I'm not the first person to have an opinion about EA's newest Facebook venture, SimCity Social. Ars Technica noted that it "plays more like a Zynga game than most SimCity fans will be comfortable with," while Ben Kuchera's review was slightly more direct. And over all, I'm inclined to agree: my experience with SimCity Social was largely an uninteresting click-frenzy.
But in my experience with the game, I noticed a couple of things that really made me scratch my head. SimCity Social is driven by repetitive gameplay, but among the few dynamic elements are the bits of dialogue and flavor text that accompany various quests. As I expanded my city, I started paying more attention to the game's "humorous" task descriptions. And that's where it got weird.
As mayor of the city, you are provided with a circle of staff members who present various tasks which, if completed, will reward the player significantly with money and experience points. Among these characters are a peppy personal assistant, an industry-obsessed grandpa, and a suave fireman perpetually peppered with lipstick marks. All are quirky, but few are likable: the portraits of your citizens that the game paints aren't exactly flattering.
Advisors like "Bo Derrick" soon make it clear thatSimCity Social is presenting a critique of capitalism, albeit a goofy one. Player tasks include lining the city's skyline with smokestacks and cranes, hosting lavish political soirees, and exploiting the nerd populace by selling them overpriced collectibles at the local comic book store. But does SimCity Social really have room to make fun of a material-obsessed economy when its entire profit model is built unabashedly around inconveniencing players until they shell out cash for "diamonds"?
After the first few quests, the dialogue becomes less subtle.Tasks are titled things like "Greed is Good." But the strangest, darkest twist arises when the player has enough cash and population to buy a country club: players must "eject the down at heel" to make room for richer citizens in order to continue.
One might argue thatSimCity Social is not unique in wedging the player into a place of moral ambiguity: that has long been the territory of developers like Rockstar. But there are a couple of key differences that make SimCity Social a bizarre vehicle for any kind of commentary on capitalism.
Titles in both the SimCity and The Sims product lines have allowed the player to don the mantle of the evil overseer, shaping a dystopian world by making morally ambiguous choices. However, the key word here is choice: games like The Sims never gave you a directive that couldn't be completed without forcing your sims to sob themselves to sleep. But in SimCity Social, it's impossible to maintain a functional fire brigade without gathering "rage" and "fury" points by sabotaging your neighboring city's businesses.
This total lack of agency reduces the game to exactly the kind of Zynga-esque click farming that the game's "more city, less ville" branding promised to leave behind. In emulating the kind of game it claims to reject, it undermines any satirical value it might have otherwise had. How can SimCity Social poke fun at CityVille when its mechanics are nearly the same? And if it's not poking fun at CityVille, who is the butt of this joke?
If anyone is made to look like a chump here, it's the player. Why do I keep building convenience stores and cupcake factories? Why am I participating in a scheme to sell people electric bikinis? And how can SimCity Social make fun of the idea of selling superfluous goods and services for profit, when the game itself generates income by selling players the right to open cotton candy factories and mocktail bars?
But you know what? I don't need your mocktail bar, anyway. Because for a little less than \$40 USD, I can purchase success.
I guess it's funny because it's true.
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