Any computer gamer old enough to remember floppy disks probably paid at least a fleeting visit to SimCity, the legendary franchise that let players build -- and destroy -- the metropolises of their imaginations. After passing through half a dozen incarnations in the two decades since its debut, the game is back, and its creator, Maxis Studios, says that this time, it's putting more than bricks and mortar into the mix.
Slated for release in 2013, the new SimCity invites players to grapple with tough choices about energy generation, environmental costs and the responsibilities shouldered by inhabitants of a planet with finite resources -- choices faced by real policymakers on the very real planet Earth.
To the game's original repertoire of fire stations and governor's mansions, power lines and city budgets, Maxis is adding a cocktail of new challenges, including limited resources and the spillover effects of pollution.
All of this, its architects say, is in pursuit of a more "real" virtual experience.
"The most important thing is the integrity of the simulation underneath [the game], the stuff that represents the systems that make up a real city," wrote creative director Ocean Quigley in a recent online forum where game developers took questions from critics and fans. "I don't want to enforce sustainable design principles in the game -- I want them to emerge as natural consequences of your interaction with the simulation."
Those "natural consequences" can take a number of forms. Cities built to run on cheap, abundant fossil fuels can expand quickly, but overdependence may imperil those that don't eventually diversify their energy supply, wrote Dan Moskowitz, senior software engineer at Maxis.
"If you've built up an entire city on the economic basis of extracting a certain resource, when that resource runs out your economy will collapse," he noted.
Pollution is also a key consideration that can harm the health and affluence of a player's virtual population if allowed to increase unchecked.
"If you don't deal with your sewage, with traffic congestion, with walkability and transit, with ground and air pollution -- your city will reflect that!" Quigley said.
Power to the players
Despite its added levels of complexity, the newest version of SimCity still contains that bedrock tension -- the intrinsic pressure on a city to expand, tempered by financial constraints and finite resources -- that formed the core of the original.
What the new game adds to the experience, aside from beautifully rendered, three-dimensional graphics, is a vastly diversified tool kit -- one that more closely approximates the options of modern urban planners.
The original 1989 version of SimCity offered only a basic set of controls: Cities were laid out on rigid grids. Power supply was directly related to population size, and automobiles were residents' only mode of transport.
With the exponential increases achieved by computing power in the past two decades, the gates to SimCity are now wide open to all kinds of sustainable design concepts, and fans are already clamoring for greater control at all levels.
"I know the game doesn't quite reflect reality, but how much focus will there be on the new sustainability trends with mixed-used zoning, complete streets, public-transit/pedestrian friendly development, waste management/recycling, etc?" wrote one fan.
"Mixed use zoning is an absolute must!" chimed in another.
Many critics have complained in the past that rigid zoning standards in previous versions forced them into a "California" model of urban development -- sprawling suburbs revolving around a central commercial district -- which in turn forces residents to make long, traffic-clogged commutes.
The game's architects say they are working with an unidentified "green" developer to integrate cutting-edge sustainable design principles into the new game, ensuring that, if players want to build a net-energy-neutral city, it will be possible to do so. Public transportation, bike-only streets and energy-efficient building codes will all be at players' disposal, they say.
To green, or not to green
SimCity's player base -- the game has sold more than 20 million copies to date -- is as diverse as the global populace itself, and sustainable design concepts won't necessarily be attractive for all participants. Half the fun of the original SimCity, after all, was sowing mayhem -- unleashing an 80-foot monster lizard in the middle of downtown, for example, always added a classy end-of-game twist.
True to that tradition, the new, amped-up version offers players the freedom to choose the destiny of their civilizations: whether to build a clean, self-contained urban metropolis founded on principles of sustainability, or a sprawling, gas-guzzling hub that pumps out smog and sewage. That flexibility, the game's architects hope, will present players with a chance to experience real-world dilemmas.
"We're doing our best to model real systems ... so that you'll understand something of how they actually work. And you'll make the tradeoffs that real cities have to make," wrote Quigley.
"For example: sure coal is filthy and will sicken and kill [virtual residents] who live down-wind, but man is it cheap! And it makes plenty of power! And it works at night! And when the wind doesn't blow! Sure, I can put up with air pollution and increased mortality for that!" he added.
Because the game is participatory, however -- players "share" virtual worlds via the Internet -- decisions made in one city affect others. Sewage pumped into a shared waterway can have health effects on a downstream population, and air quality is affected by all players in the region. There are even rumors that climate change may appear as a "macro-level" pollution effect.
The integration of environmental principles has raised complaints among a small minority of fans. "Why did the big SimCity announcement turn into a infomercial for An Inconvenient Truth?" griped one, referring to former Vice President Al Gore's 2006 climate change movie.
But in general, the concept of integrated sustainable-design principles seems well-received by a fan base that, in large part, has been with the franchise for decades. "I became an urban planner / urban designer because I have played SimCity my whole life and was deeply inspired by it," wrote one. "Please Maxis ... make it possible to create an amazing city with beautiful and functional streets, public realm and public transit (light rail transit included)."
If the old SimCity could nurture a generation of urban planners, perhaps its newest rendition will inspire tomorrow's natural resource managers and environmental engineers, as well.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500