Whether it's the ability to save a damsel from a giant, pissed-off gorilla, or driving a car down a sidewalk, running over hundreds of innocent avatars, video games capture our interest because they tickle our inner megalomania. They let us use powers we don't normally have, and for some reason, that's really pleasing.
Or, at least, some do. Nowadays, with casual, app-based gaming such a force, it's easy to forget the days when you'd marvel at what your computer was even capable of doing—and, by proxy, what you could do. But in 1993, following huge growth in simulation games, a British television crew headed to San Francisco to speak with a man named John Holland about a rather weighty topic: How he handled the pressure of being a SimCity Mayor.
The Channel 4 crew, in a bid to explain why sim games were popular, had Holland cruise around his East Bay neighborhood while explaining why he'd want to complete seemingly mundane tasks on his computer. The segment, available above, is a portrait of a time when gaming was still a niche world driven by the seemingly endless possibilities of computers, a concept still so foreign to outsiders that public broadcasters dedicated hour-long shows to sussing out the concept. In other words, it's amazing.
"The BBC crew was awesome," he told me in an email. "They showed up at my house with a rough script... ideas really, and we actually wrote the lines on the fly based on the backgrounds in the neighborhood by my apartment at the time, which is conveniently located near BART, industrial Emeryville, and a big chair. Plus the garage was pink art deco."
The video, which Holland shared on /r/simcity, embodies everything that was great about those 90s "what is this technology stuff?" TV segments (later perfected by Net Cafe): the really long zooms, the close-ups on mouse clicks, the incredibly thorough explanation of what SimCity even is.
You can imagine your dad watching this and saying, "What, you can run a city with computers now? So why's it take so long to fix the pothole on Elm Drive?" (Of course, then you spend 20 minutes trying to explain to him that it's a game, not an actual city command center, and that it's in fact educational, and that he should buy it for you so you can learn about civil engineering.)
"This was a time of wonder, imagination, and new optimism about the impact of personal computing."
All the while there's Holland, explaining how engaging becoming a SimCity mayor was. "I was infatuated with the game," he says in the video. "The second night I sat down to play and evenutally I fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, my city had turned into this sprawling metropolis all by itself. And that's when I realized that, even though it was just a computer simulation, it was really alive."
As you watch the video, you can tell Holland is genuinely stoked about being a virtual mayor. Talking now, some 20 years later, the sheen from that era of computing hasn't worn off.
"Part of the fascination of SimCity was the world I grew up in (I bought my parents SuperPong for their anniversary in 6th grade)," he said. "Computers [and] microprocessors represented literally a new world. This world wasn't physical... but it was real, as John Perry Barlow pointed out in his early essays on cyberspace."
Naturally, "cyberspace" has become an anachronism as our virtual and real worlds meld ever further. You surely don't blink twice at using a computer for eight hours or more a day now, but as Holland explained, getting sucked into a virtual world for hours on end was a huge departure in the early SimCity days.
"So, I think the first aspect of of SimCity that was compelling was simply the sense of virtualized space, that the same bits that represented an ASCII character could represent a building, a road, or a power line," he said. "That I could enter this world, and the machine's abstraction and my own imagination could meet in the middle."
Creating those immersive worlds is something Maxis built its reputation on. From the endless SimThing spinoffs to the juggernaut that became The Sims—I remember when I first got The Sims, I played for six hours straight on my parents computer before being shocked that it was dark outside—Maxis has long helped users get lost in its worlds by creating a more addictive version of real life.
Let's all take a wicked trip down memory lane.
"There was the artificial life component, that somehow, in the same way that cyberspace is really a place, 'artificial life' is really alive," Holland said. "Carried to the extreme, you have an environment like the dollhouse, as alluded to in the clip. But I don't recall carrying much about the personifications of my sims. In SimCity it's all about the doing: the zoning, the building, the managing. The goal is a healthy ecosystem (and the occasional monster attack), knowing that there are some winners and losers."
So how does one become the SimCity mayor? Holland said that, at the time, his staffing company MacPeople counted the still-young Maxis as a client. ("That's another walk down memory lane," he said of MacPeople, "basically riding the wave of the birth of DTP and electronic publishing.") When the BBC came looking for an American gamer, Lois Tilles, then a VP of PR at Maxis, gave Holland a ring. And when they asked him how he'd describe himself, naturally he went with SimMayor.
"By the way, 'SimMayor'... that was my idea in pure idealism," Holland wrote. "In retrospect, I wish I had said something like 'Futurologist,' so I could put it on my resume today. Who's looking for SimMayors today? Besides, who'd want to put up with the problems of SimCity (2013)."
Holland compared the new SimCity to the world of Facebook games, where gameplay is tuned to be extremely addictive, but where mechanics are simplistic. I'm not sure many would claim the days of Windows 95 and System 7 were better than they are now, but you don't see the enthusiasm Holland displays for his virtual world in today's hellscape of apps. Honestly, could you imagine a similar video being made for FarmVille?
"SimCity will long be remembered as seminal in the worlds of both simulation and gaming: real fun," he said. "It's kind of sad to see the balancing reduced to a lot of Zynga like games. I think the emergence of those games contributed to dilution of the SimCity promise in the 2013 release."
Holland said that, looking back, Channel 4's portrayal of sim games and their sense of possibility still rings true.
"Regarding cultural influences, this was a time of wonder, imagination, and new optimism about the impact of personal computing," Holland said. "Think John Perry Barlow, Cliff Stohl, Jaron Lanier. You know, Wired and Mondo 2000, Tamagotchi and Furby. We feel like we were exploring new ground in communicating the impact of technology to people."