This is a post about SimCity, shooters, and spending money


SimCity promotes risk taking. It’s not any less focused on risk than, say, Bioshock: Infinite or any other first-person shooter. It’s colored differently, the mechanics are obviously of an entirely different nature, but the elementary observations about what drives the games forward are the same.

I’m touching on this because of a misconception I carried in with me to play SimCity for the first time a few weeks ago. Delighted at the simulation and strategy involved in this city building (and managing) game, I exclaimed to myself how wonderful it was to be playing something free of all the shooting, bravado, and reckless daring seen ad nauseum in most triple-A titles. I told myself I was playing a game about methodical actions, and gauged responses. And while undeniably the level of strategy in the game outweighs most others, my compulsion to play SimCity is based on elements that likewise drive my desire to play most other games — even (especially) the shooting ones.

Actions drive the experience forward. Inaction, while part of the process in SimCity, isn’t nearly as prized as taking some sort of action. There’s a myriad of actions you can take in the game, but it seems the ever pressing scale of your city generally involves spending as the primary action.

You can choose not to spend (a form of inaction) or to cut spending by decreasing services, but generally the population (really a kind of voice for what the game wants you to be doing, a “would you kindly” in Simlish) asks for things that require you to spend. It’s not the only kind of action, but it’s the primary kind.

Spending is the equivalent of shooting in action games. You don’t just shoot in shooter games; you often also run, jump, lob grenades, take cover, reload, switch weapons and all manner of other things. But primarily, you shoot. Likewise, you can do all kinds of things in strategy games that contribute to your overall success or failure, but primarily, you spend.

I don’t even know that strategy game is the best term for a game like SimCity. I think it should be called a spending game. After all, I strategize in shooting games when I decipher which enemy poses the greatest threat, which weapons I should use, what attachments should I bring, and where I should position myself. But the genre is named after the primary action I end up taking — shooting. Likewise, I strategize a whole bunch in SimCity, before I end up spending. The strategizing doesn’t seem to be the driving force so much as the spending does.

One counter argument would be that SimCity doesn’t advocate rampant, irresponsible spending. The player would surely lose if she or he simply spent without strategizing thoroughly, and in certain cases it would be prudent not to spend. The key would be executing good spending, and knowing when not to spend. But that’s still not different than in a shooting game.

Shooters don’t advocate bad shooting anymore than strategy games advocate bad spending. Shooting games prize good shooting just the same way strategy games prize good spending. In many shooters there may be an element of stealth involved, in which it would be best not to shoot right away. Or you may have allies which you’re meant not to shoot. Or you may need to remain in cover, or reposition yourself, not shooting for a period of time until a more opportune moment for shooting presents itself. Shooting games have all sorts of “not shooting” moments that all ultimately lead up to a moment when it’s — guess what? — time to shoot some more.

Strategy games are generally no different when it comes to their spending. It’s not the only thing you do, and you still have to do it with precision and prudence to be really successful but ultimately what the game wants you to do is spend.

It doesn’t take much to figure out why this is in either case. It’s because a game about not doing something would likely be boring. I imagine few people would want to play a game about not spending, not taking action, not scaling up your infrastructure and simply letting things run their course.

Similarly, most people wouldn’t want to play a game about not charging into battle guns blazing to shoot up the bad guys. I don’t think there’s many who want to play a game where you practice pacifism or volunteerism, and espouse anti-war sentiments while not getting directly involved in any conflict.

Because so many games are driven by wish fulfillment or power fantasies, we want to do things we don’t have the skills or resources to do normally. Like shoot with uncanny accuracy, kill powerful enemies, or run an entire city by ourselves with complete control over everything.

And you may be asking, “What’s wrong with that?”

There may be nothing wrong with that under the right circumstances. Generally, if we have healthy awareness and understanding about our own self deception habits, nothing is wrong with fantasy and diversion. Also, I think it should go without saying that one has to have a rooted sense of reality so as not to confuse what they’re doing in a videogame with what is possible in real life.

This second issue is where I think there is some room for concern when it comes to SimCity. I think it’s fair to say that one of the aims of a game like SimCity is at least some modicum of realism; furthermore, that at some least portion of our enjoyment is based in the satisfaction that we’re succeeding at something that is at least partially based in real world rules. That’s all fair enough in making a compelling simulation product.

Shooters, once again, have similar aims. While it’s true that entirely unrealistic physics, settings, weapons, and enemies can be enjoyed in shooters, it’s also widely known that realistic graphics, physics and weapons are a hallmark of blockbuster shooters.

Let’s suppose someone plays Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and they mistake the trappings of realism, such as photorealistic graphics and accurately depicted firearms, for realism itself. They make the mistake of assuming that since the game depicts sights and sounds of combat realistically, it must be an accurate representation of war or other armed conflict. We would all recognize that as being a horrible mistake, something unhealthy and potentially even dangerous to the individual or those around them.

But we seem to have less concern, if any, for people making similar assumptions about economic principles in SimCity. Government spending — even local government — shouldn’t be considered the best default response in facilitating a successful community anymore than shooting should be considered the best way to resolve conflict.

Of course, since you play the Mayor in SimCity, government spending is the only kind you directly control. You can try to stimulate your local economy by lowering taxes, but because the simulation is mostly about local government action, the opportunity for a full free market response to lower taxes is limited. In a real free market, city services like law enforcement, ambulances, and fire departments could be provided for privately without a city directly managing them and funding them through tax dollars. In many cities today things like trash pickup and waste disposal are private and operate fine without being publicly funded. None of these things are even possible in SimCity.

Any form of government spending — which is really just taking money from the population through taxes and deciding for them what to do with it — is really counterproductive to a successful economy. A Keynesian economist would argue to the contrary, but at least then we’d be having a debate about economic schools of thought and not playing a watered down simulation that takes for granted taxation and municipal spending as the only way to foster a successful local economy.

If these are issues that a player is mindful of, then I don’t have much concern about SimCity. At that point it’s just a game that’s fun and compelling even if it’s not entirely realistic. Nothing wrong with that at all.

What concerns me is the possibility that some players are playing SimCity, ignorant of real world economics and the role of government, in a way similar to how many people military first person shooters ignorant of the horrors involved in real world armed conflicts.

The latter offends us far more than the former and that’s understandable. A risk simulation about local economy and government isn’t nearly as potentially offensive as a risk simulation about innocent men and women being maimed and killed in what is likely a jingoistic power grab armed conflict. That much I readily acknowledge.

But the second scenario we recognize well. We see the rampant influx of shooters that pride themselves on “realism”, we see the problem with that, and call out it liberally. The first scenario, we still seem to be missing. We even think — I even thought — playing SimCity was so much better than playing those violent shooters because I was practicing some higher function than trigger reflexes and hand eye coordination.

I missed the obvious similarities at first. But I think I caught on relatively quickly. It took me years and years of playing shooters before realizing I didn’t like the idea of trying to shoot my way out of every problem. I haven’t been playing strategy games nearly as long, but I quickly realized I don’t want to try and spend my way out of every problem either.

Sims will complain about high taxes, but businesses especially don’t have the in-game ability to really capitalize on lower taxes.





2 responses to “This is a post about SimCity, shooters, and spending money”

  1. Scuzzball says:

    That is quite an interesting deviation from most of the articles I read about how the new Sim City, and how it is just bad because EA.

    I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but I think I do agree that I would like to see more games exploring that, the way many shooting games such as Deus Ex try to provide many options.

  2. Lebedeph says:

    Thanks for this article, I like your fresh perspective on SimCity. I haven’t played the latest episode yet, but I think the analysis is valid for the franchise in general.
    I would love to play a game which offers a wider set of economic tools than just public spending, for example some sort of monetary system including central banks, interest rates, currencies influencing your imports and exports, etc.

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