Limiting the presence of people in city-building video games

A recent review of several city-building video games suggests they focus more on buildings and landscapes than residents:

Photo by RODNAE Productions on

What’s missing from these titles are people, but this is arguably part of the fantasy they’re presenting. Citizens are complicated; they have needs and wants, which of course influence the way towns, virtual or otherwise, are laid out. On the one hand, the absence of people could be interpreted as an unintentional but darkly misanthropic view of the city. On the other, perhaps these are exercises in utopian thinking; cities are filled with compromises that these city-builders allow us to calmly transcend.

I have not played any of these games – my video game attention is elsewhere – but I have a lot of experience with SimCity where the role of residents was interesting, to say the least. The people themselves were not often present on the screen. Instead, the focus was on land and how it could be transformed into different uses.

Where citizens tended to show up were in their reactions to your choices as mayor. Perhaps it was demanding a police station or a school. Perhaps it is was in the mayor’s approval rating. Perhaps it was in the construction of new residences, suggesting your community had some attractive features.

But, they were just abstract concepts. If you wanted to deal with people directly, you could play The Sims. SimCity was about systems, not characters. While this broke ground in some ways, it also obscures the real and productive roles residents play in cities. SimCity encourages a top-down view of cities: development happens at the behest of one leader, a mayor/tyrant urban planner or leader, who is only curbed by a budget, complaints, and the occasional disaster. This is not the participatory community building that can help link residents to their neighborhoods and communities.

It is hard to imagine a city-building game that fully incorporates residents and community members as part of the process. The mayor wants to build a new bridge but residents complain about the effects on the environment and demand input? The mayor wants to put a highway through to reduce traffic but the community believes it will scar their neighborhoods? Imagine a virtual reality game where the leader makes decisions, walks through the places they have helped create, and has to interact with the people there. Perhaps this is the next step, games about communities and the people that inhabit them rather than cities as systems easily changed.

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