Cities: Skylines has politics?!

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.

Where we're going, we don't need straight roads.

Where we’re going, we don’t need straight roads.

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.

Landfills full? Build more schools!

Landfills full? Build more schools!

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.

Strategic placement of schools (the purple pillars) is all it takes.

Strategic placement of schools (the purple pillars) is all it takes.

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.

If only the cars would use both of the highway lanes!

If only the cars would use both of the highway lanes!

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.”

Look Mom! No crime! No police coverage on the majority of those streets has no impact.

Look Mom! No crime! No police coverage on the majority of those streets has no impact.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rowan
    Mar 24, 2015 @ 17:51:10

    Do the schools (and other facilities) have adjustable funding? I don’t disagree with anything you say regarding schools vs. education, but I’m guessing the over-simplified politics of Cities is that your schools are well funded. By the same token, the reality is that increased police funding/presence does not necessarily lower crime rates. It’s a complex web of influencing factors, one that we haven’t solved by any means in the real world. But that would make a very un-fun game.


    • Adarel
      Mar 24, 2015 @ 22:59:12

      You can underfund schools, but I’m unsure what it does. I have not adjusted my education budget. I actually have my police and fire stations underfunded by 20% and they’re functioning just fine. I don’t actually need money, but I didn’t know why I was paying for something that was clearly unnecessary (note the lack of police coverage having no effect in that bottom pic). On the other hand, I increased my public transit budget by 20% to add buses, but the buses still come in bursts. It’s not a complex system.


  2. Adarel
    Mar 24, 2015 @ 23:04:09

    I would add too that you cannot underfund/overfund individual facilities. I would love to micro-manage my bus lines, but I can’t. Similarly, schools only have one master budget with a slider.

    The other odd thing about education is that I have more than double capacity for my students, but that has no effect. This means all my schools are half-empty, but this seems to have no effect on whether the school is working or not. It just doesn’t have that much detail. A school in a place educates people. Period. Educated people are better than non-educated people.

    Also, if you don’t have educated people, your houses won’t grow at all. Presumably, this is a mark of income, but that’s not explicit.


    • Rowan
      Mar 24, 2015 @ 23:31:34

      It would be interesting to to compare that to a functional version of SimCity. If I recall correctly, in SimCity2000, you could fine tune the budget by individual facility. The Cities algorithm sounds much less sophisticated. LOL, I remember completely defunding the fire department in SC2K because I had disasters turned off. I still needed the buildings for “coverage,” but they were not a factor in my operating budget.


  3. Jan Stoker
    Jul 19, 2015 @ 18:07:28

    SimCity2000 was extremely flexible in that regard. From the good old times of detailed simulation games.


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