SimCity 2000: A Comfortable Representation of Real Life

by Nalini P. Kotamraju, Graduate Student, Department of Sociology, University of California at Berkeley, <nalinik@uclink4.berkeley.edu > This review is presented as a requirement for the course, Impact of New Information Resources: Networks & Multimedia, taught by Professor Howard Besser. The course was offered in the Fall of 1996 by Haas School of Business and the School of Information Management Systems at University of California at Berkeley.


A. Introduction
B. SimCity: Comfortable Representation of Real Life
C. Complexity of Decision-Making
1. Short-term versus long-term costs and benefits
2. The role of history
3. The importance of context
D. Simplification of Social Reality
1. Vision of SimCity Residents & Communities
2. Vision of Power, Money & Politics
E. Illusion of Control
F. Conclusion

Introduction

SimCity 2000 by Maxis is a multimedia game (CD-ROM) that, according to its accompanying documentation, is intended to let the player become "the planner, designer and mayor of an unlimited number of cities." I have spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to become all of these things and therefore, this exercise is as much an exploration of a (somewhat conquered) addiction as it is a multimedia review.

SimCity is a complex game. The user's task is to create a city through a range of tasks and responsibilities including zoning land for residential, commercial or industrial use, building transportation infrastructure, determining a city, and providing social services for the city's residents.
The graphic user interface of the game is sophisticated, which is a strong factor in the game's success. The game can begin with an untouched topography: land, trees and water. The user builds a city on this land by creating zones on which the game automatically places buildings. As the game progresses, the user can choose the appearance of the objects (original, futuristic, or self-designed) in the city. From the menu bar and the tool bar, the user is able to maintain many perspectives on the city, through which its progress can be measured and influenced. In the two dimensional world at least, very few things look as impressive on a monitor screen as a burgeoning SimCity.

SimCity: A Comfortable Representation of Real Life

I believe that the success of SimCity in the market and its strong appeal to users, especially women, can be attributed to the fact that the game offers what I call a comfortable representation of real life. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on three aspects of this representation: the complexity of decision-making, the simplification of social reality and the illusion of control.

Complexity of Decision-Making

Novice players of SimCity often find it boring, mainly because it is not intended for those seeking immediate gratification. The action is slow, the graphics are highly developed but not startling, and there is nothing/no one to destroy. The decisions about one's city that have to be made early in the game have potentially unforeseen repercussions which may appear only several hours into the game. In the context of a game market that emphasises the speed of response, rather than the nature of it, SimCity utilises strategic thinking tools and relies on foresight. The evaluation of short-term versus long-term costs and benefits, the role of history and the importance of context are three examples of how the game acknowledges the complexity of decision-making in real life. Short-Term versus Long-Term

One of the most appealing aspects of SimCity is that it utilises the analytic part of the brain that knows that decisions often have consequences that are not readily apparent. In the initial stages of SimCity, the user makes decisions such as which industries to promote, which environmental and social policies to implement and how much of the budget to devote to education. SimCity is constructed in a way that creates factors and outcomes based on decisions throughout the game. For instance, the choice to build a city that is a nuclear-free zone, means that the city can never build a nuclear power plant, though this form of power becomes one of the most cost efficient. Similarly, if the city does not implement policies to reduce pollution, by implementing a pollution tax, discouraging high pollution industries or moving away from coal-powered energy, the city has to bear the burden of high health costs for a smog-ridden population and its unpopularity to potential new residents. Finally, if the city raises income taxes drastically to generate income, it will discourage new residents from moving to the city. Built into SimCity are hundreds, if not thousands of these short-term versus long-term decisions.

The Role of History

The era of SimCity begins in 1900 and spans into the future to at least 2075 in my experience, and probably beyond.
History matters in SimCity, another rare phenomena in the video/multimedia game world. As time progresses, the emergence of new technology modifies the user's options in the decision-making process. While in 1950, the city can choose among coal, hydroelectric, oil and gas power plants, by the year 2050, nuclear, wind, solar, microwave and fusion power plants are added to the range of possibilities. Similarly, SimCity's history takes into account the rise and fall of markets involving the automotive, aerospace, and tourist industries among others. An astute player will incorporate all of the historical conditions into an urban planning strategy. Interestingly enough, SimCity also provides a vision of the future, complete with large, self-contained mini-cities which can revolve around lifestyles such as environmentally-conscious.

The Importance of Context

Though SimCity is intended to be a self-supporting entity, the city is supposed to operate in the context of a larger world. The player can read periodic newspaper announcements and bulletins which provide clues to good decisions in SimCity, but also news of the outside world. The dialog box that displays SimCity's population also provides information about the location and size of neighboring cities and towns. For example, the user can use this information when making decisions about building highways or railroad systems. In addition, the experienced player of SimCity takes into account the geography of the area: the proximity to water, the amount of shrubbery, or the sprawling hills. SimCity is not intended to be an isolated phenomenon.

Simplification of Social Reality

As much as this game attempts to replicate the complexity of the world in which we live, and I do think that it is one of its strengths, some of its appeal ironically originates in its very lack of complexity in its portrayal of the social world. The game, because it is but a game, erases some of the characteristics of modern society which we find most troublesome: the diversity and agency of people in their communities and the interlocking structures of power, money and politics. The levelling of these distinctions allow the player to continue to build and create the perfect city using the perfect individuals and institutions. Vision of SimCity Residents & Communities

The residents of SimCity are of various ages and attain various levels of education, but they have no gender, no race, no religion, no ethnicity, no special talents or handicaps. The SimCity resident primarily cares about taxes, pollution and crime. The game provides a normative vision of neighborhoods that are uniform in size, near industrial areas (but not too close to heavy industries or power plants), include police/fire stations and are somewhat close to commercial property. People live in high or low density zoned residential areas and the value of the land alone determines where people live. Class, expressed solely by ability to pay rent, is the sole differentiating criterion between residents.

Vision of Power, Money & Politics

In its effort to remain true to the premises of urban planning, SimCity relies heavily on economics. The player has control over a budget, including the specific allocations to schools, hospitals and police stations, taxes on income and companies and even borrowing capacity of the city. However, this financial power comes without any of the responsibilities or worries of the real world. In SimCity one can build schools and universities and never have to worry about what is taught there. The mayor is never touched by corruption or the pressure from competing lobbying interests. Whether or not the people riot is at the user's discretion and does not depend on any specific structural condition.

Illusion of Control

As in many video/multimedia games, the pleasure in playing SimCity stems largely from the fact that you are in control. The user can control even to what degree she or he is in control by using the option on the menu bar to forbid natural disasters such as hurricanes, riots and airplane crashes. If time is passing to slowly or too quickly, the user can adjust the game's speed, the passage of history. It is even possible to play God and determine the shape of the earth, by raising or lowering the ground level or shaping rivers and oceans before the city is built.

Building a city becomes an exercise in choices. One of the most appealing aspects of the game is that at any given point the player can do something: raise taxes, add a park, add a new subway station, gentrify low-resdientially zoned propety or expand the marina. Boredom is discourage by the structure of the game which necessitates that the user is constantly thinking, evaluating or trying to figure out how conditions effect the city.

The degree and scope of control in SimCity is intoxicating. Unlike the real world, in which our degree of control is constantly limited, in SimCity, the user is in complete control of the existence of the city and all of its facets.

Conclusion

The beauty of SimCity is that its potential, longevity and depend heavily on the player's creativity, rather than that of the programmers. It is not possible to destroy the city (the parallel to lose a life in other games) by a single bad decision, it takes a cluster of them. A player can decide to build a sparsely-populated city with light industries one time and a Manhattanesque urban frenzy the next time. Strict senses of right and wrong do not apply to this game at all, rather each decision has its consequence and the challenge is predicting those consequences and adjusting accordingly.

It is not surprising that something of a cult has emerged around this game. There are several bulletin boards devoted to discussion of SimCity, one of which run by Maxis, and avid players have made their SimCities available via the Net. Students of urban planning have also found some use for the game to illustrate some of the premises of their work.

However, SimCity is a game, and any game which is the result of programming, in the end is just about the variables. The mystifying complexity and simplicity of SimCity can be explained by the fact that there are a greater number of variables than in the average game. Thus, all the action that occurs is the result of identifiable and predictable variables and much of the challenge in the game is pinpointing which of the myriad decisions led to the economic success of a given SimCity or its demise.

In my opinion, the truly captivating nature of SimCity is not what it reveals about urban planning or multimedia games, but rather what it reveals about our capacity to imagine and our inability to cope.

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