January 20th 2011 What SimCity Taught Me About Art

While I don’t think of myself as an avid gamer, I have long been a fan of Maxis’ Sim franchise. I got hooked on SimCity 2000 back in the 1990s, a love which drove me to consider a career in urban planning (not something most middle schoolers consider, I admit). I spent many hours playing SimFarm, and as soon as I had a PC capable of running it, I rushed out to buy SimCity 3000. My skills in GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark notwithstanding, I’m pretty terrible at video games (especially “twitchy” games), so the open-ended nature of the SimCity series suits my personality quite well: you can’t really “win”, you can only beat yourself. That’s why an article about a young man from the Philippines who “beat” SimCity 3000 captured my interest.

“The Totalitarian Buddhist Who Beat Sim City” features Vincent Ocasla, a young Filipino man who spent four years building Magnasanti, a city that he considers to be “perfect”, at least in terms of population density (Vincent admits that the city is far from perfect in the æsthetic sense). Here’s the video of his accomplishment:

Despite my own affinity for SimCity 3000, what impressed me more about Vincent was why he decided to build it in the first place. In particular, he viewed it as an artistic endeavor:

For me, SimCity 3000 is more than just a game. It has evolved to become a tool or medium for artistic self-expression. While most games today are focused on destroying things and killing other players, SimCity instead allows one to exercise the imagination to create, and express. […] I have just happened to do that through the form of creating these cities in SimCity 3000. I could probably have done something similar—depicting the awesome regimentation and brutality of our society—with a series of paintings on a canvas, or through hideous architectural models. But it wouldn’t be the same as doing it in the game.

Vincent openly admits that the city would not be a nice place to live: air pollution and a lack of hospitals means citizens only live to be about 50, unemployment is high, and a massive police force is required to keep order in the city. Beyond the obvious problems, the city is laid out in a regular grid of identical blocks, meaning that if a Sim were to travel more than walking distance from his house, he’d find himself in an identical part of the city. Of his twisted, megalomaniacal creation, Vincent observes,

The ironic thing about it is the Sims in Magnasanti tolerate it. They don’t rebel, or cause revolutions and social chaos. No one considers challenging the system by physical means since a hyper-efficient police state keeps them in line. They have all been successfully dumbed down, sickened with poor health, enslaved and mind-controlled.

In what is perhaps an oblique criticism of capitalism, Vincent adds,

By only focusing on one objective, one may end up neglecting, or resorting to sacrificing, other important elements. Similarly, [in the real world] if we make maximizing profits […] the absolute objective, we fail to take into consideration the social and environmental consequences.

Vincent is, in fact, using SimCity 3000 to make a commentary on life itself. Put simply, Vincent is using SimCity to create art.

In Which Chuck Discovers The Sims

Vincent’s interview reminded me of Chuck Klosterman’s essay “Billy Sim”, published in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. In “Billy Sim”, Chuck reflects on his experiences playing The Sims. Klosterman’s reactions cover a wide spectrum, but what most intrigued me was his interview with Will Wright, the creator of both SimCity and The Sims. Like Ocasla, Wright used the medium of video games as a microscope to examine life itself:

If there’s any core question with The Sims, it’s got to be, “What is the purpose of life?” Is it to be loved? Is it to be successful? They’re the same questions you could ask if you never knew the game existed.

Instead of oil and canvas, Wright uses 3D models to frame the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?” Most Sims players probably don’t use their little doppelgänger as a catalyst for philosophical thought, but anyone that has played the game has realized how mundane day-to-day life in a modern capitalistic society is. You can’t play The Sims without wondering about the purpose of our existence.

Interestingly, both Ocasla and Wright seem concerned with the meaning of life in a modern capitalistic society (i.e., one in which our existence is not dictated by how well we chase animals through the forest). There’s no doubt that most players focus on buying things for their digital offspring. When asked if he saw The Sims as a glorification of consumerism, Wright said,

Materialism is the red herring of the game. […] The more you play, the more you realize that all the stuff you buy eventually breaks down and creates all these little explosions in your life. If you play long enough, you start to realize that those things won’t really make you happy.

Analyzing Art

As my verbosity suggests, I was an English student in a past life, but during my sophomore year I switched to computer science. While I love reading and writing, one thing that frustrated me about studying English was the constant focus on so-called “classic” literature (admittedly, a mentality more prevalent at high school than in college). We can use almost any piece of media as a mirror to reflect society. “Art” is all around us: in TV, comic books, and yes, even video games. I’m not saying that all video games are art (I’d be hard pressed to describe Madden ’09 as artistic) but all media is a reflection of our culture. And some games, like SimCity 2000 and The Sims, say a lot about our culture when we look beneath the thin veneer of their pixels.