SimCity Classic: Building the Simulator Genre and Its Relationship with Education

Lily Li Blogpost 1.

As a fan of simulation games, it had always interested me how this genre came to be and how it continues to be. SimCity Classic (Maxis 1989) was one of the first simulation games to ever hit the market, often mistaken for the first game of its genre. Its concept and creation was an unexpected byproduct of the process used to produce a shooter video game by game designer Will Wright. As Wright found that he enjoyed designing the islands in the level editor of Raid On Bungeling Bay (Broderbund 1984), he began to develop more sophisticated level editors. Simultaneously, Wright was fascinated by the theories of urban planning and was most influenced by System of Dynamic, written by Jay Wright Forrester. The game was strange in its historic gaming context as the original model of the game could not be won or lost. This model is open ended with no set objective. Because of this foreign aspect, countless game publishers refused to pick it up until Maxis agreed to publish it. On the contrary, SimCity was critically acclaimed and recognized within its first year and paved way to the development of the simulator genre.

As for gameplay, SimCity began with an open plot of land in which the player can determine squares as residential, industrial or commercial zones and begin building and upgrading the city with taxes as the primarily source of income for the allotted budget. The game could be classified as mimicry and paidia. The city itself is an imitation and the player role plays as the city mayor, dictating the structure and system of the landscape. The lack of a clear, consistent goal or possibility to win classifies it as paidia. The design of the game is a flat landscape, with an overhead perspective for the player. The graphics are made for computer play and the display is modeled after PC or Macintosh layouts with toolbars. The graphics contain colored flat pixels but are set to give the illusion of 3-D shapes. The audio of the game consists of blasts of static as the player places down roads or zones. As the city continues to develop, small car icons begin to move on the roads as well as train icons that chug along train tracks. The concept of artificial citizens (“Sims”) are crucial to the game as they dictate the construction of buildings based on factors the player controls. These factors include traffic levels, electric power lines, crime levels and proximity to other buildings. To enhance the game with a more distinct goal driven gameplay, SimCity incorporated scenarios such as natural disasters, traffic, or crime.

The game heavily draws from and embeds historic events of the time to develop above scenarios. For example, the scenario in which crime and depressed industry in which the mayor is given 10 years to reduce crime and reorganize the city is structured after Detroit’s dwindling state and the economic recession of the 1970s where the automotive industry collapsed. In another scenario, where an earthquake hits the city and the mayor must control damages, fires and rebuild, is modeled after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In another scenario, a nuclear power plants faces a meltdown which incinerates the city in which the mayor must rebuild (a scenario which was removed after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011).

These scenarios also demonstrate Wright’s bias and overarching faith in urban planning. Wright strongly believed in mass transit and was wary and disapproving of nuclear energy, a political agenda that is pushed through the design of the game. In regards to Wright’s confidence in urban planning, real modern issues like crime in cities transform into obstacles that are easily combatted by building police stations (MacDougall, 2011). These assumptions weaved into the gameplay create a cognitive dissonance in today’s context of the game- an educational space where assumptions can be internalized as a disrupted reality. SimCity’s source code was released as the SimCity software was donated to the One Laptop Per Child program, grounding its place as an educational program. As any student in Detroit can see, urban planning has yet to save their city even after 40 years. SimCity treads the simulation and educational game genres, serving an important role in both. SimCity created a relationship between simulator and education which continues to this day including business and management, training games and health and medical games. It paved the trail for its genre, widening the borders of what a successful market game could be, as well as becoming a media form in which the relationship between history, education and gaming can be examined and discussed.

Works Referenced:

Broderbund 1984, Raid On Bungeling Bay, video game, Commodore 64, Broderbund Software

Insert Coin. “SimCity – PC (1989).” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 January 2012. Web. 26 February 2017.

MacDougall, Rob. “Seeing Like SimCity.” Web blog post. Play the Past. 26 January 2011. Web. 26 February 2017

Maxis 1989, SimCity Classic, video game, Macintosh, Broderbund Software


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