While some people use computer games to play out their fantasies of killing Nazis, winning the World Cup or, yes, stealing a Ford Mustang and running over a granny, for others there’s nothing more compelling than sitting down for a few daring hours of urban planning.
The thrilling, competitive and sometimes taboo-breaking appeals of games like Call of Duty, Fifa and Grand Theft Auto are obvious, if not everyone’s cup of computer-generated tea.
Yet the millions of sales garnered by SimCity during the mid ‘90s proved that the ostensibly dull prospect of designing imaginary logistics and infrastructure can be gripping too.
Now the cult strategy game is back after ten years, launching in the UK today with a typically dry-sounding tag: it could well be the most environmentally friendly game ever.
Despite sounding like a game reserved for the modest demographic of computer geeks whose wallets contain Greenpeace membership cards, it is poised to prove once again that seeing mayoral opinion polls rise by opting for clean hydroelectric dams over dirty fossil fuels – and avoiding drought by building too big a city in too dry an area – can be just as satisfying as seeing your pixelated alter-ego blow up Hitler.
So just as books and films have inspired artists and world leaders, can green games help change the world?
“For better or for worse, yes,” says the new version’s creative director, Ocean Quigley. “I know a lot of people who say they became city planners, architects or civil engineers because of SimCity... It’s the game that takes the environment most seriously. A green city is something you’re striving for, and the consequences of not having an environmentally clean city are made obvious.”
Just as city planning cannot always go to plan, so too with game launches.
The new SimCity requires a constant internet connection, but many users in the US have been unable to access the system – some websites had to postpone their verdicts because their reviewers could not play it. Today’s launch in the UK seems to have gone more smoothly, but there are still reports of some British fans being disappointed.
For those who can get online, the enhanced environmental aspect of the game might fox some players. Asked to step away from his newts for a few hours to try his hand at running a virtual metropolis on SimCity for a Granada TV show hosted by Tony Wilson back in the mid ‘90s, former London mayor Ken Livingstone immediately opted to power his town by coal to ensure, predictably, “strong trade unions”. Were he to play the new game with that kind of attitude, it’s likely a virtual Boris Johnson would come along and stamp on his electoral prospects.
It could hardly be more different to role-playing shoot ‘em ups, not only in genre but to a large extent in morality – building something good rather than destroying it – which is how Mr Quigley prefers things.
“You are the god of this landscape, making decisions that dramatically impact the wellbeing of an entire population. So you’re not a thug going through the city trying to steal cars, you are the one making decisions that affect hundreds of thousands of your little Sims going about their lives.”
He adds: “The subject matter of a game like Grand Theft Auto doesn’t appeal to me personally, though I have immense respect for its designers… Grand Theft Auto is the inverse of SimCity. You’re the authorities trying to make the city work, but there are these bad actors in your city. If you don’t educate your city, you have these criminals going through creating mayhem, burning down houses and robbing shops, and they become a pox on your city.”
Part of the fun, of course, comes from seeing the bad effects of bad choices. Indeed, for the sadistic municipal overlords, you can let the citizens “sicken or die” and watch what happens.
“You’re going to have a bunch of people who aren’t going to work and aren’t going shopping, the economics of your city will suffer, and as the people who remain will be miserably unhappy and abandon your city as environmentally refugees, you’ll end up with large swathes of decrepit abandoned city as a result,” says the designer.
There are still more silly risks involved in being a SimCity mayor of course, ranging from “a small-scale raid by UFOs” to a “giant lizard that comes and stomps through your city”.
However, Mr Quigley insists these have a more serious purpose. “Zombies start coming out and they infect other people, and that’s an epidemic simulation of the flu or ibola. It’s doing it with a comical, absurd skin, but in terms of its impact on the city they’re a proxy for infectious diseases.”
So what is the fascination with creating a make-belief city, even if it does mean spending hours planning a water and electricity system?
“There’s a fascination of creating a little model version of the world that you lord it over, that you’re the creator of and the god of,” Mr Quigley tells The Independent.
“It is about the mundane realities of the world around us, you’re not commanding a squad of space marines with laser guns to shoot at the bug aliens – you’re dealing with commuter congestion. You project your own experience into the game, in a way that I think is deeper and resonates more.”
The graphics in SimCity resemble American cities. But in terms of realism, of course, most of the biggest new cities in the world are in China – places that barely anyone in the West has heard of but which contain millions of residents, their high rises apartment blocks eating up vast tracts of land and changing the global balance of power.
“SimCity is much more like a new city built by the Chinese Communists over the course of three years out in the middle of nowhere, and has all the pros and cons: a rational design but all the pollution and congestion and healthcare issues.”
China is hardly known for any care for the environment in its urban landscape – the pollution readings for some of its cities regularly top the maximum reading on the scientific scale. Perhaps Beijing would be a better place if the country’s new president, Xi Jinping, took a bit of time off to play the game.