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Government / Local politics

“Mayor knows best”: on the politics of Cities: Skylines

Cities: Skylines is the best and brightest contemporary city building game to appear in recent years. It tucks in nicely between the ham-fisted failstorm of Simcity and the under-developed and misfiring Cities XXL, providing an absorbing experience, albeit a fairly lightweight one, and the game has been hugely successful as a result. But what does the game have to say about what makes the ideal city?

Like any city building game, politics is at the heart of Cities: Skylines: when a game in this genre sets out its win conditions, or at least its terms for progress, it is in effect stating what the developers believe a successful city should look like. If you try to build a city in a manner that does not agree with the intentions of the game designers, then your city will probably fail. If you follow their rules, success is yours.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the politics in Cities Skylines is how healthcare operates: your options are to have taxpayer-funded, state-run healthcare, or to have no healthcare at all. There is no capacity to simply zone commercial land as being suitable for hospital or clinic construction and telling your capitalists to have at it: if you want a hospital you pay for it and you run it from the budget.

This carries across to things like education, policing, parks and utilities. The game presents this system as being the only system you will ever need. Such facilities are inexpensive and efficient, and there is never any doubt in the game that this system is the way to go. With complete top-down control of public services, your city is able to purr along happily.

So far, so socialist utopia. But this control does not extend to buildings within zoned areas. You cannot take it upon yourself to build more houses for example: you can only zone land for houses to be built. You can maintain a certain level of control over what gets built (different types of industry and so on), but that’s all. You are ultimately reliant upon demand for buildings from your citizens to get these buildings built.

The most potent aspect of the state control you can exercise is not tied to construction, but rather destruction. You have the ability to bulldoze anything you like on a whim. Homes, schools, businesses, whatever you like can be gone in a second and without cost to you.

Now this could be seen as a design decision entirely based on making the game fun, or at least giving the player more complete control – but the omission of any sense of private land ownership is worth noting. Your citizens can be uprooted from the homes they have lived in for years, as easily as flicking a bug off your arm.

This feels at odds with the sense of personality that the game endeavours to give its people. Each individual is simulated; their home, family, workplace, education, eventual death, all tracked. To go to all that detail with the lives of the citizens while effectively giving them zero rights or attachment to the land they live on feels like a potent omission. Such selflessness for the greater good of the community is rarely expected in real life.

Of course, if your citizens rebelled against your plans to boot them out of their homes this would make the game suddenly much more difficult: games need to be designed to be fun.

While much is omitted from the world of Cities: Skylines it is interesting to see that one scourge of modern cities, traffic, is very much alive and well. Shaping the flow of cars, goods trucks and government vehicles is perhaps the core challenge to the game; it’s certainly the hardest. This congestion speaks to the problems of real cities, and for all that it is sanitised in the game, it is still a huge, complex problem.

The traffic in Cities: Skylines won’t crash into anything or produce air pollution, or even require dedicated space for parking, but it can still lock your city solid. By doing this, it shuts down essential services causing further problems (especially so, given how unnervingly flammable so much of the towns are).

The game’s traffic model has something else in common with real life: the more you invest into your road network and the better you make it, the more it gets used – and the more congested it gets. In order to placate severe traffic problems, you can easily find yourself having to tear down great swathes of your city.

This part of the game design, exaggerated though it may be, really highlights just how much of a relentless monster traffic must be for actual city planning.

Interestingly the game withholds some elements that could mitigate traffic problems such as subway systems or buses until the town has grown suitably large. This means that installing such systems can be a huge upheaval: it’s often a tough choice whether to flatten an area and rebuild it in order to fix the flaws in its transport network, or just leave all those nice public transport options on the shelf and make do.

But what does the game prioritise as success? It’s here that the game makes its most powerful statement. Success in Cities: Skylines is all about growth – principally growth of population, but also of land value and tax income. You need to keep the people happy, else they will leave; but happiness is a means to the end of growth, not an end in itself.

This is a game that speaks to the values of the industrial age: build big, tap the resources and expand. While the game nods to the ideas of sustainability and environmentalism, you’re still taking a huge swathe of pristine land and plonking a great concrete metropolis on it. Functional or not, your cities progress is tied intrinsically to its size.

The popularity of Cities: Skylines shows that, for all it lacks as a deep and realistic simulation, it resonates with players. It embraces ideas of communal efforts and the greater good, at the expense of the individual. As American as it looks from a graphical standpoint, in some ways it works more as a highly idealised simulator of Soviet Russia or contemporary China. There is something comforting about the game – about the sense that you, as this undemocratic yet ultimately caring ruler, can solve all the ills of an increasingly complex society for the benefit of all, just so long as everybody agrees to do exactly what you tell them, when you tell them to do it. Cities: Skylines appeals to the part of us that thinks we know best.

Phil Hartup is the New Statesman’s gaming blogger.
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