Ever since the first iteration of the computer game, Sim City has been associated with urban planning, or more precisely, city building. The series’ wide reach make it one of the most successful simulation games of all time. And you know that a city building game has firmly placed itself in popular culture when even Stephen Colbert jokes about it:
“Who can forget, in the wake of SimCity, how children everywhere took up urban planning?”
The American Planning Association even gives the game credit in its publication “Becoming an Urban Planner: What Planners Do”:
Since 1989, scores of children and adults have been introduced to the field of urban planning through the computer game SimCity. Players take on the role of urban planner (though officially designated “mayor” in the game), deciding how much land to devote to housing, industry, and commercial buildings (offices and stores), building roads and rails and heliports, and setting aside land for parks, zoos, and police stations. As the game unfolds, players see how their decisions affect the number of people who want to move to the city, the taxes generated from houses, offices, and factories, the level of traffic congestion, and the amount of pollution .When taxes get too high or traffic congestion becomes too intense, people move away, looking for less expensive places to live or places with a higher quality of life. The game also teaches that planners need to expect the unexpected, as a host of natural and human-caused disasters can suddenly descend upon the city. SimCity has done more than dozens of books like this to interest people in the work of planners.
Indeed, many urban planners I know say that they loved the game, and suspect that it might have sparked their initial interest in the profession. It definitely fueled my interest in city building. Perhaps New Yorker writer John Seabrook wasn’t too far off when he said that the Sim City series are “arguably the single most influential work of urban-design theory ever created.”
Now that the latest installment of the SimCity series is available, I tried it out to see how it performs, from a city planner’s perspective. But before we get to that, a few words on the game’s launch last March.
A troubled launch
This spring saw the much-anticipated release of the newest edition to the series, a whopping ten years after the previous title had been released. Simply titled “SimCity” (though sometimes referred to as Sim City 5), the game is infinitely more complex than previous editions, and took a radical departure from its predecessors. To play the game, players need to have an internet connection and must be signed into their Origin accounts (an online gaming client). This prompted a lot of protest from the series’ longtime fans, not in the last place because the servers were experiencing outages due to the high volume of players trying to connect. Amazon even pulled the game from its digital shelves because of the constant server outages. Eventually, the game overcame its growing pains, and initial complaints made way for different complains. The maps (plots of land on which you build your city) would be too small in comparison to older editions of the series. And the focus on online gaming—including cooperating with other players who are building their cities within a shared, multiplayer region—hasn’t always pleased the longtime fans of the franchise, who were accustomed to playing it offline.
As the game’s developers rushed to improve the game after being flooded with complaints, it quickly became clear that the game still required some fine-tuning. Within the first six months after the game’s release, 8 patches or updates have been released by the game’s developer, EA games. By the time the Mac-version of the game was released late last month, most of the early bugs have been fixed, and Mac users find themselves playing a more polished version of the game half a year after the horrific launch of the PC-only version.
A break from top-down planning: zooming in on digital citizens (and their well-being)
Going beyond the technicalities, the game offers a very immersive city building experience. Unlike previous editions of the series, the cities you built are full of tiny Sims (the brave digital citizens in your cities). They are the artificial intelligence that drives your city’s development. Homes will only spawn if there are enough Sims looking to move into your city, and offices will only develop if there are enough Sims looking for office space in your town. You can watch Sims leave their homes in the morning, drive to their office or factories for a day’s work, and drive back home again only to leave once more in the evening to catch a movie or dine out. Interesting fact: once Sims arrive at their destination, their cars simply disappear—the lead designer of the game, Stone Librande, decided that if parking was made too realistic in the game, too much of the cities would be dedicated to parking surfaces, making it uninteresting to play. That’s quite a statement on the extent to which parking dominates too much of our cities.
Sims will complain if they are faced with issues such as kinds being unable to go to school (because you haven’t built one yet), garbage pilling up (because your garbage trucks are stuck in traffic) or pollution coming from your local coal power plant. They will also move out of your city if they can’t find work, or if they are unhappy. (Sims will become happy if they have money to spent and parks to visit. A modest happiness bonus also incurs when your Sims visit the houses of worship you’ve built in your cities.) As in real cities, the longer you ignore these issues, the more pressing they become—until eventually your city will start to lose inhabitants. And if you’ve built say, a university or a community college in your city, your (now smarter) sims will start to ask for recycling, put solar panels on their rooftops, and the overall crime of your city will go down, as high-tech industrial employers move in. This makes your cities behave much more responsive than was the case with earlier editions of the game.
The newest SimCity also takes regional gameplay to a new level. Players can sent electricity, water, or garbage trucks over to their neighbors in the to service their cities, eliminating the need for every city to have its own power plant or garbage dump. Sims will also commute to neighboring cities to work, study, or shop. And there’s even the option to built great works in the region, such as airports, whereby multiple cities sent over funds, workers and resources to a shared great works site. This kind of inter-city cooperation goes beyond anything seen in earlier versions of the game. And since pollution can spill over from neighboring cities, affecting the health of sims in the entire region, cities are forced to consider the impact their growth has outside of the city lines. This encourages regional planning in a way not seen in previous titles.
Taken together, the fate of your city essentially depends on all of your Sim’s well-being. It’s your task to keep your city livable and attractive. Previous editions of the series haven’t featured this kind of detail, as they operated more in a top-down way. The fact that the entire simulation now runs from the bottom up, marks the most fundamental difference between the latest and earlier versions of the game.
Sim City: inspiring sustainable city building?
Whilst not the main objective of the new SimCity, the gaming experience encourages one think about sustainable city building. In fact, Scientific American reported that the game’s developers have been “…working with an unidentified “green” developer to integrate cutting-edge sustainable design principles into the new game…”. Sim City Creative Director Ocean Quigley also confessed, “I don’t want to enforce sustainable design principles in the game — I want them to emerge as natural consequences of your interaction with the simulation.”
It’s completely possible to create a textbook environmentally-friendly city, complete with clean industry, people recycling and where energy comes from wind or solar power. But the opposite also holds true; players can create industrial wastelands, rife with air and ground pollution, which soon leads to sick Sims. For instance, putting a high-density residential neighborhood down-wind from a coal power plant will increase mortality rates in that area, so it’s best to stick to clean energy (or, alternatively, place your coal power plant at the very edge of your city). And for those players that decide to exploit the coal and oil reserves beneath their city to produce electricity: these resources will eventually become exhausted, forcing players to build solar or wind energy plants instead. Nuclear plants also are available, but your Sims won’t exactly appreciate their presence in their city, depending on how educated they are. Ultimately, the cities that flourish have at least taken some measures that ensure the health of both the city’s environment and its digital inhabitants—much like Ocean Quigley envisioned.
Sim City takes an apolitical turn
Whilst players are called “Mayors” in Sim City, politics and policy are nearly non-existant in the new Sim City. This wasn’t always the case, as previous titles offered ample social and tax programs that any mayor could establish in their city. These programs included tax incentives for clean industry (and additional taxes for polluting factories), carpool programs for commuters, after-school programs for kids, free CPR training for residents, and more. These programs offered Mayors a way to address complicated social and economic issues in their cities, and I’m sad to see that they are no longer featured. The new title is very design-centric instead, to the extent that the role of Mayor (which really used to be more of a Mayor/Planner role in previous versions) now is relegated to merely a designer of the urban environment. If new to the field of planning, the new Sim City would make think that planning equates to urban design. This is harmful to the field of planning (and to our cities) in that it brushes aside all of the complicated socio-economic issues of our cities, making them, at best, tertiary to design and architecture. Today’s cities are rife with starchitects, massive redevelopment projects, and streetscape and design guidelines, all of which are important, however the game’s loss of policy and program planning is a symbol of the declining value and esteem that local governance holds in the real-world.
“We want bigger maps!” and other oft-heard complains of the new Sim City
Perhaps the single most-complained about shortcoming of the new Sim City, is the static and rather small size of the maps. Where previous editions of the game featured city plots of various sizes within a single region, ranging from very small to very big, players are forced to build their cities on small maps in the new Sim City. And all maps are of the same small size. This setup denies players the ability to explore the different possibilities of city size, and to discover the impact that city size has on cities’ economy and population. In return, players now have the option to specialize their cities to an extent unseen in previous versions of the game, and can create all sorts of different cities—ranging from quiet bedroom communities to tourist destinations that feature casinos and landmarks, to industrial towns filled with mines and oil fields—which eases some of the pain of not having larger maps.
Another aspect that suddenly vanished in the latest installment of the game, is the terraforming. Formerly, players could modify the environment where they would built their cities. Options such as altering your coastline, raising or lowering the terrain, or creating or removing rivers and lakes are now gone. Instead, there are ten completely pre-made regions for players to build their cities in. All the environments are static and come as the game’s developer made them, leaving the player only with the option to add or remove trees. Whilst not having to worry about altering your city’s terrain might be a relief for some players, it’s a real shortcoming in my eyes— many cities have altered their environments over time, slowly shaping their settings in a way that fits their needs.
When it comes to infrastructure, the new Sim City departs from the old requirement that made players lay out networks of power lines, as well as sewage pipes and water mains (and pay for them!). Where you needed to manually construct these infrastructural networks in previous editions, all utilities are now automatically embedded in roads. This undermines the fact that, when building distant subdivisions, substantial infrastructural costs are imposed on cities. As a consequence, it’s now much easier and cheaper to build leapfrog development in Sim City, where formerly this was effectively discouraged due to the cost of connecting far-flung neighborhoods to utility networks. This feature has consciously been removed in the latest Sim City, in order to relieve players of this tedious (and arguably, not very fun) aspect of the game. Stil, whilst building utility networks was never anybody’s favorite part of the older Sim City, it was an exercise that forced you to think about the real cost of fragmented, sprawling development.
Euclidian zoning & the traffic engineer’s mentality: the pillars of Sim City’s urbanism
As with previous versions, players can zone their city’s land as residential, commercial, or industrial. The colors chosen to depict residential, commercial and industrial zones are green, blue and yellow, respectively. Realistically, your city’s population depends on two things—the amount of land zoned as residential, and the type of roads along which you zone your residential areas. The game allows you to place five different types of roads—each accommodating a different amount of density for the buildings along them. For instance, only detached single-family homes can develop along low-density streets, whilst skyscrapers and high-rises will only spawn along high-density streets and avenues. A modest type of density, such as condominiums and mid-rises, can be supported along medium density streets and avenues. At first glance, this seems like a reinforcement of the design guidelines from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Green Book: the more capacity your roads can accommodate, the more density they will support. As a result, you will pretty much have to put six-lane roads everywhere in your city if you want to have substantial density. Car-free streets? Road diets? Forget it, the asphalt reigns supreme in SimCity.
The game’s focus on single-use zoning, whilst very conventional when the first edition of the series appeared in 1989, seems slightly out-of-place today. As many cities have increasingly adopted mixed use zoning, it remains something the game doesn’t allow for. Personally, I think that’s a huge missed chance for the game to break with tradition and align itself with modern-day planning practice. And whilst the colors used for each of the three zoning types seem very intuitive, they actually don’t reflect the standard colors as discussed in the American Planning Association’s list of Land-Based Classification Standards, in which most commercial zoned areas are indicated in red, whilst residential zones are depicted in yellow. In that sense, the game doesn’t do much to teach the standard colors used in North American planning practice.
Another minor drawback is that you can’t repurpose existing buildings. There is no option to convert abandoned factories into residences, for instance. It also would have been neat to have the option to, say, convert my decommissioned coal power plant into a different use. The only way to reuse space it to demolish existing buildings and open up lots for new development.
Personally, I also really missed some of the transportation options that were available in earlier editions of the series. You can’t built subways in the new SimCity, neither can you built elevated rail. These two used to form a continuous rapid transportation system in Sim City 4, where you could connect subways with above-ground elevated rail, much like you see in many cities the world over that have built rapid transit systems. What you get in return is the option to build streetcars. And whilst those are nice, they initially weren’t very effective: you could only place streetcar stops on high-density avenues, which meant that building an elaborate streetcar network automatically forced you to build wide six-lane avenues all throughout your city. Eventually, updates to the game created the option to build streetcar stops on tracks that aren’t on avenues, illustrating how the game continued to be fine-tuned months after its release. Another thing that would have made sense, from a transportation perspective, is to have the option to build bicycle lanes. As with mixed-use zoning, more cities have adopted these in recent years, leaving me wondering why I can’t have them in my city.
Towards a Final Verdict
Despite the fact that SimCity is an open-ended game (as any simulation game is), the fun of course is in growing your cities out to the maximum. Population is the single metric that matters the most, closely followed by your city’s finances. I automatically found myself trying to explode my city’s population, mostly because of the hourly tax income that my city’s Sims generated. But as my cities grew, managing it became increasingly complex. And funding all those services that your Sims need –like fire and police coverage, health care, education, transportation, waste management, and parks—costs a lot of money, if you chose to provide them. And don’t even get me started on the congestion issues I’ve had in one of my larger cities. Overall, I found the game to be very immersive, and there are countless options you have at your disposal as you’re building out your city.
Overall, the game inevitable falls short to portray the complexities of real-world city planning. Players have God-like powers, and are completely free to build whatever type of city they want. There isn’t any compromise in the game. The digital citizens of SimCity can’t vote, and can’t really make their thoughts on your building plans known. But we have to acknowledge that this has never been the mission of the SimCity series, a franchise which was built around the idea of letting players experiment with city building.
Whilst SimCity may not completely incorporate the most cutting-edge concepts in city planning, it still offers a great way to learn the fundamentals of city building. Thanks to its broad appeal, the game will likely continue to offer many people a glimpse at the challenges of city building, confronting them with this topics as they take on creating their own cities in SimCity. The franchise surely has intro many people to these topics in the past. And whilst professional city planners might see some real drawbacks in the game, it’s still a great way to live out some city building fantasies, the likes of which we’re probably not going to see in real life.
All images by Ronald Woudstra