You can do a lot of things with city builder games. You can replicate real cities, or you can simulate massive natural disasters. A YouTuber going by the name of “donoteat” uses Cities: Skylines to explain the politics and power behind the creation of American cities.
The world of Cities: Skylines “builder” YouTubers is substantial. Video creators like Strictoaster and Fluxtrance have carved out a space on the platform for themselves by recording the process of building beautiful cities, landscapes, or strange architectural feats in Skylines, speeding the recordings up, and then talking through their process.
Donoteat, who humorously self-describes as a “disgusting neckbearded STEMlord with a degree in civil engineering,” counts himself as a socialist, and whose real name is Justin Roczniak, saw these kinds of Skylines videos and decided to do something different.
“Talking about the game itself or how you modded it to achieve the visuals you wanted is all well and good,” he wrote in an email exchange with Kotaku, “but I thought maybe it would be more interesting to talk about how cities actually work while doing the video rather than just talk about how I’m painting a pretty picture.”
Roczniak’s main Skylines series is centered on a city named Franklin. The videos are unflinching looks at how American history and politics have created its cities. The series approaches cities from a historical angle, beginning with the time before colonisation in North America and then slowly building period-to-period from there.
There is no blank slate from which cities emerge, the videos argue, but instead they are founded through mass displacement and control. The early videos are dominated by discussions of trade and mercantile systems because Roczniak is plainly claiming that thinking the American city without taking those things seriously means that you’re not really addressing what cities are.
Franklin exists as a kind of allegory for real cities, not being based on any one in particular, but the things that happen in and around the city of Franklin are all based on the history of city development. The design decisions we see Roczniak making when he is plopping down water features, roads, or houses are grounded in decisions that have been made in real-world cities. He’s playing out the DNA of the modern urban area with a digital clone.
For example, in a video dedicated to showing how urban freeways came to be built, Roczniak uses Skylines to explicitly show the human cost of the implementation of freeways through cities. He tells little fictional stories about apartments and storefronts before wiping them away to plop down a road.
One of those is about Mohammed. Mohammed is a shopkeeper with a cat who dislikes belly rubs. He’s planning to buy the building he lives and works in. It is demolished to make room for a freeway, and his compensation is two years worth of rent.
Roczniak narrates this fictional story with a complete deadpan voice, and it makes it all the more chilling. As he explains, stories like this have happened across the US during the 20th century in cities like New York, Detroit, and Baltimore. “People’s lives are buried in abutments and pillar foundations,” he says solemnly.
That video is from “Power, Politics, and Planning,” a side series that takes on broader issues than the Franklin series, but both are committed to showing the human cost of urban policy making. And when you watch Roczniak play it out, you really get a sense of what those costs are.
After all, cities don’t just appear. They are built at the intersection of many different complex systems that are often elided or ignored in city building video games. Roczniak specifically mentioned Paulo Pedercini’s keynote at the International City-Gaming Conference from 2017 as a way of starting to think about his Cities: Skylines videos.
As Roczniak explained, in city builder games “there’s no towns or villages on the map, no indigenous populations that you kick out to build your 50th MegaCity 2000” and there’s “no simulation of social, racial, or economic issues beyond a city budget.”
Without these elements, Roczniak suggests, you’re not really simulating much at all when it comes to cities. It means that telling a truer story requires some narrative work. As Roczniak noted,
“I tried to do a series where we compensate for that by telling a story, and that story has to start in the pre-colonial era so folks realise just how much of a civilisation was there before, and how we kicked the indigenous population out to build our cities.
“And then as we go along we’ll see more plenty more cycles of people being kicked out to make room for more people or more development, and see how people grow rich or poor from economic circumstances beyond their control, and conflicts between labour and management, between different races, between different genders, and so on and so forth, and all the really messy stuff that goes on to build a city.”
Roczniak is quick to point out the historical injustices between bosses and employees or slave owners and slaves and to track those injustices into our contemporary period. In one video, he explicitly calls to abolish ICE while explaining how the organisation is an outgrowth of some of the systems of power that were developed during mercantilism. The connections between now and then are significant.
When asked why he takes a specifically political angle with his YouTube videos, Roczniak explained that the Franklin series was originally intended to merely be historical and not necessarily political. “Of course it turns out staying ‘apolitical’ with regard to history is impossible so I just let the leftist politics run wild rather than try to hold to some absurd standard of apoliticality,” he noted.
Letting the politics run wild allows Roczniak to delve deep into the relationship between historical facts and the cities that are created in the wake of that history. In his episode on the creation of the water system in the fictional Franklin, he lays out all of the wonderful and positive effects of water distribution before historically grounding how water was explicitly classed.
The working class was too poor to get access to water or experience any cultural changes that came along with running water.
He also uses this as a way of seamlessly move into a discussion of water resource management and the different uses for dams and reservoirs in our historical moment. Storing water for wildfire control is not one of those, Roczniak explains while showing a tweet from the US president.
Immediately afterwards, he shows a tweet from the California Department of Corrections that demonstrates that “youth offenders” are being used as volunteer firefighters in that state. With deep sarcasm in his voice, Roczniak states that “effective wildfire fighting requires more conventional means, like child prison labour.”
At every moment, Roczniak is stressing that the history that he is modelling in his Skylines builds, in this case water management, is directly attached to what is happening right now in American politics. He’s showing that the vast infrastructural moves that have been made to historically support our urbanisation techniques over the past few centuries have come at extreme costs in human life and happiness.
From that perspective, from ICE to water management, it doesn’t seem like anyone can have a neutral perspective when it comes to the policies and organisations that operate in and around America’s urban centres.
When asked if he considered himself a “leftist YouTuber,” Roczniak cedes that he might be at this point, but that he thinks of his videos at doing something slightly different than other leftists on the platform. “I don’t think, like, Contrapoints is gonna come out with a 30 minute leftist analysis of Amtrak,” he explained. “What I really want to do is provide a different take on how we view cities and what cities are capable of.”
During the email exchange with Kotaku, Roczniak made an impassioned case for why this all matters. For him, the actual implementation of design philosophies like New Urbanism in current cities have produced novelty but not substantive change. In his own words:
“This mode of thinking around urban policy has bred a lot of mediocrity. Like building a tourist streetcar without dedicated lanes instead of a subway. Or a means-tested tax credit for renters instead of rent control. Or waiting for a hypothetical privately-funded magic vacuum train instead of actually investing in high-speed rail we could have built 40 years ago.
“These mediocre ideas shouldn’t be the limits; we can do better. I want a Philadelphia with more than 3 subway lines. I want to see a public housing scheme that actually drives home prices down. I want more trains going to more places. I want rent control, goddammit. So I’m making a series that shows how this is possible, why it hasn’t happened, and why it’s desirable.”
Roczniak’s video output is certainly unique both in the Skylines YouTube community and on YouTube in general. The platform has a notable contingency of right-wing content producers, and it is refreshing to see a creator in the video game space that is working to explain leftist issues through accessible video game build videos.
When asked if he had any must-read texts or websites for people who find his show interesting, Roczniak said to join the”New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens” group on Facebook. As for other materials, Roczniak recommended Robert Caro’s The Power Brokerand the same author’s Lyndon Johnson series for people who are interested in learning more about the concepts deployed in his videos.
Then “go online and take a poke through your city’s zoning code, and understand what the restrictions actually mean. Try to figure out and understand the reasons why things are built the way they are built, and the politics behind the reasons.”
This seems to be the real change that Roczniak is after. Cities: Skylines videos are just a pathway to get there.