There’s plenty of charm and a certain amount of feel-goodness in SimCity. There’s a playlist of soothing, lyric-free house music that renders the gameplay therapeutic if played at the right pace. There’s a playful and customizable mix of attention-grabbing maps, creative tools, cultural buildings, terrains, and city resources coming together to give players the chance to create their own versions of the ideal city utopia.The general momentum of SimCity is governed by you, the player–the omniscient mayor, pulling strings and pushing sticks from a bird’s-eye-view while the impacts of your decisions unfold in real time before you.
At the most basic level, a city can’t function without its citizens moving about and causing the economic activity: paying taxes, commuting to work, and shopping and organizing. Nor can it function without the resources to finance public expenditures and infrastructure (upgrading roads, utilities, and power and schools), partially raised by imposing state and local taxes. Up to a certain point, the game automatically sets a fixed level of “taxation” such that revenue for the city will increase as you fill your square by zoning more residential (green), industrial (yellow), and commercial (blue) areas. It’s in these mechanics that this city builder veers away from realistic.
After enough population influx that unlocks the next tier of city upgrades, the Department of Finance can be plop’d down as an addition to the Town Hall building once some population threshold is breached. With the Dept. of Finance now available, players may individually set the wealth levels of each type of zone. Tax adjustments can be made in low, medium, and high wealth tiers for each type of zoning.
But beneath these arbitrary and and seemingly neutral social policy is a flawed imagination about the consequences about public financing, specifically about taxes. As economic historian Robin Eihnorn notes, a large swath of Americans don’t have a positive view about paying taxes. And yet, the reality is that U.S pays relatively lower tax rates than other OECD countries. So one of the only accurate behaviors of this latest iteration of the classic city builder is that some (more than one) citizens will share negative attitudes about the perceived weight of their individual tax burden. Players get an alert message that allows you to click on Sims to address their individual taxation grievances. In the game, Sims across all wealth levels and zoning types might complain taxes are “too high” if they breach 11%, a modest amount of total available taxing powers. Sims might then caution that they or their business will move out of the area if this unchecked tyranny continues any longer.
Within these attitudes are unfounded ideas that higher corporate taxes will force costs downward only to burden customers, or that corporations cannot afford to pay a higher minimum wage, or that cities need to compete for low taxes in order to entice business. Likewise, the usual jockeying of cities’ to compete to offer the lowest tax rate is dangerous and totally unnecessary. First of all, the purpose of individual taxation is not strictly to raise revenue. Taxation can be looked at as the government, state and local, as imposing an obligation to entice citizens to provide and move resources, creating public infrastructure and economic demand.
Likewise, as in the instance of Amazon’s initiative to find a second headquarters, companies could receive a generous tax break from the cities competing for Amazon’s attention, while Amazon would contribute nothing in return, and evade essential property taxes while bleeding public resources dry. As well, the “amount of jobs” created is a misleading guarantee, and does not make up for the utter deficiency in finding for public resources as a result of establishing the HQ. If all potential metro areas in contention for the second HQ denied Amazon incredible tax breaks to plop in their city, Amazon would be forced to consider alternative societal factors for a good location, not just where they could abuse local public resources and get away from paying the property taxes which fund public schools.
There are all types of flawed socioeconomic mechanics programmed into city builder games, and policy of any kind is never neutral. Before SimCity completed, a team of programmers and designers work together to end up at what they believe to be an accurate, socioeconomically competent experience. Underneath the decisions about how the game will be crafted are ideas about causes and effect as each action a player takes occurs. SimCity is not quite turn-based, but it’s easy to see when and what “the next step” in planning your city might be, especially when you can pause the game or change the speed of time. Pausing time gives players plenty of opportunity to consider the tax plight of the lowly Sim and their business–right before they decide to ignore the advice and trigger a devastating natural disaster, raising tax rates like crazy until the city looks like a more equitable utopia.