How 'SimCity' Can Help You Understand New York City

An in-game firestorm mirrors a subway system’s nervous breakdown

At some point during a devastating natural disaster, a city’s emergency response team moves from ending the crisis to mitigating the damage. This, admittedly speaking, happened very early after multiple fires broke out across my city “Anaville.”

Thanks in part to underfunding from city hall, the Anaville Fire Department couldn’t control the enormous firestorm swallowing up the city. With only one unit on standby, the flames moved quickly without fire department intervention. Downtown Anaville was wiped off the map, and uptown just barely survived. The least affected borough, Fairview, saw its factories leveled, but the neighborhood’s sole power plant eked by unscathed by the flames.

That may sound like a victory, but Anaville wouldn’t be the same after the Great Fire of 2012 destroyed over 75% of the municipality. Shockingly low taxes mixed with an overburdened oil plant led the city to atrophy, first slowly, then all at once. By the time I finally left Anaville behind in my SimCity 2000 save game folder, once bustling avenues were crowded with abandoned apartment buildings and factories’ charred remains, a testament to my city’s former glory.

While I’ve dealt with plenty of SimCity 2000’s disasters across a fair share of cities, this was the first time a citywide crisis brought my entire municipality to its knees. It’s also the first time I felt personally responsible for the thousands of lives that were lost. In many ways, the Anaville Fire Department’s underfunded infrastructure spelled the end for my city before the first fire even broke out, all because I wanted to build up my upper-middle-class dream borough Fairview by redirecting the fire department’s budget to my yearly building expenses.

These days, I build plenty of fire stations inside my cities—arguably too many. But dealing with a citywide firestorm in SimCity 2000 has also made me interested in how municipalities grapple with major fires in the real world. And sometimes, what happens in Anaville also plays out in reality.

During 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, a storm surge slammed New York City and sparked a devastating fire in Breezy Point, Queens. Flames ravaged the neighborhood, leaving over 110 homes destroyed and 20 more devastated. By the end, the region’s entire texture was changed by mother nature’s hand. Whole streets were gone, with only chimneys remaining.

To this day, Breezy Point is considered among the worst fires to ravage the city since the fire department was founded in 1865, according to the New York Times. And having worked through the logistic realities that come with navigating a fire in SimCity, I’ve now grown interested in how cities deal with these kinds of crisis in everyday life. How would I tackle Breezy Point if I was in the city government’s shoes? Differently than Anaville, I hope.

I began playing SimCity well before I even dreamed of moving to New York. My dad bought a Sega Saturn for my brother and I when I was just a few years old, and one of the first games we picked up was SimCity 2000. I wasn’t very good at it, in part because I had no idea what I was doing. Instead, I’d watch my dad and brother create cities from scratch, entranced by how they could make small towns grow into thriving, self-sustained metropolises through fastidious planning.

My brother became a SimCity fan over the years, and while I remember fondly borrowing SimCity 3000 out from the library and building my own cities, it wasn’t until my college years that I finally understood how to play the game. And digging into the series on my own taught me a lot about city-rearing. Turns out there’s a reason why police stations, education departments, and fire departments often face underfunding from city governments. Balancing a budget is difficult.

Here’s the thing about SimCity, though. Everything about the game makes sense on paper, but it’s another thing to see a city's plans play out in real life. When I moved from suburban New Jersey to Brooklyn after college, life in New York was a culture shock. City living forces transplants to think about everyday life in new ways. And for me, I started to make sense of the world around me by thinking about New York like SimCity.

Talk to any New Yorker, and they’ll tell you right away that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's subway system is the city’s lifeblood. It's not just the most comprehensive public transit subway system in the West, it's also the fundamental cornerstone behind how New Yorkers live their lives. For many, the subway saves New Yorkers from needing a car, giving lower- and middle-class households more financial wiggle room to spend money on things like rent and food. Hence New York’s unique socioeconomic culture where the have-nots and the have-somes literally sit shoulder to shoulder alongside one another on the same subway line.

For suburban Americans that have never used public transportation in their lives, a massive citywide subway system may sound like an interesting novelty. It’s also terribly powerful. Subway delays, which are a growing occurrence throughout the MTA system, control when commuters clock into work. And more often than not, it’s after a shift starts. The Times places delays as a $389 million expense for the city’s economy, which is enormous for America’s de facto business capital.

I live off two of the lines billed as "the most costly" when it comes to delays: the 4 and the 5 trains, which start way north in the Bronx and terminate in southern Brooklyn. Overcrowded train cars are the norm, and it’s not uncommon to see train platforms packed with straphangers stuck in limbo amid train delays and emergency express reroutes. It’s infuriating to experience. But playing SimCity has also taught me a rare virtue: patience.

For many New Yorkers, it’s easy to blame the entire subway system’s failing infrastructure on the conductors steering trains from one station to another. But most of the subway’s problems can be attributed to financial mismanagement. In particular, overexpansion, reckless ambition, and an underfunded budget have pushed the MTA to its limits. Governors would regularly pillage the MTA, grabbing money from the subway to help pay for other state expenses. These days, 17 percent of the MTA’s income goes to paying off debt. It’s no surprise that the New York subway system is struggling.

Meanwhile, the New York Post explains that the MTA didn't set up a capital plan for replacing subway infrastructure until 1981, when the system was considered a nightmare between its high crime rates and sheer number of breakdowns. The original ‘81 plan was a lot like performing damage control on a system caught in a raging firestorm. Literally, in New York’s case, as fires were common in the system back in the ‘70s.

In some ways, the MTA’s subway sounds a lot like the infrastructure problems I’d regularly run into during SimCity. Poor transit planning in SimCity 2000 would leave roads gridlocked. Overexpansion mixed with a declining budget from building, and not maintaining, my city would cause crime rates to skyrocket and fires to break out. Education, fire, police, and healthcare budgets would fall so that I could throw another residential complex into my city. Why bother fixing things up? Maintenance is boring. Creating is fun. Until the whole system breaks, that is.

That’s not an uncommon problem for many first-time players. And the key actors in charge of the MTA sound a lot like SimCity newbies, too. Over at Slate's Moneybox, Henry Grabar writes that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo "incarnates America's penchant for ribbons over nuts and bolts, its compulsion to build rather than repair." That means building new bridges while letting the MTA atrophy. Just like Anaville’s crippled fire department.

SimCity stresses that decisions made decades into the past have consequences in the future. That’s the same case with how the MTA functions today. Collecting interest put the MTA in debt. Robbing the MTA’s subway budget led to long-term decay. Pushing problems into the future eventually forces someone to deal with them. That’s a lesson every New Yorker can learn from, whether they’re local or just moved in.

After Anaville, I opened up a second city, this one appropriately (and equally egotistically) called “Anabia.” It’s a smaller city, and while it may not be as big as Anaville, it’s certainly built to last. The city’s industrial, commercial, and residential areas are neatly connected to one another, minimizing traffic. Boroughs are planned out ahead of time, fastidiously and with plenty of fire departments to go around. Growth is slow but steady, with a subway system gradually emerging. And there’s even an airport, so my citizens can flee from Anabia for the holidays when they eventually get tired of their fellow Anabians.

I make a natural fit for Anabia’s mayor, but I don’t necessarily think SimCity can teach me everything I need to know about New York City. Simulators are just that—simulations. They provide insight into how cities work, but they run on limited data. The MTA’s problems aren’t just about balanced budgets and government mismanagement, it’s also about the relationship between Albany and New York City. It stems from the disconnect between New York’s governors and the city’s working-class. And then there’s the political capital afforded to transplants demanding better service in gentrifying areas, which stems in part from the city’s changing (or arguably, dying) character.

Understanding the complex quagmire of problems affecting New York can be difficult for people moving straight into the city from upstate suburbia or the rural Midwest. And more often than not, New Yorkers can only understand their city by living in it. Everything else is just theory.

But SimCity certainly helps. It forced me to understand the fundamental dynamics that make or break metropolises like New York. And it taught me to be patient with the firefighters and conductors that are doing their best on a daily basis. More often than not, they’re working with the hand they’re dealt. And when you’re at the bottom, it’s not always a pretty sight compared to the top.

SimCity can’t tell you why Albany and New York City have so much animosity towards one another or why visiting old white suburbanites are scared to leave Times Square. But it can teach New Yorkers a thing or two about city planning. It can help clue working- and middle-class New Yorkers into the bureaucratic decisions that make cities live or die. And it can make New York so much easier to understand when the whole entire city is thought about through a bird’s eye view. That’s a luxury Mayor de Blasio has in city hall, but one that many New Yorkers can only dream about in crowded subways on sleepy weekday mornings.