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My Week As Robert Moses, With Oil Wells

An architecture critic takes up residence in SimCity.

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Prosperous times in Pip City …  

Spare a thought for Lynn Esperanza. She moved to Leoville in the early days and built a small beachfront home at the end of a quiet road. Soon, neighbors began arriving, modest people like her who asked only for basic services, jobs, and somewhere to buy groceries. Empty lots filled up, the village grew into a city, and Esperanza found work at an ice-cream factory a couple of bus stops away. She can still recapture that serenity on certain evenings, sitting on her porch, facing the sea, her back to the misery that has overtaken the once tidy town. But then the wind shifts, and noxious fumes blow across her yard, reminding her of the houses across the street that were razed even before they were complete. Leoville is reverting to emptiness, only now it’s pocked with smoldering rubble. The factory shuttered when the power failed, leaving warehouses full of melted ice cream. She’d like to leave town, but she can’t sell a property whose value, never high, has sunk to near zero.

Fortunately, Esperanza is a Sim, one of the tiny digital entities who populate the communities of SimCity, expressing their feelings in thought bubbles and occasional protests in front of City Hall, but otherwise tolerating whatever suffering their sadistic mayors inflict. The only power they wield is the ability to disappear.

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.

The wizards at Electronic Arts seem to understand cities as market-driven algorithms. Input people, rules, and resources, and the results are stability, growth, and wealth. There is some rough justification for this attitude. The physicist Geoffrey West has plowed through vast quantities of urban data from all over the globe—frequency of illnesses, miles of roadway—and shown that cities become more efficient as they grow. Moreover, efficiency increases at the same rate everywhere, suggesting that you could predict the behavior of cities with one universal equation. It’s a mechanistic worldview guaranteed to delight a programmer, but West’s theory also has a second, squishier part. Cities, he points out, are physical manifestations of human interactions. The data reveal those social dynamics, but do not necessarily shape them. From Lagos to Los Angeles to Mumbai, the physical world is experiencing a great rushing tide of urbanization, which creates huge environmental problems and at the same time concentrates the creativity needed to solve them. In the Sims’ world, though, the masses migrate and settle, then file passively through their lives. SimCity’s engineers have repeated the same mistake made by countless potentates, forgetting that cities are forged both by master builders and the people who hack their grand plans.


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