In Reply of “Gamespace Urbanism: City-Building Games and Radical Simulations” – Why #CitiesSkylines is a LOT More Complex Than You Think!

Many players try and a lot “fail”


I caught an article about digital urban simulators not cutting the mustard floating through the Tweeters earlier this morning and decided to take a look at it (never mind who RT’ed it in the first place).

The piece in question:

Gamespace Urbanism: City-Building Games and Radical Simulations

The virtual gamespace has often promised to provide an arena in which to explore radical urban scenarios, but a growing number of indie games are finally beginning to realise this potential.

“I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe I would be mad enough to undertake it.”

– Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Piranesi’s words sum up his monumental sense of grandiosity and bravado and, unfortunately, that of many much less visionary architects. Yet this wild fantasy of conceiving a whole new universe can be realised in the virtual gamespace. Video games, bringing together the worlds of computation, narrative and experiential space in one medium, are becoming a new model of architectural representation. As such, gamespace can be used as a testing ground to design our future cities, a place where utopian thoughts are elaborated and experimented, an artificial arena where there are no rules except those set by the programmer.

That video games can play this role is arguably nothing new. City-building games, for instance, first emerged as a distinct genre in the early 1990s. These games are referred to as “simulations”: in the case of city-building games, the player simulates the role of architect and ruler of a city, designing its growth and managing its fictional communities. The genre was established in 1989 with SimCity and, unlike most video games at the time, it relied on the player’s sense of creativity and desire for control over aggressivity and competitiveness. City-building games such as SimCity and City Skylines seemingly prompted the player to build ‘the city of your dreams’.

More than anything else, however, city-building games serve as an object lesson in how not to use games to design our future cities. Mirroring the top-down principles currently regulating the built environment, the only type of city that these games allow you to create is a modernist, technocratic, grid-based, North American city. These city-building games function according to modern approaches to urban planning and design: totalising, single-handed and heavily reliant on zoning as an urbanistic tool. The question of the limits of growth is perpetually delayed and the natural environment is represented as nothing but a commodity, a pre-partitioned blank slate ready to be taken over. Unpicking the logic of game environments can lead us to understand how they challenge what we know about architecture and urbanism.

Gamespace Urbanism: City-Building Games and Radical Simulations
Vincent Ocasla, MagnaSanti (2010). COURTESY OF RIVISTA STUDIO Source:


This is what happened in 2010, when 22-year-old architecture student Vincent Ocasla decoded the formula for completing SimCity 3000. After analysing the game’s algorithm, he figured out a modular structure for maximum efficiency: he created MagnaSanti, a self-sustaining city with a population of 6 million. With his project, Ocasla questioned the idea (upon which games such as SimCity seem to be based) that cities should be planned to boost the well-being of their inhabitants. In Ocasla’s words: “There are a lot of other problems in the city hidden under the illusion of order and greatness—suffocating air pollution, high unemployment, no fire stations, schools, or hospitals, a regimented lifestyle—this is the price that these sims pay for living in the city with the highest population.” That designing a hardcore totalitarian state can bring about the successful completion of SimCity might tell us something about the ideology of the makers of this game. MagnaSanti is just one formidable and dreadful instance of gamespace urbanism taking the game’s internal mechanics to its logical extreme.

But against the totalitarian tendencies of city-building games, and many other mainstream games in other genres, independent gaming has risen to become the site of critique for the all-too-real dynamics of gameworlds. Indeed, disrupting conventions (and their underlying assumptions) has become the core of radical gaming and contemporary art practice.

The following examples show how gamespace can become the stage for a social, political and ethical critique: from a nondescript city under the effect of gentrification, to a barren luxury estate and a set of playful and absurd buildings for London. These examples suggest that, rather than allowing architects to indulge Piranesi’s power-hungry ideal, games could work as a means of showing how dysfunctional reality really is. Beyond critique and virtual entertainment, the question they open up is whether games can be used as reliable systems to study and solve actual and theoretical conflicts. Given the state of cultural simulation in which we live, real-world problems may seem truly real only once they appear on a screen.




It seems the entire concept of the article is based around the very old Maxis game of Sim City 3000 – a game that was released in the early 00’s and quickly replaced by Sim City 4 in 2003. Game mechanics to handle air pollution and other problems cities would have (outside of traffic jams) were non-existent then to what we have now in 2018 with the advent of Cities Skylines (first released in 2015). Heck Sim City didn’t even handle sewerage which all cities produce and have to discharge somewhere although they did bring in landfills and incinerators with Sim City 4.


In 2015 Paradox and Colossal Order (a Finnish company) released Cities Skylines (finally plugging a 12 year gap since Maxis’s Sim City 4) with many DLC’s coming out (Park Life being the most recent as of last week) to enrich the game play. To make the game even more diverse Mods and Assets are allowed to be used – with Mods altering game play while assets allow custom-made buildings, maps, props and so on.

While the base game mechanics handle things like: pollution, unemployment, traffic, transit, education and so on the Mods go further and extend them. These are some of the Mods I use:

  • Traffic Manager – President Edition: this one is a must as it allows me to fine tune roads and intersections and how the traffic (including pedestrians) interact with said roads and intersections. Parking is also simulated (yep they whinge about parking) and things like bus ways and pedestrian malls can be created
  • Rush Hour: the game itself is pretty useless with the twin peaks of the Monday-Friday life, the weekend day trips and those special events. Rush Hour fixes that and you sure get your 7-9, 4-7 and all day weekend transport crushes on the network with road and transit. But your Rush Hour can be easily tweaked with this following Mod which is absolutely critical for large cities and that is…
  • Transport Lines Manager Reborn 9.02 (as of today): this mod is absolutely critical if you want to fine tune the transit system. You get to be like Auckland Transport (and probably do a better job than the boffins at AT Metro) and determine:
    • how many busses, trains (heavy, metro and trams) etc are sent down their respective lines per three-hour blocks
    • what type of consist is to be used (will a 30 seater or 130 seater bus be the best on Bus Rapid Transit)
    • Ticket Prices as ticketing is integrated and transfers are allowed
  • Network Extensions 2 allows more road variety including bus ways which I have built more recently
  • RICO – this allows Civic Buildings to have jobs and extra attraction on things like tourism and transport. RICO also needed for assets (custom made buildings) to also have either residents or jobs)
  • Rainfall allows you to simulator storm water each time it rains and how you handle it. I don’t currently use it as it drains a lot of performance from the game at the moment


Assets and other game features that add richness to the game:

  • Central heating: in temperate and “polar” maps central heating (hot water through pipes that come from either geothermal plants or oil burning furnaces) are recommended if you don’t want to burn out your power plants
  • SEWERAGE: crap has to go somewhere and it is either dumped straight into a water way untreated (causing pollution and health issues) or treated to either 85% (same as we do at Mangere) or 100% which is expensive The good thing about the Eco Treatment Plant is that if you have a lake that you also draw fresh water from the 100% treatment of sewerage means no health issues
  • Speaking of pollution and health Cities Skylines have these baddies for you to contend with:
    • Noise pollution from industry, traffic and event based buildings like convention centres
    • Air pollution from again industry, traffic and fossil fuel power plants
    • Water pollution from everyone (sewerage)
    • Ground pollution from industry and garbage facilities (recycling plants and the Industry Waste filtering policy help battle this one)
    • Health: Cims get sick when exposed to any of the pollution above and will need to go to hospital or a clinic (or simply die if they can not access health care)
    • TREES! With Park Life trees can now be used to buffer and moderate noise pollution better than before (in the past you had to rely on roads with trees or big distances between noise makers and residents). Trees will also filter air pollution drifting towards residential and commercial areas from the industry but will die if exposed to ground pollution
  • It is the ECONOMY stupid: this one lurks more behind the scenes and can have very large consequences to the city. You need to balance your residential, commercial and industry so that you do not get high employment at one extreme, factories abandoned due to lack of residents at the other end while commercial gets cranky if they do not get the goods from said factories (or imported if need be). While unemployment, not enough workers, and lack of goods alarms do come up the following is not easily seen but will muck up the RCI and the City itself:
    • Factories need raw resources that is either: agriculture, ore, oil or forestry. You create industrial districts that can specifically exploit those raw resources and send them to the factories (note the maps do have resource scarcity for oil and ore). This is where road and rail links are absolutely critical to link the factories up to the extraction industries
    • Factories send completed goods to commercial areas – that is your retail, tourism and hospitality areas. Again road and rail links are critical.
    • What your city can not produce it will import (at cost) and what it over produces it exports – this is where shipping and rail again come in
    • Civic infrastructure comes in play. That is your cims need to be educated especially if IT clusters and high tech factories are wanted (and pay generous taxes to the coffers). Fire, police, medical and death care also come into play (nothing worse than a corpse stinking out the place because the hearse was late)
    • Special infrastructure like unique buildings will either give the city a boost or send it down the tubes so watch out when building that mega stadium
    • District policies that allow you to micro control what each district does (needed when wanting an extraction industry, tourism, leisure or IT clusters)
  • Green Utility: PARKS AND TREES! With Park Life out Green Utility becomes even more critical in your City as Cims demand their green space. As I have mentioned above trees do their job in absorbing City noise but we now have the options of also building grand parks, amusement parks, natural reserves and zoos. My Ben’s Cities blog covers how my cities develop and I recommend going there if you want to see what I get up to on the practical side. My Green Utility post covers how Green Utility works and consequences it has on cities. You can see Green Utility testing my urban design skills in a my #CitiesSkylines Park Life is Out and I am Having an Absolute Blast. Also Urban Geography and Green Utility Skills Tested post as well.
  • Assets: while I am no architect there are those in the community who are great digital architects and develop beautiful buildings that customise your city. Whether it be gas stations or grand stadiums it is all there for you to place (or develop) in your cities. The RICO allows you to customise the residential, employment, outputs and/or costs for these assets giving them realism as they would in real life.


That list while extensive is not exhaustive either on what Cities Skylines does and offer players. But if you think the game is a walk in the park tell that to around 85% of players who try the game and “fail.” That is the Urban Geographic mechanics are that difficult (as they are in a real city in real life) they walk away. Cities Skylines is the ultimate DIGITAL Urban Geographic expression that continues to evolve through time as more content and DLC’s come out.


I am going to also attach my post on why I use Cities Skylines in blog posts as well. It includes two satirical videos on what type of player are you (and why the following assertion is entirely incorrect):

More than anything else, however, city-building games serve as an object lesson in how not to use games to design our future cities. Mirroring the top-down principles currently regulating the built environment, the only type of city that these games allow you to create is a modernist, technocratic, grid-based, North American city. These city-building games function according to modern approaches to urban planning and design: totalising, single-handed and heavily reliant on zoning as an urbanistic tool. The question of the limits of growth is perpetually delayed and the natural environment is represented as nothing but a commodity, a pre-partitioned blank slate ready to be taken over

quote context:

I recommend watching the first video below that pretty much debunks the above assertion quickly!



Why I Use #CitiesSkylines in my Urban Geography Posts?

Pictures say a thousand words


Two recent posts I did managed to flame some controversy. Nothing unusual as from time to time the blog does that in order to give the institutions a boot up the backside (also a reason why the blog started when it did).

However, it was two recent posts on behaviour and satire that seems to have stoked quite a bit of controversy.

My first post was on Urban Geography as an expression of behaviour (Urban Geography: The Ultimate Expression in Inter Regional Spatial Planning, Developments and Behaviours) and this came about after a series of accidents (two fatal) on Auckland’s roads and how we have a problem with engineering, design and planning. The controversy came about over the name Urban Geography and what it does.

I am an Urban Geographer not a Planner nor Urban Designer. So in my line of work I study the spatial developments of Cities, their variations and then will set out on high level exercises mapping out the first steps towards some macro-level spatial planning and possibly design. Where the controversy came about with confusion of the term Urban Geography and where it sat with Planners and Urban Designers. It was quickly cleared up and things are trucking along well again. But it can show communication is key especially as New Zealand goes through fundamental shifts in its Urban Geography, Planning, Urban Design and Transport.


Path with urban development


The second controversy was more interesting although I should have expected it after my work on the two National Science Challenges on Housing, and Decision Making towards Intensification. Long story short the first Science Challenge looked at critiques of the Planning System in New Zealand in which the secondary data (Primary Data is being processed at the moment) highlighted flaws in our legislation, our Planning Authorities and the profession itself (ask any member of the public what a Planner is or how they feel about Planning and a negative response often crops up).  the second Science Challenge looked at Decision Making that promotes or inhibits the delivery of intensification and again negative responses could have been invoked.

This does not mean in any way what the profession does is bad it is often either communicated badly or elected representatives use the profession as whipping posts (the Unitary Plan was a clear example of both).


So along I come in posting a piece of satire on what Cities Skylines player (or what City Builder) are you. Here is the video and pardon the language:

And here is the post I wrote on it: What Type of City Builder Are You #CitiesSkylines – An Interesting Satire Piece that Makes Us Confront Our Bias

The video is pure satire and I still get a good laugh out of it because I know which builder I am (the second one) and I know both the bias and challenges of my preference of play. In other words I can laugh at myself (while learning from my previous experiences).

I showed the satire piece to non planners and they got a good chuckle as well as understanding the concepts of the four types of play (and consequences). Let the profession see it and I get curt remarks mainly on why do I use Cities Skylines?


That is I can write a 4,500 word Urban Geography post but then I go “ruin it” with Cities Skylines pictures.


Urban Geography, Urban Planning, Urban Design and Engineering – all in action in Cities Skylines


This disappointed me more than anything else especially when gamification (the use of digital simulators) has been used since the Sim City days. Sim City 4 was taught in schools and studied in universities in the early 21st Century teaching the basic concepts of Urban Geography and what could be done with cities (including disasters). Cities Skylines took that mantle from 2015 and is used as Sim City 4 was in simulating different Urban Geographies or even different Urban Design ideas for a district renewal: #CitiesSkylines Helping Building Better Cities Today


I have used Cities Skylines more than once to help explain Urban Geography concepts:

Urban Design, Urban geography and Green utility vs the City Budget. A #CitiesSkylines Lesson

#CitiesSkylines Urban Regeneration Project Offers Lessons for Auckland

Urban Design: Form and Function or Aesthetics? #CitiesSkylines Assists


So why use it?

  1. Pictures are worth a thousand words
  2. I can simulate situations faster than I can in real life
  3. Offer different outcomes (like Green Utility)
  4. I am telling a story much as Auckland tells a story
  5. Because while the blog is read by the institutes I also communicate a lot other people and Cities Skylines can help explain concepts rather than get caught in planning jargon
  6. The game evolves much as Auckland evolves


As I mentioned earlier and as mentioned in #CitiesSkylines Helping Building Better Cities Today digital urban simulators are being used more in the US and especially Europe to both simulate ideas before applying to them to real life environments or communicate ideas to those not in the profession. Remember the pubic wear the consequences of decisions made by planning authorities and in New Zealand given how the Unitary Plan nearly derailed the communication honestly sucks (or we wouldn’t have these problems). I also like honing in my wares as well. For example Parklife will be out at the end of the month so I get to go test my Green Utility (Urban Design, Urban geography and Green utility vs the City Budget. A #CitiesSkylines Lesson) skills especially as my urban designs have large green spaces in the in the middle of an urban development (I detest the grid apart from when doing a transit hub or industrial complex).



Lakewood Hotel location
Manukau City Centre


So there is a choice New Zealand can face:

I use Cities Skylines – a digital urban simulator as a tool to “simulate” Urban Geography or communicate Urban Geography ideas as is increasingly done overseas in the US and EU.

New Zealand?

Also probably why I can take a chuckle at myself too – I know my strengths and challenges especially as an Altruistic leader:

My top three leadership qualities as measured by Toastmasters International
My top three leadership qualities as measured by Toastmasters International
My top three leadership qualities as measured by Toastmasters International



Oh one last thing, being an observer is absolutely fun and rewarding until you get stuck in traffic due to RUSH HOUR. ARRRRGHHH!



So those digital urban simulators? They are more complex than you think!


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