Ben Hall

Sim City

Those of you who go out at night will not have experienced addiction to the computer game Sim City. Sim City is a town planning simulation of the 'god-game' genre. You start in the year 1900 with a square of randomly generated virgin wilderness, and some money, and the aim is to transform this into a vast, stinking metropolis in the course of a few hundred evenings. You mould your city by ‘zoning’ residential, commercial and industrial areas by dragging, respectively, green, blue or yellow squares across the prairie. Each of these come in incrementally darker shades of ‘light’, ‘medium’ and ‘high’ density. Then you sit back as little building sites erupt like time-lapse mould across your map and bloom into houses, shops and factories. Disturbingly, my version of Sim City includes optional replicas of the New York World Trade Centre towers. I put them in my city for a joke, but then felt guilty and demolished them, which made me feel even worse.

Suffice to say, this becomes very tedious after a while, but by then it’s too late. For every block of simulated urban life you create, there’s a yawning gap next-door, literally begging for exploitation. “Citizens need more commercial zones” flashes the appeal across your screen, and so you give it to them, and it feels good to be such a benevolent god. But it doesn’t stop there. The citizens need more parks, water mains, schools, hospitals, police stations, bus stops, railways, airports, zoos, marinas, fountains….and the more they get the happier they are, and the bigger the city becomes, and the more they need. By this stage, if you crank it up to its fastest setting, the screen resembles a complex pulsating neon sign, with dozens of buildings in different states of construction, use or disrepair. Sim Cities are ambitious, hungry creatures, always bursting at the seams. Growth is their raison d’être. They are modern, on the move, upwardly mobile cities; they are, above all, American cities because, of course, this is an American computer game.

Even as I allow myself to be enslaved by my simulant population, I am indignant. What sort of culturally impoverished country is Sim-land that their urban history begins no earlier than 1900? Where is the unplanned, organic growth and reuse that shapes a real living city? How can the entire kaleidoscope of human activity be pigeon-holed as residential, commercial or industrial? It’s bollocks. I begin to fantasise about a realistic western European Sim City, should computing power ever make it possible. You’ll kick off in the 8th century AD, at the very latest, with the shell of an abandoned Roman fort in which to establish your dark-age burgh. Agriculture will be a dominant feature for the first hundred hours of play, and you’ll be stuck with the field systems forever. The cathedral will remain at the ‘building site’ stage for at least 400 sim-years. It will be a higgledy-piggledy sort of a city, like York. (There’s kink in one of the streets in York where they reckon a Roman building fell flat on its face and the Anglo-Saxons just got used to walking around it.) It will get progressively more higgledy-piggledy until wiped clean by a Great Fire, or by massive aerial bombardment in the 1940’s, to make way for some impressive Imperial avenues. Right angles will be banned. (I am sick of Sim City’s right angles. It can manage diagonals, but only with extreme reluctance. You can lay out a diagonal road, but the game gets sulky and won’t let you build bridges over it or even create junctions. Usually I give up and confine myself to squares.) Railways will be constructed in beautiful neo-gothic, and occur about 100 years earlier than in the current version, in which, laughably, underground railways only become available around 1950. Running water will have to be painstakingly installed under existing streets, not laid out in advance in big grids. Above all, there will be no absurd free hand to demolish and ‘increase density’ everytime the simulants outgrow their houses, nor to wallpaper over the above-mentioned medieval field systems with mock medieval housing estates. Planning regulations will be enforced. The sim-scum will learn that money cannot buy a past or a future.

I related this to my town planner friend in California. She wasn’t impressed at all. Then I went to stay with her and found out why. It was all squares; every street numbered. Her home town had been created in 1978 around a grid of motorway junctions outside Los Angeles. It was a ‘residential zone’, light green. She illuminated our drive through the city with her planner’s observations. “They’re trying to get the density up in this part of town” she remarked at one point, “this was just agricultural before” at another. What finally crushed me, however, was the desert. Joshua trees and scrub as far as the eye could see, much as it had been for a thousand years, except for the fire hydrants. Row upon row of fire hydrants at 100ft intervals, stretching out in a huge grid across the waste. “It’s going to be developed for residential use,” my friend explained, “they put the water supply in first”.

© P. Ben Hall 2001