The design world has gradually been overtaken by the virtual. We started with a simple drafting software and now have reached AR as a method of design dissemination. Design is becoming more and more virtual as it has given designers a new perspective of real-life design. The best design solutions come from the different iterations of the original idea. This iterative process helps designers understand the users and their environment visibly. Through virtual simulations, designers can experiment without any real-life consequences.
SimCity is a realistic urban design simulation with various geographical settings. It was first designed by Will Wright in 1989, as an open-ended game. But since there have been quite a lot of versions of this game including ‘The Sims’ which is one of the most popular games ever created. The premise of the game is simple; you choose a geographical location and then create a city on the patch of undeveloped land. The original idea behind the game was to create a game that would be enjoyed by architects and urban planners but, it also became popular with the masses and inspired a lot of people to pursue urban planning as a career. The game design is based on the popular works of urban planning by Kevin Lynch and Le Corbusier. Wright himself has admitted that the SimCity series is heavily inspired by Urban Dynamics, a text by Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer Jay Wright Forrester. The original game even had links to their works that players could refer to for designing their cities. The overall idea was to bring out the idealist in the players while playing the game to create the utopia while mirroring the real-life socio-economic impacts.
As an urban designer, you want to create places that improve the quality of life for the residents but; Cities are complex and interconnected in all of their aspects. So, observing multiple outcomes simultaneously is the best way to think ahead. Only virtual simulators can create a footprint and analyze the data of this magnitude. You could design various iterations of cities and neighborhoods in a virtual simulation and measure out the problems. Surprisingly, the best urban design simulator available for decades was the game SimCity. The New Yorker said in 2006 that the game is “arguably the single most influential work of urban-design theory ever created,” inspiring its players to design and manage a successful simulation of a city with real-life problems and consequences instead of just theorizing about one.
SimCity tries to achieve a balance between fun and realism. While playing you can observe that the architecture of the cities is highly influenced by 20th century America. The building designs are inspired by San Francisco, the game designer incorporated what he was surrounded by rather than venturing far. The game has three zoning areas in any city; residential, commercial, and industrial. SimCity allows us to experiment with various urban theories and strategies in a virtual world that responds to our decisions in a way that mirrors reality, making us realize that creating a utopian, problem-free society is pretty much a dream. The latest version has multiplayer options, meaning you can share resources with neighboring cities of your friends. Each city specializes in one or two things like coal, oil, or electronics, meaning economic and political relations are paramount for the success of your city. The game is designed to make players make unsustainable decisions and then make them realize how that would impact the residents and economy. A single change affects the whole city. However, you play or how many times the game will throw curveballs at you because if you were to create a utopia, there wouldn’t be any incentive to continue.
SimCity reflects city planning aptly as it begins with road construction and then zoning of the areas. But, city zoning in real and virtual is manifold. In SimCity, the players are required to zone all areas at the onset of the game. As the conditions in the city change, the players scramble to fix the zoning which would be quite impossible in real life. The other problem with the zoning regulation of SimCity is that there are no mixed-use buildings, with commercial areas on the ground floor and residential on the upper floors which is a traditional characteristic of cities nowadays. You can alter the zoning regulations to accommodate the population growth but that rarely happens in the real world because zoning is a political process. The game oversimplifies the urban planning process, you cannot help but notice the point where it stops being a city planning simulator and just becomes a fun game. There is no option for zoning for density, so the density is determined by the road capacity. The most notable difference between the real and virtual city is the parking spaces. There are minimal parking areas in the game for such a large city and the game designer herself admitted that they omitted parking areas as they are not elegant and aesthetic. There are also no bike lanes on the city roads. The environment is just limited to air quality and the social factors have a limited impact on the city design changes.
The game is a fun simulator if you enjoy building cities and would like an introduction but, in no way or form does it simulate a real-life city. Some elements can be quite useful for a preliminary design but a thorough design analysis requires a bit more complex simulator that can map the urban footprint and analyze it.