A new craze is sweeping Britain. Andy Beckett reports on a best-selling computer game that is turning millions of children, teenagers and mature men a nd women into compulsive urban planners
ROBERT PETIT is a bright-voiced 10-year-old Londoner who's been preoccupied for the past year with municipal finance. Andy Shaw is a magazine editor who tinkers for hours with zoning ratios. Ken Livingstone MP worries that the thrill of planning electricity grids will make his constituency caseload slip. In middle-class homes across Britain, parents are discussing mass transit systems with their children; in offices, people are surreptitiously laying down webs of water pipes.

They're not secretly assembling a Five-Year Plan for Tony Blair; they're playing SimCity, an electronic simulation of urban planning available on your PC for the price of three CDs. SimCity was the best-selling computer game in Britain over Christmas, and has been in the top 10 for a year; sales worldwide approach 3 million. Robert Petit's friends have to come round to his house to play it, because it's sold out in all the shops. And SimCity is a serious computer game - one session involves hours, possibly days, of intricate planning and policy decisions, not a few minutes decapitating aliens. Simon Jenkins of the Millennium Commission is thinking about a SimCity exhibit at the Millennium Festival. Political columnists thrill to it. Urban planners phone the game's inventor, Will Wright, "on a daily basis". In Providence, Rhode Island, candidates for mayor were put through their paces on SimCity; the winner of the game ended up taking the election too.

The game's success has changed urban planning - previously the dusty domain of bureaucrats, number-crunchers and frustrated architects - into a sexy discipline, a topic of conversation, fun even. Playing it helps explain how. Unlike most computer games, SimCity looks good: the city you build can have any kind of architecture, from stolid turn-of-the-century apartment blocks to ethereal contemporary skyscrapers. You get different terrains and eras to site your city in. Once it's there, you can "m i cromanage" - massage tax rates up and down by a per cent or two - or just slap down quick slabs of houses. "SimCity's like a train set," says Will Wright. "Some people get into the trains, some get into the train timetables, and some get into the village in the middle. My eight-year-old daughter just spends all her time putting in mountains and streams."

But nice graphics alone can't account for millions of people developing an interest in a game revolving around infrastructure and zoning. "People have a primal urge to plan," says Joe Ferreira, a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Instituteof Technology. "They're interested in shaping their surroundings." Architecture and planning writer Deyan Sudjic agrees: "People love little models, creating a world... And we're back into a period of building again. The infrastructure in Western citiesis wearing out, while in Asia they're building it for the first time."

SimCity has benefited from trends in the electronic world too. Computer ownership is widening fast, and with game-playing still the main thing domestic PCs are used for - despite owners' denials - there is a big market up for grabs. Traditional finger-twitching action games such as Doom and Mortal Kombat still thrill teenage boys with escalating intensities of violence and gore, but they have little appeal for older computer users, and use only a small fraction of the capabilities of a typical £1,500 PC. SimCity, by contrast, is constructive rather than destructive, requires patience, and is apparently related to the outside world. "You've never seen a purple dragon, or flown an F16," says Wright, "but we've all been in a city." SimCity buyers are typically graduates in their mid-twenties. A fifth of them are women, three times the usual proportion for a computer game.

Wright thought of SimCity in 1984. He was working as a freelance programmer in the drab California suburb of Piedmont, developing a standard "shoot-'em-up" called Raid On Bungling Bay for a games company. "I had to make a thing to draw the islands you were going to bomb. I soon realised I was having more fun with that than with the game." He saw that his program for generating landscapes on a computer screen could equally well be used to build cities, and decided to construct a game of his own. A neighbour who was a planner lent him books, and soon Wright was ploughing through volumes on development and economic take-off by Jane Jacobs and Jay Forrester, then applying their principles to his nascent SimCity program.

Other influences were more local: Cali- fornian politics was dominated then by arguments about development, property taxes, crime and the environment. When the original SimCity reached the shops in 1989 - and was an immediate success - these middle-classconcerns were embedded in its program. They're still there in the latest version: give your city low taxes, keep property values high, and spend lots on police and soldiers but not on welfare, and it will prosper; raise taxes, pollute, or be soft on crime, and its citizens will leave. These principles are given as advice in the SimCity manual. "If I'd tried to run my city like the GLC," says Livingstone, "I'd probably have lost."

Since 1989 a secondary market has built up in other "God" games (games in which you get to play God), like Civilization, which lets you take a tribe from the Stone Age to the nuclear age, and Mist, where you revive a mysterious lost society. The protago n ist of Iain Banks's novel, Complicity, plays a game called Despot instead of sleeping. If there's a whiff of Dungeons & Dragons about these lonely sessions in electronic fantasyland, then it also wafts through SimCity, which - despite its buildings andr ules - is really driven by a fantasy of omnipotence. And playing SimCity leaves you just as dizzily disconnected from what's going on around you as the most nihilistic "shoot-'em-up". Perhaps for this reason, more extroverted traditional board-games hav e lost less custom than you might think to their electronic successors (Civilization is like Risk; SimCity echoes Monopoly). "Computer games are soulless, not very sociable," says Sarah Holland, PR manager for board game giant Hasbro.

Wright insists that SimCity players can "take something away from the game for the real world". Deyan Sudjic agrees: "It certainly does address problems runners of cities have to face." But while SimCity may make a good demonstrative tool - your city will only thrive with good communications, for example - the idea of schoolchildren absorbing its Eighties California realpolitik over long, obsessive sessions is slightly worrying. Wright has been pressing ahead with SimLife (control evolution) and SimEarth (the environment), with the ultimate aim of letting players move freely between them. SimCity players are already busily loading maps of real cities on to the Internet for each other to play with. SimEverything looms on the electronic horizon, as predicted by Baudrillard.

Robert Petit has been building the same city for a year, two hours at a time. "I've made a city of 60 million people. It covers the whole map - there's no more room." So what does he do with it? "I look after crime by building police stations and I blow up buildings when I get bored of them." ! You start SimCity with a random slice of landscape and $20,000. Then you choose a suitable site; flat land by water is best (above). Next, you establish residential, commercial and industrial zones, square by square, and link them up to roads and a power station (below). Buildings sprout and SimCitizens move in once the infrastructure's there. They're fussy - they won't occupy areas that mean a long drive to work, and they don't like living near factories - but ultimate power rests with you. You create or abolish the police force; you bulldoze hillsides and burn down slums to fit your plans. A quick tax cut will restore your popularity if you go too far As the population grows, property taxes should pay for more blocks of development until your original core becomes a busy city grid (left). But building your city is only half the battle; then you have to rule it. Police stations and hospitals are expensive, but you need them if your SimCitizens aren't going toriot eventually. While you're busy adding fancy bridges, citizens may abandon parts of the city you neglect. And there's always the danger of natural disasters like floods (above). If you don't install emergency services quickly enough, your carefully-built metropolis could be razed (below) in the time it takes to leave your screen for a cup of tea Graphics omitted