Most video games try as hard as they can to immerse you in a world that's entirely imagined. SimCity, which originally launched in 1989, stands among the very few in trying to replicate the real world as closely as possible.
By most accounts, it's succeeded (at least for those who could play the game long enough to judge). From its very first demos last year, SimCity's fifth iteration has astounded gamers with the richness of its interface, the interconnectedness of its infrastructure systems, the nuance of its controls. It allows you to develop not just individual towns, but interact online with other players within whole regions, trading resources and collaborating on megaprojects. The most notable fantasy element, for our age of data-driven decision making, is a dashboard of maps for metrics like land value and citizen happiness that most mayors can only dream of.
And yet, for all its verisimilitude, it's impossible for a game that complex to be completely agnostic in its understanding of how cities ought to work: The chains of cause and effect, the incentives for one behavior over another, even their prioritization of what details not to include, all reflect choices about how society functions. SimCity's designers aren't sociologists or economists or political scientists; no professional urban planners told them what to do. They're just guys who read books and figured out how to make the game seem believable. Along the way, however, they had to filter their creativity through a political and moral lens.
How does the world work, as they see it? The game lacks political parties or elections, but it requires a liberal mindset to build a better city—and you can only imagine what happens when a player imposes sequestration on that city.
It's difficult to divine any explicit political motivation from the founding of SimCity. The game's creator, Will Wright, simply wanted to create a model of how infrastructure systems interacted with each other as cities grew. Because it's a single-player video game, though, he built a world that's fundamentally statist: The Mayor, not individuals or the private sector, decides the shape of his city. The government owns the utilities and all major infrastructure, and cities are built from the ground up, more like they typically are these days in not-terribly-democratic places like China and Saudi Arabia than in the already messy landscape of urban America. Social movements—religion, racial justice, rights for gay people—are completely elided. That decision might have been necessary to avoid incalculable complication, but it's also given rise to a Marxist fantasyland, in which all residents can be manipulated by changing the conditions of their environment.
"At heart we're materialists, almost economic reductionists," says Ocean Quigley, the game's jovial, mustachioed art director. "We care about consequences." Since the individuals have no real agency, they will respond positively to the right external stimuli. "We have a very optimistic view of human nature," says senior producer Stone Librande (the team seems to have a thing for elemental first names). "If you are caught and are taken to jail, you will give up a life of crime."
In the new version, there are a lot more strings to pull. Zoning is still destiny—too much residential and you’ll have an unemployment problem, too much commercial and you’ll have no shoppers—but so is the width of your street, because high-density avenues are essential for growth. Industry pollutes nearby groundwater and downwind air quality, which will keep a neighborhood forever "low-wealth" and unhealthy, emulating the kind of poverty trap that plagues real cities. And in one of the more overt messages to SimCity's younger audience, education is the key to progress.
"Call it brainwashing, but I want them to believe that education is this super powerful thing, and you should always have education in any city you build no matter what," Librande says.
Of course, plenty of players will use the game to carry out their destructive fantasies, creating dark dystopias that hit the top of the SimWorld leaderboards for pollution and crime. That's difficult, however, for a couple of reasons.
In SimCity 5, the Sims have much more character and depth than in previous iterations. They have names and motivations and families, and you can watch them go about their daily lives. They will talk about deaths in the family if a crime wave sweeps the city, and their inability to find a job if the economy tanks. Because of how humans relate to even seemingly sentient beings, it takes a somewhat sadistic streak to consciously seek that kind of reaction. That's intentional.
"I decided early on in the game that if the little Sims couldn't be made to suffer, you wouldn't care about them," Quigley said in a discussion with Will Wright. "By making them fragile, by making them people who need your help to live their lives, you feel a sense of responsibility and compassion for them."
It's also difficult to be an evil mayor because badly-run cities just won't last very long. "People compete to be the worst crime city ever," Librande says. "It's not as easy as you might think. The criminals tend to kill everybody, and then they have nobody to prey on."
That kind of messaging isn't overt. The game doesn't tell you that making one decision is inherently better than another—but some lead to terrible results. For instance, there is no New Urbanist element to the game. Sims aren't necessarily more happy in walkable, Park Slope-like neighborhoods than they are in car-dependent ones. But overall, the mechanics of the city break down if you don't build in some kind of mass transit. The city's footprint is highly confined—there are no sprawling suburbs—and growth requires investment in infrastructure (in the early stages, it'll require issuing bonds; Keynes would approve).
"If you've got a city in gridlock because you haven't don't any of those things, people won't be able to do the things necessary in order to survive," Quigley says. "They won't be able to get to work, won't pay their rent. Not because people have intrinsic preference, but because a city where everybody has to drive everywhere just isn't going to function and it will end up being a failing city."
The end result: Without preaching any particular kind of political ideology, the game demands government intervention for everything, and comprehensive planning works out best in the end. Even if you initially succumb to the race to build factories and casinos and extract all your resources for a quick buck, those choices will haunt you down the road, through escalating crime or pollution (Librande told Fast Company that that was a conscious decision, too—he wanted players to understand why societies make terrible environmental choices).
And even though the city will keep humming if you walk away from it, don't expect it to grow. Laissez-faire governance isn't rewarded. "We wanted to make people feel like cities only make forward progress if you're actively involved in them," Librande says.
Some progressives have already taken that to heart: It's not always effective to tell people they should vote for something because it's the right thing to do. It’s better to tell them that government is essential to growth, and that smart growth takes everybody's needs into account.
Some conservatives, on the other hand, have chosen the opposite route, demonizing government as a wasteful colossus that must be shrunk as quickly and drastically as possible. How does such a policy fare in SimCity? To find out, I imposed "sequestration" on a nice little city I had built by the sea. In order to take a small but significant chunk out of the city budget, while keeping utilities like water and electricity intact, I decommissioned a fire station, a police station, a school, the library, the bus depot, and for good measure, City Hall. Would anybody notice?
It only took a few minutes. At first revenue increased, since taxes had stayed the same. But then the city started coming apart at the seams: Fires broke out all over town, trash started piling up in front yards, and you could see murders in progress, signified by a softly flashing pink gun. Homeless people flooded the parks. After a couple hours, my mayoral approval rating had nose-dived from 72 percent to 24 percent, and population had dropped from 50,000 people to about 32,000, with piles of rubble where tall buildings once stood.
That’s not terribly far from what President Obama has hinted will happen, eventually, if a budget deal doesn't get done. Of course, SimCity, for all its sophistication, is just a game. The player is no closer to being an actual mayor than, say, a Madden NFL player is to being an actual quarterback. But that’s the point: The only consequence of letting a city collapse in an online simulation is that you have to build a new one. The budget battle is not a game, despite how some of our politicians have been acting, and a few bad decisions could make Sims of us all, living in places that are coming apart at the seams.