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SimCity vs Real World PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bente Lilja Bye   
Monday, 19 November 2007

SimCity ex Electronic Arts Inc. is launching a new edition of the simulation game SimCity – called SimCity Societies. This new version of the SimCity game is noticed in the media because of its integration of global warming scenarios and alternative energy sources options. How well is the real world integrated in this new simulator game? Can SimCity serve a real world society?


SimCity is one of my favorite PC games ever. I've spent hours and hours creating sustainable and flourishing urban societies – starting from nothing and ending up running Metropolis. Whenever my friends were questioning my use of time on this game, I immediately reminded them that SimCity was part of the Harvard curriculum. How could that be a waste of my time?

Sincerely, I played for fun and I did so most intensively in the mid 90ties, but it all became highly relevant again recently – in a purely professional fashion this time. I'll explain how this came about.

SimCity ex2 

Scenario from SimCity Societies : Have SimCity Societies been inspired by Norwegian Stav churches  - or Asian temples? This is one of many scenarios you can choose in SimCity Societies.


What is SimCity?

One of the great things about the game SimCity is that it is a simulator – it aspires to be a digital representation of or a simulation of a dynamic real world. In SimCity you can build cities or urban environments. And it simulates all aspects of urban planning like construction, maintenance, employment, economics etc. You, the player, are given the power (extended compared to real life) of the mayor of the city you are building. Personally, I think this very power is the key to the popularity of the game. As a simulator it is build on real world models they believed to be true at the time it was created (more or less I expect). Anyways, it was considered realistic enough to make it to the curriculum at Harvard .

Simulators are being used in several professions, for instance within the aeronautics and off-shore sectors. Pilots working for a civil airline have to pass a simulator test on a frequent basis (yearly or more often) and I am sure that the jet pilots in the Air Forces around the world spend quite some time “playing” in a simulator. The idea is to exercise in a virtual world before acting in the real world.

If we made it compulsory for every elected politician to master SimCity to the level where they succeed in creating and sustaining a Metropolis I think our real world urban societies would be of better quality - a lot better.



Last week I discovered that Electronic Arts Inc. (EA) is launching SimCity Societies. It was on the New York Times blog Dot Earth where reporter Andrew C. Revkin examines efforts to balance human affairs with the planet's limits, that I found a couple of good articles about the new version of the game SimCity: Be an Eco Sinner or Saint in the New SimCity and  Will Game’s Impact Surpass ‘Inconvenient Truth’?

These articles rejuvenated my motivation to contact the team behind SimCity - with a view to improve the realism of the simulator. In 2006 I tried to contact the EA on behalf of the global community of the obscure science geodesy. Let me tell you what we planned to suggest - and how it all failed.

 But first, let's see how global warming is included in SimCity Societies.


Global Warming by BP

The energy company BP teamed up with the entertainment software company EA to create the Green City option of SimCity Societies. SimCity contained pollution, drought and other environmental or climate related hazards before, along with different kind of energy sources. I believe that the cooperation between the oil/energy company BP and the EA associated development team for this specific version of SimCity, Tilted Mill Entertainment , must be that these options of the game are brought to a more realistic and educational level. SimCity Societies enables you now to power your civilization with high- or low-carbon sources, making available solar power, wind power, hydrogen power and natural gas  and you can learn more about the alternatives before you make your decisions. You are empowered with technology that can reduce climate change/global warming. Unfortunately, this version of SimCity does not come with the zoning principles or the micromanagement that could have made the simulation of the climate change impact on your city so much more fun now that you would have had these new alternative energy sources to even things out with.


The Real World according to the Geodesist

Geodesy is the science of determining the Earths size and shape, its kinematics, rotation and gravity. And the continuous dynamic changes of all these entities. It is particularly the latter, and the improved accuracy with which we are able to monitor these changes in the Earth system, that makes geodesy an increasingly important science. It enables us to closely monitor the changes in our climate, geohazards, water cycle and many other areas of our society.

A typical geodesist today spend time analyzing space data from satellites systems - the most famous system being the GPS The geodesist real world consist of a living planet that is continuously changing. It is the task of the geodesist to try to monitor these changes.

As the Earth is a globe, the geodesists have to be organized on a global level. I am a member of this global community called International Association of Geodesy who these days systematically builds a Global Geodetic Observing System. It was in this group that I got the task to contact the SimCity some time ago. The plan of the geodetic community is that geodesy should no longer stay as obscure as it is today. SimCity reaches out to millions of people. By including at least a couple of geodetic tools in SimCity it would make the simulation more real and thus improve the game. We thought we had an attractive and mutually beneficial proposal for SimCity. Optimistic as I am, I sent an email to EA  inviting them to discuss  these potential improvements.

Some of the possibilities are upgrading of the disaster options in SimCity and a new infrastructure. 



The list of disasters already included in SimCity ranges from natural occurrences, such as hurricanes and wild fires, to population-dependent disasters, such as plagues and pollution. Effects on the planet may be minor or major depending on the current conditions. Increased volcanic eruptions, for example, increase the amount of dust in the atmosphere, lowering global temperature; earthquakes in a body of water may produce tsunamis; and the shortage of nuclear fuel for a nuclear power-dependent civilization may potentially trigger nuclear war.

Based on real Earth system simulations these features can be made more realistic. With geodetic tools you can monitor and in the future most likely predict volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis etc. A geodetic infrastructure should be incorporated in SimCity society along with the other infrastructures necessary to run a modern urban society.

SimCity and Real World Society

This week one of the UN Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Tsunami Early Warning and Mitigation System meets in Lisbon, Portugal to discuss how the world can be better prepared for the natural disaster tsunami. As I am also involved in this work, I know that a simulation tool would be interesting both for the warning and mitigation of these disasters. SimCity seems like a good starting point and could be developed to be a useful tool in the real world.

But, geodesist can also help develop more horrific disasters inspired by the real world. 

Tsunami boat inland

Tsunamis are devastating on coastal societies. This boat was carried more than 1 km inland by the giant wave at Kao Lakh, Thailand. (Photo B L Bye) 

Violent Wobbling - a new disaster in SimCity?

I never really appreciated the option of having aliens and other unlikely features in SimCity. A compromise for me be would be that SimCity included a new type of disaster that was more linked to the real world, say like the Earth Wobble. The Earth spins around its own axis. This spin defines time. A change of the spin changes our time. Normally these changes caused by the Earths wobble , are really small and insignificant in our daily lives. But you can imagine what a disaster it would be if time was altered substantially. Trains would crash, the stock market would crack etc. So why not introduce a new disaster in SimCity?

Dr. Richard Gross at NASA can tell you how violent the wobble has to be in order to really make a mess in SimCity. And I believe Dr. Hans-Peter Plag at the Univerisity of Nevada, Reno would enjoy playing with these thoughts, too. In fact I'm sure he'll be delighted to tell you about the consequences that extensive woobling could have on the climate, ocean currents etc.

Hams-Peter Plag talks

Prof. Hans-Peter Plag is known for his enthusiasm and are able to convince almost any person that he/she understands the most complicated geodetic topics. Photo B L Bye. 


Navigation network - GPS

The Global Position System - GPS - is integrated in our modern real world society and applied in a variety of social areas ranging from pure entertainment and construction tools to lifesaving navigation systems and geohazards monitoring. It consist of a ground based infrastructure dispersed all over the world and a number of satellites orbiting the Earth. The GPS network requires as all other infrastructures, maintenance and upgrading. In this way it does not differ from any of the existing infrastructures incorporated in SimCity.

GPS measurement by kid


How high is the mountain I climbed? A kid checking the altitude on the handheld GPS. Photo B L Bye

As our society is so saturated with GPS it is impossible to cover this in a fair and comprehensive way in this article, but I will simply remind you that we expect our taxi drivers to have GPS tools on board, we even start to take it for granted that our private cars have these instruments. As tourist we find restaurants and stores in new cities around the world with our handheld GPS. I have already described some of the scientific applications of GPS. Navigation at sea has long been based on GPS in addition to other satellite navigation systems (that indirectly depend on GPS).

If there is room for a new infrastructure in SimCity, it definitely should be GPS! 

I am confident that I can convince GPS Queen Ruth Neilan at the International GPS Service to quality check a GPS network in SimCity if EA so wishes.

Ruth Neilan and Markus Rothacher in Potsdam 

Ruth Neilan enjoys herself together with Chairman of the Global Geodetic Observing System, Prof. Markus Rothacher. Photo B L Bye



Introducing global warming/climate change to SimCity should not harm the quality of this simulator [game]. In a letter to Andrew C. Revkin at Dot Earth, Chris Beatrice from Tilted Mill Entertainment says "...are always eager to use our unique medium to serve the public good,". By abandoning the zoning and micromanagement principles as they do in SimCity Societies, I fear the Tilted Mill Entertainment is on a wrong path if they really want to contribute to society with their games. I strongly encourage that EA takes SimCity mastermind Will Wright back on board the development team be it Maxis or Tilted Mill, to ensure that his original ideas about learning and gaming is incorporated also in newer versions of this terrific game. 

So, where did I fail when I invited the people behind SimCity to cooperate with the geodetic community? My guess is that I am considered spam by the EA servers, perhaps also by the people for all I know. At this point I can only guess. However, with this article I hope to find out the non-simulated real world truth.

I do not know whether SimCity is still included in the Harvard curriculum, but if the good people behind SimCity teamed up with real world experts from geodesy and other fields it certainly could be so in the future.

Let me know what you think, EA, Tilted Mill Entertainment and Will Wright! 


Extra: Review of SimCIty Societies by the SIMphoni.net - a forum for expert city simulation gamers. 

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 18 December 2007 )
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