In the beginning...

Omnipotence is terribly boring. How do I know? Well, with the first computer I ever had (A BBC model B) came a game called Yellow River Kingdom. It involved playing the chief of a tribe, and ruling a stone- age village. It was a revelation: traditional ideas of "winning" or "losing" didn't apply. As long as the village didn't run out of food, the game continued. It was one of the first "God" games. Because Yellow River Kingdom was written in Basic, it was easy to reinterpret what being God actually meant. You could look through the code to see how the game worked - the equivalent of having a chat with the Creator. Then you could tweak the parameters to your advantage, at which point, for all practical (and metaphysical) purposes, you had become a deity. But then, having been dismantled, the game quickly lost its allure.

As games grew more complicated, so such cheating became impractical. The most well-known of recent variations, Sim City, a new version of which will be released later this year, requires that you build a virtual metropolis. If you do a good job, little people (called Sims) come and live in it. As in Yellow River Kingdom, you play a despot rather than a God. You can't change the laws of nature; either the city goes bankrupt or the military takes over when the place falls into anarchy.

Sim City has been used to train town planners. And it is a fantastic teaching aid; to survive, players must budget, plan and compromise. But at the heart is always the game's "moral framework" - the assumptions about the real world made by the programmers. In Sim City, for example, the best ploy is to keep taxes low and skimp on infrastructure. But then it was made in America. Couldn't communist North Korea have had a perfectly legitimate version that encouraged players to keep taxes against the ceiling, give all the proceeds to the army and close external borders?

With the increasing popularity of on-line gaming, already established with Doom and its clones, the world of God games is, I think, about to change. Players will be able to have competing cities in a virtual Sim nation; eventually there will even be a Sim world, with hundreds of city states competing, collaborating and trading. What an education that will be.

But where will it lead? I can only foresee the day when some future version of Sim City manages to simulate an urban jungle as detailed as that in the real world. It might even take a proper lifetime to construct. At that point, we can just shut down the real world and live inside our own simulations. But I kind of like the real world. And, anyway, who wants to be God? I probably won't see you there.

Homepage for Maxis, the makers of Sim City, including a preview of the new version Sim City 3000. l

An article on the game's history in Computer Games Online magazine.

Some links to other Sim City 3000 sites