Simulated Reality

How virtual cities can engage civilians in the environment

 By Will Uhl

Overt activist and environmentalist messages rarely make it into game development. Players want engagement, not lectures.

Yet many titles are now confronting players with environmental problems by integrating urban issues into larger game tasks. City simulator Cities:Skylines (C:S) is a prime example of situating environmental issues in ways that engage players.

C:S first hands the player a highway off-ramp. The player must plot out the city’s streets, zoning, and infrastructure while balancing the budget, traffic, and many other needs. The overarching puzzle is how to turn empty acreage into a thriving megalopolis, and dozens of smaller puzzles are nestled within that.  How do you make sure your city’s humble origins can comfortably expand with minimal bulldozing? How can you keep heavy traffic out of the suburbs? How can you keep industrial pollution away from residential areas without causing lengthy commutes? Though the context of the puzzles is often less complex than the ones real cities face, these puzzles take on questions real city planners must solve.

A number of those puzzles force the player to weigh options for and against environmental health and safety. Wind turbines can be fantastic ways to power a city, but they’re noisier and more expensive than coal plants. Citizens always respond enthusiastically to green energy choices, but they also respond poorly to high taxes and blackouts. Pollution is a problem, but only one of many, and it can be tempting to ignore the green options in favor of solving other issues faster.

Because environmentalism isn’t the final objective or only path, players don’t “lose” when they set up a landfill. But C:S does simulate the consequences of these actions. Unchecked pollution can cause unhappiness, lowered land value, and sickly civilians all the way up to urgent health crises. Though players can replace their polluting facilities with greener alternatives, it’s not an instant solution. Water and ground pollution may take decades to “fade.” Players who don’t understand these threats find themselves facing very real problems inside the game, and those who know the pitfalls of cheaper, dirtier facilities tend to spend the extra money for longer-term investment. 

C:S does reward environmentally aware players without unduly punishing others, and it does offer less ecofriendly alternatives with real benefits as tempting and occasionally necessary options. Letting players decide for themselves forces them to understand the consequences of their choices and gives them a greater appreciation for the difficulties of implementing one system or the other.

Real-life parallels are easy to draw. Had cities been built with the level of technology, wealth, and environmental awareness we have today, we would likely have countless more wind farms and solar plants fuelling our power lines. But much of our current infrastructure was created in the post-WWII boom. Adopting modern standards on top of that infrastructure is difficult, expensive, and sometimes nearly impossible. Without live indicators of pollution and citizen health, politicians old and new often put economic boost over ecological health.

The open-ended approach that C:S takes to environmental issues leads players to question consequences instead of dogmatically accepting one value over another, and its many interconnected systems make handling green issues engaging. Cities:Skylines works because it allows the player to decide. More environmentally minded games could stand to respect the player as much.

Will is a senior journalism major at Ithaca College minoring in game development. His primary interest is in unconventional and educational applications of games. Born in semirural New Jersey, he's developed a great fondness for walks in the wood, and does his part for the environment by repeatedly putting off doing his laundry.