCity building tournament. Six teams competed against each other with a vision for a "potential urban future, a blueprint for the future of cities;" however, the results of the tournament were far from this original goal.
The teams represented MIT, KPF, OpenPlans, Studio Gang, Fast Company and Studio-X . Nearly every team decided to create a city that would be independent of finite energy resources as well as independent of other cities. KPF arrived to the competition with plenty of research, while OpenPlans drew ideas from off-site employees. Fast Company aimed to be extremely pragmatic and was happy with being "the control group," while Studio-X was "aggressively disinterested in sustainability" and "unapologetically opportunistic," building plenty of brothels and stadiums and charging their city's residents obscene amounts of money to attend college.
Using SimCity as the vehicle, Co.Exist's tournament yielded interesting and informative results about city planning. Every team made early planning errors that would stick with them throughout the game, defining the culture, economy, look and feel of their city. For example, cities that invested in non-renewable energy as a "temporary" strategy to get their cities going found it extremely difficult to wean themselves off this dirty but addictive moneymaker. By encouraging players to make short-sighted decisions, SimCity trivializes the importance of certain public policies, such as investing in education and renewable energy.
Studio-X Co-Director Geoff Manaugh said that within the game “there’s no sense of negative consequence. I was joyfully and happily building coal infrastructure and figuring out ways to get oil out of the ground faster. I thought the game was going to make us feel guilty, but it didn’t. There seemed to be a non-liberal bias.”
This is exactly what Stone Librande, the game's designer, had intended. “It’s designed to make players make unsustainable decisions. We want people to understand why it happens in the real world. If the game pulls you into this path that you know is bad and you know is wrong, you start to understand why we do things like mountaintop removal to get coal.”
And no matter how long you play and how hard you try to make the perfect city, Librande's SimCity will keep throwing curveballs that challenge you and your ideals. This is the evil genius behind the game and the reason players keep playing - if utopia were to be achieved, there would be no incentive or interest to continue. Because there is no society on Earth that is truly utopian, the game is a reflection of the positive and negative forces that drive city design, forces that are unpredictable and have lasting consequences that we as planners and architects must grapple with.
And if you're interested in getting the game for yourself, click here!