New SimCity expansion pack moves toward dystopian cities

I still haven’t played the latest version of SimCity but there is now an expansion pack that portrays a bleaker urban future:

If this sounds like the setup for a disturbing science fiction novel, you’re not far off: This is actually the premise for SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow, a deeply cynical expansion pack for the SimCity game, set to be released November 12. The original SimCity game, of course (along with its most recent fifth edition), allowed players to act as mayors and design the ideal modern city. But the evil genius behind the game play was always that sustainability was illusory: even the most well-designed cities eventually imploded. Players thought they were all-powerful mayors, but they were merely delayers of the inevitable. The best they could do was stave off their city’s collapse…

It’s impossible to miss the socioeconomic and political commentary embedded within Cities of Tomorrow. That the affluent live in the epicenter and the poor are relegated to the suburban fringes feels like a direct commentary on the demographic inversion cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco are currently experiencing. The concentration of wealth calls to mind what’s left of the Occupy movement. The Sims’ addiction to Omega despite its negative effects on the environment mirrors the developed world’s dependence on oil. Even the MagLev is nearly identical to Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop (especially since it only seems plausible within the construct of a video game)…

Whether inspired by real or fictional events, the expansion pack has an inescapable, soul-crushing pessimism. Any idealists who try to a construct a pollution or poverty free utopia are engaging in a Sisyphean task. And this is out of necessity, Librande explains.

“Utopia, in general, is boring for game play. So if we set up a utopian city there’d be nothing for the player to do,” he says…

Librande doesn’t worry about the game’s bleak view of the future turning off any prospective gamers. If anything, they’ll be attracted to the challenge. SimCity has a notoriously die-hard fan base, and what he thinks will make the expansion pack so alluring is not what the game play says about society, but what it says about each player. Players must divide their faith and resources between two purposefully ambiguous entities: OmegaCo and The Academy. OmegaCo’s goal is profit, and The Academy’s motive is to make its technology ubiquitous. What players choose will reveal their attitudes toward capitalism, class, and the balance between privacy and utility.

Utopia is boring! Well-being is overrated! Bring on the morally impossible choices and decaying cities! SimCity has always had a little of this built-in into its gameplay. I clearly remember the scenarios in the original that asked the player to rebuild a city after some sort of disaster, whether an earthquake or Godzilla. I didn’t take much joy in this but other players did; it can be fun to destroy a city with no real consequences.

Perhaps this says more about our current mindset: we’d prefer to deal with decay than positive construction. Cities aren’t “real” until they are clearly gritty and suffering is around the corner. (I’ve heard presentations from urban sociologists on this: there are some gentrifiers who want to “live on the edge” and have to keep moving to find that line between nice neighborhoods and neighborhoods with problems.) Again, there are no consequences for the player for having a dark city where either capitalism or the NSA has run amok. Compare this to the real problems faced in poor neighborhoods in the United States or in the slums in Third World cities where real lives are affected and life chances are severely diminished.

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