My mother-in-law gave me my greatest Christmas present ever: For only $47, she bought me the job of mayor of my own city.
I'm about the strongest mayor in America, with near-absolute powers to say "I did it my way."
I'm designing and building my city from scratch. Wherever I point my finger, I bulldoze trees to clear land, setting some open space aside for parks. I pave roads, construct bridges, build an electric power plant, put up police and fire stations, zone land for residential, commercial and industrial use, and watch people move in, erecting homes and stores and factories.
I set whatever tax rate I like and spend money in the city budget any way I see fit. The power at my fingertips is awesome.
My city is called SimCity.
What, you never heard of it? That could be because it's realistic but not real.
SimCity: The City Simulator is only a color, 3-D computer game and learning program. Instead of guiding Mario through a maze in Game Boy or steering a racing car through a tight turn on Sega, I guide the life of a city on my computer.
I can make everything happen to my simulated city on a 13-inch TV monitor just by pointing and clicking my computer's "mouse."
SimCity is especially popular with city managers, planners, mayors and others who must cope with urban growth problems. Many universities use it to help teach urban planning. In a few hours or days, SimCity users can test their own theories of growth management, levels of taxation and government services and see how a city is built, grows, thrives or self-destructs.
SimCity is particularly relevant today, when horror stories of urban decay abound. The nation's mayors just issued a strong report warning about a city funding crisis that threatens America's economy as well as widespread deterioration of cities.
Since SimCity was issued in 1989, more than 1 million copies have been sold worldwide by the creator, Maxis Co. in Orinda, California.
SimCity is educational. After 29 years as a newsman, covering endless city council meetings, I thought I knew quite a lot about city government, but the game was a real eye-opener. After playing a while, I felt like that performer whose act was spinning a whole row of plates on the Ed Sullivan show. Despite his best efforts, one or more plates always fell off and shattered.
SimCity is challenging, but it's also a lot of fun. I can choose a satellite view of my entire city or zoom in on a particular neighborhood, complete with tiny trees, homes, stores and factories. Smoke drifts away from the simulated coal-fired power plant. Cars zip along the roads, horns honking. Airplanes and traffic helicopters buzz overhead.
To monitor my progress, as any politician should, I take polls, asking residents "What are the worst problems?" and "Is the mayor doing a good job?" Or I adjust my priorities after checking charts measuring factors affecting city quality of life, such as population changes, crime rate, cash flow, property values and pollution.
"Your task," the instruction manual tells me, "is to deal with the problems at hand as well as possible under the circumstances. After a certain amount of time, the city residents will rate your performance in a special election. If you do very well, you may be given the key to the city. However, if you do poorly, they might just run you out of town."
Unfortunately, as with real mayors, I keep running into a lot of problems. And the solution to one problem always seems to cause -- another problem.
My first, and biggest, mistake was keeping taxes way too low. That attracts brisk population growth at first, but city income isn't adequate to provide government services for all those people. I can't maintain the roads properly, and they start to deteriorate and become congested, increasing pollution. I can't expand the police department fast enough, and that makes crime rates go up and slums proliferate.
Now I don't have enough money in the city budget to respond to people's problems, and I need to raise taxes to upgrade services. But my polls show a Catch-22: Higher taxes are even more unpopular with voters than the problems those taxes could correct.
I should have heeded the instruction manual's warning: "It costs money to maintain your city's infrastructure."
I've tried again and again, but my term as mayor of SimCity always ends up the same way:
I run out of money in the city budget; traffic, crime and pollution problems escalate beyond my control; property values decline; the residents turn against me, migrating away in search of a city with a higher quality of life and lower taxes; and I'm left as mayor of a ghost town.
Lucky for me, it's only a game. But for mayors around the nation, the struggle to manage growth, juggle taxes and services, cope with urban problems and make a city survive is no game at all; it's real life.
Tom Sander is a columnist for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.