Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Joy of Sprawl

When I started this blog, I knew that there were a few pet subjects that I would have to cover quickly, and get them out of my system. This was chief among them: my love affair with the computer game SimCity. I might even have to return to this subject - after all, I've now written about it twice for Icon (once, twice), and still don't feel I've done it justice. I once pitched an extremely lengthy piece about SimCity to an extremely highbrow magazine, suggesting giving it the same sort of multi-thousand-word analysis they would a book or film, but they turned me down. Maybe there's a book in the subject; I know that the aggregated hours I've spent playing it have cost me at least one book. Maybe more. Easily the same amount of time, effort and concentration has been expended, and for what? For nothing.

Not really for nothing, of course - for pleasure. But to no productive end. Of course, it's hard to determine the productive purpose served by reading poetry, something else I enjoy, but computer games have a serious credibility problem attached, eve computer games as open-ended, as fascinating, as absorbing and creative as Simcity. Pleasure is the result, escapist delight, and I think the most effective way of describing the value of the game, of exploring what it means to me, would be to explore that pleasure.

For the uninitiated, SimCity is a game in which you build and manage a city. You start with an empty landscape, and grow a metropolis. You lay the infrastructure, build civic buildings and landmarks and designate the zones, but the computer (in the role of Adam Smith's invisible hand) builds most of the prosaic residential, commercial and industrial buildings in the zones you provide. One of the Icon articles linked above gives a detailed enough impression.

Now, I called SimCity a game - that's not strictly true. Will Wright, its creator, calls it a toy. It's entirely open-ended: there are no win conditions, and only one way you can lose - bankruptcy, which is incredibly easy to avoid. There are no time limits. There is no fixed path for play. The playing area used to be a limiting factor, but now it's large enough to be effectively unlimited.

Why play then? For the satisfaction of efficient management, for the engineer's delight of building a mechanism and watching it run on its own, for the pleasure of creation, and for an exotic extra factor, something I can't properly name: let's call it the joy of sprawl.

Simple pleasures
The satisfaction of efficient management is easy to explain. It's obviously satisfactory when the city one has built is running effieciently, with happy inhabitants, world-class health and education, low taxes, a prospering economy, little crime, pollution and traffic, and so forth. A job well done.

The engineer's delight is also easy to explain and understand - it covers much the same territory as the manager's satisfaction. Your city is a machine or organism, and it's lovely to sit back and watch the traffic stream down its streets, to see building sites appear and skyscrapers rise, to watch ferries using the ports, to watch the trees in the parks mature. SimCity 4, the game's most recent and probably final canonical edition, is an incedibly detailed and beautiful game, as I hope the screenshots here convey.

Those pleasures are both lovely. But they're limited - they get boring. We'll get back to that.

Complex pleasures
The pleasure of creation is, again, easy to explain. Playing SimCity is a creative act, and once a player has grasped the basic principles of the game, generally their next step is to try to build their ideal city. (When I speak about players in general, rather than me in particular, I am drawing from compulsive reading of SimCity forums such as Simtropolis, not guessing.) Of course, the ideal city varies from person to person - generally, people either strive for beauty, realism, grandeur or super-size.

What's interesting about those qualities is the way that they overlap, and sometimes don't overlap. Cities that strive towards grandeur, order and beauty can stray into overly sterile Grand Manner quite easily, a dull spectacle of beautifully symmetrical Haussman rond-points, Cerdà diagonales and L'Enfant malls, with the same tedious gigantism as Speer's Berlin or the prissy lifelessness of the worst excesses of the City Beautiful movement. Realism and terrain constraints help ameliorate this problem, but generally the most beautiful cities are the ones that develop organically, at least in part, with some lack of planning thrown in.

Strangely, the cities that strive for realism often tend to be very beautiful, simply because of the amount of care that goes into making sure that this motorway embankment looks just right, or that row of houses accurately reflects the higgledy-piggledy look of a London street.

Ultimately, however, the pleasure of creation is obvious - it's like painting an attractive city, tinkering to get an attractive corniche with palm-shaded pavement cafes, and tending to one's downtown skyscrapers as one would a topiary, snipping here and nurturing there to get an attractive stadtkrone culmination of spires. Or growing a city with care, updating its transport networks as demand grows, expanding services, luring employers, so you end up with a vast, teeming megacity. Or laying out a grand imperial capital, or something that looks just like a real-life small town.

All these goals are complicated and absorbing. One can sink days of happy building into them, filled with the pleasure of creation. But ultimately the pleasure of creation is still limited - it can get boring.

The delights of Gotham
And so we come to that final, elusive source of pleasure - the secret ingredient that keeps the game pleasurable. The joy of sprawl. The incredible thing about SimCity is that it's fun to play the game badly. It is fun - endless fun - to build a mess of a city, a hellhole, to expand a city in all directions at great speed without a thought for planning or consequences. The population explodes, pollution and crime soar, the streets jam up with traffic, and you keep building. The central business district is overloaded? Build a new commercial district on the periphery, let employers migrate there. Too much traffic? Smash an el-train line through for the time being, don't worry too much about the route. Poor residential district being abandoned because of polluiton, crime, collapsing services and traffic? Build new districts, quick, on the outskirts, and build more industry, create more employment to ensure housing isn't too plentiful, the poor have to live somwhere, they'll stay in the slum. The answer to all problems is build, build, build, and grow, grow, grow, not stop and fix. Don't plan - you'll only slow things down.

This is, of course, how many cities really did develop for at least part of their life. Many British cities did this in the 19th century, and many American cities did it in the 20th century. Many Chinese cities are doing it now.

Eventually, you end up with something like Gotham city, a nightmarish, crumbling megacity that barely works. Poor tax base and inefficient services will tend to keep the city budget in permanent crisis, endlessly dropping into the red.

It's a mess. And as a player, I couldn't be happier - because now there are problems to solve. Building a city from scratch is a fascinating task, but nothing is as fascinating as managing, and slowly fixing, and decrepit, decaying monster. (You might be interested to hear that simply slashing taxes and rolling back business regulation rarely works.)

The delights of Robert Moses
But we're not done. It's a pleasure to build a good city. It's a pleasure to build a bad city. It's a pleasure to build a bad city and turn it into a good city. It's even a pleasure to build a good city and let it degenerate into a bad city. But there's something else that's fun: building a "bad", sprawling, Gotham-esque city wracked with problems and fixing it ... badly.

We can think of this as the pleasure of being Robert Moses. Go about solving your sprawling city's traffic problems with a network of superhighways. "Fix" slum districts by driving elevated freeways straight through them, and decant the displaced residents into new high-density projects elsewhere. Everything can be improved by a grandiose and destructive bit of heavy road infrastructure - neglect services, let public transport run down, sweep away the varied and interesting to make way for sterile office districts, bare-bones housing projects and egomaniacal stadia and convention centres adrift on an ocean of parking spaces.

Part of the appeal of a bit of Moses-style play is the thrill of wanton destruction - presumably the same impulse which leads some players to build a city and then entertain themselves slamming meteorites into them. (I've never enjoyed volcano-slinging.) But there's also the pleasure in knowing that the fix won't work, or that its effects will be temporary at best, or that it merely displaces or defers problems. The key is that it leads, ultimately, to new problems, which require planning around, ameliorating, and fixing. There'll be more game to play, as you remove the expressway you smashed through downtown only a few decades earlier.

What it comes down to - the formula for sustained SimCity pleasure - is staving off stasis. Once part of the city is "finished" - for instance, a historic core that looks perfect, or a fully skyscraper core - it really is finished. Finished as in game over. You can look at it and derive satisfaction for a while, but there's no more building to be done. The pleasure of SimCity is in flux, development, problems, difficulty. Getting big quickly through sprawl is exhilirating and stores up the pleasure of solving the resulting clusterfuck. Fixing things Moses style gives the cathartic pleasure of fixing (and the unalloyed joy of large-scale planning and building) without actually changing anything for the better.

Can anything be learned about real urbanism from all this? Well, I'd be wary of that, because this is just the starting point of what I hope will be a periodic exploration of SimCity, ultimately perhaps resulting in a longer piece of writing. But I will say this. I grew up in Oxford, parts of which are famously, spectacularly beautiful. I used to cycle through Radcliffe Square every morning on my way to school - it is simply exquisite. But - barring a major disaster - Radcliffe Square will almost certainly never change. It's finished. Game over. I've been thinking about this recently, in connection with my attack on the turn-back-the-clockers in the Statesman, and the recent argie-bargies involving Prince Charles. It's a dangerous idea, that something is finished. There's a "Conversation" in the next Icon that includes David Adjaye, and he says that a common misconception about London is that it's "finished", that vast areas of it don't need anything to be done to them. And that's a crazy idea - on any reasonable measure, huge areas of London, of most cities, need quite radical rethinks. But this pernicious idea is put about, that things are basically OK, that our first duty is to conserve and be sensitive, that the furniture is just fine where granny left it. Game over.


Markasaurus said...

I had completely forgotten about SimCity until reading this post. I am insanely tempted to download it right now, but I have a feeling that if I do I will never be able to finish packing for my move.

I would love to look back to the cities I planned in the original version of SimCity and see how they differ from what I would do now- nearly 20 years later as an adult with a graduate degree in architecture. I probably had better sense back then.

p.s. I remember that one of the original scenarios involved "fixing" Detroit. Perhaps you can tie this into your future Detroit feature in Icon somehow?

Kosmograd said...

Surely the best thing about SimCity is building a thriving metropolis and then unleashing Godzilla upon it?

I love the concept of "Mosesification" - 'mending' urban problems with ill-conceived quick-fix infrastructure projects.

Jonathan Clarke said...

Nice article.

I love SimCity and have been crossing my fingers for years that they'll eventually make another one. I seem to recall that there was a sort of follow up, based on New York. While it looked prettier, it lacked the creative element, that was so fundamental to the game.

If only the real world of work, was half as engaging...

Unknown said...

Mark - I played the original SimCity as well, and you're right, it would be fascinating to take a look back at what sort of things I created. As I remember, the original game became quite formulaic quite quickly. There wer ethe scenarios of course - including fixing Detroit. I remember that being a difficult one. The Icon piece about Detroit might be a non-starter I'm afraid - certainly I've pitched similar in the past and they don't get far.

Kosmograd - I've never enjoyed the Hulk-smash school of gaming, although I can see why it might appeal. There is one exception - sometimes when a fire breaksout in a heavily rundown or mostly abandoned district of a Gotham-style city, I'll let it spread and burn a bit before putting it out, just to make the dilapidation a bit more realistic.

Jonathan - It would be lovely to see SC5, but I fear the prospects aren't bright. Wright has left Maxis/EA, and there's a question of what could be done with a further sequel. Making the simulation more detailed and complicated would limit its commercial appeal (although I would be overjoyed, as would other hardcore fans). Taking itin another direction risks being a flop that alienates fans - SimCity Societies, for instance, was a failure along those lines. And stripping it back to basics would be similarly risky.

Kevin said...

Wow! What a classic. I remember playing SimCity for hours as a kid. Unfortunately, I never got very good at it. Godzilla always came by and destroyed everything before I got a chance really develop. I sort of want to get back into the game and see how they changed the building options. Easier to establish suburban sprawl? Sure seems like what's happening in reality.