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From video game to day job: How SimCity inspired a generation of city planners

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Playing “SimCity,” Jason Baker says, “helped remind me of the importance of local government, which is what I ended up doing for a living.”
Dreamstime/TNS Playing “SimCity,” Jason Baker says, “helped remind me of the importance of local government, which is what I ended up doing for a living.”

Jason Baker was studying political science at UC Davis when he got his hands on SimCity. He took a careful approach to the computer game.

“I was not one of the players who enjoyed Godzilla running through your city and destroying it. I enjoyed making my city run well,” he recalled.

This conscientious approach gave him a boost in a class on local government. Instead of writing a term paper about three different models for how cities can develop, Baker proposed building three scenarios in SimCity, then letting the game run on its own and writing about how his virtual cities fared.

He ended up getting an A. Playing SimCity, Baker said, “helped remind me of the importance of local government, which is what I ended up doing for a living.”

Today, Baker is the vice president of transportation and housing at the nonprofit Silicon Valley Leadership Group. He served as a council member in Campbell, Calif., from 2008 to 2016, a tenure that included two stints as mayor.

Thirty years ago, Maxis released SimCity for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by SimCity 2000 in 1993, SimCity 3000 in 1999, SimCity 4 in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, SimCity: BuildIt in 2013, and an app launched in 2014.

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living.

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For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, SimCity was their first taste of running a city.

It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

Bitten by the city-building bug

“I used to draw maps of cities for fun. I had no idea it was an actual career,” said Nicole Payne, now a program official for the National Association of City Transportation Officials in New York City.

When she was 10, a librarian saw her drawings and told her there was a video game she should try.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without SimCity,” she said.

Cuong Trinh played SimCity in a summer school class in junior high. Years later, after getting his undergraduate degree, he wanted to travel but because he was under 25, he had to rule out cities where he would need to rent a car to get around.

“That’s what really got me thinking about urban planning and SimCity, where you put in trains, where you help people move,” said Trinh, now acting senior transportation planner for Caltrans in downtown Los Angeles.

In more than a dozen interviews for this article, people who went from SimCity enthusiasts to professional planners talked about what they liked about the game.

The way you can visualize how a single change affects a whole city. The ability to see how transit, livability and the economy are all connected.

The fact that no one likes to live near a landfill.

As with Baker, many of the players who went on to become planners generally said they didn’t like to activate the game’s built-in “disaster” mode, which unleashes earthquakes, hurricanes or Godzilla on cities.

They got satisfaction from building pristine cities so efficient they could run themselves.

Simplified simulations

Will Wright, the creator of SimCity, imagined when he designed the game that it would be interesting only to architects and city planners. But the first version wound up selling more than one million copies and changing the nature of gaming.

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It popularized the simulation game genre and turned Maxis — a start-up launched in Orinda, Calif., by Wright and Jeff Braun — into an industry titan.

Maxis capitalized on the game’s success, publishing SimAnt, SimFarm, SimEarth, SimTower, SimLife, SimIsle and SimHealth in its first decade, along with a handful of less popular non-simulation titles.

The company was valued at $125 million by the time it was acquired by EA in 1997. In 2000, the Redwood City studio released The Sims, which became one of the best-selling video games of all time.

Wright’s vision in SimCity imposed an old-school approach to city-building, influenced by Robert Moses and the Chicago school.

For those early urban planners, and in SimCity, there were binary solutions to problems. To lower crime rates, build police stations.

If people complain about traffic, build more roads. If you need space to build a freeway or a stadium, raze working-class neighborhoods.

“A lot of the assumptions baked into that game are the normative assumptions that we need to be questioning,” Brown said.

Some of that includes examining what the game chooses to leave out. The environment wasn’t a consideration beyond air quality. The race of a city’s populace was largely a non-factor.

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