The depressing suburbanisation of SimCity

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

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.

A coastal view in SimCity. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why so-called lesbian films make me nervous

The upcoming Cate Blanchett vehicle, Carol, is already being feted as a lesbian blockbuster. I should be excited, and yet it just makes me feel sweaty.

An odd thing has started to happen to me in the build-up to new lesbian blockbusters: I sweat. I’m quite sweaty as it is, but I’m probably at my sweatiest when the entire internet – or so it seems, in my panicked state – is going on about Cate Blanchett gaying up for her latest role.

And, no, this isn’t a sex thing. Yes, I have eyes; I realise Blanchett is extremely attractive (and talented, and what have you… yes, feminism). In fact, I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I’ve been told that my “type” is blonde, patrician and spikey (so, the exact opposite of me and everyone I’m related to). I can’t account for Blanchett’s spikiness, although she definitely plays spikey well. I’m also so unsure of whether Australians can be posh, that I just Googled “can Australians be posh?”. But, Antipodean or not, she has that “former captain of the Roedean lacrosse team” thing going on, right? And, yeah, she’s blonde. So, on paper, her playing a lesbian should make me sweaty for sex reasons.

But – here’s where I implore you to suspend your disbelief – that isn’t it. Along with “vigorous cheese grating” and “talking to people”, I’m adding “having to pretend to be excited about a straight woman playing a lesbian” to my list of things that make me sweat. All the hype around Carol, which looks set to be the biggest lesbian film since Fucking Blue Is The Fucking Warmest Colour (actual title) and hits UK cinemas this week, is propelling me into a frenzy of panic the likes of which I haven’t felt since I got this inexplicable pain in my nose and convinced myself it was nose cancer.

Disclaimer: I realise lesbian visibility is important. Any given lesbian can talk about the sorry state of lesbian representation in film and TV for seven solid hours. If you want to see filibustering at its finest, just ask a gay woman what she thought of The Kids Are All Right.

So why the sweat? Yes, straight actors get to put on gayness like a gorilla suit, every time they feel like having an Oscar lobbed at their head. Blanchett did “mental” in Blue Jasmine (very well, actually) and now she’s doing gay. Why panic though? Lesbian blockbusters starring almost entirely straight women are better than nothing. But lesbianism in films is cursed with being a big deal. When’s the last time you saw a film about, say, some bounty hunters who just so happen to be lesbians? (note to self: write that screenplay). No, not “lesbian bounty hunters”, I mean “bounty hunters… who are in a relationship, and both of them are women, I guess… and what’s your point?”

The panic comes from the lesbian aspect of any mainstream film being the driving force behind a hoo-hah of epic proportions. The tremendous fanfare that heralds the lesbian blockbuster is enough to give me palpitations. And this absurd pomp wouldn’t exist if lesbian representation were slightly less concentrated. Years pass without any lesbians at all then, all of a sudden: “CATE BLANCHETT IS GAYING IN A FILM AND IT’S GOING TO BE STUNNING AND BREATHTAKING AND YOU’RE GOING TO CRY SEVENTEEN TIMES AND IF YOU’RE NOT HYPERVENTILATING RIGHT NOW YOU HAVE NO SOUL AND YOU’RE NOT EVEN A PROPER LESBIAN”.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen Carol yet, so I’m going to have to reserve judgement. Perhaps I will cry seventeen times. I have seen the trailer though and, complete with a moody vocal jazz track and a woman gazing mournfully out of a rain-spattered window, it’s already starting to tick “every lesbian film ever” boxes.  

It’s all the hype, accompanied by knowing that I’m going to have to have #opinions about Carol and probably every other lesbian film, until I die, that makes me sweat. That and also knowing that, in order to be aforementioned “proper lesbian”, I’ll have to find someone to take with me to see Carol on a date, except neither of us will really know whether or not it’s a date, and, during the sex bits (of which I’m sure there are… some) we’ll have to look at our shoes and cough, and sweat.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.