SimCity That I Used to Know

On the game’s 25th birthday, a devotee talks with creator Will Wright

SimCity, the classic PC game that makes mayors out of middle schoolers, turned 25 last week. Well, actually that’s a common misconception — the IBM version of SimCity was released in October of ‘89, but the original (for Mac and Amiga), came out in February. I found this out from Will Wright, the game design guru behind SimCity and the genre of games it spawned, whose mental history of the legendary game is presumably more accurate than the Internet’s. “I think everybody just puts too much trust in Wikipedia,” he said.

Regardless of its precise birthday, SimCity was a hugely influential game. Popularizing a genre of “software toys” that presented players with an interactive, complex world writ little, gamers growing up in the ‘90s may remember a time when any new PC title from Maxis (the company Wright founded with partner Jeff Braun) bearing the prominent ‘SIM’ prefix promised endless hours of play time that wasn’t about winning or losing, but experimentation and discovery. The Sim series also represents a philosophy about design, and the role of play in our learning process.

A screenshot from the original SimCity game for the Macintosh.

“I think that play, in a more general sense, is fundamentally one of the ways that we understand the world, the real world,” says Wright, “as is storytelling. I think the two are both kind of educational technologies, and that’s the part that interests me; basically, how we take these things — whether it’s storytelling, or play, or games — and use those to increase our understanding and our engagement with the real world, not pull us away from it.”

SimCity gives the player macro- and micro-managerial control of a voxelated urban terrarium. Along with its subsequent titles — SimCopter, SimTower, SimAnt, Sim et cetera ad nauseam — SimCity kicked off a series of digital sandboxes that put complex systems within the grasp of anyone with a computer mouse.

Every decision has a consequence in the balance of dozens of variables. The RCI (residential, commercial, industrial) balance that guides the city’s economy, the layering of transportation options and power lines, the funding of schools or location of prisons—each reacts in subtle or overt ways based on a simplified system of logic devised by Wright and his team. “How do we take these big complex things we’re embedded in, and bring them into such a focus that we can now apply our natural instincts and intuitions to it?” Wright asks. Seeing cars begin to drive down the roads you’ve built, watching as neighborhoods flux and gentrify when a new commercial zone is established nearby, all while getting familiar with each little wrinkle of the city and its geography — you can start to imagine what it’s like to live there.

Keeping track of a budget may sound more like a simulation of accounting than urban planning, but the beauty of the game is that it manages to turn things like fiscal policy into a feature of play. That’s largely because their effects are visible. Unlike a “replicative” simulation (say, a baking simulator), which recreates an experience you might actually have in life, the scales of size and time are variable. With the added power to call up natural (and unnatural) disasters, this essentially transforms the player from mayor to god, and allows them to watch as the long term consequences of their choices unfold. “All of a sudden you get this totally different view of it, it feels like this organic picture in front of you … That’s kind of what I would call turning something into a toy that we can now play with.”

These toys were especially effective for kids, who were at an age when the real and the imaginary seem less distinct. Watching as the little cities exhibited behavior in reaction to the player’s actions created a link between us and the game. That link was also an intentional part of the game’s design.

Will Wright

“They’re starting to understand its behavior and you’re getting kind of an instinct or an intuition for how it operates,” he says, “in a totally different way than if you’re reading a book about classical economic theory, which is entirely abstract.” Wright is fond of the notion of seeing a player’s brain as the second processor — its proclivities and responses feeding and responding to the invisible gears and pulleys behind the simulation.

For the link to work, the interface has to be intuitive enough that anyone from a pre-schooler to a PhD in urban systems can get their hands and heads around what it takes to grow their city. The array of variables they control must be dramatically simplified from reality of course, but complex enough that the the models they create exhibit dynamic ‘behavior.’ A critical feature of the design of these games is, in fact, that they allow for unpredictable phenomena to arise. Unexpected harmonic convergences of circumstances occur in the city that lead to things like explosions of growth or collapses of neighborhoods, from causes that aren’t as easy to trace back as pointing out that, say, lowering police funding meant an increase in crime.

“Most of the simulation is really built up of rather simple rules, if you look under the hood, and it’s really interesting how these simple rules, when they interact with each other, give rise to great complexity,” Wright says. “You can’t even really sit back and engineer it or blueprint it. It’s more like you have to discover it, because the emergent systems are inherently, by definition, unpredictable.”

A screenshot from the first Windows version of SimCity.

The way Wright sees games, players occupy and explore what he calls “possibility spaces.” Simply put, possibility spaces are all the potential arrangements a system (or game) might find itself in. The whole tree of possible movements of pieces on a chessboard, or the countless ways you might reach a destination in Grand Theft Auto, each are a kind of possibility space.

These spaces often intersect along numerous dimensions — in the Sims, for example, the interplay between social success and professional success created a jointed set of possibility spaces that a player could work to maximize (the game was designed around an ideal, not unlike in real life, that lay in achieving a balance between the two).

The intersecting choices faced by a player of SimCity include the aesthetic priorities, economic models, level of environmental concern, and other more subjective dimensions of the city. Depending on the player, a city might be a green oasis or a Koyaanisqatsi-esque nightmare; some might try to make the most visually pleasing city they can, or simply have fun wreaking havoc. Their decisions in these spaces—which can be measured, by the way—are often a reflection of their own values and sensibilities.

“Players right off the bat were forced to sit down and in fact pick their goals,” Wright says. “They had to first of all decide what their values were, what kind of city would they like to live in. That was part of it, and the other part of it was that at some point, invariably, the people who played it enough would start arguing with the assumptions of the simulation. They would start saying, ‘I don’t think mass transit’s that effective, I don’t think pollution really would drive away that many residents.’ At that point, they’re also having to clarify their internal model of the way a city operates … all of a sudden your assumptions become clear to you.”

A screenshot of the 2013 version of SimCity, its fifth major installment.

The Maxis canon of games—if you can call them that—were uniquely influential for a generation of kids with access to computers in the 90s. One could guide the complex course of events within a continent, a neighborhood, or beneath a picnic table, and leave with a more systemic understanding of each. An imaginative player could also weave their own stories between these layers — many hours were spent imagining stories taking place within and between these worlds.

“Whenever you see a kid that’s really motivated and into something, it’s entertaining to them, they love it,” says Wright. “But at the same time that’s also probably the most effective process of education.”

‘Fun and educational’ is an aspirational combination of words, one that many products claim but few live up to. I certainly emerged from my hunched sessions with pet cities carrying a new appreciation for the world around me. With all the talk of gamifying education, and with a new generation of teachers — the first in history — raised on video games, the value in approaching learning with games may get the real-world traction it deserves.

“I really think our brain is wired to consume entertainment and enjoy entertainment, precisely because of the fact that it’s inherently educational,” says Wright. “And we’ve made this artificial distinction between the two, we’ve almost kind of put a chasm there that didn’t exist … I think SimCity was just a simple example that for a lot of people started to remove the wall between the two.”