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.

Photographing Detroit for something more than “ruin porn”

Pete Brook over at Wired profiles Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart, two photographers whose project “Can’t Forget the Motor City” argues that “Photos of Detroit Need to Move Beyond Ruin Porn“:

As a symbol of the U.S. economy in general, even before the crash of 2008, Motor City has been the subject of much “ruin porn” – photography that fetishizes urban decay.

“The portrayal Detroiters are used to seeing – crumbling buildings with no people to be seen – is frustrating because they know their city is more than that,” says Detroit photographer Brian Widdis. “Nobody here denies that those things are real, but seeing the city portrayed one-dimensionally – time and again – it’s like hearing the same awful song being played over and over on the radio. Detroiters want to hear a different song once in a while.”…

Ruin porn worships the 33,000 empty houses and 91,000 vacant lots of Detroit and overlooks the 700,000+ residents. It doesn’t come close to describing the city.

“I still do not understand her. The complexity of Detroit makes many give up, move out or move on, if they can. But for others, we want to further that relationship with her,” says [Romain] Blanquart….“Detroit is not a tragedy. We attempt to show its humanity[.]”

Widdis and Blanquart’s photographs are indeed beautiful and, generally, full of people.  While I’m not convinced that there’s anything inherently “pornographic” about photographing urban ruins (and underscoring the now-absent humanity those ruins imply), I agree that there is something wrong with hitting this same point to the exclusion everything else, especially insofar as this singled focus implies that there is nothing else to show or say.  However small Detroit’s population may be compared to its heydays, the city is still home to hundreds of thousands of people whose lives–and stories–are still ongoing.  I applaud these photographers’ efforts to document Detroit’s continuing stories through their artistry and not simply focusing on architectural echoes from the past.

Urban Decay cosmetics

As an urban sociologist, I am always interested to examine popular depictions of cities and suburbs. So I was intrigued when I found this advertisement for Urban Decay in the Sunday newspaper:

According to the ad, this line of cosmetics includes products like “Sin Eyeshadow Primer Potion” and “All Nighter Makeup Setting Spray.”

Here is the story of Urban Decay:

Our story opens 15 years ago, when pink, red, and beige enslaved the prestige beauty market. Heaven forbid you wanted purple or green nails, because you’d either have to whip out a marker, or risk life and limb with that back alley drugstore junk. Flying in the face of this monopoly, Sandy Lerner (cofounder of Cisco Systems) made a bold decision: if the cosmetic industry’s “big boys” couldn’t satisfy her alternative makeup tastes, she’d satisfy them herself.

Fatefully, Sandy’s business manager, David Soward, introduced her to fellow visionary Wende Zomnir. A creative businesswoman (and makeup addict almost since birth), Wende also recognized the color void and determined a shake-up was in order. Over high tea, the two forged a pact that led to renegade nail polish mixing sessions in Wende’s Laguna Beach bungalow. Sandy, David and Wende unleashed Urban Decay in January of 1996 with a line of 10 lipsticks and 12 nail enamels. Inspired by seedier facets of the urban landscape, they bore groundbreaking names like Roach, Smog, Rust, Oil Slick and Acid Rain. The first magazine ad queried “Does Pink Make You Puke?,” fueling the revolution as cosmetics industry executives scrambled to keep up…

Our ever-expanding global presence proves what Wende and Sandy always knew – makeup wearers everywhere crave alternatives, hence our longevity well past the death of 90s grunge. In the US, hundreds of UD products now fill purple shelves at Sephora, Ulta and Macy’s, as well as the virtual pages of Beauty.com. Growing numbers of retailers in Canada, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Singapore and the Middle East stock our line, too. And although UD fans around the world might approach our products in wildly different ways, we’ve noticed they share an independent spirit that unites them…

We’ve now become the largest independently owned color cosmetic company in the United States. Our moms are proud. “Urban Decay” is no longer such a crazy name for a makeup company. And young women today have never known a world where they couldn’t get purple nail polish over the counter. Mission accomplished.

What is interesting to me is the commodification of a particular location and style. The name brings back images from the mid-twentieth century as many Americans fled large cities for the cleaner, greener, and safer suburbs. Governments responded by clearing urban blight and instituting programs of urban renewal. Today, urban decay is more fashionable. It seems gritty and authentic – see the passages above about the banality of pink and how darker colors subvert these ideas. It brings to mind ideas of adventure, being a renegade, standing out from the crowd. Perhaps it is tied to ideas of gentrification and finding the exciting yet improving parts of cities. Think of places like Times Square that just a few decades ago were seedy locations and even with the glitz and glamor of today still retain some of this urban excitement that simply can’t be replicated in the shopping mall or on Facebook. And, of course, you can have all of these ideas if you are simply willing to spend a little money on a line of cosmetics.

Is there a suburban alternative to this, something like Suburban Passion or Desperate Suburbs?