Can you think of anything more boring than Urban Planning? A friend of mine took a degree in it at university and several times I witnessed conversation stop dead at parties when someone asked “So, what do you study?”
Urban Planning is up there with Librarianship and Administration as the most tragically dull subject you could apply for (and, by extension, hope to spend your one-and-only-life immersed in) – yet it spawned one of the most played and loved games of all time.
Sim City first emerged in 1989 and took the world by storm. Those of us who played it in the early 90s will remember marvelling at our cities branching outwards as the fictional years ticked on. The year 2000 seemed a distant technological dream. By the year 2015 I assumed humans would be teleporting to work and sleeping in cryopods.
The future is unpredictable – as we found out in the game when fires and earthquakes demolished half our cities and the budget plans for the next Sim decade.
Sim City was designed by Will Wright, who apparently stumbled upon the idea when he discovered that he enjoyed building the level maps of a game he was working on more than he enjoyed playing it. Wright had a terrible time pitching Sim City to publishers, who couldn’t see the value in a game where there was no set objective or end goal, but the newly-formed Maxis took a punt on it and hit the jackpot.
The irresistible essence of Sim City lies in creation. This is what Wright observed while level building and what game publishers missed: humans love to create. We love to create so much we’re prepared to think about things like whether to zone land for commercial, industrial or residential use and what tax rate strikes the appropriate balance between attracting residents and filling the town hall coffers.
We also love accumulation and control. These may be less admirable human characteristics but phrases such as “building a home” and “building a life” are commonplace for a reason. We are creatures with plans and a desire to make these plans come true. We take decisions with end goals in mind and gain satisfaction from watching things click into place.
Sim City taps into these aspects of our nature so successfully it’s practically exploitative. Players start with a blank slate – or a blank zone of land to be more accurate. Acres and acres of nearly flat nothingness with the occasional lake to enliven the view. What becomes of this piece of land depends entirely on you; build where you want and what you want – but be smart about it. A limited budget makes the game challenging, and getting a city off the ground often involves going into the red. Rome wasn’t built in a day but your fledgling city could be bankrupted in one if an ill-timed disaster strikes when resources are low.
The influence of Sim City on gaming was profound. Wright’s creation proved that alternative models to linear titles with win or lose outcomes could work – and opened the fray to all kinds of weird and wonderful games. Chief among these was Wright’s own The Sims, in which players take control of characters in fictional households and oversee their social relations, work lives and even their health needs. A cultural sensation, The Sims earned several Guinness World Records for high sales and, like its great forerunner, puzzled many commentators with its unexpected success.
On the face of it The Sims and Sim City shouldn’t work as games. Their “elevator pitch” isn’t any good. Neither is Minecraft’s. A kind of digitised lego in which you make things out of rectangular blocks? It’ll never catch on.
Sim City and its spiritual successors show that the best games don’t fit into niches. Human creativity is boundless and gaming is one of the few art forms that allows us to create along with it. Like co-starring in a movie or playing onstage at a Nirvana concert, Sim games allow us to both experience and participate – even if it’s just choosing where to make a pedestrian crossing or lay sewage pipes.