Computer game lets you create and run a city, graft and all

October 08, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

The mayor needed a martini: Frazzled freeway commuters were shooting at each other, rioters were pillaging the downtown and -- better make that two martinis -- Godzilla was stomping skyscrapers and factories.

And this was a good day.

In SimCity, disaster inevitably lurks right around the corner; still, there's a certain charm to this computer-game village: Embezzling is easy, power absolute; "You feel like a god, controlling the destiny of all these people," said one player, who with a million other pseudo-mayors has made SimCity one of the best-selling electronic games ever.

Some players become so engrossed in ruling their own towns -- or overseeing one of SimCity's built-in metropolises, such as San Francisco after the 1906 quake -- that they forgo sleep and meals.

Others look for more esoteric approaches: A Rhode Island newspaper, for instance, persuaded five Providence mayoral candidates to play a round. The victor went on to become mayor.

In Michigan, columnist Chuck Moss of the Detroit News let Godzilla run wild through the game's "Detroit 1972" scenario, then compared the results against the real-life performance of Mayor Coleman Young.

His conclusion: Detroit would have been better off with the monster.

The game is also turning up in school and university classrooms.

For most players, however, the goal is much simpler: Create a city from scratch or try to solve the problems of a built-in metropolis.

With towns built from scratch, the game theoretically can last forever. The built-in towns have a specific problem to solve in a set amount of time. Rio de Janeiro's, for example, is flooding caused by global warming. Mayors who fail are driven from town by an angry mob -- led by their own mothers.

SimCity is realistic -- enough so that the University of Southern California, the University of Arizona and other colleges sometimes use it in urban planning and political science courses.

At the same time, it's fun enough to have sold 1 million copies since debuting in 1989 (500,000 for home computers and a like number for Super Nintendo).

"SimCity changed the face of computer entertainment software," says Russell Sipe, publisher of Computer Gaming World magazine: It's like an electronic erector set -- more toy than game.

Such reactions amaze the game's inventor, Will Wright, who figured that nobody but architects and city planners would be interested.

Mr. Wright, 32, drew his inspiration for SimCity from a science-fiction tale, a neighbor and a computerized bombing mission.

The latter was part of another electronic game he designed, Nintendo's Raid on Bungling Bay. For his next project, Mr. Wright wanted to reverse the concept: Instead of destroying cities, players would build them.

But the soul of the game derives from "The Seventh Sally," the science-fiction story of a tyrant who is overthrown by his subjects and banished to an asteroid. Alone in space, the tyrant is given an electronic version of his old empire. But the electronic beings also overthrow him.

Mr. Wright was intrigued by the notion that electronic life could be real.

So he set out to devise a computerized world in which players could "suspend their disbelief." He wanted an illusion so detailed that people would actually think their miniaturized cities are real, he said.

He also tossed in a few quirks and surprises for amusement. Like embezzling. The instruction manual doesn't mention it, but if players hold down the shift key and type FUND, money pours into city coffers. If they do it five times in a row, however, the computer gods exact an unpleasant retribution: an earthquake.

Some players discover another sort of politics: Despotism.

They cheerfully torture their SimCitizens with outrageous taxes, wasteful spending and nuclear power plants built smack in the middle of housing tracts. Or they press a few buttons and deliberately unleash tornadoes, floods and meltdowns.

"Children typically love to blow up their cities," Mr. Braun said.

Other players keep their politics more civilized.

In 1990, Rhode Island's biggest newspaper, the Journal, set up a Providence-like town on SimCity and had five mayoral candidates try their hands at running it. One player, trying to knock down a condemned building, accidentally bulldozed an entire neighborhood. Another concentrated so hard on residential crime that thugs overran the downtown, driving away business.

Candidate Vincent Cianci, on the other hand, created room for more waterfront development and established a neighborhood police program that dramatically reduced crime. He also solved a housing crunch, avoided new taxes and left office with a small budget surplus. Mr. Cianci, a former mayor who had quit in disgrace in 1984 amid charges of assaulting his estranged wife's lover, won the real-life election by 317 votes.

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