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Class mobility in the city

October 29th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

Tocqueville called America a “classless society” and he was mostly right, at least in 19th century terms. People in 1830s America weren’t generally born to privilege and you could work your way into Congress or the Presidency from backwoods adventures and Indian fighting. Things have changed a little now, but this isn’t a political blog so I’ll leave my rants about inherited wealth and Congressional seats being passed down father to son/daughter for another time and place.

But the myth of the American Dream persists (and is even real for some people) and has permeated the city builder genre for a long time. Look at SimCity, or better SimCity 2000. The point of every game is to make enough money for your city so you can build all the cool stuff. To do this, you need taxes. High tax income comes from rich people, so you create as many rich people as possible. In an odd twist to the Calvinist ethos, making your citizens happy (public transit, safety, water, education) also makes them rich. Their homes upgrade to better and better looking residential areas until every apartment building is a gleaming temple of shiny people.

The American up-and-at-’em idea even moved back in time. Impressions’ Caesar games had every beginning city dweller start in a hut. As their conditions improved, they upgraded to insulae, domuses and eventually palaces. Plebs became patricians. (Don’t get me started on the historical abuses Impressions and now Tilted Mill inflict on authentic Roman society. It doesn’t really matter.) Gameplay dynamics, though, caused serious problems if your city wasn’t quite perfectly laid out. Patricians didn’t work, so you needed new plebs to take their jobs. No problem; if you have a villa or two, people flock to your Malibu-on-the-Tiber. But if the patrician good supply is interrupted, their houses devolve – sometimes all the way to the point where they need jobs again. Bang – 15% unemployment, riots, prosperity score drops, Caesar shows up with an army to relocate you.

Caesar IV doesn’t let this happen, because it starts with a class divide right from the get go. You have plebs, equites and patricians. The first two have specific roles in the workforce, the patricians sit on their posteriors. And only the patricians pay property taxes. This hard restriction on class mobility means that city planning is all about deciding what services you need now, and how to staff those services. The richest citizens aren’t a reward for doing well, they are a conscious part of city development because they’ll pay for the privilege of living in your city. All still get upgrades to their housing (meaning more people will fit in it), but your equites will always be equites no matter how much wine and furniture they get. This means that city planning can be more general and intuitive than in Caesar III, for example, which got to be insanely difficult in the last half of the campaign.

This is not the first to toss total class mobility overboard. The Impressions/Breakaway game Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom also divided citizens into a noble/peon class, with the upper crust demanding things like gardens and Confucian Academies. Children of the Nile had class mobility, but this wasn’t reflected in home design. Your farmers would leap at the first opportunity to become a merchant if there was an empty stall.

But the year’s two other Roman city sims are all about increasing status tied to increasing happiness, sometimes with dramatic gameplay results. Glory of the Roman Empire allowed homes to upgrade so quickly and easily that the city never looked right; magnificent villas would be parked beside the fishing wharf because there happened to be a temple nearby. CivCity: Rome required you to move your residents to better digs once they got happy enough, so city planning meant you had to reserve places for the nouveau riche villas, though shops could have new insulae moved right on top of them. So, in one case city planning became nearly irrelevant and in the other, it took on the nature of reserving land for possible future use.

In all cases, upward mobility is tied to meeting demands without explaining how the citizens can afford the new stuff to begin with. If I still pay my plebs the same 20 denarii, why do they get a better home just because they now have linen and pottery? Currency is missing in all these games except for Children of the Nile, where the trickle down economics of bread was essential to people meeting their desires for sandals, sculptures and monkeys. And only Caesar IV really understands the gods-and-clods model of society; not everyone will be a nobleman.

It is worth noting that the ur-city builder, SimCity, papered over a lot of this class stuff. Your citizens were mostly cars and population figures and tax receipts. As city builders begin to appeal to the gamers’ desires to become attached to their creation, class became more apparent – especially in the historic city sims. It’s probably safe to say that the attribution of needs and roles to wealth groups is now a descriptive attributre of the genre, mostly noticed in its omission.

On that note, a new model was thrown in the mix this year. City Life is an unusual game. It looks very generic and could certainly use more varied artwork. But its approach to class division was brilliant. It started with the assumptions that people defined themselves and their needs by outlook and aspiration as much as income, so each setup was directed at balancing the needs of bohemian hipsters and yuppies and working class schmucks. The American Dream in evidence here is “live and let live but not necessarily in my back yard.” I haven’t spent enough time with City Life to speak meaningfully about the mechanic, but on the surface, class division is the gameplay and not just a mechanic to manage. There is something at once fatalistic and inspiring about this design choice, and I look forward to messing around with it a little more.


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