Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

Planning Confidential: 4 Reasons SimCity is Better Than You

Posted by Roobs on May 8, 2013


SimCity.  Possibly the most popular computer game among urban planners.  You get to put roads where you want them.  Transit where you want it.  Build a high-rise, high-density core, and there’s not a NIMBY in site.  Or at least none that you can’t simply bulldoze out of the way.  Yes, every urban planner loves SimCity.  Except for the ones that don’t.

It was about a year ago or so when I first read a planning-related article about the popular city simulation game.  The article was more of an attack on the game being perceived as a “urban planning” simulation, citing how it is not at all realistic to what planners do and potential graduate students in planning should avoid it (if I could find it I would add the link, but I can’t).  My response: of course it’s not realistic.  It’s a computer game!  But here’s why SimCity is better at planning than the haters.

SimCity just doesn’t care

Despite what the author of the aforementioned article may think, SimCity is the favorite computer game of most urban planners and planning graduate students.  It’s not because it’s a realistic depiction of their aspiring or current careers,  but more so because it’s cathartic.  In SimCity, as the Mayor (aka: Planning God), you have absolute dictatorial control over your city where your decisions are the correct ones.  It’s a world where buildings rise and fall at your arbitrary whim.  Neighbors don’t want a new commercial center downtown?  Screw those NIMBYs and just demolish their buildings and put a park in their place to increase your commercial center’s land value.  What planner wouldn’t want to take a bulldozer to their most ardent development hecklers?  You need a city council approval to build a new airport?  Fuck that noise.  I’m just going to plop one right here next to my high-speed rail station.  Done.  Don’t you think LAX would love to simply plop a new and longer runway right over Westchester?  That would shut them up.  And CEQA?  What CEQA?  Here’s a new waste treatment plant right next to the water pump.  Boom.  Yea, SimCity is an awesome planner.

SimCity rocks GIS

The latest installment of SimCity, even with all of its initial launch bugs, is by far one of the most sophisticated urban planning simulations created.  It’s ability to create traffic agent behavior is pretty amazing: with each agent having performance characteristics, such as speed, acceleration, and deceleration.  The agents know when they need to use the appropriate turn lanes (TURN LANES!) and U-turns, and the worker agents successfully simulate morning and evening rush hour.  Let’s be honest, SimCity is far better at traffic simulation than anything you’ve done in your cubical.  When was the last time you worked in a network analysis in your routine?  Oh, I’m sorry, you’re too busy reviewing plans for a resident to increase his privacy hedge.

SimCity is every grad schools dream applicant

The author also had some choice advice for potential planning students; suggesting there are two columns in which planning schools put student applications: one with applications that reference SimCity and another with those that don’t, with the former being the proverbial throw-away pile. First of all, I referenced SimCity in my application for graduate school at UCLA and I got in to their program.  So if this is the author’s personal theory I can shoot holes in it.

Second, SimCity offers many great educational experiences to the young planner, such as land use, economics, employment/unemployment, and even environmentalism.  But more importantly, it introduces the average person, especially  young kids and teenagers, to the concept of urban planning – a field that is so obscure to them that many don’t even know it’s a professional field.  What planning program wouldn’t want that?  For the author to suggest the game is completely devoid of educational and practical value is just another example of annoyingly arrogant “professional” planners throwing their beloved game under the bus.  If I hear another high and mighty planner come and tell me that “SimCity isn’t a realistic” or some type of downer to it’s educational value: Who do you think you are?  It’s not like you came out of your mother’s womb drawing street maps on an Etch-A-Sketch or master planning your room.  In fact, you wanted to be a lawyer, or a police detective, or porn fluffer when you were a kid.  You didn’t know what planning was until you started playing SimCity so stop throwing shade, bitch.

SimCity would own a community meeting

In the same vein as the previous point, it’s not the game’s fault (emphasis on GAME), if people take this game and think it portrays an exact replica solution to real world problems, such as single use zoning (i.e., sprawl).  It’s not the game’s fault you, in all your wisdom, can’t convince the community of the benefits of mixed-use zoning or form-based codes.  In fact, the game does a better job at that as well.  SimCity teaches generation after generation the basic principles of urban planning.

For example, you run out of space but your firms and factories say they need more workers?  You can’t build out more, so you need to build up.  You need to increase the capacity of adjacent roads to allow the buildings to grow in height and increase the number of residents.  This isn’t exactly how it works in real life (fucking NIMBYs), but the concept of increasing density as a way to increase housing supply and avoid continued sprawl is a fundamental concept in modern planning.  And now they know that even if they don’t know it’s planning.

In the end, SimCity is awesome and there are reasons why urban planners love it.  Sure, there’s the cathartic aspect of it, but it is also a great learning tool masked in good times.  Many of today’s young urban planners can trace the genesis of their interest in planning to this game.  As they say in politics, “dance with the one that brought you.”  As for the haters, go back to reviewing that privacy hedge application.

This is the 1st post in the series: Planning Confidential: Everything you thought about planning is true.  Click the link for an index of other Planning Confidential posts.

Roobs is an urban planner in Los Angeles.  He received his Master’s in Urban & Regional Planning from UCLA with concentrations in Urban Design & Transportation.  He received his Bachelors from UC Berkeley in Legal Studies and Sociology.


One Response to “Planning Confidential: 4 Reasons SimCity is Better Than You”

  1. […] Planning Confidential: 4 Reasons SimCity is Better Than You […]

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