March 30, 2013


My Week As Robert Moses, With Oil Wells : An architecture critic takes up residence in SimCity. (Justin Davidson, Mar 24, 2013, New York)

SimCity is a mostly nonviolent computer game (if you don't count the occasional ­giant-lizard attack), but at times it feels more savage than the usual gore-splattered fare. It allows the player--or multiple players, spread across the globe--to build communities, block by block, and then run them into the ground. Such a centralized system requires constant attention. When the player gets distracted (or wanders away for a snack), crime can spike, budgets can crumble, and unemployment can go haywire. The pursuit of prosperity is booby-trapped. The slightest misstep is enough to turn your shiny new metropolis into 1968 Newark.

Compared with the last full revision, which came out in 2003, the new SimCity offers a fantastically rich palette of urban measures. Roads snake, climb, and stretch into bridges and causeways. Pollution drifts across valleys. You can have your city specialize in electronics or mining (provided the map shows enough ore). Thanks to the game's perpetual Internet connection, the mayor of a city adjacent to yours might be governing from a laptop in Nebraska or Tashkent. Form a relationship with that person, and you could collaborate on the construction of an "arcology," a towering vertical metropolis on a "great works" site out in the desert.

Yet you are not God. It is the programmers who have shaped the topography, distributed natural resources, and equipped us amateur bureaucrats with all the data, maps, and charts we need to make rational, terrible decisions. It is they who demand growth but box it into tiny borders, who see no value in old buildings, who force people into their cars. Maybe the software makes it possible to cultivate an equitable, sustainable, livable city and keep it flourishing, but I haven't achieved that level of mastery.

SimCity has existed since 1989, long enough to introduce a couple of generations to the enchantments of urban planning. When Electronic Arts released the new version, I plunged in, eager to see what a game could teach about managing a real city. My challenge was to create a passable cyber-simulacrum of New York. Instead, I discovered a strangely addictive, deeply wonky experience, producing cities where I would never want to live. Roads unfurled at my command, towers popped up, water flowed, budgets burbled, and tens of thousands of individually named and ethnically diverse Sims sped around in various states of contentment. The exercise of meaningless power is so enjoyable that at the end of a twelve-hour session, I barely stopped to wonder why I had spent so much of my weekend frantically building sewage plants.

The game is a totalitarian dream. The player-mayor single-handedly scatters parks and runs utilities. There is no Con Ed to blame for service failures, only a Department of Utilities: me. Education policy flows from functionaries lodged in a monstrous, space-consuming building that takes its marching orders from a centralized administration: me.
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Posted by at March 30, 2013 10:39 AM

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