Real-life cities don’t develop by government decree. The largest urban agglomerations are Rube Goldberg devices held together by improvisation. Around the world, most people live in chaotically functional tangles where commerce takes the form of carts and folding tables and boiling pots of broth, where families double up and shoddy new construction abuts rickety old structures. New York was like that once and in spots still is.
I tried to create such a place. I laid down a tight web of curvy streets at the tip of an island and jumbled residential and commercial lots, hoping that houses and stores would mingle in a virtual Lower East Side. I got a few congested blocks and plenty of weedy lots too constricted for even the small house-with-a-yard that is the game’s default. SimCity has mobile homes and luxury apartment buildings, but no tenements. I soon learned to lay out a few main roads, let people move in, and, when new streets are needed, simply bulldoze the houses that get in the way.
Still, I was hoping that the newest iteration would force me to deal with the toughest challenges of contemporary urban management: sprawling, unmapped shantytowns, tracts where 100,000 people might depend on one trickling faucet and where children recycle garbage by picking over fetid mounds. I was hoping, too, for a Chinese-Korean option: the ability to erect a vacant megalopolis with one wave of the wand, complete with cloud-topping towers, subway systems, airports, and freight lines, and then let the population flow in.
And I would have liked to build some sprawl. An impassable dotted line encloses each city, and beyond that is nothing but green fields or alpine slopes. The makers may have been thinking of something like Portland, Oregon’s greenbelt—an outlying area where development is sharply limited—but in real life, sprawl picks up again on the other side. In a physical megalopolis, the dense core functions because of an encircling suburban cloud that often merges into adjacent cities. EA, though, has imagined a strange medieval South Dakota, an open landscape dotted with versions of Rapid City, linked by empty highways.
After a few false starts, I recruited a capable co-mayor, my 15-year-old son, Milo. Together we brought forth a pair of settlements, Pip City (named for our dog) and Leoville (the cat), which faced each other across a bay and engaged in beautiful regional cooperation, one of the game’s most powerful innovations. Workers commuted by ferry. A nuclear-power plant in one city kept the other juiced. Pip City grew into a pleasant, diversified city of 100,000. Milo and I tweaked tax rates to attract business yet keep revenue flowing. We worked hard to keep the smiley faces bobbing on the screen.
Being mayor, even just for fun, means getting yanked in every direction by a nonstop procession of whiners. The people want more clinics, more fire stations, less smelly neighborhoods, less polluted water, and the odd extra like Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower. These entitlement-addicted Sims have no power to make independent decisions. There are no pioneers, eager to move into some gracious, dilapidated neighborhood and fix up an old Victorian. In fact, there are no old Victorians, or old anything, really, since houses, buildings, and factories pop up in seconds and are instantly disposable. Ours is a forward-looking town, with no time for preservationist sentimentality. When a business fails or a family moves, a consultant in a hard hat appears and briskly advises us to demolish the abandoned buildings so new ones can take their place.
As Pip City grew, we worked out three guiding principles for a fine fake metropolis. The first is Money Equals Happiness. Success is measured in a fattening budget and a growing population. The wise mayor keeps an eye on the land-value map and plies the wealthy with quicker ambulance responses, bigger schools, and nicer parks. Conversely, every time we scouted suitable locations for sewage plants and garbage dumps, we wound up putting them where they would do the least damage to the economy: where land was cheap. Any Sim family who had the misfortune to live in a trailer near the power station would soon find a waste-treatment center next door, too. The game offers a candy-colored illustration of city planning at its most brutally amoral.
The second principle: Zoning Is Destiny. Developers are a compliant bunch. Merely paint a green stripe along a road, and they will start madly constructing houses. A blue commercial zone triggers burger shacks, pet stores, and dental offices. A stroke of industrial yellow lets a thousand smokestacks bloom. SimCity recognizes no amalgamation of these zones—no live/work lofts, no flat above the store, no complexes of hotels, condos, offices, and movie theaters. Instead, the game envisions a mid-twentieth-century cityscape: clustered malls, areas of box factories and concrete plants, and residential districts packed with gabled homes.