By John Robertson
Games can provide us with many things: entertainment, escapism, an arena for learning and problem solving, emotional confrontations, an alternative take on the world. The same game can be different things to different people, with gender, history, age, cultural background and political beliefs working to influence and funnel its messages and meanings for every unique player.
One of the most interesting and powerful concepts that most games offer is submission: the idea that without your input and thought, they fail to have any worth. If you don't move and jump in a Mario game, nothing happens. If you don't select a conversation option in Mass Effect, the stage and its actors become frozen in time, the entire experience hibernating until you engage with it again.
This level of control means that most games simply cannot exist without you. They are not independent entities: they need your control over them, as it's the only way they can generate any kind of meaning whatsoever. It makes you feel important, meaningful and essential; these worlds are places that belong to you and are fully reliant on you. It’s these concepts that made SimCity 2000 the most important game I have ever played, for me – even if I haven’t touched it in over 15 years.
I was 10 years old when I was adopted and my brother was eight. We were lucky to be adopted into the same family: it’s not uncommon for siblings to be split up in an effort to widen the pool of potential new parents and get kids out of social care. With the average age of an adoptee standing at three years of age, we were doubly lucky.
Being older and aware of what was happening around me was difficult, a challenge made worse by the length of time it takes for an adoption to go through. Feelings of confusion, anger, fear, anxiety and loneliness tended to skew my outlook on the world. The most terrifying element was the lack of control, though; knowing that things were being decided around me, but fully conscious that I had no real input. My voice was heard, of course, but not acted upon or given serious consideration.
Perhaps inevitably, this made me feel insignificant and feeble, and it took many years to get over those feelings and become a person who harbours genuine self-belief. After a certain number of years and experiences you learn to understand yourself and your history and you can begin to use that to empower yourself and develop a more rounded view of your world.
But that outlook takes a long time to develop and it certainly wasn't something I could claim to have attained at ten years old. All I could think of at the time was how I could reclaim some sense of control over my reality. As bizarre and shallow as it might seem, it was SimCity 2000 that provided that solace.
A yearning for more control can be disastrous for a person and those around them. By definition, someone taking control of a situation, person or thing means that those involved are no longer equals. That's fine when your actions are confined to a video game, but less fine if they spread into your relationships with friends and family. At that time in my life I understood that trying to obtain a sense of control by taking it from those around me would be destructive. Most significantly, enforcing overbearing control over my brother – the only other person that had gone through the exact same thing I had – could have severed our bond.
Given how important it was for me to settle into my surroundings, make new friends and generally set up a new life as quickly and solidly as possible, I couldn't risk alienating myself by taking charge of every situation. 2000's city-building and management let me exert near-total control over what at the time appeared to be a phenomenally complex and reactive environment; essentially, the game was a safe construct within which to fulfil these needs and exercise them.
Within the SimCity safety net I would use cheats to receive near-infinite cash, further reducing the degree to which the game could limit my ability to rule over the world I was making. I wasn’t all that interested in 'beating' the game by figuring out how to craft a functional city under the constraints of a fictional economy. All I wanted to do was live the fantasy of creating something that was mine – somewhere where almost nothing could happen without my explicit consent.
I'm sure this reads like the diary of an attendee at the Academy for Loathsome Dictators. That, however, is why the 'safe' environment offered by games such as this is so valuable as a means of allowing you to understand parts of yourself that might otherwise become a negative influence, over you and those around you. In a way SimCity 2000 was a form of self-medication.
A long playthrough of the original title
Eventually, I began to feel at ease in my real-life surroundings and outgrew the desire to want to control everything. Despite its comforts, I started to recognise the superficiality of SimCity. This coincided with me becoming more confident following the turmoil of the adoption process, and I started to want more of a connection with those around me. Even then, though, it remained my game of choice.
My brother and I would play as a partnership at times, although the usual brotherly arguments would invariably take their toll on our civilisation and throw it into a chaos from which its Sims would never recover. I spent more time playing with my new-at-the-time mum. By this point the PlayStation 1 edition of SimCity 2000 had been released, allowing us to sit comfortably in front of the television and interact with the game together. While I would be the one handling the control pad, we would make joint decisions and critique each other's ideas about where a new school should go, how our public transport system should operate or how much we should spend on fighting crime.
Her own interest in the game was genuine, although I suspect she was more impressed by the lessons of forward planning, financial responsibility and problem solving that it offered her child. Working together in this way to build something that we could take a shared interest in most definitely helped to develop our relationship and bring me more quickly to a point where I genuinely accepted her as a parent.
The allegory here is obvious and sounds like a cyberpunk-inspired TV drama: we weren't merely building a digital city together, we were building the foundations of our future.
To this day I have a huge soft spot for management games of this ilk, but none have ever come close to having the impact that SimCity 2000 has had on me. The emotional ties I have to the game mean that any newcomer in same genre – no matter how much flashier, better-looking or complex it might be – will unlikely be as important to me. Without that emotional connection these kinds of games can feel robotic.
SimCity 2000 helped me deal with what was the most disruptive and frightening time of my life, and it's one of the primary reasons I love writing about and thinking about games today. In my experience, there's no better example of how a game can become about something so much more poignant than what its designers originally intended it to be. A game is static until the player interacts with it, but when it comes to life it can offer something that not even its creators can account for.