SimCity, one of the most popular electronic games of all time, played an undeniable role in the return to the popular consciousness over the past few decades of urban planning. While the original game succeeded by breaking cities down into their most basic elements (residential, commercial, industrial, institutional, infrastructural, recreational), subsequent versions have become more complex, and more nuanced. And with the most recent version of the game, SimCity Societies (the first version not developed by creator Will Wright and his team at Maxis), came and went with barely a whimper, the franchise is ideally poised for a thorough revamp.
I recently read two posts at Very Spatial that got me thinking about SimCity and its potential for revival. The first of these posts was about mixed reality gaming, and it discussed a Nintendo DS game that allows players to visit a real island north of Tokyo and participate in a treasure hunt, with the handheld gaming system acting as an interface between the real island and the electronic version of the same place. This technology literally breaks down the walls between the player and the game, blending reality and fantasy. The second Very Spatial post focused on using online mapping technology to record personal histories or memories. The rise of mapping as a customizable, highly social tool should not be ignored by anyone interested in developing a city simulation game. Collaboration and customization are powerful selling points when trying to grab the interest of today's young people.
Mix quasi-reality and personalized cartography together and what have you got? Enormous potential. Consider the possibilities: a game could be created that allows people to create an alternate reality version of their neighborhood or their whole city and then upload that alternate reality onto a central server. Using a handheld device, they could then venture out into the city to interact with alternate realities created by other users. Games could cross paths and interact, teams could be built, and stories could intertwine. Social media and a wiki format could allow users to modify games created by other users, and whole alternate mythologies could be built, each one intrinsically tied to the place where it was developed. Gamers could travel to other cities to take part in other games. It's virtual reality without the stupid headgear.
The truly ingenious part of SimCity is that the game is disguised as a simple simulator that allows one to play God by building (and/or destroying) a city. Entire regions become customizable, and whole worlds and cultures imagined. Meanwhile, the game is also teaching players valuable lessons about how and why cities work: houses and factories don't do well next to each other; large buildings create more traffic, but well-planned transit alleviates that pressure; parks and recreational facilities are vital to morale (or "aura" as it was called in SimCity 3000) and public health. These lessons are still important today, but with advanced technology this type of simulator has the ability to teach an entirely new set of lessons.
In truth, the most basic building block of urban civilization -- more basic than residential, commercial, or industrial -- is social interaction. And by looking at cities at this most basic (and, at the same time, complex) level, we see an entirely new set of problems. Gentrification, segregation, resource distribution, community -- all of these issues could be explored through a SimCity game that mixed reality and personal fantasy.
An example: there is a triangular plaza in my neighborhood in Chicago. While it has a fountain and some trees, this scrappy public space has long been a source of frustration for some of my neighbors, who wish that the "Polish Triangle" would be better cared for, and that it could serve as a beautiful public gathering place. In an existing version of SimCity, a player could cover an empty triangular plot with parks and watch the land value of surrounding blocks rise. Imagine a SimCity that allowed users to completely re-design the Polish Triangle so that any player walking through the area could access this visionary public space and interact with it. The lessons learned would not only be more resonant -- they would be more personal, more real, and might actually affect public sentiment and, eventually, political will.
Another recent phenomenon suggests that this kind of gaming technology could be extremely successful if implemented: the Japanese cellphone novel. These novels, written by teens and young adults on their mobiles, have become a major literary movement in Japan, with half of the Top Ten bestseller list from the last year being made up of cellphone novels that were turned into actual print novels. A striking fact about the genre: most cellphone novels eschew details about the setting of the story. “If you limit it to a certain place," an author explained in a recent NY Times article on the subject, "readers won’t be able to feel a sense of familiarity.” Thus, while a core group is creating personalized content -- for free, unless and until their novels are printed -- massive demand is coming from outside of that core. It is a community that anyone can be involved in, and one where you can very easily make the switch between producer and consumer at your leisure.
The same could be done with a hyperlocal, mixed reality version of SimCity. You could import buildings to your neighborhood from around the world. Stick the Eiffel Tower in the middle of Central Park. Walk through Shibuya in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Ultimately, the most compelling and useful alternate realities would rise to the top, whatever the reason for their popularity. In the future, you might be able to walk up and down your block several times and see it in a completely different way on each lap.
And, if you didn't like any of what you saw, you could change it in an afternoon.
(Photo from the Centre for Education in the Built Environment. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
Mixed Reality Gaming In Japan (Very Spatial)
Creating Memories Using Maps (Very Spatial)
Wicker Park's Dirty Doorstep (Chicago Reader)
Thumbs Race as Japan’s Best Sellers Go Cellular (NY Times) (via Smart Mobs)