MultipliCITY makes a strong case that SimCity is capitalist hogwash

“At last! An antidote to the evils of SimCity!” Cue tilted heads and raised eyebrows. MultipliCITY, a new pen-and-paper game from Molleindustria, has set its crosshairs on the monolith of urban planning simulators: Will Wright’s SimCity. MultipliCITY isn’t flashy. The game is disorganized. But its founding premise—that SimCity brainwashes us into traditional American capitalists—is worth some thought.

Molleindustria is a uniquely self-aware games company. It explores “the potentials of gameplay and the ideologies of mainstream entertainment,” and most of its work attacks capitalism through tongue-in-cheek flash games. Count Phone Story, a bleakly hilarious game about the production of the iPhone, as its best work to date. Capitalism and alienated laborers are the company’s biggest enemies. And SimCity, it suggests, belongs in the demonic pantheon of evil capitalist pigs, alongside Enron and Bernie Madoff.

SimCity, it suggests, belongs in the demonic pantheon of evil capitalist pigs. 

Let’s consider why. SimCity empowers a player to build humanity’s greatest city with superhuman ability. Building roads is a click and drag across a screen. Trees disappear as you plop down your fifth sewage processing plant. Planning a bus route equals a flurry of clicks in a given neighborhood.

This is obviously fun. Most of us live in planned spaces, and SimCity gives us the power to imagine planning them ourselves. But is this realistic? Not at all. On Quora, urban planner Francis Chen was fairly blatant: SimCity represents what city planners wish they could accomplish in day-to-day life. But bureaucratic red tape, ordinances, and city budgets transform that “click and drop” construction into, “wait, wait, wait.”

Games don’t have to imitate the real world, obviously. They should be fun, and waiting for approved building permits is … not fun. But its own influence puts SimCity in a moral predicament. If a sea of urban planners identifies SimCity as the spark of inspiration for a future career, then shouldn’t SimCity give a more realistic and rounded picture of city planning? Or can it simply appeal to our fantasies, allowing us to conceive possible urban sprawls and to push the limits of our imagination?

For Molleindustria, the first is crucial. In MultipliCITY, you can’t control everything: you can only play as one of three interest groups. A group attempts to best distribute their development tiles to plan for in-game events. As the business association, for example, it’s in your interest to place commercial tiles near other commercial or industrial tiles. With the right event, this can exponentially increase the points you earn. But if you draw the event “deindustrialization” without any industrial tiles bordering affordable housing, you lose points. Unlike SimCity, which values creation above all else, MultipliCITY is about reaction.

Physically, the game needs a bit of organization. Molleindustria’s founder stated that MultipliCITY was designed as an exercise for a game design workshop, not as a finished game. Still, the bare bones need some more furnishing. The point system isn’t well explained, and why a player should gain or spend points seems a bit … in doubt. There’s also no existing board for play—but this seems spurred on by Molleindustria’s intent to get out of the “one size fits all” model of SimCity.

MultipliCITY’s event cards have a lot to say. From “gentrification” to “deindustrialization” to “housing bubble,” they reflect the newest ways that we think about how urban organization—at least more than SimCity appears to. After spending some time with MultipliCITY, I’m not convinced that SimCity is an evil game conceived by scheming capitalists. But I am convinced that MultipliCITY is the city planning game that makes most sense for 2014’s moral sensibilities.