Once upon a time, a brilliant engineer by the name of Trurl built a miniature kingdom for the deposed dictator of another planet to govern as he pleased for the rest of his days. At such a small scale, the bored despot could harmlessly indulge his “autocratic aspirations” without risk to the “democratic aspirations of his former subjects.”
This fable, by Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem, appeared in 1981 in The Mind’s Eye, an anthology of reflections on artificial cognition, where it was read by Will Wright, creator of SimCity and founder of the Sim empire. In the many interviews he’s given, Wright cites his encounter with the story as an inspiration for SimCity.
Released in 1989 by then-indie game developer Maxis, SimCity was a gamble. Nobody thought anyone would bother to tinker with an urban development simulator — let alone one without a clear objective. The game is not a story but a managerial system. You can’t definitively win or lose.
SimCity is at once an archive of these future cities and an engine of their algorithmic logic. So what can this game — a hallucination of urban consciousness experienced by millions — tell us about the gamified, scalable, smoothly rendered cities to come?
Wright has stated that his goal in designing the game was to create a space of possibility open-ended enough for the player to experiment in, “a problem landscape” large enough to generate infinite solutions. According to Wright, the game encourages utopian thinking: “So when you start SimCity, one of the most interesting things that happens is you have to decide, ‘What do I want to make? Do I want to make the biggest possible city, or the city with the happiest residents, or most parks, or the lowest crime?’ Every time you have to idealize it in your head, ‘What does the ideal city mean to me?’”
Consider the success of TaskRabbit, a company founded in 2008 under the auspices of the “collaborative consumption” movement. TaskRabbit prides itself on turning the precarity of the temporary contract into a game.
Tasks are posted on an app; taskers, as they’re called, wait by their phones for the beep of a job, race to click first, then dissolve into blue GPS dots zipping through the streets, algorithmically sent to their next job site to build IKEA furniture, wait in line for new iPhones, read The Stranger out loud to spoiled children, or do any other type of short-term work someone might pay for.
These precarious workers can play the game of employment over and over again, sometimes up to five times a day. There is no compensation for the time spent “playing” — that is, searching, refreshing, applying. As long as the work is temporary, the game never ends. Likewise for SimCity’s populace: they simulate this labor for us so that we can play.
But even the free time we spend playing the game looks something like work. Prosumerism, the slippery ramp between production and consumption, participation and exploitation, is a hallmark of the flexible production schedule of today’s creative industries — the gaming industry included.
Devoted players are often tacitly recruited into being unpaid testers for the industry’s beta releases and contributors to its mod (modification) scene.