Monday, 22 November 2010

Sim City 2000: twentieth-century cities, urban modernity and my fourteen-year old self.

I’ve been thinking about Sim City 2000 a lot. I think I should start playing it again. Not this new fangled-The Sims stuff. All that social engineering micro-management makes me a bit uncomfortable and should be probably left to creeps or Nikolas Rose’s grad students. No, my interest is in the future-once, macro-civilisation game, Sim City, and in particular, the version it came out roughly around 1997.

Day one. Not a lot to report but sheep, tumbleweed, and me. Everything going OK.

In this game, the object is to build a ‘successful’ urban community. Really, there is no object, as the game has no ending, but the rewards-system is based on a criteria based roughly around the ‘happiness’ of your citizens. You start out with a rocky bit of terrain, maybe with a bit of sea and a bit of a river and some red earth. At this stage most of the icons are greyed-out. All you can do is build some houses, maybe a road and a couple of convenience stores, and sit back and hope that people come. If you are lucky (I’m lucky), houses are bought, families move in, people start buying groceries. As they consume, you can tax, and therefore build more homes with your honestly-earned electronic money. As more people move in, the icons become ungreyed. Surpassing a population of 5,000 gives you access to building libraries, hospitals, and schools. You can lay waterpipes and electricity lines to keep the lights on and the plants watered. With these lower-tier amenities the ‘happiness’ of your citizenry increases, more people arrive, you get higher taxes so you can build build build. Fingers crossed, the population then jumps above the next designated threshold. More and more amenities become available! You no longer are just supplying the population of BurritoVille (n.b. I like towns named after snacks) with milk and bread, and fixing their broken arms, but providing them with Saturday night bread and circuses! Stadia, shopping malls, cinemas all become available! In an effort to cater not just for body, but also for mind and spirit you keep building. You become the Donald Trump of your own virtual world, in feverish lust for increased capital, and more ungrey command-tools, you add miles of anonymous suburbs to lure more and more taxable-citizens to your very own computer generated Los Angeles. High-rises! Inner-city motorways! Airports! Fusion nuclear power plants!

 That's the family friendly fun I mentioned. Lets go see a ball game and pay some taxes kids!

Year 200. Beginning to worry I might have gotten a little over-excited by my desire to build. Not many parks anymore. 

In an effort to gain access to more taxes, more capital and more amenities, the entire screen is eventually filled by buildings, leaving no rural hinterland to my modern metropolis. All the free space goes in an effort to continue populating the city, until you gain access to “Launch Archologies” (their name, not mine!): self contained towns of 200,000 people that hover a mile above the rest of the population and exist within their own ecosystem. By this time their large shadows and huge energy usage also leads to large areas of urban decay (yes there’s code for that in Sim City too). Apparently once you’ve built fifty Launch Archologies, they explode/set off to find new worlds to be introduced to the proud civilisation of my happy Burritoistas. I wonder why the annihilation of my townsfolk though their more-than-probable firey death in a Quixotic search for a Brave New World is really such a good thing.  But its their game not mine.

All this raises some interesting questions about the nature of urbanism and the megolamaniacs who wrote this programme. I admit it, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about what this game meant about the city in the 1990s and urban modernity more broadly. The model of urban design upon which it is based is one which Robert Moses would recognise, and which was predominantly accepted throughout the twentieth-century: a vision of the city as a place of the future, a place of continuous destruction and recreation, where increased property prices, increased population densities and increased consumption were held up as aspirational values. From first glances it appears that the game designers probably hadn’t read their Jane Jacobs. But then again, to pretend that she, or the multitudes like her put any more than the smallest dent in the ongoing trajectory of 20th century city is to write history through textbooks not places, so maybe the fact that there is no ‘allotments’ button or ‘co-operative store’ icon is a good thing. But maybe this game is actually cleverer than that. This hyper-real, mass-market computer game where everyone can shape their vision of the city, but you are constantly pushed towards a 1960s city of urban motorways and high rises seems to be on further reflection a grandiose and bizarre in-joke. It is constructed around the self-help of Jacobs, the simulacra and populism of Venturi, and inevitably the urban forms of Moses. In a game where to win is to make your city so unbearable that your citizens live inside air-controlled chambers, ready to shoot off to discover a more inhabitable planet is a nice sort of neat irony. Its a nice way to end the twentieth century anyway.   


  1. Just came across this.

    As a student of Urban, Rural and Environmental Planning I loved the last paragraph.

  2. Haha no probs, didnt think you would reply.

    I might quote you in one of my university essays - I love a few of the lines you have written. Hope you have no problem with that?