MITroit’s volunteer firefighters were bravely extinguishing the string of household fires that had broken out in neighboring Champignon. Champignon, a blue-collar enclave whose economy was built upon the oil and ore beneath its citizens’ feet, was rife with jobs and industry, but lagged in city services.
The selflessness of MITroit’s volunteer firefighters was even more pronounced considering Champignon had recently built a sewage runoff directed at MITroit. While MITroit’s unpaid firefighters were preventing Champignon’s citizens from immolating themselves, Champignon was slowly polluting the benefactor of its overwhelmed fire department. MITroit was using its water to put out Champignon’s fires, and Champignon was sending liquid waste in return.
This would be a juicier scoop were it real. Although the above events did occur, they took place within the incredibly complex world of the new SimCity, as part of a tournament thrown by Co.Exist that pitted some of the country’s preeminent urban thinkers against each other in a city building tournament. For this competition, in February, Co.Exist and Greg Lindsay—the co-author of the future cities book Aerotropolis and Co.Exist contributor—assembled six teams of urban think tanks to pit their planning chops against each other in the new version of the city planning game.
The thought was that coupling the players’ collective genius with SimCity’s planning dashboard would result in a vision of a potential urban future, a blueprint for the future of cities. That would not turn out to be the case.
"I’d absolutely play the game again," MITroit Co-Mayor Anna Muessig later said. "But I’d like to play with a different incentive structure, rather than clobbering my colleagues."
The tournament was like the setup to some high-brow joke you might hear in between speeches at a TED Conference:
Six urbanists, three architects, three journalists, and a video game designer walk into a room…
SimCity game designer Stone Librande was encircled by some of the foremost thinkers in urban planning. Twenty minutes earlier, Librande was helping children proceed through the game’s tutorial. Now, he was explaining the game’s mechanics to people whose academic and professional lives were dedicated to urbanism. Librande’s urban planning knowledge was quaint by comparison. He built SimCity over the past three and a half years with Netflix documentaries on urbanism as his only academic resource.
"You won’t really be competing against one another, just not cooperating with one another," Librande said. Everyone laughed. This was urbanism humor.
Urbanists playing SimCity is hardly new. The first edition of SimCity was released in 1989, and the franchise has been credited with inspiring an entire generation of urban theorists. SimCity is "arguably the single most influential work of urban-design theory ever created," said a 2006 New Yorker profile of Will Wright, designer of the original SimCity.
But the latest version contains two new wrinkles that have city wonks downright giddy. First, it uses what’s called agent-based modeling. Everything you see on the screen actually occurs in the city. There’s no superficial traffic animations, for instance, like in past versions. If you see a truck transporting oil from the refinery you built, there is actual oil being trucked through your city. Each item on the screen is its own discrete piece of data in your city.
For the purposes of the tournament, the second new feature of the game was more important: Inter-city interaction. Excess goods or services can be bought and sold between cities in the same region. If the seams of a neighboring metropolis are bursting with trash, send your waste management fleet to clear some space (for a price). If your power grid sputters, buy some energy from the mayor next door who just flipped the switch on a new nuclear power plant.
These features, the game’s slick interface, and its troves of data are the exact tools urbanists need to create the elusive "smart city"—a technocratic utopia where policy is informed by real-time data collection. After Librande’s rudimentary explanation, the crowd broke up into their separate teams for the most elite SimCity game ever conducted (probably).
Nearly every team planned to create a city independent of finite energy resources and the help of other cities. How each city planned to achieve sustainability and economic prowess differed:
- MIT (MITroit): MITroit would be part industrial city, part tourist destination. "We wanted to do Detroit the right way," MIT’s Anthony Vanky said.
- KPF (XimCity): XimCity was to be a dense commercial and residential hub. The team researched the game beforehand (i.e. watched YouTube clips of people playing the beta version) and came in with pages of handwritten and typed notes on how to execute its vision. Everyone on KPF wore a suit. "We took the point of view that we should play the part of the professionals," says KPF director David Malott.
- OpenPlans (Openopolis): OpenPlans director Frank Hebbert planned to crowdsource ideas from off-site employees via Twitter and Google Docs to construct a walkable, eco-friendly city with minimal car traffic.
- Studio Gang (Looptopia): A city where function (being a "closed loop," self-sustaining system) mirrored form (a cultural hub surrounded by concentric circles of roads).
- Fast Company (Fastcotown): Sheer pragmatism. "I’m not trying to assert some kind of urbanist philosophy," Co.Exist editor Morgan Clendaniel said. "I’m the control group."
- Studio-X (Champignon): Studio-X was the only team that was aggressively disinterested in sustainability. Rather, Studio-X’s was unapologetically opportunistic. "We’re going to build brothels and stadiums, they go well together," Studio-X director Nicola Twilley joked. "Actually, we’re going to build a knowledge economy and charge your kids a fortune to study there, because that’s the biggest racket around."
Every city was solely focused on economic autonomy. There was no talk of creating mutually beneficial partnerships. In fact, teams merely saw one another as potential buyers of their wealth of goods and services. The easiest political philosophy is, apparently, Western European mercantilism.
"I would’ve expected everyone to come together and cooperate," Librande said. "Instead, they competed. I’m glad they did because it was a lot more fun."
Craven as Studio-X’s strategy was, at least the team was transparent. Many other cities abandoned their plans for measured growth the moment they discovered they were blessed with fossil fuels. MIT drilled its oil, Open Plan’s city mined its coal and Studio-X extracted its oil and ore with impunity.
All three cities saw their investment in non-renewable energy as a temporary way to jumpstart their economies. They would use the money they made from selling their dirty energy to gradually moved toward cleaner options, they said. And while these investments were immediately lucrative, weaning themselves off the morphine money drip of a precious resource would prove difficult.
They were not alone in this predicament. Every team made early planning errors that would eventually come back to haunt them. The culture, economy, look, and feel of each city had been mostly determined by choices made shortly after the game started.
While other teams were making click-happy, deterministic mistakes, KPF and Studio Gang spent the first several minutes diagramming their respective cities instead of building anything. KPF decided a skewed grid would foster organic growth in XimCity, while Studio Gang drew Looptopia as a radial sprawl lush with parks and green space. Whether these plans were superior in and of themselves seemed irrelevant. By simply having a clear idea of how their cities would grow, Looptopia and XimCity were better equipped to manage sudden increases in population and its corresponding challenges.
No SimCity mayor is perfect, though. When a XimCity educator said his school was overcrowded, the city quickly exercised its power of eminent domain and bulldozed houses to make way for new classrooms. Later, XimCity razed more buildings to widen congested roads. Looptopia’s dream of a city for the sophisticated ended up resembling a cookie-cutter suburb, and competitors mocked Studio Gang for building a gated Arizona community. Co.Exist’s team bore similar jeers for building Fastcotown—a city rife with casinos and low-density waterfront property—into a faux Jersey Shore.
As the game progressed, teams attempted to reconcile past mistakes with bold plans for the future. (The tournament was depressingly analogous to life in this way.) Champignon, MITroit, and Openopolis flourished economically, but each suffered a unique externality of an infrastructure dependent on fossil fuels.
MITtroit didn’t realize it built its residential sector downwind from its oil fields, so its Sims were getting fresh breaths of refined petroleum. Fortunately, the game allowed MITroit to build a green belt to negate the air pollution. Champignon’s oil and ore meant plenty of jobs and taxable revenue, and the city used its coffers to build wind turbines. But the city’s good intentions were for naught: it never fully converted to wind power and ended up producing surplus energy that it couldn’t sell. Openopolis’s crowdsourcers wanted the city to go green, but the team was hoping to sell its coal on the open market.
The others were intoxicated by exploring the game’s possibilities, costs be damned. XimCity constructed a monstrous resort casino that would make Steve Wynn blush, only this place did nothing but hemorrhage cash. Openopolis built an airport, despite its Sims objections.
Then the tournament was over.
"That felt like five minutes," Twilley said. It had been more than three hours.
Reflecting later, the urbanists were most concerned about the game’s value system. By encouraging players to make short-sighted decisions, SimCity trivializes the importance of certain public policies (e.g. investing in education, renewable energy, and pedestrianism).
"There’s no sense of negative consequence," Studio-X Co-Director Geoff Manaugh said. "I was joyfully and happily building coal infrastructure and figuring out ways to get oil out of the ground faster. I thought the game was going to make us feel guilty, but it didn’t. There seemed to be a non-liberal bias."
Manaugh is not entirely off-base. The positive feedback players receive from drilling oil—in the form of taxable income, jobs, population increases—are purposefully addictive.
"It’s designed to make players make unsustainable decisions. We want people to understand why it happens in the real world," Librande said. "If the game pulls you into this path that you know is bad and you know is wrong, you start to understand why we do things like mountaintop removal to get coal."
Champignon, MITtroit, and Openopolis were perfect examples of cities caught in a feedback loop that’s positive at first, but detrimental in the end. They viewed their investments in extraction as sensible ways to earn revenue that would be reinvested in sustainable energy, but none of them became green cities. Had the game run longer, their infrastructures likely would have imploded. Conservatives get their due in SimCity, too.
"Every time you get something, it tastes good and it makes you feel good about yourself. You get a reward and you want another one," Librande said. "If you start going down the coal path or ore path, you eventually get headquarters to extract even more resources and make even more money. It’s exponential."
Like the children who had played before them, many of the urbanists succumbed to SimCity’s fundamental temptation: pursuing short-term population and economic growth, while thrilling, will ultimately haunt you, Mr. or Ms. Mayor.
Who won the tournament? The criteria for victory was intentionally left undefined. Teams were merely encouraged to create what they felt was the most well-structured urban environment.
This, perhaps, contributed to teams making decisions antithetical to their real-world ideals of a sustainable city with an educated populace. Money from high taxes, burning natural resources, and taking their citizens’ paychecks at the blackjack table was too alluring to resist for many.
But if we are to judge the teams based upon which team created the most sustainable, yet diverse, urban environment, then KPF’s XimCity wins. The city’s main road had a robust public transit system that minimized gridlock despite heavy traffic. Run entirely off wind power, the city wasn’t beholden to a finite energy source. And as a cultural and aesthetic bonus, the city’s skyline featured the Empire State building.
And yet, even KPF couldn’t avoid oversights that would have proved costly in years to come. KPF opted to build sewage runoffs instead of a costly water treatment facility. And the city’s heavy investment in gambling was likely to increase crime. It was only a matter of time before Ace Rothstein, Nicky Santoro, and the rest of the crew from out east began cracking Sim skulls while everyone else drank toxic tap water.
This is the evil genius engineered into the game. No matter how deftly the teams played, their cities were predestined to fall. "As a game designer, a utopia is kind of boring because once you achieve it, there’s no challenge," Librande said. "Once I come up with equilibrium, I have no compulsion to play anymore."
If the tournament was the setup for a joke, then the players were the punchline.
SimCity is true to real life in the grandest way possible then. Entropy cannot be stopped. A utopia is illusory. Everything is destroyed in time. The universe is on a constant march toward inevitable destruction, and all we can hope to do is slow the pace. If your Sims develop a medical breakthrough that allows them to live for hundreds of years, the only thing they should expect to see is their beloved city crumble to pixelated ruins. SimLife sucks, then you SimDie.
The game’s beauty lies in the fact that—like in real life—creating a "perfect" city is impossible. What makes cities great, rather, are their imperfections. By placing millions of error-prone humans within a limited vicinity, cities constantly force their inhabitants to bump into one another physically, mentally, and emotionally. A truly great city isn’t governed by an algorithm, it’s one that routinely delivers the unpredictable.