Mobile Games, SimCity BuildIt, and Neoliberalism

A screenshot of a city in SimCity BuildIt

Bradley J. Fest teaches at Carnegie Mellon University. His essays on contemporary literature and culture have appeared in boundary 2, The b2 Review,Critique, David Foster Wallace and “The Long Thing”, The Silence of Fallout, and Wide Screen. He also blogs at The Hyperarchival Parallax.

EA Mobile’s SimCity BuildIt, released for iOS and Android in 2014, is the newest entry in the historic SimCity franchise. With forty million players worldwide, SimCity BuildIt is also the most played SimCity game ever released (Lazarides, 2015). Its expansive international community seems, at first, to procedurally deliver on the promises of free market globalization, achieving an equitable marketplace in which anyone, anywhere can participate. While playing SimCity BuildIt, I have traded goods with players who speak Arabic, French, Japanese, and Russian (though we have never exchanged a word). I have competed in weekly competitions with people from Germany and Korea (and mostly lost). While traveling in the game to purchase goods, I have seen nearly identical virtual cities named for real places in South Africa and Australia.

A screenshot of Global Trade HQ menu from SimCity Buildit

Figure 1: SimCity BuildIt (Redwood City, CA: EA Mobile, 2014). Global trade interface. In-game screenshot

At times, SimCity BuildIt makes me think that the mobile game has the potential to be the silent film of the twenty-first century, able to cross national and linguistic boundaries, uniting audiences not because of a shared language, but because of the signifying capacities of gestures, music, and iconography. The mobile game, in this way, seems poised for building cosmopolitan communities united in collective global play. But the current realities of mobile gaming significantly temper any end of history utopianism.

Instead of demonstrating the aesthetic, ludic, critical, or procedural possibilities of the form, SimCity BuildIt is paradigmatic of the repetitive, accumulatory, and exploitative informatic logics of contemporaneity. It demonstrates how games played on smartphones and tablets do not cut across national boundaries because of their potential to create communities of players through nonlinguistic signification, but rather because of a shared economic system made possible by the standardization of global communication networks. Mobile games depend upon what Alexander R. Galloway (2004) calls “protocol”; they are protocological artifacts that use distributed information networks to create a shared “world,” a flattened space in which anyone connected can participate. However crude, SimCity BuildIt is a tiny global economy that circulates its digital goods in the same networks that make financial markets hum in the twenty-first century. And, like the pervasive inequalities of the present, many players of the game are simply left out regardless of how skilled they may be or how hard they work. Therefore, it should come as no surprise when I suggest that the game’s procedures and systems resemble neoliberal economic practices and ideologies. Like neoliberalism, SimCity BuildIt emphasizes free market economic policies, views the legitimacy of the state only in terms of how governments can support and create markets, incorporates inequality as a structural norm, attempts to apply marketization to things not previously subject to market forces, and puts the accumulation of profit above all other concerns.

The Mechanics of Inequality

SimCity BuildIt is a free-to-play game that adapts some of the mechanics and graphics from the recent PC reboot, SimCity (2013), and introduces others uniquely suited for mobile play. Like Will Wright’s original SimCity (1989), and its more complicated sequel SimCity 2000 (1994), SimCity BuildIt’s primary mechanic is time. To grow their cities, players have to wait for things to happen. The rate at which taxes are collected or land develops is fixed, and so what a player can do is temporally limited. But unlike earlier games in the franchise, SimCity BuildIt does not allow players to control the rate at which time passes, nor any of the simulation’s other parameters.

In some ways, SimCity BuildIt is a stripped-down husk of previous Sim games. In other ways, however, the game is disturbingly successful in understanding how players use mobile devices, as it is designed to be played in idle moments of three-to-five minutes (e.g., I find myself playing while waiting for the bus in the morning, starting time-intensive processes which I reap the rewards of on the ride home). During these few minutes of play, players set the production of goods in motion. Raw materials can take a minute to make (steel) or up to seven hours (electronic components). A shovel, made with plastic, steel, and wood, takes twenty-four minutes, which can be combined with seeds to make tree saplings, which can be combined with more seeds to make berries, which can be combined with cheese and flour to make cheesecake, which can be used to improve a building, fulfill the order of a shipment, or be sold to other players. Such production and transformation is repeated again and again, over and over, without end or telos, ad nauseam.

Screenshot of Nano-tech Factory menu from SimCity BuildIt

Figure 2: SimCity BuildIt. Raw materials. In-game screenshot.

SimCity BuildIt lends itself to patient and methodical play. It can take days to assemble the materials to repair a disaster area or earn enough money to purchase a new park. But, as is so common with the free-to-play model that dominates mobile gaming, players have other avenues for collecting goods as well. At certain times players can choose to watch a thirty second advertisement and be rewarded with a rare item. More perniciously, players can use actual US dollars to acquire units of SimCash, which can be used to purchase items instantly, upgrade buildings immediately, and fulfill shipments with a few screen taps. When I travel to other cities, it is obvious that some players have spent hundreds of dollars improving their tiny, widget-producing metropolises. In SimCity BuildIt there is a visible, unbridgeable gap between the haves and the have-nots.

This gamic inequality was not really a big deal up until recently; those who did not care to purchase the biggest city possible could be content with the daily rhythms of production sans real expenditure. But in early 2016, the game introduced a new patch that allows players to compete in weekly competitions. In these competitions, one hundred players are pitted against each other to see how quickly they can complete specific tasks. At the end of a few days, the players with the most points receive in-game money and gifts, and can advance to a more competitive league that offers even greater rewards. Players who spend real money have an inordinate advantage over those who do not, and their success in one competition will make them more likely to win in the future. To be even remotely competitive on the game’s global stage, players need to spend large sums of money. In this way, SimCity BuildIt is a clear allegory for contemporary financial inequality. The game hardwires inequality into all of its processes, allowing those with the most disposable income to subvert the game’s central time mechanic, accruing an advantage that others, no matter how hard they work, can never overcome. As historian Philip Mirowski has written of neoliberalism, the game treats “inequality of economic resources . . . not as an unfortunate by-product of capitalism, but a necessary functional characteristic of [an] ideal market system” (2013, 63). In other words, manufacturing in-game inequality is how EA Mobile makes money.

A screenshot of a city in SimCity BuildIt

Figure 3: SimCity BuildIt. A city built without spending any real US dollars. In-game screenshot.

A screenshot of a city in SimCity BuildIt

Figure 4: SimCity BuildIt. A city (most likely) built with the aid of real money. In-game screenshot.

A recent update to the game makes this kind of reinforced inequality graphically visible. In June 2016, EA Mobile introduced the OMEGA Corporation: a new set of goods, buildings, and production facilities disconnected from the game’s regular economy. Players can only upgrade OMEGA buildings with OMEGA items produced in special OMEGA research facilities. OMEGA buildings do not produce Simoleons, the typical in-game currency, but NeoSimoleons, which are stored in a separate NeoBank and can only be used at the NeoMall for high-value items. Normal city services like fire departments and police stations do not monitor the new buildings. Rather, drones and the ominously named ControlNet patrol the skies around them. Though I imagine the dystopian sounding nature of all of these elements was not apparent to the game’s designers, the introduction of OMEGA Corp creates a visible representation of elite sims, a sequestered economic enclave of the 1% protected not by the government but by an exceptional corporation unregulated by any of the game’s other systems.

Neoliberalism Simulator

By now I hope it is clear how forty million people around the world devoting a few minutes a day to producing widgets in a game that procedurally privileges the nonhuman logic of free market ideology and visibly celebrates systemic inequalities might be troubling. SimCity BuildIt’s understanding of contemporary economic activity can be disturbingly cynical, abandoning the series’s previous ambitions to create simulations that encouraged intellectual contemplation about complex systems in favor of the easy gratification of consumerism. After the release of SimCity and SimCity 2000, some significant attention was paid to how those games explore the relationship between simulation, policy, ideology, and capital. Paul Starr, in an article on the potential for simulation games to inform public policy, celebrated SimCity, suggesting that it has the ability to teach “the management of complex systems based on ‘intelligent scanning’ of streams of constantly changing information” (1994). Sherry Turkle, thinking about how best to understand computer literacy, saw a need to promote “readership skills for the culture of simulation” so that players could understand how “the assumptions that underlie simulation [are] a key element of political power” (1997). And following these initial discussions, Ted Friedman criticized the way that SimCity “rests on the empiricist, technophilic fantasy that the complex dynamics of city development can be abstracted, quantified, simulated, and micromanaged” (1999). In all these ways, the SimCity franchise is founded upon, connects to, and reproduces certain dominant ideological assumptions, particularly ones about the social and economic realities of late capitalist life in the US.

But for all the potentially questionable things about earlier SimCity games—e.g., the way they erase race as a civic concern or associate low taxes with economic growth—they understood there to be some tie between public institutions and private enterprise, and held that the role of civic government was to improve the lives of its citizens. The newest entry into the Sim series displays no such understanding. In stripping away the complex system of taxes, expenditures, and other interconnected parameters, SimCity BuildIt does not create some kind of ideology-free haven of efficient bureaucracy. Rather, it simulates the dominant cultural, economic, political, and ecological ideologies of the twenty-first century (on simulation and ideology, see Bogost 2006). It is a simulation of a “pure” market, a smooth space that allows goods to circulate perfectly and fluidly, not tied down by any relationship to the locality in which they were produced, nor to the concerns of their destination (let alone any messy political questions!). The game’s economy, like its ontology, is flat. The player is only asked to be concerned with how efficiently goods can be exchanged and transformed, not for the benefit of any particular individual or group, but only so that further growth and accumulation can proceed. Like neoliberalism understands the market, the game’s economy is treated as “a ‘natural’ and inexorable state of mankind” (Mirowski 2013, 55), unchanging, inalterable, monolithic. Neoliberalism has often been understood in the ways that it submits things that were not previously subject to market forces to marketization. In SimCity BuildIt, everything is part of the market, and there is only the market.

Further, though the game simulates a “city,” SimCity BuildIt has no real sense of government at all. Historian and anthropologist David Harvey describes the role of the state in his definition of neoliberalism as follows: “to create and preserve an institutional framework . . . [the state must] set up those military, defense, police, and legal structures and functions to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets” (2005, 2). This is precisely how the “services”—police, fire, et cetera—function in the game. Tax rates cannot be adjusted to provide more or better services. If a player’s sims are provided with all the services, they will happily participate in the market. Nothing else is demanded of or by them. The state is merely there to provide the framework for the market. If it does so, sims’ quality of life is assured, and they will populate a player’s city.

The game is neoliberal in a host of other ways as well. For a city simulator made in the twenty-first century, the game is shockingly environmentally unconscious, disavowing any environmental problems beyond pollution’s negative impact on property value. The potential for global warming and extinction was a significant aspect of Wright’s SimEarth (1990). Over twenty-five years later, in a world that has seen the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, SimCity BuildIt’s players have no ecology to worry over whatsoever; their only concern is the maximization of profits and nothing they do in the service of that goal will harm the people they are supposed to govern, nor the generations to follow. This blindness to any alternative is also evident in how the game understands the political agency of its sims, as there is no space for political protest or social transformation. If a player’s sims are unhappy, they simply move away. Further, there is the flattening of local culture that accompanies globalization. Historical treasures like the Eiffel Tower or Himeji Castle are merely interchangeable façades. And finally, the game incorporates “disasters” for the sole production of more capital, disturbingly resembling what Naomi Klein (2007) has called disaster capitalism—that is, the relationship between neoliberal economic experiments and the manufacturing of political and economic crisis for material gain. Within the logic of the game, one can imagine that the financial collapse of 2008 would be purposely unleashed in order to generate more capital. Quite simply, SimCity BuildIt is not a city simulator or a government simulator; it is a neoliberalism simulator.

Given the form’s free-to-play underpinnings, it should not be too radical to suggest that the mobile game is a form native to the era of neoliberalism. It arises from and reproduces the dominant ideologies of our time. But we should also understand how a game like SimCity BuildIt does not merely reflect our world, but can and does, in very real ways, produce that world. We are not simply playing a silly, repetitive, time-killing game on the bus ride home—we are making our world.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. 2006. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Friedman, Ted. 1999. “The Semiotics of SimCity.” First Monday 4, nos. 4–5.

Galloway, Alexander R. 2004. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lazarides, Tasos. 2015. “EA Mobile Claims That SimCity BuildIt Is Now the Most-Played SimCity Game Ever.” Touch Arcade, June 8.

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador.

Mirowski, Philip. 2013. Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberals Survived the Financial Meltdown. New York: Verso.

SimCity. 1989. Redwood City, CA: Maxis.

SimCity 2000. 1994. Redwood City, CA: Maxis.

SimCity. 2013. Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts.

SimCity BuildIt. 2014. Redwood City, CA: EA Mobile.

SimEarth. 1990. Redwood City, CA: Maxis.

Starr, Paul. 1994. “Seductions of Sim: Policy as a Simulation Game.” American Prospect 5, no. 17 (Spring).

Turkle, Sherry. 1997. “Seeing through Computers: Education in a Culture of Simulation.” American Prospect 8, no. 31 (March–April).

Bradley J. Fest