Ask a random person in the street about their favorite hobbies, and it’s unlikely that they’ll say “urban planning and traffic management” - yet when video games began to take off in the late 1980s city-building was one of the first breakout hits, in the form of Maxis’ SimCity series. The huge success of the “Sim” series in general drove conversations about the value of simulation, as part of the general 1990s optimism about virtual worlds being the future. Sim games became the subject of academic critiques of their philosophy of the world, while city builders became a lot more than a game: in 2002, SimCity 3000 was used as a semi-serious test for mayoral candidates in Warsaw.
After a slump caused by a difficult transition to 3D graphics, city builders are back in vogue. Following what is widely considered as a disappointing SimCity reboot in 2013, Finland’s Colossal Order recently released Cities: Skylines to critical and financial success. But simulations require assumptions; they are, after all, written by people who have their own conscious and unconscious views on how and why cities work. The limitations around designing a video game - the fact that each asset must be modeled and textured, and that each transport option requires a huge amount of work to simulate - mean that Cities: Skylines is as stripped down and streamlined an articulation of urban philosophy as Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse or the New Urbanists' models, and just as interesting. We investigate 10 things this game tells us about 21st century urbanism, after the break.