I’ve spent a lot of my life playing SimCity (and Cities: Skylines, which I’ve called “The SimCity we deserve”). I’ve always liked simulation games, where I have a sandbox in which to tinker, and can make something of my own. Even when relaxing, I still have the creative urge.
Now, as I look around at the popular uprising against racist police brutality, I think back to all those gaming hours. In SimCity*, crime is highly abstracted — it’s an overlay on a map, and is treated very much as a natural consequence of population growth. Low population = low crime, and as people move into your city, crime just happens, for no particular reason. And it’s solved just as magically as it occurs: pay for a police station, and crime near the station drops. Give the police more money, and crime drops further. The end result of policing is that all residents are happier and everything gets better. We can clearly see from the continued racist brutality of the police against the black community, however, that this is not how it works in the real world.
SimCity and its ilk are built on models, often quite detailed ones, that attempt to simulate the dynamic processes of a city. Simplifying the vast complexity of an urban environment into a game is an unenviable task, and I do not fault the game designers for not being totally realistic. But it’s still fair to think about how those models affect us. Others have written on this before in great detail after having done a lot of research on this topic that, admittedly, I have not done.
Each of these games takes place in a fantasy world where each citizen’s happiness is abstracted (or ignored, depending on which game you’re playing) to be based largely on income level and the value of their land. These are games in which you can level a low-income neighborhood with minimal consequences, and when you build a freeway through the rubble, your citizens cheer because (1) you’ve made traffic flow better (a typical Cities: Skylines player spends a lot of their time slinging concrete to make cars move more efficiently), and (2) anyone whose house you demolished no longer exists in the game, so they can’t complain. Needless to say, this is an extremely problematic way to approach community development in the real world.
In SimCity et al., there is no discrimination. There is no inequality. Citizens ask you for electricity, water, and efficient roads. They do not have agency, however, to demand personal freedom or dignity as we do. It’s built on a fantasy version of our world. It’s easy to forget that it’s all a model when you’re engrossed in something that looks, on the surface, fairly similar the world around you.
And so I have wondered lately how growing up with the models in these games has affected how I view cities. Whether they have taught me to accept, as a given, that cities must raise land values, must increase traffic throughput, must expand (the games reward you as your population grows), and must build taller and taller buildings (because those are the coolest-looking ones). At the very least, they never challenged me to think of other ways to live, ones less driven by capitalism, racism, and other systemic inequalities that inevitably ensue. Perhaps I would have been wiser by this age if they had.
I don’t know what the solution is. Our understandings of cities–their dynamics as well as their problems– will continue to evolve, and our games will, too. I hope that future game designers look at the world of 2020 and think about how their games can teach people about the problems of racism and inequality that are sewn into the fabric of our institutions and let players explore alternative solutions (such as community-based public safety models, for example). Even then, though, it will still be a limited simulation. I don’t suggest that we never play such games. The best we can likely do is approach each game critically, enjoying it while actively questioning how well it portrays the city around us.
*There are many SimCity games, and many city simulator games in general. I’m basing my musings here on having mainly played SimCity, SC2000, SC4, and Cities: Skylines. Your mileage may vary.