SimCity's Muddled Environmental Activism

A few weeks ago, EA pulled a bait-and-switch at a press event in San Francisco. My fellow reporters and I were there to see the reveal of SimCity, but after the brief game announcement, the event organizers cued up a series of sit-down talks by prestigious activists including Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth and promoter-turned-charity: water activist Scott Harrison. Oh man, were we grumpy and bored! Many, myself included, bailed 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 modeling 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 fimmaking, 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 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 been 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 the activists with whom it has been associated. 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.