SimCity, the city-building simulation game that has spawned numerous sequels since its launch in 1989, is about to get a major upgrade for the first time in a decade. The newest iteration of the game will be 3-D, have multiplayer capabilities, and it will be the first version to track the flow of finite natural resources. It will perhaps also be the most fun way imaginable to teach people why building a coal plant is great in the short term and dismal on a longer timeline, why solar power is better for the health of citizens but a potential blight on the land, and why dumping sewage directly into the local river might upset your neighbors.
It’s not as if past versions of SimCity have ignored environmental issues. The first version of the game came with a few pre-loaded scenarios that addressed potential problems: Rio de Janeiro ravaged by coastal flooding from climate change, a nuclear meltdown in Boston that forces the mayor to contain toxic areas, and a version of Bern, Switzerland, in dire need of a mass transit system. But in the newest version of the game, Maxis aims to "represent the arc of cities in the context of nature," explains Ocean Quigley, creative director of the new SimCity. No action has an isolated impact.
Says Quigley: "You start your city without any money, and you could exploit the coal seams underneath the city and start digging coal out of the ground and make a city that’s pretty filthy, one that’s built on burning coal for power, might have a lot of coal-sustained industries around it and would make me a ton of money as a player. In the long term that would sort of blight the prospects of the city." In that coal-dependent city, there would be little natural beauty and excessive air and ground pollution, not to mention citizens suffering from coal-related health problems.
Alternatively, players could opt for other sources of energy—gas-fired power plants, solar panels, wind turbines, or nuclear power. All of these sources have their drawbacks. Solar panels, for example, take up a lot of space and produce less power for the money when compared to coal:
Players will also have control over other natural resources, including oil and water. A player might elect to create a big oilfield, or they might leave that space open as a recreation area for the locals. A particularly environmentally concerned player could invest in sewage plants that extract pollution and put clean water back into the aquifer. On the other hand, they could just dump sewage into the river. But remember: This is a multiplayer game. Dumping sewage into the river could make the city directly downstream pretty upset, especially if it has lots of high-priced waterfront real estate.
Large-scale climate change isn’t built into the game yet, but it may be in the future. "We’ve got a weather simulation in the game, and the weather simulation changes over the course of the year," says Quigley. "It would be fairly straightforward for us to, say, change how much precipitation your city gets over the course of a year as a function of what happens in the city."
Maxis has no intentions of forcing people to create "green" cities. As any SimCity player knows, the only thing more fun than creating a thriving city is destroying it with a disaster. The game’s designers do, however, want to give players the opportunity to understand the built environment in new ways.
"You get to explore the tradeoffs that real civilizations make in real life," explains Quigley. "I want people to understand at least in a simple way the mechanics and decisions that go into making a city a city."