City Builders Were A Godsend for Imaginative Kids like Myself
And a way for my adult self to come to terms with our heavily urbanised world
Since childhood, I have been blessed — or cursed — with an above-average capacity for imagination. It demanded outlets that I, as a scrawny kid, struggled to accommodate.
I had some action figures, Happy Meal toys and a small bucket of LEGO, but those were never enough. For my make-believes, I had to make my own toys.
My favourite thing to do was constructing a city made of paper. Eight pieces of A4 sheets stuck together became the landmass. Atop this, flimsy rectangular paper structures pierced the sky, their drawn-on glass window reflecting imaginary sunrise.
I don’t know why urban centres fascinated me as a kid. They just did. Maybe it was because each paper building held hundreds of imaginary lives, which became hundreds of outlets for the stories and characters in my head.
Constructing and building these paper cities meant hours of fun, but like most things, they failed to hold my childish attention. I eventually became bored with them. So I did what any kid my age would do.
I set them on fire.
Don’t worry, I’m no pyromaniac. It just felt like a cathartic way to release something I worked hard on. As the imaginary people became fireflies in the sky, they brought with them their stories, clearing space in my head.
The first time I loaded up Simcity 3000, my brain exploded.
A lifelong artist finds an abandoned storehouse of canvasses. A passionate cook inherits a fully-stocked kitchen. A teenage boy discovers the pleasures of masturbation. An imaginative kid discovers a sprawling city builder game. As far as outlets go, these are all the same.
No longer did I have to massage fingers bruised from cutting with a pair of blunt scissors. No longer did I have to deal with bottles of icky glue. Just zone residential and boom, buildings sprouted like weeds after the rain.
Simcity 3000 wasn’t just a play partner. It was also a teacher. I became a student to the wonderfully mundane world of city planning and governance. My people needed utilities, like water and power. They wanted smooth roads, bus stops, interstate rail and subway systems. They demanded schools, police stations, colleges, hospitals and jobs.
For the first time, the imaginary folk in my head were talking back. My people demanded from me. I was delighted.
I became obsessed, spending hours tweaking my cities, enacting governing policies and looking at graphs my child-brain could barely understand.
The first time my city’s balance sheets showed black was a watershed moment. I was a kid with big dreams but zero financial knowledge. But here I was, managing a profitable metropolis after multiple bankruptcies. I felt like an adult.
I had such a wonderful time learning, that years later, it’s brilliant piano-jazz soundtrack still triggers bursts of dopamine in my brain. It’s my go-to soundtrack when I’m reading, driving, cooking or learning something new. I’m listening to it now as I write this.
During my early teenage years, I bought a copy of Simcity 4 and loaded it up. Just like me, the game had grown up, but the magic remained the same.
The game threw me a slew of new problems. Traffic was properly simulated now, so I had to study the commute of my citizens. I had to reconfigure roads, demolish city blocks to lay down highways, take out loans to reconfigure entire subway systems.
I spent hours looking at sheets and graphs, trying to min-max stuff like commercial and industrial demand.
I was tackling real-world problems like loan repayments, pollution, waste management, crime and healthcare — while flunking Physics, Biology and Mathematics at school.
But who cares? I was learning about the wonders of solar energy and nuclear, and that it was cleaner and more efficient over fossil fuels. I figured out how intersections caused traffic pileups and how public transportation was crucial to the lower and middle class. I learned about land value and stuff like NIMBY/YIMBY, stuff realtors talk about.
I thought I was learning real shit that would get you a real job in the real world. The jury’s still out on that one.
My friends were playing rounds of Quake and CounterStrike or kissing girls behind the school toilets. I was managing a regional megalopolis that stretched from coast-to-coast, home to over 10 million sims. Later on, I found people with cities numbering 107 million sims.
I no longer burned paper cities. Catharsis in Simcity 4 came by subjecting my citizens to all manner of disasters — natural, manmade or otherworldly.
Hilariously, I realised that instead of paying a hefty sum to bulldoze a city block, I could send a tornado down to level entire streets with acceptable levels of collateral damage to neighbouring areas. The city would recover, while I saved a couple of thousand bucks. I had the makings of a politician.
And so a whirlwind of death descended upon my command, while I quoted Oppenheimer:
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds
My recent city-building muse was not from Simcity. Sad to say, that franchise has lost its sprawling, bustling and rugged soul. I found those in the latest challenger to the city building genre, Cities: Skylines. It carries on the vision of the Simcity team during the halcyon days of Maxis.
Like Simcity 4 and Simcity 3000, Cities: Skylines arrived just as I was rounding up my early adulthood and cusping my early 30’s. It carried a sense of quirky playfulness — vehicles are brightly coloured, plus it has its own ‘Twitter’ bird that keeps you on the pulse of your city — but it also possesses a sense of gritty realism. The cities in Skylines properly sprawled, unconfined to the tyrannies of the grid faced by its predecessors.
As a fully grown adult, my interactions with cities changed. I wasn’t interested in setting them on fire or throwing a meteorite into downtown anymore. I could balance my finance sheets, remedy pollution, fix traffic problems in my sleep. My imagination no longer found joy and fulfilment in these things.
Architecture, landmarks and aesthetics filled this imaginary void. I became engrossed in creating a city that looked like a city, not one that was artificially zoned and tailored for perfection. Thankfully, Skylines had a modding community that rivalled Simcity’s. Many nights and weekends were spent trawling mods for skyscrapers, train stations, churches and landmarks that would lend a sense of realism to my creations.
I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? — Ayn Rand
That meant also inheriting problems that plague urban centres today. Traffic jams downtown and on freeways during rush hours. Neighbourhood crime. Inaccessible education and healthcare. Public transportation that might as well not exist. Real cities had a handful of police precincts; my cities followed the same rules, even if I didn’t have to. Law enforcement is costly, ya’all.
I also became deeply aware and interested in the cities that I visited or lived in: Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Medan, Melbourne, Sydney, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, Osaka, Kyoto, Shanghai. My imagination would run wild as I explored their streets and alleys. Soaking in its character and history. Navigating using its landmarks and parks. Thinking about the lives within their walls. Of the trains thrumming under our feet. The line between real people and simulated ones, blurring in my head.
This is why city builders are a godsend for people like me. In my childhood, they became vehicles for my active imagination and a window to the real world. In my adulthood, it thought me to appreciate the concrete jungles that we all live, work and grow old in.
There was a time I didn’t know what to do with my creation in Cities: Skyline. So I did what any imaginative and creative adult would do. I took a casual trip downtown for inspiration.