I miss my alien budget

Good times.

SimCity 2000 always had a special place in my childhood, in large part because  I would spend hours playing it every weekend to avoid having awkward living room time with my stepfamily. (We went through a SimTower phase that I think was brutal on everyone.) And some odd things about the game have stuck with me.

Obviously there were elements like the strangely haunting soundtrack, or the alien death robot — which I never actually used that much, because really all it did was start fires. But it probably says something that what I really appreciate is how the game tapped into my budding interest in politics and government.

I was just old enough to catch the craze of the first educational games that schools used to justify sticking a bunch of Apple IIs in their libraries. Oregon Trail had its usual indelible effect on a kid whose idea of a computer game was Beast, a sort of low-res version of Pac-Man. (Though being able to push your environment around was really cool.) But as I got acquainted with the ’90s, educational games started trying too hard, like they were just trying to give me a test with graphics. And once my gaming universe included WarCraft, the graphics weren’t even that good.

SimCity, though, was the best kind of informative game. It didn’t try to lecture or talk down to you; it just gave you a decent approximation of the tools you’d use to run a city and let you learn by doing. You could build up your infrastructure, zone land and place public services, but you couldn’t force anyone to move in. If you set your taxes too high, you’d have abandoned buildings or undeveloped land everywhere, but if you set them too low you’d run out of money to do anything. To make a decent city, you had to manage pollution, police and fire coverage, entertainment venues and transportation.

And you learned all this without really thinking about what the game was trying to teach you, because running a city was the game. Even if you just wanted to set the place on fire, you had to build it up first, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to burn down. And the best part about the challenge maps was trying to fix up the mess that the disasters (and dumb city planners) had made of the place.

I honestly think that our country would be much better run if more people had played a SimCity game in their youth. Which is why I’m both encouraged and worried about the latest SimCity, due out next year.

SimCity Societies, the last game in the franchise, set a pretty disturbing precedent for me. Apparently it drew controversy from the usual blockheads because it didn’t portray corporations in the most positive light, but for me that pretty obviously misses the point. The game largely threw out the concept of imitating real city management in favor of letting people engineer their whole society, placing every housing unit or business office directly in a system that wouldn’t tell you much of anything about how government works in a non-dictatorship.

Fortunately, signs are promising. Societies was the only game in the series not produced by Maxis, who are developing the new game. And the demonstration videos showing off the GlassBox seem to include a terrific amount of detail. So here’s hoping.  I haven’t had access to a SimCity game since I was dumb enough to upgrade to Lion, and I’d really like that to change. (Of course, there’s no word on a Mac version yet, either.)

P.S. Seriously, that music was awesome.

Leave a Reply