In which I discuss the absence of politics from many city-building games.
Politics is a topic that often does not get a star turn in videogames. To some extent this is understandable; politics divides people, and games are meant to, in many ways, bring people together and entertain them. Which of course, explains the popularity of first person shooters and war-based real time strategy games.
That flourish of sarcasm aside, it is remarkable that the one genre of games that explicitly puts the player in the role of a government executive—the city builder—so rarely features politics. In the Sim City games, there is the concept of the Mayor Rating, but the accountability the mayor faces to the citizens are carried through blunt, non electoral means. At earlier stages, people simply ‘vote with their feet’ and leave the city, while riots begin to appear at lower mayor ratings, and running too high on debt will lead to summary removal from the city.
What is missing from all of these accountability mechanisms is the concept of regular elections, which seems unusual when you consider the fact that SimNation is ostensibly a western liberal democracy. Sim City 3000 did feature the concept of petitioners—various interest groups that would come to the mayor’s office demanding various changes—a casino here, a commuter shuttle there, and I very much missed them in Sim City 4. Still, even that iteration did not include regular political and electoral action.
But why is this? There are two obvious reasons. The first is that any game that tries to simulate a real world process, from city building to transportation planning and any business enterprise that can have the word tycoon appended to it, requires a level of simplification to make it an engaging game in the first place. This is why things like community board meetings have been omitted from most of the Sim City games. The other probable reason is that urban politics, especially in the United States (where the Sim City games were developed) is an unholy cauldron of class and race, both of which are controversial by themselves, and even more toxic to attempt to portray in the context of a video game. A third reason, might be the inherent weirdness of a mayor that also can play god having to face elections, as captured in this College Humor video from last year.
Ever since I started playing the Sim City games—back in the early 2000s with the “Network Edition” of Sim City 2000, I have wondered about this lack of politics in the series, but usually thought that it would be unworkable to include a decent political simulation in the game anyway. Then I picked up a copy of the excellent Tropico 3 a few years ago. The game, for the uninitiated, sets you as the leader of a fictional Caribbean island nation and marries the building and economic management of a conventional city-building game with the political power of a typical real-time strategy game. While the game does allow one to lead in the manner of a classic ICC-warranted autocrat, stifling press freedom and having “eliminated” citizens who dare to dissent, the game also heavily nudges the player towards less blunt methods of political influence.
And this is where things get interesting. In the world of Tropico 3, there are multiple political factions—ranging from your classic Marxists to business oriented leaders and religious devotees that are affected by—and react to—each and every major decision you take, from the building of a cathedral to the prevailing island wage. Every so often citizens will demand elections, and while a leader can rebuff this request, such action usually will be accompanied by a drop in citizen happiness and an increase in rebel activity.
The game gives the player the option of conducting an election with a speech. The game gives three aspects in crafting the speech; an issue, such as foreign relations or corn shortages, to address, a specific faction to praise (which raises one’s approval rating among the faction), and a promise to make (such as higher wages or lower crime). All of these inputs are turned into a natural sounding speech by the game, played over the radio for the entire nation to hear. After a short interlude the actual election occurs, when your advisers give you a heads up estimate on the pending vote totals. The player is then given the option of sweetening the election results, or accepting the legitimate vote total. Fudging the results does not always work, and carries negative political consequences such as substantially increased rebel activity and international opprobrium (and the loss of aid dollars). Add all of this to the numerous random political events in the game and one has a very detailed yet playable political simulation.
So what can the non-themed city builder, such as the next iteration of the Sim City series, take from this? Obviously the options to kill, imprison, and bribe political opponents probably wouldn’t be realistic for a game ostensibly set in a “Western Liberal Democracy” (unless that democracy is a Mediterranean European country or a particularly corrupt US state), but the implementation of factions, random political events, and elections themselves, is all good.
First to factions. In the American urban political landscape, there are typically several main interest groups, including real estate developers, public sector unions (perhaps divided between police/fire and all other public sector employees), environmentalists, the working class and poor, among others. The sizes of these factions would directly relate to the population makeup of the city (poorer residents more likely to be populist pro-union types, richer professionals more likely to be pro-business, etc.), and they would regularly complain to city hall, similar to the petitioners in Sim City 3000. Mayor ratings would have a global aspect, followed by a detailed rating of each faction based on specific policies carried out.
Elections would occur every so often (perhaps every 10 game years to allow players long enough to actually change city policies, or be called at the discretion of the mayor, similar to a PM in a parliamentary system) and feature speeches with similar structure to the Tropico 3 implementation, and perhaps would even include debates with the opponent (the opponent would be drawn from the ranks of city businesses, unions, or the vast bureaucracy). Polling data would be provided, and perhaps the game could include campaign actions and allow the player to make subtle improvements to “swing” neighborhoods in the week before an election—increasing hospital funding, putting more beat police on the street—to nudge poll totals. More devious mayors could have the city police tail and harass the political opponent at the risk of voter backlash, legal trouble, and negative press.
Another aspect that would add an interesting twist to the game are randomly generated political events based on actions you take as mayor. While these have existed in limited forms in previous Sim City games—going all ‘austerity package’ on your hospital system usually led to scrubs going on the street—they did not have much of a political component, and were predictable. What I suggest instead are more unpredictable events. For example, a particularly business-friendly administration may risk being hit with a developer bribing scandal, or a badly funded police department has a higher probability of committing a racial profiling/excessive force type incident. All of these random scandals would leave a mayor with several potential reactions, all with both predictable and unpredictable effects that would depend on the political makeup of the city. Add to all of this an independent media landscape that is also capable of swaying the electorate and one has a recipe for stimulating game play.
All of this would require substantial developer time, and almost certainly won’t make it into the upcoming Sim City. That said, the addition of a full-fledged, moddable political simulation would make for a more realistic, multifaceted game with even longer replay value.