I am a child of the early home computer era. I played text-based games on my dad’s Apple IIE, and I continued to play games as the capabilities of the hardware available steadily increased.
One of the games that I never lost my appetite for was (and still is) Sim City. I played the original Sim City, and I’ve played each of the subsequent versions, including the newest one.
The newest Sim City is quite pretty, but I believe it is outclassed by Cities: Skylines, a game that has had me thinking a lot about city sims lately as my laptop won’t run it, and I am grieving that fact.
Sim City was a thing I sat down at thinking that it would be a chance to explore a new world, test guesses, take on imaginary responsibilities in a low-risk context… in other words, a chance to be creative. And it always started out that way. But the game is structured in a specific way to keep you increasing your city population in order to unlock new types of buildings and new aspects to gameplay. This means that you don’t get to play the full game until you’ve reached a series of benchmarks.
This is the carrot that gets you to continue the game. I’ve played city sims in sandbox modes, and I’ll say from experience that they’re not as fun, because the challenge is removed, and creativity thrives on overcoming challenges.
But that kind of challenge also changed how I played the game every time. Every single time. I would start out by choosing a map, and initially I’d want something interesting, with features that naturally divided the play area into what I could envision as neighborhoods or city districts. Maps with mountains, mesas, coastlines, rivers, and islands. But since the classic benchmark for Sim City games is city population, these plans, and often entire nascent imaginary towns, were abandoned in attempts to reach more of those benchmarks faster.
Since the kind of land that is most useful for increasing the city population is flat land, the pristine coastal communities and sprawling mountain views were left behind in short order for expanses of flat, unobstructed, featureless land. The most efficient way to pack the most people in the city play area would, of course, be grids, so curving neighborhood streets became rigidly structured grids, sized so that the highest density of residential apartment buildings would nestle in between the roads perfectly, and as little land as possible would be wasted.
This happened every time.
Because I wanted to play with the higher level buildings. I wanted to play with the higher level buildings and as a result a more complicated style of gameplay as quickly as possible. But by the time I got those higher level buildings, I had a sad, overpopulated flat plane of gridded streets and grim apartment blocks.
So I would start over with a new city.
This happened over and over again.
Is this starting to sound familiar? Repetitive activity, increasingly high but consistently simple benchmarks to reach before one could move forward…
It, quite frankly, sounds like a lot of jobs I’ve had. And it is the secret to why a job can be simultaneously crushingly difficult and soul-killingly unchallenging. And it is why so many of the jobs we work in the modern day suck, and why our managers and/or our employees within these jobs suck.
Now, I don’t want to go off the deep end and say that Sim City and a good number of the other Sim games that have come since it are designed to teach us how to be good capitalist drones, and the reason I don’t want to say that is because I don’t think that it’s anything so intentional as that. I simply think that these games cannot help but model the dominant culture of those that made them.
Much like stories in any form, be they part of an oral tradition, movies and television, novels or poems or songs, these games are communicating culture, and it takes an intentional effort and an acute awareness of what’s being communicated in order to transmit anything but that dominant culture. This is how culture replicates and spreads. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it depends on whether what’s being transmitted improves the world and the lives of its inhabitants or worsens those things.
I’m actually not opposed to capitalism. I like it. I like that someone with a good idea can go into business and invest their money and/or time and effort in that idea, and spread it. But I do worry about certain aspects of corporatism and how they worm their way into the workplace and as a result our daily lives. I think it’s important to be aware of what cultural viruses you may be carrying and to be intentional about which of these you send forth into the minds of others, and how you send them.