Did Sim City Make Us Stupid?

250px-SimCity_Classic_cover_art My post on the lack of good simulation games triggered this reverie from Peter, regarding the city-planning simulation game, Sim City:

Ah, SimCity.  … As a youngster I spent many hours building fields of residential tract housing, industrial parks, huge blighted and substantially vacant commercial districts, mega-highways connecting them all, and Godzilla.

When I recently discovered that the original SimCity was released as open source, I had to download it and try it out. I knew that it was inaccurate, but it was nostalgia. Then I discovered exactly how inaccurate it was. “No mixed residential and commercial areas?!? WTF!” I did play it long enough to also notice that transportation was pretty much a capital expenditure with no operating costs. Sigh.

Yes, those are the two of the worst fallacies built into the original Sim City:  

  1. the fallacy that transit costs are mostly in construction rather than operations (a false analogy with highways) and
  2. the fallacy that residential and commercial development must always be on separate parcels — no residential towers over retail or even an apartment over the corner shop.

I’d love to hear from other people who played Sim City in the 90s.  Did it affect how you think about these issues?  Or was the artifice so obvious that you just treated it as harmless fun, as irrelevant to your urbanist thinking as an Egyptian-themed slot machine is to the study of classical Egypt? 


Now, Sim City is a game, and to be fun it has to be quick to learn, so of course it will simplify.  The problem is that these two fallacies in Sim City are also great fallaces of mid-late 20th Century urbanism.  Sim City didn’t just simplify, it simplified in the direction of the old habits of urbanist thought — habits that were already being challenged (in part by the New Urbanism) by the time the game was invented in the late 1980s. In short, Sim City could be hailed as a triumph of reactionary brainwashing — in that it instilled in a generation of 1990s teen geeks all the worst assumptions of 1960s city planning.  


Peter, however, looks to the future:

Maybe your new US DOT readership could shake loose some funding for a project similar in scope to the DoD’s “America’s Army” video game? I can see it now: “Engage residents in realistic dialogue about the merits of density, reduced roadways expenditures, and increased public transit expenditures. ‘American Planner’ allows for sophisticated team play and role specialization. Play as a time-stressed project manager, travel demand modeler, or even as a community cycling and pedestrian coordinator. It’s your choice!”

What do you say, Mr. Secretary? Future planners of America are awaiting your bold initiative.

While we’re waiting to hear back from the Secretary, I’d love to hear from you,  Any aspiring simulation-builders out there?  And if anyone’s already working on this, let me know.

UPDATE:  Excellent comments on this one, many assuring us that post-millennium versions of Sim City were better.  I’m relieved not to have to investigate this and risk acquiring a new addiction.  But see especially the account by Morgan Wick on how urbanist fallacies percolated through later generations of the Sim empire.

22 Responses to Did Sim City Make Us Stupid?

  1. Daniel June 7, 2009 at 9:32 pm #

    I loved SimCity back in the day, and I’m still fond of it, but yes, the more you think about some of these issues, the more unrealistic it seems. OK, so I seem to recall the manual noted that building railways could help cut traffic, but that was as far as it went. I haven’t really played the later versions; maybe they improved?
    A-Train, also released by Maxis, but written in Japan, also suffered from a lack of realism (or maybe I just didn’t understand it).
    It’s not a city planning game, but Traffic Giant captured some of the aspects of public transport operations. (I see someone in your other post referenced it.)

  2. anonymouse June 8, 2009 at 8:11 am #

    “the fallacy that transit costs are mostly in construction rather than operations (a false analogy with highways)”
    I’d argue that this isn’t even really true with highways, though the bureaucrats would like Maintenance keeps getting deferred until you get the Minneapolis bridge incident, and maintenance ends up being turned into a capital expense by letting things decay until they have to be torn down and rebuilt. And there are all sorts of operating expenses that don’t count against the road budget, for example Highway Patrol (Amtrak Police is definitely part of Amtrak’s budget).

  3. Todd June 8, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Sim City may not have mixed-use zones, but when I played the later iterations, I would intermix residential and commercial zones, e.g. to mimic a neighborhood with low-density commericial development along the main street and residential development behind. These neighborhoods were very successful, so I think that the game does capture that aspect of modern urban thinking.

  4. Peter June 8, 2009 at 8:09 pm #

    Todd, I may be unfairly maligning SimCity in that I’ve only ever played the original. Perhaps I should pick up one of the current generation versions and give that a go.

  5. John June 9, 2009 at 5:58 am #

    It has gotten better with time, but there’s still no mixed use zone. However, the Sim City 4 does include operating costs for transportation, and it will let you build El, Subway, monorail, or commuter rail.

  6. Scott C June 9, 2009 at 8:28 am #

    Seeing as it’s open source now maybe somebody with the know how could get going on fixing that bug.

  7. Morgan Wick June 9, 2009 at 12:36 pm #

    In my experience with SC4, walking distances are too small for there not to be a station every 2 or 3 blocks if you’re trying to build an urban, transit-oriented paradise.
    Also, I always have trouble figuring out where to put Industrial zones – I don’t know where urbanism says to place them, so that might be another place where the lack of mixed-use zoning fails me.
    And there are no streetcars. And bus stops still take up an entire grid square.
    On the plus side, I think my mass transit division sometimes makes a profit!
    Also, SC4 radically changed the model and I think it was mostly for the better. In past versions it was pretty clear that the “city” was very abstract – you were only building the major roads and assuming there were smaller side streets in the interior of the grid, because houses would be built that didn’t touch any roads. This got worse for SC2K (becoming more explicit and common even for commercial and industrial).
    In SC4, however, every street is displayed and simulated and every house faces a street, and you can create a massive zone and the streets will be auto-platted for you. And they won’t be platted with cul-de-sacs either, but with nice and neat grids. (This made possible the Rush Hour expansion’s Route Query tool, which allowed you to look at every single house’s commute. Rush Hour also introduced the El (interconnected with the subway network, but no surface version of either), monorail (explicitly for long distances only – maybe they meant maglev?), and ferries, but also park-and-rides.)
    On the down side, the new regional approach lets you sprawl to your heart’s content (especially on easier difficulty levels, another thing Rush Hour introduced – previously in SC4 all cities were Hard) and official publications explicitly encourage you to make single-zone “cities” (like sprawly suburbs and suburban office parks and industrial complexes.)
    And the region has hard-and-fast borders drawn on it that complicates a lot of things, not the least of them connectivity; you need roads, not streets, to connect two cities, and every connection is a beacon to the route simulator “hey, fun stuff here!” so cars jam every connection including ones you’d never intended to be jammed.
    SC2K was a step backwards from the original because it introduced freeways, but they were cumbersome to place and it also introduced subways so it wasn’t that bad. Not sure but I think transportation was also an operating cost.
    I can’t attest to SimCity Societies because I don’t consider it an actual part of the series.
    You want to talk about a game that’s bad about urbanism? How about The Sims? Sims 1 was explicitly set on a cul-de-sac. Most Sims 2 neighborhoods (not all the preloaded maps though) were on grids, but the general character was still suburban, and the Nightlife expansion took a step backwards by giving the Sims their own car so they didn’t have to carpool to work.
    (To my knowledge the only forms of transportation there have ever been in the Sims through the first two games are car, carpool, and taxi, and maybe walking for NPCs. And the carpool sometimes takes the form of things like private helicopters on higher levels. No buses or trains. And to my knowledge that didn’t change for Sims 3 either, though see below.)
    It wasn’t until Sims 2’s Apartment Life expansion that we got, well, apartments (the dorms in University don’t count). On the plus side, Sims 3 allows your Sims to leave their house and go anywhere in the neighborhood by walking (NOT by calling a taxi to go 100 feet down the street), and I’m not sure, but I think it introduces (can it be???) mixed-use buildings!!! A good sign for (the real) SimCity 5 perhaps???

  8. DJ June 9, 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    Just found your blog. I just recently started mine at http://21stcenturyurbansolutions.wordpress.com/
    I wouldn’t be where I am now without all the hours I spent playing SimTown, SimCity 3000, and SimCity 4 (SimCity 2000 was too difficult for me at age 7–my cities would always end up broke). I was frustrated as I got older at how SimCity 4 limited transportation choices, but there were all the mods online to include light rail, bus stops on roads, etc. to make things more realistic. I stopped playing after freshman year of high school, but I definitely attribute SimCity to inspiring me to pursue city planning now.

  9. Art June 10, 2009 at 12:40 am #

    SimCity 4 Deluxe or Rush Hour edition with the optional N.A.M. (Network Addon Mod) is a dream come true for some fun urban planning gaming. With Rush Hour and NAM, you can have commuter rail, monorail (essentially HSR), elevated heavy rail, surface light rail, subway, and pedestrian only streets. You can also install a modified pathfinding engine (if you have a more powerful CPU), which increases the distance acceptable Sims will travel – making more realistic transit routes possible.
    I really think the author should go buy Sim City 4 Deluxe, download NAM and some extra stations and the like to go with it, and have fun. They will be pleasantly surprised.

  10. Art June 10, 2009 at 12:54 am #

    (this should have been lumped into my previous post)
    On my most recent city in SC4 with a population of about 180,000, I’ve been making 500% profit on my transportation system every month. It’s all based around a seamless transit model of monorail (HSR), commuter rail (intercity), heavy rail/light rail/subway (trunk lines within city), bus (everywhere else). There are no highways anywhere in the entire region, and toll booths were placed every 8 or 10 blocks away from city center (essentially making congestion pricing). The result of this was very little car use, and heavy transit use and pedestrian traffic.
    The coolest thing ever was purposely building a neighborhood without good transit access. It grew up into dense buildings, but was mostly poor, with the only transit being regular bus service. Then I added a light rail line that fed directly into the downtown subway network, and within ten years the entire neighborhood gentrified into middle and upper class residents.
    Also as a result of high transit use, air pollution in the city is nearly non existent. The only air pollution that exists is along the roads heavily used by buses. All of the power plants to power the city are clean/renewable (geothermal, wind, and some solar), which cost a lot more than coal or oil, but the increased tax revenue from gentrified neighborhoods made it possible build them.

  11. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org June 10, 2009 at 1:40 am #

    Thanks for the comments. Not having played later versions of Sim City, I’ve updated the post to clarify the references to the original 1990s game. It sounds like I’d still quarrel with some of SC4’s assumptions (especially “buses=poor people”) but then someone would quarrel with any assumptions.
    I spent a bit of time trying to figure out how to buy a PC version of SC4 online here in Australia, but they did not make it easy. Fortunately, the commenters have given a pretty full rundown of what SC4 does and doesn’t do, so I feel pretty well educated without having to risk obtaining a new addiction.
    I stand by my comments only as they refer to the 1990s version.
    Cheers, Jarrett

  12. jfruh June 10, 2009 at 6:13 am #

    It’s been years since I’ve played the original SimCity, but am I wrong in remembering that you had to allocate a certain portion of your budget to transportation? If you underfunded this line item, eventually your road and rail networks with start to decay (individual squares would turn into rubble at random) and then you’d have to pay to rebuild.

  13. Sean June 12, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    All I know about urban planning I learned from SimCity. Including the well established fact that roads build beneath power lines do not degrade, regardless of how little maintenance you fund…

  14. Jeremiah June 20, 2009 at 9:24 am #

    Coming late to this thread, but I always thought urban planners/managers could use a SimCity4 style interface over their actual data. Picture SC4 mashed with Google Maps and actual data (water pressure and distribution, for example.) I think this could go a long way to making ‘big picture’ assessments much more economical.

  15. Wad June 20, 2009 at 4:47 pm #

    SimCity 4 allows a great degree of customization thanks to a robust community of modders. For now, you could download new buildings and objects (a road pack includes streetcar tracks, for instance), but there are some that can manipulate the game’s AI levels. You can make zone growth or commute distnaces very loose or tight.
    I doubt it could be modded to what Jeremiah wants, though.

  16. Daniel M. Laenker July 6, 2009 at 7:52 am #

    In addition to the other points, I’d like to say that it was only SimCity 2000 and later that had “highways” in the sense of grade-separated arterials. Though interestingly enough, even from that point, it became obvious very quickly to me that if you built these freeways, they became congested very quickly and would even move slower than if you hadn’t built them at all. So it seems like they demonstrated concepts like induced demand from nearly the beginning!
    I did have some problems with SimCity even as a fan – it’s never been good on inclusive zoning, like you said. But it’s also never really allowed irregular, non-rectangular lots or buildings, so there’s that to contend with.

  17. SpyOne July 23, 2009 at 9:16 am #

    I think I was always keenly aware of how much SimCity sacrificed realism for gameplay.
    SimCity2000 had a strategy guide that gave a specific scale for the map: each square is supposed to be 208 feet on a side.
    Which means that your Sims are unwilling to live, shop, or work in any location that is more than 600 feet from the nearest road at least 200 feet wide. The city I grew up in has no roads that fit that description. The (much larger) city I live in today has only 2 roads that even get close, each being 5 lanes in each direction plus right- and left-turn only lanes.
    I need to get SC4, but the original is now available for free, and can be fun.

  18. Tyler April 17, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    Sim City original charged $1 per square of road every year.

  19. Nike Shox Deliver July 7, 2010 at 7:35 pm #

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  20. Zmapper September 15, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    As an avid SimCity 4 player almost since it came out, it has truly evolved. There is a large and helpful community that has produced many great additions and mods that really change the game. Now because a lot of stuff is hard-coded inside the .exe there are limitations. But what they can mod they have developed to their fullest.
    As far as transport additions go, one of my favorite and the most downloaded one is the NAM (Network Addition Mod). This download gives you the ability to construct streetcars, Improves the pathfinder, Allows you to build new types of interchanges and junctions, and a whole lot more.
    Also, the same people have produced the RHW (Real Highway) which allows you to make highways up to 5 lanes in each direction, the NWM (Network Widening Mod) which gives you different types of roads. The website to download these things is simtropolis.com
    Note that you have to register at Simtropolis before you can download the fun stuff.

  21. Theo September 16, 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    If you’re interested in intercity transport building and operations (passenger and cargo) you can always look at Transport Tycoon Deluxe, an old game by Chris Sawyer. There’s an open source version out there somewhere called OTTD with advanced signalling, custom trainsets, etc. Look it up at your own risk. I have wasted many, many hours on that game. Much more than on SimCity 4.

  22. David September 28, 2010 at 12:12 am #

    When I was a little kid I played a TON of SimCity 2000, and before that I played quite a bit of the original SimCity. It’s been mentioned previously, but the first SimCity had no ability to create limited-access freeways. I got around this by just running parallel roads right next to each other, making a pseudo-divided highway.
    I was also really excited every time some new housing development carved up a hillside near my house, or the freeway got widened. I used to imagine how great it would have been if all the numerous 1970s-era planned freeways were built.
    I don’t know if the SimCity playing caused my this bizarre phase with Robert Moses/Le Corbusier ideals (what kid even cares about this stuff) or if that was just a reflection of my innate interest (either possibility is hilarious).