02.26.13

SimCity Is Smarter Than You (Even If You’re an Urban Planner)

The latest version of the game is more sophisticated than ever—it’s even got a fake sewage system. Josh Dzieza plays a trial round with an actual city expert.

The new SimCity is bustling like never before.

You’ll notice the difference right away—unlike previous versions of the hit computer game, this one is actually full of tiny citizens. They leave their tiny homes every morning and walk (or drive or take a bus) to power plants or factories, where tiny crates are made and picked up by trucks driven by other tiny people, then finally dropped off at stores where the Lilliputian populace shops.

Given this manic attention to municipal minutiae, it may come as a surprise that the series isn’t universally beloved in the urban-planning community. After all, this is where many of today’s youngest planners first experienced the thrills of zoning and city budgets. (New Yorker writer John Seabrook has written that the game is “arguably the single most influential work of urban-design theory ever created.”) But other professional planners think that SimCity’s influence hasn’t been wholly positive. Its reliance on single-use zoning, for instance, can make it seem like urban sprawl is the only way for cities to grow.

To test out the theories, I played the newest game with Stone Librande, its lead designer, and Jeff Speck, a city planner and the author of Walkable City, a remarkably fun guide to making downtowns more pedestrian-friendly. The city we created together wasn’t exactly a paradise—we had a bit of an arson problem—but Speck walked away impressed.

The citizens are the most obvious manifestation of the fundamental differences between this game and previous ones. When Librande and Electronic Arts started working on it three and a half years ago, their first decision was to make the simulation work from the bottom up rather than from the top down. “Everyone has to go to work, get money, and shop,” he says, and what happens in your city is the product of the actions of the thousands of tiny people who live in it.

Admittedly, says Librande, these people are pretty dumb. They live entirely in the present, making decisions intersection by intersection. They aren’t picky about where they work and they don’t exactly have long-term goals, but it’s enough for phenomena like rush hour and gridlock to emerge. And it’s far more complex than previous Sims games, which simply drew cars in front of large buildings to create the appearance of traffic—and then had them vanish at the next intersection.

“Wait, that’s not fun, nobody wants to deal with sewage.”

Speck, the city planner, noted that this type of model is actually more advanced than what most traffic engineers use in real life. In fact, if the calculations the Sims citizens are making were even more complex, the game could have real-world applicability. “They need to consider that if they drive it’ll take them this long, and that they’ll have to pay this much for parking, and that they can’t work in their car but that the train has Wi-Fi, and so on,” Speck says. The game’s designers would love to do all that, Librande says, if they were making a model for urban planners. To which Speck replies, “Have you ever considered it?”

City planning obviously isn’t EA’s goal, but neither is mindlessly addictive play—the series has always had a strong sense of social mission. “Our goal is to make a game that’s a hit worldwide as an entertainment product that as a side effect wakes people up,” says Librande. “I want people to play this game and at the end of it say, I understand something about my city that I didn't before.”

The Sims, another EA creation and one of the bestselling games of all time, was a subtle critique of consumerism, insofar as anyone playing in the style of “whoever dies with the most toys wins” ends up spending the whole game working to pay for her toys. (The pronoun is deliberate: the Sims was one of the first games to be played by women in significant numbers.)  Spore, another spinoff, taught players about the randomly branching paths evolution can take.

Sim City
Electronic Arts Inc.

Likewise, the newest SimCity is full of buried commentary and critique. Your city has three wealth classes, but once basic needs have been taking care of, no group is necessarily happier than the others. Low-wealth people get paid one low-wealth token, which they can use at a low-wealth shop to buy one unit of happiness; if you’re high-wealth, you get one high-wealth token which will also buy you one unit of happiness.

“You’re like Socrates!” exclaims Speck when Librande explains the model. “You’re a philosopher trying to understand human nature at the deepest level. Wealthy people spend more to achieve the same happiness.” (Studies, by the way, show happiness plateaus after about $75,000 a year.) Education in SimCity is a sort of wonder drug: if you build a university, people get sick less, commit less crime, build solar panels on their roofs, get wealthier, and are generally better off. They also start to complain more about bad city services and pollution, so depending on what sort of Sim mayor you are it could have drawbacks.

The game’s most salient message, though, is that cities are extremely complex. You have to deal with power, water, housing, transportation, pollution, even sewage. Sewage was controversial, says Librande. “When we first started talking about it people said, wait, that’s not fun, nobody wants to deal with sewage.” But after watching a documentary about Chicago’s sewer system, they decided that sewers are an amazing piece of infrastructure that people hardly ever think about—and the game could force them to.

Every civic decision has consequences. Put your sewage treatment center too near the water table and everyone gets sick. Put the garbage incinerator too far from town and the dump trucks will take so long to pick up trash that it’ll accumulate in people’s yards and they’ll move away. Put the incinerator upwind and it’ll stink up your town. As in real cities, a lot of these problems start small but get bigger the longer you ignore them.

Some things got left out in the interest of playability. You don’t have as many street options as Speck would like to see. You can’t add bike lanes, and you can’t limit parking. In fact, parked cars sometimes disappear to save space. In an interesting statement on car culture, Librande decided that if they made parking realistic, so much of the screen would be dedicated to asphalt that it’d be too boring to play.

Still, Speck says, it’s a tremendously impressive project, and Librande probably knows more about city planning than even he does.

Sim City
Electronic Arts Inc.

“I think about design, but I'm not operating on a scale where I'm thinking about power production,” says Speck. A central thesis of Walkable City is that planners should be generalists because design by people interested in just one issue—say, water runoff—yields inhospitable cities. “I think you'd make a great city planner just based on what you've learned from designing this game,” Speck tells Librande.

Meanwhile, our time is running out, so we decide to make a city. We accidentally put a highway to nowhere cutting diagonally across our island. There’s no undo button in SimCity; Librande says it makes your decisions feel more real. Eventually, though, we have a nice diamond of residential and commercial blocks, a central park, windmills, and a sewage treatment plant off to the side. We decide to specialize in culture, but our fledgling town can’t afford an opera house, so we go with a casino. The casino, unfortunately, attracts a criminal element that our city lacks the police force to control, and soon there’s an arsonist on the loose. We forgot the fire department. Now a whole row of prime waterfront real estate is burning.

“There’s a strong entropic force,” says Librande. It’s easier to build things than to keep them running. That’s true of real cities, too.