In 1989, Maxis Software, with the help of now-legendary video game designer Will Wright, released SimCity. It was a game developed for the Commodore 64, but found widespread success on other early PC platforms (I myself first played it on Windows 95).
SimCity allowed users to design their own city, complete with roads, houses, factories, shops, parks, stadiums, airports and anything else you’d find in a typical city. The idea was to have users create a functioning city that made money, attracted residents and dealt with traffic problems efficiently. As you can see in the screenshot to the left, the game contained a lot of complexities that made the game extremely interesting and—dare I say it—educational. For users (especially young users), realizing things like the necessity to connect the sections of their cities with hydro lines and roads, or the desire of residents to have recreational facilities and parks, makes the user appreciate the challenges city planners of your real-life city or town face everyday.
SimCity seems to interest Lars Konzack a great deal in terms of its philosophy. In his article “Philosophical Game Design,” he explains the philosophy of SimCity in the following way:
SimCity is an example of philosophical game design, not so much because it creates a sandbox in which the player is able to act, or whether the player chooses to play the application either as a game accomplishing a goal or performing a free-play, but because the underlying rules of the game presents a vision of the world. The philosophy of SimCity is that of the complexity of modern cities and how social behavior and environmental issues influence city planning… With SimCity, Wright was presenting a cybernetic philosophy of urban construction in an aesthetic way, making these feedback relations and game theoretical mechanisms into an experience.” (33-4)
Konzack says that “games that go beyond mere entertainment” need to have an overarching philosophy in which “each element of gameplay and each mechanical feature” fits coherently (33). First-person shooters like America’s Army, Call of Duty and Ace Combat (though the latter technically fits under the “flight simulator” genre) possess an underlying military propaganda that argues problems can be solved honourably through violence. These games are obvious examples of games that can subtly (or not-so subtly) coerce their users, but not all games flaunt their philosophies so noticeably.
BioShock, an adventure game from 2K Boston (now Irrational Games), “is a genuinely philosophical game,” says Konzack. “The Game is a criticism of Ayn Rand’s aesthetic vision of a libertarian utopia based on her so-called objectivist thoughts, which in essence may be interpreted as the decree greed is good… BioShock investigates the ethics of greed is good” (40).
Konzack makes a distinction between what he considers “philosophical” and “educational” games, although his definitions (like most in this young discipline) are open to criticism. From Konzack’s perspective, games like SimCity and even BioShock can possess educational value, but they are not designed to teach their users anything directly like games like Mavis Beacon, JumpStart or WolfQuest. Philosophical games do their teaching by “confront[ing] us with ideas and how they work in consequential systems” (33). While BioShock has foundations in Ayn Rand’s economic theories, I would guess that most players of the game have a very limited knowledge of those theories, or Ayn Rand herself. However, the philosophies that surrounded such theories (greed and egoism) become apparent as the user progresses through BioShock, and the user likely comes away from their playing experience feeling just a tad more socialist.
With Konzack’s notion of philosophical gaming in mind, the question I have is where to draw lines between philosophical games, educational games, and games like Tetris, Checkers or other games that do not really offer any kind of immediate knowledge gain (although I admit that the latter can develop reflexes, a competitive spirit, logical thinking, etc.).
Recently, I was asked to play the online farming game Farmerama, which should be familiar if you’ve played Farmville on Facebook (or Farm Town, which Zynga apparently plagiarized to develop Farmville). The good thing about Farmerama (at least in my opinion) is that the game is not on Facebook, which means it is not sucking personal information out of its users any chance it gets. That said, this game is still a money-maker. The game progresses very slowly, and users are prompted to buy additional features (with real-world money) to help them get things moving. Users are also given glimpses of what lies ahead, or what they will be able to do once they get enough “barnyard bills” (game money), which makes the game very addictive. It’s an easy game to play, after all. It’s just a matter of spending the time required to plant fields, harvest them (20min-8hrs later) and sell them. While the game was well put together in terms of its visual aesthetics, ease of play, variety of challenges and seemingly endless growth, I lost the patience to continually wait for things to happen, and having to click on every single square of land to seed/harvest was extremely tedious. After only a few days of playing, I forgot to check back on my farm and I haven’t felt the urge to return.
But does Farmerama offer any kind of meaningful philosophy? It follows a consistent overarching theme (farming) and asks users to work through the situation in which they are placed (a budding farm with great potential) and I suppose that people (particularly children) could come away with something meaningful in terms of what it might be like to operate a farm, or at least what you might be able to do if you owned a farm. But in my opinion, Farmerama exhibits an ignorant, urbanized view, or philosophy, of farming, which fails to acknowledge the true origins of food and its production. None of the animals in Farmerama are slaughtered, no chemicals are used on the crops and users are able to grow any type of crop they choose, regardless of geographical location (wherever Farmerama may be supposedly located). It seems to me that Farmerama portrays farming exactly how the average citizen from an industrialized, urban world envisions farming.
In contrast, SimFarm (1993) offers a philosophy of farming realism much like its predecessor SimCity—realism that involves the use of chemicals like herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, raising of animals that grow in value, die of hunger and escape from their pen, and natural disasters like tornadoes, hail, floods and locusts. Users begin the game by choosing one of nine possible regions of the United States to farm in, each of which allows different crops to flourish and presents the possibility of different natural disasters. Once crops are planted, users are able to keep track of weather, take out loans from the bank, borrow equipment from neighbouring farmers, dig irrigation ditches, plant wind-breaking trees, buy more land, etc. Unlinke Farmerama, SimFarm moves quickly and requires a great deal of attention, foresight and on-the-spot decision-making.
Overall, SimFarm illustrates to its users how difficult it is to be a farmer. Farming requires a tonne of money, constant vigilance, luck and a deep understanding of the crops and animals you farm. Its philosophy, much like that of SimCity, is to show users that there is an awful lot that goes into the building of a successful farm, and that ultimately, we are all subject to the forces of nature and luck.
It’s clear that Farmerama and SimFarm share similarities in terms of their layout and click-and-point controls, while they remain worlds apart in terms of their graphics, complexity, realism and the amount of time they demand to play. I also argue that their philosophies differ greatly. While you may not agree with my analysis of what I consider to be an urbanized Farmerama or a harsh, even cynical SimFarm, it is clear that each game has been editorialized somewhat to fit the philosophy of its developers.
When playing your next shooter or adventure or RPG game, think about how the structure and progression of the game impacts your way of thinking. Is the game speaking to you in subtle ways about war, ethics, economics, race, gender—even life? It just may be.
Download and Play SimFarm:
Watch the Video Demo of SimFarm:
Konzack, Lars. “Philosophical Game Design.” The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Ed. Bernard Perron & Mark J.P. Wolf. New York: Routledge, 2009. 33-44.