That is the question Maxis poses with most of its games. “The Sims,” “Spore,” and “SimCity” are as much test tubes as they are pieces of entertainment media. They distill a portion of life as we know it into a controlled environment for us to tinker with.
“SimCity,” first released in 1989, is the one that launched a perpetual wave of additional “Sim” titles and knockoffs. The answer to that question about simulations of life? On the whole, Maxis’ games are enthralling. They make us look at communities, consumerism, biology and social interactions in a way that we usually ignore.
In February 2013, Maxis and Electronic Arts will roll out a new game titled simply “SimCity.” It will be familiar in many ways to “SimCity 2000” junkies and foreign in others. The game comes a decade after “SimCity 4,” and is being made in an age where social connections aren’t just a feature of a game but a staple. What was the equivalent of sitting alone playing with a scale model of a city will now be more like doing so at a convention of “Sim” players, with interconnected cities and regions teaming up to work on projects and boost economies.
Sympathy for public officials and lawmakers isn’t exactly high right now, and maybe that will never change. Still, if we as a country and as a world had a better understanding of how economies and communities worked on a basic level, we’d be able to at least ask the decision-makers better questions.
Much of political gain rests on the public’s lack of understanding. Politicians can leverage this into positioning their interests into a neatly constructed narrative surrounding a problem. If a society that played games like “SimCity” better understood the cause and effect relationship of say, building a subway system or funding a stadium, the voting public could think more independently and understand the stakes of their vote.
Still, “SimCity” isn’t or is not going to be a game that is extra-heavy in social issues. There are certainly decisions that make your residents happy or angry, but ultimately, as the old maxim goes, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Economic and infrastructural issues are the ones that often puzzle us the most as a general public. We know how we feel about same sex marriage, censorship and abortion because they are personal and emotional triggers. “SimCity” asks us to look at the “boring” stuff, the taxes, the roads, the zoning laws and figure it out for ourselves.
We need “SimCity” because it provides a basic understanding of how communities work from a high-level view. You’re not going to learn to be a city comptroller by playing “SimCity,” but you’re at least going to have a more tangible grasp about what it feels like to raise or lower taxes when you want to complete a project. You have to think about what it takes to attract people to a city in order to increase your tax base. You’re faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to keep a million people happy.
In an age where over half of the world lives in cities and the other half depends on their infrastructure, understanding how they work is as essential as it has ever been for the leaders of tomorrow. “SimCity” isn’t going to be a panacea for the disconnect between Americans and their understanding of civics, but it’s certainly an entertaining start.