The city, according to city builders: The mythology of city-builder games

Presented at CEEGS 2023: Meaning and Making of Games, Lepizig, Germany, 19–21 October.

Extended abstract

City-builder games allow the player to “build your dream city” (‎SimCity BuildIt, 2023) where “you’re only limited by your imagination” (Paradox Interactive, n.d.). Of course, those are marketing statements, but most titles emphasise a large degree of creative freedom. Players generally understand that their virtual city is, in fact, limited. Computational power, assets included in the game, gameplay mechanics. But less acknowledged is the degree to which city builders limit the imagination too. The hidden choices—conscious or not—regarding what is and is not possible in gameplay also limit the imagination. Outside of the game too, I argue, these game design decisions play a role in limiting the imagination for what cities can be in general.

It is important that city-builder game developers consider the theoretical ramifications and possibilities of their design choices. Likewise, it is important that researchers consider carefully what conceptions of the city these games construct, particularly as they advocate for city builders within the contexts of education and activism.

Here, I apply a mythological approach to game analysis (Ford, 2022). This approach is based on Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1972/2009) and Frog’s mythic discourse analysis (2021).

With this grounding, mythology is approached as a way of expressing meaning rather than a kind of object (in contrast to, e.g., narrative, structuralist or Jungian approaches). Frog sees mythologies as “models for knowing the world” (2021, p. 161). A mythological approach to gameworlds here entails examining the gameworld’s model of the world.

As simulations, the model of city management instantiated by these games reveals a particular set of assumptions regarding how cities function and can be managed. The choices regarding what is simulated (and how) and what is not shows us the limits to the imagination. Examples of these choices have been raised before: the role of the ‘player-mayor’ in SimCity (Maxis, 1989) (Friedman, 1999); the need for cities in SimCity (Maxis Emeryville, 2013) to be profitable (Kłosiński, 2016); the way the SimCity games force the player into creating a car-centric, North American-style metropolis (Pedercini, 2017).

The need for further study of city builders in this way is twofold.

First, the vast majority of research into city builders focuses on the SimCity series. Of course, the genre has always been much broader, and many have not considered SimCity to be the standard-bearer of the genre since the disastrous release of SimCity (2013) and the subsequent release of Cities: Skylines (Colossal Order, 2015) (see Livingston, 2015). In this context, it is important to examine to what extent analyses of SimCity can be taken as paradigmatic.

Second, city builders (and, again, SimCity in particular) continue to be of interest for game-based learning (e.g., Adams, 1998; Andreoletti & Cappello, 2013; Arnold et al., 2019; Glasslab Games, 2013; Khan & Zhao, 2021; Kim & Shin, 2016; Manocchia, 1999; Minnery & Searle, 2014; Woessner, 2015). Many of these works do encourage educators to approach the games critically as limited simulations that make assumptions. Nonetheless, it is important to arm future pedagogical approaches with robust arguments that lay out those implicit assumptions. In particular—relating to the first point—arguments that pertain to the genre as a whole are almost nonexistent (with notable exceptions, such as Bereitschaft, 2015).

I provide an overview of the city builder genre, identifying mythologies shared across the genre. I also acknowledge the exceptions, such as Terra Nil (Free Lives, 2023), arguing that we need more of those to expand our imaginings of city design and management. Crucially, I argue that these exceptions demonstrate that innovative city builder games can expand our imaginative horizons for what cities can and should be.


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Dom Ford
Dom Ford
Postdoctoral Researcher

My research focuses on myth, digital game communities, monsters, spatiality and the representation and depiction of history and the past (both real and fictional histories) in digital games.