Imagine an even-simpler version of the original late-’80s “SimCity” video game: a crude digital map dotted with a handful of pixelated single-family houses. But try to click on the screen — like, say, on the icon of a bulldozer or a factory, or just anything — so you can start laying out commercial blocks and parks and creating your pretend metropolis, which is the objective of most city-building sims, and you’ll be met with a jarring sound effect and a pop-up message: “ERROR. CAN’T BUILD IN NIMBYVILLE.”
Below that is one of many snarky excuses: “Housing is a human right! Just why does it have to be here?”
Such are the Sisyphean pleasures of “Sim Nimby,” a new desktop city-building game where more clicks just lead to more error messages, and nothing ever gets built. The only winners in Nimbyville are the ones programmed to prevail: Not In My Backyard neighbors, or NIMBYs, who block new housing developments at every turn…
So Nass and Weeks hunkered down in a Park Slope bar one evening and hashed out the litany of anti-development NIMBY-isms — more than 50 in total — that the game spits back at prospective builders as a jazzy 8-bit music theme plays. There’s some comic hyperbole at the expense of preservationists (“We can’t tear down that historic brownstone. It’s where Gene Quintano wrote ‘Police Academy 3: Back in Training’”) and some dad-joke-grade gags (“The only thing urban I want to see here is Keith Urban”). Other one-liners — “This is a NICE neighborhood,” “Will someone please think of the property values?” and “Affordable housing? What, you gonna build them an affordable country club too?” — are perhaps less fanciful to housing advocates.
How realistic should city building games be? I have wondered this for years starting with playing Simcity in the late 1980s. How much does the game reflect actual city planing practices and urban outcomes versus presenting a glamorized experience where it is easy to plop in properties, development happens easily, and issues are quickly addressed (as long as the player has enough money and a little bit of sense). Overall, it is pretty easy to build a thriving city.
This version might be too realistic. Players of video games want some level of difficulty or obstacles to overcome but not ever-present problems that make it difficult to do anything. Random disaster? Okay, a player can deal with that. A never-ending chorus of NIMBY concerns? It is too much to handle. The concerns of residents in Simcity are usually addressable; for example, move the residence further from industry, quickly put a park nearby to quiet the criticism, or find another way to improve the quality of life.
I do not know if the player gets some extreme options to address the NIMBY concerns. Have them annex themselves into their own community and build in a neighboring community? Remove all of the residences via eminent domain? Wage a political battle against them? If this is a Simcity where the residents do not want anything new, then growth is not possible and that does not work even in video games.