The video-game industry, which has been in a fight with the gun lobby to deflect blame for the Sandy Hook massacre, could use some positive press in Washington these days. So Electronic Arts, which makes first-person shooter games like Medal of Honor and Battlefield, did what any company looking for an image boost would do: Get the eminently wholesome John Legend to headline an invite-only inauguration after party on the top floor of the W Hotel, and highlight a game that doesn’t revolve around shooting people.
While Legend passed the time with supermodel co-host Malin Ackerman in a VIP section at the rear of the dark room, and the crowd noshed on gussied-up chicken and waffles while glancing surreptitiously at Grover Norquist (who seemed to enjoy the attention), I pursued the ostensible purpose of the event: promotion of the latest edition of “SimCity,” which EA is using as a bridge to D.C. wonks.
In a corner of the room, as I peered at a computer displaying a virtual town, a woman asked if I'd had a chance to play it. She pulled over her husband, who'd designed it and flown out from San Francisco to show it off. He asked if I wanted to try it out.
I could spend the night gawking at mayors-about-town Michael Nutter, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Cory Booker. Or I could pretend to be a mayor myself.
So we left the pounding party and descended to a quiet hotel suite with a SIMCITY banner and empty Red Bull cans dotting the tables. The designer, Stone Librande, sat down at a chunky laptop and walked me through the game, which hadn't been substantially updated in a decade and took nearly 100 people working for three years to produce.
I was blown away. The controls are astonishingly nuanced, allowing the omnipotent mayor-player to manipulate taxation for different industries and classes of wealth, and see how the infrastructure they build affects land valuation. Sewer systems and coal plants pollute their surroundings, which manifests in an ugly brown stain. You can share resources with other players in nearby cities, but be careful: It might deplete your water table or interrupt your supply of electricity. The goal of it all is to increase Sim happiness, indicated with a layer of colored happy and sad faces on top of each house. Each Sim is a knowable individual—I watched "Cordell Smith" as he went "looking for cheap food.”
Underneath all the layers and controls is a set of assumptions about how societies function: Poor people have a high tolerance for bad public services, while rich people will move away from them. Economies function better when they have a mix of low-paid jobs and professionals raking in cash. And humans, fundamentally, are creatures of consumption.
"If you just sit on your money and don't spend it, what's making you happy?" Librande explained. "What makes you happy is buying a T.V. and going on vacation."
Did Librande bring in experts to consult on how cities work? I wondered. Nope—he learned everything he needed to know from streaming documentaries on Netflix. And for all the details of urban development it included, the game steers clear of the knottier issues of local governance, like race, gentrification, and power struggles between a mayor and his city council.
"As a company, that just sets us up to get into trouble," Librande said. "It's a stereotype of how the world works. Our goal isn't to teach them all of these lessons. It's to get people to think about them. You start asking questions about the city you live in."
After the demo, we took the elevator back up to the roof. The party had gotten sloppier. I looked out over Washington, where in a few hours the sun would rise on a new presidential term, and thought: If only real government were so simple.
HOLLYWOOD, TOO, has taken its lumps since Newtown, but that’s probably not why they stars largely stayed home this year—or rather, opted to spend the weekend partying at Sundance instead.
Still, having given some $12.8 million to Democrats this cycle, the movie and television industries had to make an appearance of some kind. Inaugurations are key fundraising opportunities, after all, providing unsexy corporations with a rare chance to associate themselves with mainstream star power in the nation's dowdy capital. And so, the Creative Coalition—which bills itself as the "premiere" non-profit representing showbiz—made do last night with less-boldface names than Oprah and Steven Spielberg, who'd shown up four years ago.
Jesse Jackson made an unexpected appearance, but otherwise this year’s gala—held at the Harman Center for the Arts downtown, with ticket pairs starting at $10,000—advertised people whom even the celebrity press struggled to identify.
"Wasn't he in ‘Prison Break’?" a reporter asked about Robert Knepper, among the first to walk the red carpet. "I know he did ‘Prison Break.’ And a lot of movies."
It sufficed, though, for the press gaggle, as photographers jostled for position and dressed-up interviewers asked “the talent” about the momentous occasion.
"Aw, it's been amazing, the excitement in the air is palpable," said Matt Bomer, the gray-eyed, floppy-haired star of ... USA Network’s “White Collar.” "Beyonce did such a great job singing the national anthem."
I met two men who were shooting video from afar, on the risers toward the back of the glassy lobby, and who claimed they evaluate red-carpet staging situations and advise clients on the logistics. I was suspicious: Asked whether the Creative Coalition was their client, the white-bearded Frederick Lange said “possibly.”
But they did have thoughts on the night’s staging. We watched with a critical eye, conscious that passersby on the sidewalk behind us were looking in on the fishbowl as well.
"It makes sense," Lange said. "It's a little crowded, but that's typical. They need all the photographers in order to give them importance, otherwise it doesn't work…This is what actors do for a living, and photographers. They come together and they support each other, for the public."
At 10:20 p.m., the frenzy came to an abrupt end. The trailing gowns ascended beyond reporters' reach, to the party upstairs that was already running behind. "Us Weekly! Press!” a short woman in hot pink heels said to the security muscle, her hands out in supplication. Meanwhile, the rest of the media packed up their gear and walked in the opposite direction of the party, bracing for the cold.