SimCity is a textbook in modernist architecture and playpen for future builders

While the server problems that plagued SimCity are no doubt the first thing players are wrestling with, the controversy sadly overshadows striking new visuals, multi-player capacity, and its use of GlassBox, a tool that links effects and animation to simulation rules. Underneath the surface, perhaps unbeknownst to the designers themselves, the evolution of SimCity has in some ways paralleled the evolution of architectural theory and practice in the real world. 

Modernist architecture that conformed to the famous adage, “Form ever follows function,” was made possible by technological advancements in construction, allowing for what Cesar Pelli called the “authentic expression of contemporary materials.” The simplicity of the iconic Modernist glass skyscraper, devoid of ornamentation and rejecting historical styles, has become the physical embodiment of this.

The new SimCity also takes an ideological break from its predecessors, seeking a novel visual aesthetic to complement new technological simulations supported by Glassbox. The original SimCity that launched in 1989 had an almost flat, map view of cities. Later reboots of SimCity mirrored technological advancements in computer modeling and graphics, with isometric view introduced in SimCity2000 and greater realism and terrain variation in SimCity3000.

SimCity 4 pushed this evolution to its limits. Ocean Quigley, who was the art director and creative director for both SimCity 4 and the new SimCity says that SimCity 4 was created deliberately with the “aesthetic of piling as much detail on top of detail so that no matter how close you zoomed in, there would be more stuff to look at. The level of detail was greater than you would ever reach the limit of as a player, but that detail didn’t actually mean very much. It was mostly just there to give you lots of nooks and crannies to look into.”

The new SimCity is the exact opposite, enforcing an almost 1:1 correlation between physical objects and functionality, much like how modernist architects stripped buildings of ornamentation in order to reveal the basic materials of construction. Quigley and his team made a conscious decision to take away all detail that “wasn’t directly relevant to the simulation. The art in the game is first and foremost telling you what’s going on in the world. If you look at the game, it looks like a city, but at a deeper level it’s really a user interface into the activity of the simulation.”

GlassBox directly supports this vision. According to Stone Librande, lead designer of the new SimCity, “A lot of the cool stuff comes from the Glassbox engine. Whereas previous versions of SimCity have tended to be very statistical, almost like spreadsheets, this one is based on people.” Each agent, or Sim, in the game has a loop of activity it follows—where they live, where they work, and where they shop.

When they are unable to accomplish their predefined loop, they become unhappy. Happiness can also be derived from safety, education and other factors. Likewise, each structural object placed has a direct cause and effect. Customizing a firehouse to have more garages leads to more fire trucks. Even placing one of the real landmarks in the game, like Big Ben or the Sydney Opera House, has the effect of creating a tourism hub or an income-generating cultural event.

Librande was previously the lead designer on Spore, and when I asked him whether there were any parallels in the design of that game and SimCity, he says he finds the systems eerily similar. Each has a multiplicity of moving parts that build into a larger organism, whether a species or a city, with infinite combinations and permutations. He says, building a city “is much more of an evolving, organic process than it might seem at face value. But when you watch your city grow, and it pushes on you and you push back on it, that is a form of Darwinism in action.”

“When you watch your city grow, and it pushes on you and you push back on it, that is a form of Darwinism in action.” 

In a January segment about videogames and violence, Stephen Colbert commented facetiously “Who can forget, in the wake of SimCity, how children everywhere took up urban planning?” The new SimCity probably gets closer to this dream than ever before, with mayors managing not only buildings but also the people at a greater level of detail. Yet, because it’s built first and foremost as entertainment, there is a resulting tension between the reality it purports to show and the necessities of gaming. As an urban planner by training myself, I found myself simultaneously pulled in two directions—the reality of the simulation had me thinking about real-life planning potentialities on one hand, while being constantly reminded of the integral gaming nature of SimCity on the other.

By necessity, a certain level of abstraction is required for the game to work—something the game designers readily admit. When SimCity is looked at from an urban planning perspective, these abstractions leave out some key maxims of city building from the recent era, including mixed-use and alternative transportation. Bicycling is not a part of SimCity, leaving out city typologies like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

But this isn’t to say there’s a dearth of transit options—there’s light rail, commuter rail, inter-city buses, subways, airports. Agricultural dynamics are not part of SimCity either—the game is about the balance between residential, industrial and commercial, and the resulting impact on the happiness of the Sims. Parking space is moved (theoretically) underground in SimCity because an accurate model of car usage would leave a quarter or half the city as parking lots. Stone admits that even though parking is a real life problem, “It’s not the fantasy. People don’t want to play parking lot manager, they want to play city manager.”

But, the game does reflect the use of zoning at its theoretical origin. According to FEMA urban planner Alex Wallach, “In SimCity, the player can have a vision for their city, and make choices in land use through zoning to achieve that vision. That’s actually how zoning is supposed to work. As planning professors like to say, zoning is not planning; zoning supports the vision and comprehensive plan of the community.”

At the same time, says Wallach, the process of zoning in SimCity has never been quite realistic because it gets done on a “parcel-by-parcel basis, rather than comprehensively. This could be called ‘spot zoning,’ and can be declared illegal if it’s ‘arbitrary and capricious,’ to use the legal term. A municipality would typically zone their entire area as part of a long-term comprehensive master plan rather than zoning one parcel at a time based on current needs. But then again, that probably wouldn’t make for a very fun game.” According to Stone Librande, some people do play the game like this, but it’s not required.

Perhaps the biggest departure from today’s global city-building reality is that in SimCity, you can’t build mega-cities for millions overnight, like what’s happening in China. In SimCity, downtowns grow incrementally, with building heights enabled by better road networks, money and time, rather than by zoning, community planning, or aesthetic choice. You can’t put high-rise buildings in low-rise, low-density, young cities. Mixed-use zoning from a vertical dimension is not possible (i.e. residential above ground level commercial). A player can subdivide land that’s zoned as commercial to include residential, and vice versa, but in real life, this type of planning can lead to sprawl and suburbia.

One major critique of the urban planning profession in the mid 20th century was that it followed the scientific, rational method too resolutely, ignoring the will and needs of residents. The soulless “skyscrapers in the park” that Jane Jacobs rallied against became the physical manifestation of this. In SimCity, there is a constant dialectic between these two polarities. The nature of videogames is such that cause and effect are tied to computerized simulation rules. At the same time, SimCity features agents who are quantitatively measured in terms of the qualitative factor of happiness. So even though the Sims can’t participate in more modern urban planning techniques, like community planning or charrettes, the Sims will picket in front of City Hall at a certain level of unhappiness, and without resolution, they’ll move out of a city leaving abandoned neighborhoods. But could a city like New York City be built in SimCity world, without the push and pull between top-down city planning and the community board system?

And what makes Sims happy in the first place? The abstractions in the game also apply to the fundamental rules in the game, and these rules have an inherent value system. Sims are motivated by money, and with money they shop. Happiness is correlated with wealth and safety. Lower education leads to higher criminality, as does the presence of casinos. Some Sims are born as criminals, although their offenses grow with time and circumstance.

All this being said, the advancements on the gaming end are substantial, and most players won’t be looking at the new SimCity from an urban planning perspective at all because it’s just so incredibly fun to play. The underlying architecture of the game serves to create a coherent world for players to reach into. The tilt-shift aesthetic not only helps to diffuse the space, but is also a visual indicator of the acceleration of time. Ocean Quigley says, “Large scale structures of movement in a city are hard to see in real time, when you speed them up they become very visible. I wanted to get this time-based structure, the pulsing heartbeat of the city to be visible.” In conjunction, the game activity and the music are tied to this pulsing heartbeat, which moves at precisely two beats per second. Traffic lights change on the beat, and the people walk to the same rhythm. Factories puff smoke and trucks take deliveries around to this pace. Says Quigley, “This choreography of the activity of the whole world, at the deepest level, is being driven by the clock tick of the simulation.”

On first glance, these elements don’t jump out at you—it simply becomes part of the magic of the experience. As a player, you simply sense the forward march of time. Quigley tells me, “The hope is that they just work at the Gestalt level. You don’t have to look at it and go, ‘Oh I see what they’re doing.’ It just washes over you.”

In the end though, the link to urban planning is nonetheless palpable. While the goal of SimCity has never been about cutting-edge urban planning techniques, Stone Librande expresses a hope to address more of these systems as the game matures. Looking back, the evolution of SimCity has always been more than just about technological advancements in graphics and modeling.

There’s been a clear shift in how city planning is conceptualized in SimCity since the first iteration of the game in 1989. Will Wright, creator of the first version, acknowledged his debt to urban systems theory. His game focused on feedback loops, using models that sought to reduce city activity into algorithms and formulas. But in the new SimCity, the individualization of the Sims and the introduction of multi-player can only serve to shake up the game’s algorithmic heritage. Globalization is now built in: the success of your town’s industry is linked to the world market and stock exchange, which in turn impacts the cost of raw materials. A failing coal plant in one town can raise energy prices in others, but synergistic collaborations can be mutually beneficial to players.

Looking back, the evolution of SimCity has always been more than just about technological advancements in graphics and modeling. 

Librande says that, to him, the most wonderful thing in the new SimCity is when you leave the city open to random people joining: “There’s this mystery when you first see someone playing. Who is this person? What kind of city are they going to make? You need to communicate with them about what you would expect them to do or what you already have to offer. And whether that communication is open or closed, or disjointed or you’re at odds with each other, that kind of unpredictability of human nature makes the game feel so much richer…And in some ways I think that’s more true to real world cities, where not all cities cooperate really nicely with each other.”