The $6 game with as much relevance today as in 1993

May 16, 2021

It’s important to remember that SimCity 2000 is a game that follows relatively simple rules, and it is, emphatically, not a sophisticated model for urban growth. However, after playing it extensively the past week for the first time in a couple decades, I’m left with a lot to think about, which is all you can really ask of art.

My biggest takeaway is that the Sims who live in my town are fickle bastards who want ever more industrial zoning and in the same breath get mad at me for all the pollution. Furthermore, they want to drive everywhere, and they’ll take buses if available, but apparently will steadfastly refuse to ride trains, so even though my city has more than 30,000 people living and working on about two-fifths of the map, I haven’t bothered accounting for a future passenger rail system.

I’m largely winging it on where I place my different zones, following the demand bars and drawing up long stretches of residential, commercial, or industrial areas, most of them six tiles wide so that the Sims have full access from roads on either side of the long blocks, and I minimize the necessary amount of roads. However, some of my blocks are even wider so that I can place the government facilities that don’t require road access — police, fire, schools, hospitals — in the middle sections where Sims won’t build.

The Sims also want to live close to where they work, just like I do, but unlike me, they won’t travel across the city, or to neighboring towns, to work, so I can’t place all my industrial neighborhoods in an isolated corner of the city and must mix them in with the commercial and residential areas.

Finally, it seems to be a Thing that the Sim airline pilots are utterly terrible and crash all the time, so if you build an airport, the only solution to make the game playable is to either place the airport extremely far away from anything or just turn off disasters. My city has a river running through the middle of the map, so I may try to build my airport such that planes land and take off over water, if I even build one, considering that in real life I hate flying and think the world would be immensely better off if we cut commercial air travel by 95%. I’ll probably end up turning off disasters.

I haven’t even gotten to my initial struggles with setting tax policy, but all that’s to say I believe there’s a fundamental disconnect between how SimCity 2000 operates and how real-world urban planning works at the broadest levels: SimCity 2000 forces the mayor to follow the whims and desires of the Sims, whereas in the real world, the built environment plays a huge role in shaping denizens’ behavior.

That’s why the “stroads” video from Not Just Bikes I shared in the newsletter a couple weeks ago resonates so much with me. Its animating principle is that if we design highways so that people will pass through quickly, they will, and if we design streets to be destinations, people will treat them that way. Unfortunately, many American roads — in older, denser cities like San Francisco, and newer, more sprawling cities like Charlotte, NC — split the difference and build roads that encourage drivers to treat them like highways, yet also place homes and stores on these highways. The end result is a system deeply hostile to any form of non-car transportation, and it’s also kind of crappy for people in cars.

But as much as SimCity 2000 fails to reflect reality, it’s worth considering which of its core values are worth exporting to our everyday lives. Parks are good. Trees and natural bodies of water are good. Everyone attends public schools, and the people fiercely demand they be fully funded.

The one I keep turning over in my mind is that the Sims focus outward from their neighborhoods; while they’re most concerned with their immediate surroundings and they simply won’t live in a place unless it has a full complement of live-work options in a close radius, their political speech suggests they understand that they’re connected to everyone else in the city. Over nearly a decade of living with my now spouse in suburbs and exurbs, I became fond of saying I craved living within walking distance of a sandwich shop. That was my shorthand for how much I desired a diverse neighborhood, one with people living, working, and shopping together. The beauty of that formulation is it can be applied in a dense city like New York, and also to much less dense suburban settings. But I still fully recognize that the situation in my corner of San Francisco — where today I can walk to buy a sandwich, or coffee, or groceries — is still entangled with the situations of people on the other side of the city, and with people in neighboring counties, and to a lesser extent with people clear on the other side of the world.

Once a San Franciscan accepts that Oakland residents and San Jose residents are people and not NPCs, it should be a straight line to understanding how zoning decisions made decades ago influence our present conditions. And there’s no opportunity to “Start New City” in real life.

(I paid $6 for SimCity 2000 on Gog. As I was about to press "Publish" I saw it was down to $1.49. Your move.)