SimCity's Muddled Environmental Activism

A few weeks ago, EA pulled a bait-and-switch at a press event in San Francisco. My fellow journos and I were there to see the reveal of SimCity, but after the brief game announcement, we were cued up for a series of talks by prestigious activist speakers -- Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth and promoter-turned-charity: water activist Scott Harrison. Oh man, were we grumpy and bored! We walked out after Guggenheim.

In theory, this should have been an interesting, engaging evening. A real change from your average bombastic-trailer-then-open-bar video game press event. But it was none of those things. We hadn't seen enough of the game to understand if and why the speakers were relevant. As a result, the whole thing felt incongruous. Now that I've seen more of the game and spoken with the people making it, the whole thing still feels incongruous.

Don't get me wrong -- SimCity looks like a fun game. It fits well into the lineage of the SimCity franchise, and it's grown more expansive and detailed than ever.

But it does not appear to take much of a stand on current issues like global warming, economic crisis, homelessness, joblessness, or the threat of natural disaster, even though it features all of those things as gameplay elements. For all their shared subject matter, SimCity doesn't feel much like An Inconvenient Truth.

"This is not a game about building a green city," said senior Producer Kip Katsarelis when I spoke with him last week. "We don't have an agenda. We're aware of the issues and we're presenting both sides of those. You can go build the dirty city, that's on option, and that'll be a win-state for you. To us it's about being relevant and putting the issues in the game and modelling them as best as possible and giving the players options to make those decisions."

Fair enough -- most players don't want a SimCity game that is strident and preachy. These days, people attack environmental science itself as biased. Merely mentioning the fact that pollution has an impact on the environment is tantamount to taking a stand, so why not actually take one?

SimCity games have been accused of having an agenda in the past, notably by Fox News in this hilariously execrable segment, which was so bad I felt the need to thoroughly dismantle it on this very website.

(It's worth noting that segment focused on SimCity Societies, which was made by Tilted Mill Entertainment rather than franchise-holders Maxis, who are back in charge of the new game. In fact, Katsarelis told us that no one who worked on SimCity Societies is working on the new SimCity.)

SimCity Societies got a mixed reception at best, so the move back to Maxis, and to the series' roots, is widely seen as a good thing. And it almost undoubtedly is -- the people working on SimCity are clearly very skilled at making SimCity games. But I have to come back to the initial messaging at that press conference -- when revealing SimCity to the world, its publisher chose to associate it with An Inconvenient Truth.

Whatever can be said about An Inconvenient Truth, that film has a focused, clear message: We are destroying our planet and we need to start taking measures to change our ways. It's an energetic piece of film-making, urgent and light on its feet. Yet when talking at EA's event, its director's references to SimCity were limp and uninspired, the vague asides of the paid celebrity endorsement.

We live in an interconnected, interdependent global society during a time of global ecological and economic turmoil. There are so many passionate people out there, tirelessly campaigning for change, shouting from mountaintops that we must band together and work to pull ourselves back from any of a half-dozen calamitous brinks. These people are interesting, dynamic, controversial and vital. And yet so far, they feel out of place when associated with SimCity.

SimCity doesn't need to sacrifice its light, enjoyably goofy roots and go pursue something as serious and hardcore as, say, Fate of the World. It doesn't need to betray its fans in the quest for a new level of relevance. But surely there's a middle ground, a way for a game to be deftly provocative, relevant in a way that a SimCity game hasn't before.

The people making this game are smart, and good at what they do. The people marketing this game are also smart, and good at what they do. But what of the dissonance between the marketing message and the game I saw last week?

I hold out hope that the two messages will come together in a more meaningful way by the time the game is released in 2013, that SimCity will have some of the passion and fire of An Inconvenient Truth. Hope that this isn't all just a bunch of marketing hoopla, that a video game can take on these pressing issues -- how we live, how we govern, how we maintain balance in society -- and say something meaningful.

But so far, SimCity seems resolutely and disappointingly safe. That feels like a missed opportunity.


Comments

    Man, a video game trying to be "relevant" is the saddest thing. Sounds to me like their press event was a cynical bit of bandwagonning. Glad they're not silly enough to build the game on it.

    Al Gore couldn't fly in on a chartered jet to speak about greenhouse has emissions? Bummer.

    I think Simcity 2000 managed to be relevant while taking the piss at the same time. It's not so much about having an agenda as it is the tone with which it's delivered.

    Pretty much every game outside of Pong has some form of ideological agenda that a player implicitly or complicitly goes along with.

    In a social setting where the moron majority are being prompted by corporate interests to freak out whenever someone dares raise environmental issues, is it any surprise attempts by a big publisher would be somewhat middle of the road?

    Let's not forget a large percentage of the US consumer market believes

    1) Jeebus is coming soon, riding them di-no-saurs like he used to
    2) Scientists are evil liberals who are working with Al Gore to steal tax money from god fearin' folks and hard working, caring corporations
    3) Jeebus and his paw put unlimited amounts of resources in the earth so people could eat KFC and watch Jersey Shore whenever they want and scientists claiming otherwise are agents of Satan
    4) Global warming is a natural event and 'pollution' is a fantasy word made up by Satanic scientists and Al Gore and George Soros and Sesame Street

    Seriously, a large percentage of the buying population subscribes to the above views or shadings thereof. Taking a middle road might at least stop the next Sim City being the subject of constant Faux News propaganda that would hurt share prices,

    Bait and switch? I think it's a sad state of affairs that activists have to do this to get mainstream media to hear their cause.. don't get me wrong I love gaming but I also notice how the world's weather and seasons are very very messed up right now and I have no doubt its due to human induced global-warming. All praises to the crew at EA for trying to get this message through the tough outer shell of gamers in our isolated and sheltered collective bubble.

    A point worth making:
    Pollution has an effect on the environment. Long term. It is not a visible effect in our lifetime. Bush fires etc are NOT caused by global warming. Bush fires in 300 years might be, and that's why we need to do something about it now.

    Buzz Aldrin sums it up best

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q577ApejasY

      This must be some strange usage of the word "best" that I hadn't been previously aware of.
      His position is that scientists make it all up so that they get money, that is fundamentally wrong. Science is about facts, a position unsupported by facts cannot endure in science. Furthermore, the wages that scientists receive are typically not very high, in fact the scientists contributing to the IPCC receive NO monetary compensation for their work. How could the temperature record of the last century be falsified? Someone had a master plan to change thermometers all over the world, and kept it going for more than a century? How could a conspiracy of that scale exist? Don't fall for conspiracy theories and political bias, global warming is a real thing, we are causing it, and the effects are dire, every major scientific organisation agrees on that.

        If you feel that strongly, go live by what you preach. Walk to work everyday, turn off your electricity, paddle your boat overseas, dig a well to drink from, grow your own food.
        Ignore the great accomplishments by humans. Man should have never gone to the moon. Man shouldn't launch satellites to orbit. Man shouldn't build great cities. Let the old and the young die of coldness in winter, and heat exhaustion in summer. Lets destroy our economy with a 'do nothing' GREAT BIG NEW TAX.

        Go live in the dark ages. You'll be much happier.

          I wonder if you're familiar with the term "straw man"? That's where you attack a made up position that your opponent doesn't hold. I'm not arguing for abandoning all science and technology and human achievements, quite the contrary, I'm a huge fan of those things. But on the specific question of global warming I go with the evidence, with the scientific consensus.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change
          I do walk to work every day though :)

          I think every intelligent person knows that changing what you do as an individual will not fix the problem. (this is what makes me angry at hippies)
          What is needed is a system change, and putting a price on the cost of pollution is an effective RIGHT WING solution to the problem. Why the right end of politics opposes this and suggests an expensive socialist "direct action" plan is completely beyond comprehension.

          Either way, the point I wanted to make was that you should go live by what you preach. Put pressure on the politicians to work toward real solutions, and keep pushing. Maybe give a few hours a month to an environmental activist organisation like the AYCC.
          I give a few days a week, which goes to show how stupidly easy studying IT is.

    What kind of writer would even make a link to a video of FOX News?

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