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S I M U L A T I O N   G A M E S

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Sim City (Maxis)
Boundary-Pushing: High Wil Wright's Sim City simultaneously created a new genre of game and led to a new way of thinking about the purpose of games. It could be played competitively in the sense of trying to achieve the highest score for one's city, but it wasn't designed for that purpose. Instead, Sim City and its descendants were imagined as what Wright has called "software toys." The point wasn't to reach some predefined conclusion, but to use computers as exploratory tools. (In the usual West Coast metaphor, arriving at some destination is less important than the journey itself.) Not surprisingly, educators were among the most enthusiastic adopters of Sim City. While it was far from being an accurate or complete simulation of local municipal government, it captured the essence: trying to satisfy multiple incompatible priorities. Besides, it was fun, which doesn't hurt when you're trying to keep someone's attention.
Addictiveness: High As with other highly addictive games, Sim City's interface with the player demonstrated two features: a wide variety of simple choices to make, and lots of feedback (in this case, city management problems to solve, such as fires, traffic, and power outages). Having a sufficiently broad palette of actions that can be taken lets the player feel in control; it induces the belief that the player can "win." (There may be biological reality behind such beliefs. As one of the observations of Systemantics puts it: "Control of a system is exercised by the element with the greatest variety of behavioral responses.") And the feedback is important, too, because it persuades the player that what he or she does with all those available behavioral options matters within the game universe. Being presented with challenges that are consistent with the game universe (and which are neither too easy nor too difficult) evokes player involvement, and generates that "Well, just one more turn" impulse that designers strive to achieve. Sim City accomplished this dual goal very well, and deserves its recognition as one of the best computer games ever published.
Replayability: Moderate Sim City would have earned a "high" rating for replayability had it not appeared so simple to the player. (Something its sequel, Sim City 2000, tried to correct.) Once you had a self-sustaining city--one capable of continuous slow growth while taxes produced a small annual surplus--much of the challenge of the game ebbed. After that the player became merely a caretaker official... and, as seen in the public's rejection of the caretaker president Bush for the "quick-change artist" Clinton, many people find simply preserving what works to be boring. They want the emotional satisfaction of feeling that they've "made a difference." Which is perhaps part of the reason why (maybe because he understood boredom with systems that work) Wright added random disasters to Sim City's options. (The other reason being that it's a hoot to watch Godzilla stomp blithely through one's carefully-constructed city.) But in the end even disasters aren't enough. While there were often large numbers of problems for a player to solve, the original Sim City just didn't have enough variety in the kinds of problems needing solution. And so, although addictive enough to lead most players to try the different scenarios provided, and possibly even to create their own, Sim City palled quickly afterwards.
General Overall, Sim City deserves as much credit for opening up another way of thinking about games as for being fun to play on its own merits. While there is and should be plenty of room for games in which "competition" is not a dirty word, there is and should be plenty of room for more open-ended alternatives, too. The computer game market is not a zero-sum game; just because someone plunks down cash for Quake today doesn't mean she won't buy Sim City 2000 next week. So by all means, developers should consider Wil Wright's innovative game design concepts. Where today is the multi-player game that--like the real world--offers desirable incentives for both competitive and cooperative behavior? Are we stuck with Ultima Online? Or would a Sim City Online game which would allow individuals to simulate participatory democracy strike a responsive chord?

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