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The depressing suburbanisation of SimCity

Once we built arcologies. Now we're one step away from gated communities, writes Alex Hern.

A coastal view in SimCity. Photograph: Getty Images

When I woke up this morning, I was feeling virtuous—and also late—and decided to walk to the tube rather than taking the bus, easing the strain on Transport for London's contractor First. I'd already skipped my morning shower, which made life easier for Thames Water, and will pay off later in the day for British Gas, as my boiler stores the unused hot water rather than heating more. I took the second train from my station, rather than the first, which got me a seat and made life just a bit easier for everyone on the marginally less-crowded carriage I had decided not to squeeze my way into. At the other end of my journey, I darted across the road between a gap in the traffic, which appeared to piss off a taxi driver. I hope he didn't take it out on his next fare.

A city is complicated. Millions of autonomous individuals make billions of decisions every day, and to even guess one person's choices perfectly would make you a savant. But at the same time, a city is simple. Every morning, a human tide goes from the outskirts to the centre; and every evening, it makes the return trip. The history of the SimCity series of games is of a slow shift from the latter view to the former. 

SimCity makes choices in how it models its world; and those choices are very similar to those made by economists and urban planners every day. Do you examine the desires of every individual resident, or is treating them in aggregate enough? If you build more roads, do you just look at their effect on existing traffic, or do you look at how they encourage more people to drive instead of take public transport? What about taxes - does raising them make people work less? If it does, at what rate?

Clearly, the game can't cover everything. Even the best supercomputers in the world struggle to accurately model the dynamics of cities, and your crappy Dell laptop is not the best supercomputer in the world. So it makes approximations, cuts corners, and then ramps everything up for the sake of making the game actually fun.

But the game is still a simulation, and part of it being fun relies on presenting a game world which makes intuitive sense to people playing. If living next to a landfill made people happier, for instance, most would consider the game broken, even if it was clearly a deliberate choice. So the developers have to pick models of the world which conform to reality.

And that necessitates making choices which are, in essence, political. Not in the classical sense, because few of the questions of day-to-day politics are covered in the stripped-down world SimCity. There's no option for redistribution of wealth, or whether to enact a Keynesian or monetarist economic policy. Nor can you decide whether your schools and hospitals are better-off run privately or by the state; and there's certainly no question of elections. You are mayor for life, even if your terrible city planning would cause a revolution in the real world.

But the decisions that Maxis, the developer of SimCity, makes embed assumptions about the world which may or may not be true. And while some of them aren't particularly contentious - is it more unpleasant to live next to a power plant or a landfill? - others are.

The most obvious is the one common to all the games in the series. SimCity has no truck with market urbanists, those who argue that the best way to develop a city is for the state to provide a few basics, like roads and power, but then let the free market take over. Those urban planners argue that, rather than dictating whether a particular area be used for offices, houses, retail or industry, the options should be available for any of them; the natural tendency will be for offices and houses to clump together, but if someone wants to pay the inflated land costs in a central business district to build housing, they shouldn't be prevented from doing so.

In SimCity, of course, one of the few constants in the series is the existence of zoning laws. As mayor, you have to dictate whether particular land can be used for residential, commercial or industrial purposes, and only then does the "free market" kick in.

Similarly, almost all municipal buildings in the game are placed by the player, and run by the state at a cost to the taxpayer. Every Sim gets universal healthcare, and all private schools are banned! Truly, SimLand is a lefty utopia.

The series does model some aspects of political economy. The mayor has the ability to raise or lower tax rates, and as the games get more advanced later on in the series, those rates have effects on demand. Tax too much, and your Sims will stop spending money in shops, causing a city-wide recession. Tax too little, of course, and you won't have any money to spend on improving the city. It's a basic introduction to the idea of the Laffer Curve—that there is a peak level of taxation which maximises revenue.

But for the most part, nuance isn't what SimCity specialises in. Want to reduce crime? Build more police stations! You need to be tough on not having enough police stations, and tough on the causes of not having enough police stations, but not much more than that. "More schools" is all you need to improve education, "more hospitals" will save more lives. For every problem, the solution is throwing money at it.

The thing is, cities are complex systems. And while abstractions like those SimCity offers make things more predictable, ultimately the outcomes they result in can take you by surprise.

Perhaps the most famous example of that was Vincent Ocasla's SimCity 3000 megalopolis Magnasanti. Ocasla planned out, over four years and on reams of graph paper, a city with the maximum possible population for the game. The result is a totalitarian nightmare. Almost every square mile is covered in enormous tower blocks, linked by subway systems. Dotted throughout are whole city blocks with monolithic purposes; one has 36 libraries back to back, another holds one of four funfairs (though in place, they look more like Glorious Leader's Mandatory Fun Zones). The game ends in the year 50,000, as Ocsala trumpets a population of just over 6,000,000 people with zero abandoned buildings, zero water pollution, zero congestion. He's built a utopia no-one would ever want to live in.

But as the series progresses, relatively minor changes fundamentally alter what the megacities you can produce look like. SimCity 2000, for instance, includes the Arcologies - gigantic, self-contained tower blocks which need little in the form of support structures. A few nuclear power stations and a whole grid of them, linked by subways, is the perfect city in that game.

But the new SimCity renders that sort of perfection — perfectly aligned grids, mathematically predictable cities, and so on — impossible. Part of that is because it introduces synchronous multiplayer — a first for the series — letting Sims from neighbouring cities travel across to yours. But it's also because the game has doubled down its focus on roads, which are now the default way for connecting everything. Electricity flows along roads to houses, poo flows down them to sewage plants (not literally, of course, though the much-vaunted Glassbox engine would probably be capable of rendering it).

The success of your city is dictated far more by the placement of roads than any previous version. It's no longer enough just to lay out a simple grid that connects everything to everything else — instead, you're expected to map out an intricate suburbia linking to highways to take your car-commuting sims into the downtown where they work.

As a result, the game ends up encouraging suburbanisation to a much greater degree than before. Norman Chan tried applying suburban planning techniques to the game, and found that the most effective design — at least in the short games the beta let you play — was a cul-de-sac-heavy layout reminiscent of the worst of America's subprime neighbourhoods.

Once the game was actually released, it was clear the news was even worse. What appeared to be teething problems with an unstable always-online implementation got worse rather than better, and EA turned off key features in a desperate attempt to salvage some reputation. Polygon, which initially awarded the game 9.5 out of 10, downgraded its score twice, and now has it at just 4. And the questionable decisions the developers made to simplify aspects of the simulation render it unintuitive at best.

If your city's population grows too large, roads get congested—unavoidable, given the lack of subways—but if roads get congested, your power and water utilities, which run along the same streets, also start to get clogged up. Streets can be upgraded to avenues (if you're prepared to rip up your buildings), but there's an undeniable sense that the game is attempting to punish high populations, and especially high densities. It looks like the archetypal city of this entry in the series is more Houston than Hong Kong. It may not be the most political decision they make, but in a game that's all about building cities, it's the most important one.

Updated post-release.