Variations On A Theme: Sim City

Inspired by Colin Campbell’s pithy recollections celebrating Sim City’s 25th birthday, I decided to reach into the distant past for some of my own to serve as further introduction for anyone who has never encountered this aged but elegant game.

“You build cities. They are yours.” -CC

My personal Sim City experience revolves around the early ‘90s SNES release pictured above. Somewhat surprisingly, 10-year-old me found this town planning simulation highly addictive, resulting in a great deal of time and thought being put into how I could eventually achieve my very own functioning metropolis. Grown-up me has occasionally wondered if this confirms that I was indeed an abnormally boring child. Surely there could be limited childhood appeal in such a pixelated, low adrenaline and non-violent digital pursuit?

Well, having plugged in and spent some quality time reacquainting myself with Sim City – ‘making sure it still works’ – I can say with confidence that it bears that same charm 20 years later. Even in today’s FPS/RTS action-soaked era this classic timesink gazes down upon us from its position of prominence at the right hand of the grand throne of Lego in the revered Construction-Based-Play Hall of Fame (est. 28 Oct, 2014). So given its slow tempo and lack of traditional storyline or visual polish, what made the old Sim City so good?

“It’s not about how many levels you beat or how many monsters you slay. It’s about how smart you have been…” -CC

I believe it boils down to how, like Tetris before it and Angry Birds after, Sim City is based on a deceptively simple premise: you choose and arrange buildings in a way that enables ongoing population growth. The twist is that each type of building or service you construct has unseen effects on its surroundings. Your citizens may require more industrial areas for example, which you generously provide only to discover that they have raised crime rates and pollution levels whilst lowering nearby land values. Installing parkland would rectify these issues to an extent but also costs money and takes up space that could be used for something else the populace are petitioning for. A new police station is another option that would aid in fighting local crime but is expensive to install and fund… and so the balancing act continues.

“We’ve had a lot of great games, made by people who understood how games work, but this one was a great game made by someone who understood how the world works.” -CC

As demonstrated in this isolated scenario, the real challenge of Sim City is that the strategic juggling takes place within restrictions of economy and terrain. From memory there wasn’t a single map amongst the 999 available that didn’t feature at least a little watercourse to work around, and I spent a lot of time scrolling through them hoping to stumble upon a truly blank canvas on which to create my masterpiece. Sadly for us aspiring digital town planners, all of the forethought in the world will eventually suffer at the hands of an awkwardly shaped lake or river weaving through your efficient and otherwise symmetrical city system. And then there’s the all-too-familiar feeling of just not having enough cash with which to accomplish your dreams. You could raise taxes but then less people will migrate to your city. Cut transit funding? Then the citizens you worked so hard to attract will complain about poor public transport and road quality.

“It wasn’t a game you played to pass the time; it was a game you found time to play.” -CC

Attempting to illustrate the layers of a game as subtle and complex as this no doubt makes it sound rather unappealing. Surely just clearing a few more levels in Super Mario World would be more gratifying for everyone? Yet due to Sim City’s impeccable balance of accessibility and learning curve, 10-year-old me threw himself into this struggle for optimisation and the elusive ‘perfect compromise’ with enthusiasm and persistence. I will be the first to admit that in real life these grey-scale problem solving situations drive me mad, however the joy of being able to hit RESET and start the world afresh with newly acquired hindsight made it the kind of game you came back to with hope again and again.

“It’s impossible to play Sim City for the first time and come away dumber than you were before.” -CC

Sim City is a thinking game, but it is not demanding. It will encourage you to consider the workings of the world that exists outside of your screen with a more analytical mindset and an appreciation for reflection. It will reward inquisitiveness and innovation. It will demand patience and occasionally remind us that bad things sometimes happen but with preparation things should be OK in the long run. And it has a great soundtrack.

“Sim City wasn’t just a fun game; it wasn’t just a clever game. It was important.” -CC

Perhaps the biggest difference I’ve found upon returning to Sim City has been the way I’ve finally come to understand the underlying principal behind growing my metropolis. As a child I sought the perfect ratios and positioning of buildings to eradicate my people’s complaints. As an adult I come to the game with the real life knowledge that there will be no ‘perfect compromise’ and that my goals will only be achieved through deliberate sacrifice and acceptance of costs (slower migration, lower popularity etc.) for the greater good.

So I guess the morals of this story are:

(1) that you should play Sim City (the old SNES version at least), and

(2) that digital mayorship is as close to politics and government as I ever want to get.


3 thoughts on “Variations On A Theme: Sim City

  1. I loved The Sims! It was the only computer game I ever played as a teenager. Even now I have fond memories, and if I didn’t work or have a child, I may still be on the computer for several hours a day… I digital mayorship for me extended to digital God. I created and destroyed my sims with little feeling. I’m disturbed just remembering this,


  2. ALSO: I think I’m going to take my kid to this SIM city (“going to win in [SIM] city”). I’ll see what you say about Minecraft — he talks a lot about building things for various purposes (involving other people), but this doesn’t seem to be what he’s usually doing on Minecraft. Can’t even see that it’s possible in the modes he plays in, without networking online, but … I wish there were safe/appropriate social gaming networks for kids, but it’s hard to see how this would work.


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