Job Opportunities in the Virtual City: Planners and SimCity

When it comes to the pop-culture representation of various professions, doctors, lawyers and the police have traditionally been the most heavily represented on television. Yet urban planners can claim a disproportionate prominence in the area of computer games: since 1989, one of the most persistent game genres has been city-builder games, most famously epitomised by the SimCity series. It’s possible that SimCity has done more than any other single source to disseminate information about what urban planners do, especially amongst younger sections of the population. But what do SimCity and other city-builder games say – and teach – about our profession?

The Virtual Planner

The original SimCity was invented by game designer Will Wright in 1989, and let players act as “mayor” of a virtual city that they built and governed. The fundamental inspiration of the game was to make play essentially open-ended: while the game included various indicators as to how things were going (a city budget, approval ratings) there was no way to win, allowing players to tinker with their cities as they saw fit.

Wright’s game-play was based on a high-level view of town planning practice: players outlined zones (residential, commercial, and industrial) and built hard infrastructure such as roads, trains, and power stations as well as services such as schools, hospitals, and police stations. These basic mechanics have become more sophisticated, but nevertheless remained essentially unchanged in the subsequent SimCity games, culminating in SimCity 4 in 2003.

Other city-builder games, however, have taken the idea of a virtual planner in different directions. City Life (2006), for example, tried to take the focus from hard infrastructure and service provision to an ersatz form of social planning, with the player managing the interaction between six social groups: elites, suits, blue collars, have-nots, fringes, and radical chics. SimCity Societies (2007), an offshoot of the core SimCity series, had mayors try to balance and choose between various “societal values:” productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, and authority. Yet despite these attempts to broaden the approach, the classic SimCity model has proven the most enduring, with its ultimate iteration, the venerable SimCity 4, still readily available more than seven years after its initial release – an eternity in the realm of computer games.

What Do City-Builder Games Offer the Planning Profession?

Should planners pay any attention to such games, beyond their recreational possibilities? Despite SimCity’s self-professed status as a simulation, and the range of sophisticated data queries that can be run in the most sophisticated of the games, they can never match the complexity of a real city, so their value as a simulation of real cities is limited. They will also be fundamentally constrained by their need to entertain: as academic Oswald Devisch has pointed out, a successful attempt to actually replicate the randomness of a real city would result in unsatisfying gameplay, since a game that shows too much unpredictability would seem random and hence frustrating.1 Yet despite these constraints, the games have considerable potential in the areas of planning education and recruitment.

In planning education, city-builder games have value beyond a needy pandering to the stereotyped preferences of Gen Y students. American planning academic John Gaber, who has used SimCity in planning classes since 1994, suggests three main uses: teaching about the systems that underpin cities; developing “procedural knowledge” or problem-solving skills; and fostering a sense of the creative “craft” of plan making.2 The main problems with using the game stem from the assumptions embedded within its design (to which I will return), but even then, Gaber argues the game can have educative value. As he puts it, “several of the more obvious SimCity limitations can also be seen in the planning profession,” an observation that he found made for stimulating class discussion.

I suspect, however, that the real value of the games is as in building awareness of planning as a profession and hence, indirectly, in recruitment. Back in 2002 the Victorian Planning Institute implicitly recognised the worth of planning games when it partnered with local universities and the then Department of Infrastructure to distribute its own career-choice prompting CD-ROM, The Planning Game.3 While the game doubtless provided a valuable localisation of issues and career information, the scope and reach of such an exercise can never compete with that of a commercial product from a major games developer. Local efforts such as The Planning Game therefore need to piggyback off the broad-based appeal of products such as SimCity. While I have been unable to locate any research that has sought to explore the link between city-builder games and career choice, anecdotally it is not hard to find planners who will cite the game as influential in their job selection.

On the face of it, such promotion is unambiguously positive for a profession facing a skills shortage. Yet it does raise the question: what do city-builders teach their players? If these games really do switch players on to planning as a profession, what preconceptions might those recruits bring?

Lessons from the Virtual City

The field of city-builder games is diverse and varied, and some seem built on dubious foundations. For example, the aforementioned City Life is based on the assumption that the different social groups (classes?) should be kept apart: as one game reviewer noted, “it’s pretty strange and somewhat challenging to think about the design of a metropolitan area around segregation.”4 More common than such blatantly regressive ideas are oversimplifications. The manual for CitiesXL, for example, offers the following rather un-nuanced advice on traffic management:

There are two ways to improve traffic flow:
-          You can relieve congestion on existing roads by building new roads parallel to them.
-          You can also increase the number of lanes.5

Finally, there are examples in which game mechanics is completely arbitrary: in SimCity Societies, for example, buildings either produce or consume societal values, so that as the manual puts it:

…an elementary school produces ten units of Knowledge, while a clinic consumes four. A children’s museum provides four units of Knowledge, but consumes six units of Creativity.6

In such an example, game mechanics can’t be connected sensibly to any kind of real-world practice, and seem bizarre if applied to a real city (for example, as suggested by the quote above, the player might need to build a children’s museum to offset the loss of knowledge caused by the construction of a clinic).

Compared to such examples, the zone-based mechanics of SimCity seem strongly grounded. By the time of SimCity 4, the game model had become progressively more sophisticated, and the game allows surprisingly sophisticated simulation of real world scenarios. Players can create low density suburbs connected by freeways, or high density Manhattan-style cities (or they can build both and have their virtual citizens commute between them). They can have large single use areas or highly mixed uses, and it is possible to have some influence on the “grain” of subdivision control. It is possible to create small traditional main streets, or stretches of highway-side industry and office parks. Neighbourhood road layouts can be highly permeable, or oriented towards cul-de-sacs and ring roads. With careful design, a player can use toll booths to simulate an inner-city congestion charge. Tax rates can be manipulated as an economic development measure.

In addition to this general flexibility to accommodate a wide variety of planning practices, SimCity 4 also throws up specific situations that echo real life in sometimes amusing ways. If a city’s finances start to look sick, for example, the mayor may get an offer to bolster his or her finances by allowing construction of a casino. Others might note with amusement the game’s approach to heritage controls: the virtual citizens are bound absolutely by heritage protection on buildings, but the government can remove them at any time and demolish buildings at will.

SimCity’s Embedded Assumptions

Despite the richness of SimCity 4’s simulation, there are also some aspects of gameplay and  embedded assumptions that are worthy of note, and which have been explored by a number of authors.7

Planners are All-Powerful: A key part of the appeal of SimCity is the way it extends virtually God-like powers to planners (an appeal likely to be even stronger amongst practising planners, familiar with real procedural delays: no 22 month amendment processes here). Cities are drastically reshaped witha gesture of the mouse, and citizen petitioners dismissed with a click. While the game includes opinion polls, there are no electoral consequences for ignoring them since the player is perpetually in government. SimCity will do little to discourage a “planners know best” attitude amongst players.

Planners are All-Seeing: A related point is the seductive way SimCity 4’s data views simulate the ultimate GIS system, which encourages, in Ted Friedman’s words, an “empiricist, technophilic fantasy that the complex dynamics of city development can be abstracted, quantified, simulated, and micromanaged.”8 Combined with the inherent predictability of a computer model, SimCity’s ultra-rational view of planning suggests that all behaviour is measurable and hence controllable with enough data. While players are free to bring a range of design approaches to the game, the nature of the simulation will nudge them towards highly rational approaches such as predict-and-provide freeway construction or ultra-ordered layouts.

The Landscape is Empty: The player starts “from scratch” with an empty map. This is beyond a simple greenfield development scenario, since the world is completely empty: there are no other cities for the new town to interact with until the player builds those, too. This drastically curtails any depiction of the interaction with an “inherited” urban fabric that characterises much real-world planning.

There is no Environment: While various attempts have been made to build environmental and sustainability issues into the game, these are limited by the fact that the game can only depict the city limits. Certain power sources are dirtier than others, for example, but this can only be depicted by making them locally noxious. Players can respond by locating them at the fringes of the map, or in neighbouring cities away from their “good areas,” free of any repercussions. SimCity reinforces the instinct of planners to see the city as a closed system, with resources such as food magically appearing from an unseen hinterland, and undesirable impacts such as pollution and waste shunted out of sight, somewhere beyond the city limits.

Zones Are Always the Answer: In one respect the game’s use of zones is commendable, because it represents a resistance by the game designers to calls for complete control over the city design: like real planners, players must make land available for the private sector and then try to attract the development they want. Yet the focus on zones has been criticised by some for encouraging single used precincts and thus being hostile to design approaches such as New Urbanism.9 This is somewhat misleading: players are free to plan New Urbanist-style mixed use neighbourhoods by zoning small pockets of residential alternated with small pockets of business. What the simulation can’t do, however, is simulate a lack of centralised land use planning: players can’t allow truly mixed-use “non-zoned” environments where land is open to all comers.

Planning is for the Wealthy: The political and economic assumptions of SimCity subtly reflect a particular set of middle-class political assumptions: low taxes are good; high land value is inherently desirable; crime is solved by increasing police power and presence. Social welfare exists essentially in the form of public schools and hospitals, but the insidious logic of the game encourages the use of these services to drive up land value. Poorer buildings look uglier, and the temptation to drive them out and replace them with more attractive wealthy neighbourhoods is strong. The game does little to reward housing diversity, social justice, or other such notions.

Planning is about Aesthetics and Master-planning: As suggested by several of the above objections, SimCity’s birds-eye, top-down view encourages a dismissive view of the virtual citizens. Despite various feedback mechanisms built into the game, the focus on the buildings means the game tends to become an exercise in master-planning and aesthetics. This favours a particular notion of what planning is: other traditions such as environmental planning, social planning, and street level urban design are neglected.

A Looming Employment Crisis for Virtual Planners

These issues with SimCity’s design and assumptions are not intended to suggest it is, overall, an undesirable influence. Instead, they highlight the impossibility of creating a city-builder game that fully reflects the complexity of urban planning. Despite all the reservations expressed above, SimCity 4 is a remarkable attempt to capture the complexities of urban planning, and its good points far outweigh the bad.

The game may, ultimately, have been a victim of its own success. After its release, Will Wright publicly expressed concern that the series had painted itself into a corner with ever-increasing complexity: the next SimCity game, SimCity Societies, was produced by different developers and offered a far less satisfying take on city-building. Other games, such as City Life and CitiesXL, have also been poorly received.

I’m serious in suggesting this is an issue the planning industry should be concerned about. The lack of at least one appealing city-builder game on the market is a sleeper issue in attracting nerdy-but-keen budding planners into the industry. As the job market for virtual planners dries up, the planner supply in the real world might follow.

Originally published in a slightly different form in Planning News 36, no. 4 (May 2010): 8-10.

Notes

1. Oswald Devisch, “Should Planners Start Playing Computer Games? Arguments from SimCity and Second Life,” Planning Theory and Practice 9, no. 2 (June 2008): 16.

2. John Gaber, “Simulating Planning: SimCity as a Pedagogical Tool,” Journal of Planning and Research 27 (Winter 2007): 113.

3. Zoe Shurgold, “Lawyer, Doctor, Designer… Planner?,” Planning News 28, no. 5 (June 2002): 11.

4. Dan Adams, “City Life Review,” IGN, August 10, 2006, http://au.pc.ign.com/articles/724/724809p1.html.

5. Cities XL manual: 21. By contrast, SimCity 4 allows multiple public transportation options, simple road pricing in the form of toll roads, and – in the Rush Hour / Deluxe Edition – route query tools to facilitate land use planning solutions to traffic problems.

6. SimCity Societies manual: 9.

7. See, for example, Devisch, “Should Planners Start Playing Computer Games?”; Ted Friedman, “The Semiotics of SimCity,” firstmonday.org, April 5, 1999, http://tinyurl.com/y5a3s79; Gaber, “Simulating Planning: SimCity as a Pedagogical Tool”; Maaike Lauwaert, “Challenge Everything? Construction Play in Will Wright’s SimCity,” Games and Culture 2, no. 3 (July 2007): 194-212; Daniel G. Lobo, A City Is Not a Toy: How SimCity Plays with Urbanism, Cities Program, Architecture and Engineering, Discussion Paper Series (London School of Economics and Political Science: Citeseer, 2005), http://tinyurl.com/y758xqg; Daniel G. Lobo and Larry Schooler, “Playing with Urban Life: How SimCity Influences Planning Culture,” The Next American City 6 (2004).

8. Friedman, “The Semiotics of SimCity.”

9. Lauwaert, “Challenge Everything?,” 197-198.

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2 Responses to Job Opportunities in the Virtual City: Planners and SimCity

  1. Nimai Hawkins says:

    Review of the new SimCity game coming??? Pleaase?? Excellent article!

    • sterow says:

      Nimai, I finally got my first brief hands-on with the new SimCity yesterday. I don't have time to give it any in-depth play right now, but I hope to spend some time with it in June (after my current teaching commitments are done) and write some further thoughts on it then.

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