Cities:Skylines is the latest darling to hit the PC market. Everyone, or just most people, is calling it “the SimCity we deserved.” It’s a classic city-sim with the familiar task of zoning land to balance residential/commercial/industrial demands, while keeping basic services operating in your city before it implodes due to your own negligence, or well, your own negligence, since there are no disasters in this game. It’s fun, has a robust modding community already, and scratches the city-building itch without all that EA bad feeling creeping in.
So what’s wrong with it?
It’s not that it’s wrong, necessarily, just that it has some political assumptions that are too simplistic. Yes, that’s right, a city-building sim has politics. I should also say that I’m a firm believer in the notion that all cultural creations bear the politics of both their creators and their consumers. There is no artifact that exists without politics, because every artifact is an act of interpretation on the part of creators and consumers, and interpretation is inherently saddled with the biases and beliefs of the interpreter. But, I also think that politics isn’t bad. It’s just something we need to be aware of and learn from. We should enjoy our games while being aware of what they subliminally are persuading us of. They have a worldview, and we need to be careful that if it becomes our worldview as well, it is because we want it to.
Ok, back to Cities: Skylines. So where is this politics, you ask. It’s right in that little “Education” tab. The game operates under the foundational premise that education solves problems. It doesn’t just solve some problems, or solve all problems a little – no, it is the primary problem solver for everything, even your problems with waste management. It’s not even that education solves things, but that building schools = education, which then solves things.
Now, being an educator myself, I naturally chose to focus on education first when I started the game. I looked at those houses with all the uneducated people, and it just hurt my heart. Schools! We need schools! Unwittingly, I was making the master choice for my city – Lakevalley would never face problems ever, because my people were too smart to put their plastic bottles in the wrong recycle bin.
Education has such a fundamental positive effect, that my city has no crime. I remember playing SimCity 2000 way back when. Brilliant game, but I could never get my crime level low in a heavily industrialized area. I could put a police station on every block, and I still had crime. In Cities:Skylines, my people are apparently too smart to commit crime, and as we know, educated people never commit crime.
I’ve never had a building burn down (though fires have started). I have no trash problems and only one landfill per 30k people. I have no poverty. I have no traffic problems (though, somehow, my buses still manage to come in bursts. I see what you did there!). I have the perfect city, all because I have schools placed throughout my city.
Guys, we’ve found the answer for what plagues urban districts. Hey, Chicago, why are you closing schools? Clearly, if you just added more, people would be educated and all the problems would go away! The game seems to imply that if we only had more schools on the South Side, our crime would be gone, our land values would rise, and we could just demolish all the old industry, and replace them with office buildings that would be immediately full.
That’s not how the world works, and it bothers me that this “simulation” simulates something that is utterly and completely unrealistic. Players are complaining that cars don’t use every lane on the road, but I haven’t heard anyone complain about how their citizens all go to perfect schools.
Is it because that’s not a problem in the game, or is it because they don’t realize that it’s not an accurate reflection of real life? Games are engines of persuasion, and despite some common rhetoric that disagrees, they are delicious morsels of politics. They’re drenched in it, marinated in it, and just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s all ok. And the politics of Cities:Skylines is that education is the easy answer.
It’s not that simple. Not all schools are equal. Schools, even the good ones, don’t singlehandedly destroy poverty. In fact, some would say poverty destroys schools! Schools don’t get rid of crime. Schools don’t make everyone turn into recycle junkies. Schools are places that are one part of the path out of poverty, but they don’t work without community and institutional support. We can’t just put schools in neighborhoods and expect everything to be fine. We need to be active supporters of our schools to make sure they’re doing what they can.
I realize that Cities:Skylines isn’t out to simulate poverty and education, but it is out to simulate cities, and the cities on Earth have more than just traffic problems. We have poverty, and crime, and schools that don’t raise property values. I would like my city simulator to give me challenges beyond just “my cars only use the middle lane.”