Regular readers of this blog will now doubtless be aware of this company’s view that the domain of video games is criminally under-utilised – not just for what it offers more generally to our shared broader culture, but in terms of the many brilliant ideas generated within the gaming framework which have clear potential for non-virtual adoption. And it is the Maxis classic Sim City 3000 (‘SC 3000’) – a title that continues to inspire devotion long after its original 1998 iteration – that we wish to presently draw your attention to.
Sim City 3000 is a remarkable piece of software for many reasons, but its Health, Education and Aura (‘HEA’) department – headed up by the inimitable Randall Shoop – is arguably the most brilliant innovation in the entire game; the key lies in the last letter of that acronym. As well as city data maps containing information on everything from schooling provision to traffic density, SC 3000 also has a chart detailing the presence (or otherwise) of ‘aura’, which is defined by the corresponding Electronic Arts game manual as ‘good feelings for the city [as a whole]’: areas of high aura are denoted by (deep) shades of blue, while low-aura neighbourhoods are coloured red; the angrier the shade, the uglier the vibe.
Focusing on something as seemingly touchy-feely and subjective in an era of big data may seem anachronistic. But as any urban dweller knows, different parts of the same city can vary enormously in how they make people feel; these reactions can be predicted with such consistency that they are more or less reflected in concrete indicators such as property prices.
Moreover, it is – at least in large part – no real secret what makes for high-aura areas: beautiful buildings, plentiful green space and easy access to cultural and recreational amenities will all go a long way towards giving residents, workers and tourists alike not just an added spring in their step, but an attachment to a location which goes beyond the merely functional. It would therefore be possible to build up a pretty accurate picture of existing zones of aural import, and then set about exporting replicable elements to the bywords for urban blight.
Municipal authorities around the world should be under no illusions: cities which prioritise the spread of good vibes are not indulging in a trendy fad; they are making their assets more internationally competitive and ensuring that the people who inhabit their urban areas actually want to stay there. Whether directly or indirectly, the time for the aura map to migrate from digital fiction to policy reality has come.
From the 1980s to the 2000s, the Japanese industrial machine and the finished items rolling off its production lines were the envy of the world. Tokyo-based companies such as Sony, Nintendo and Sega became brands recognised around the world for their quality and ingenuity, particularly with regard to the intense technological content of their offerings. With its emphasis on and full-spectrum domination of attributes such as minaturisation, consistency and innovation, Japanese industry became synonymous with the future itself; indeed, corporations such as Mitsubishi saw it as part of their mission to provide a roadmap to the robotized utopia.
However, the rise of China and the financial crisis still enveloping many of the world’s key economies have conspired to subvert this narrative. Chinese factories have shown themselves able to produce goods which, while maybe not quite matching their Japanese equivalents in either quality or originality, have been judged by the global public as more than adequate. Meanwhile, the increasingly extreme fiscal pressures being exerted on the formerly middle-class populations of the (post-)developed world mean that cheap entertainment is the order of the day; these demographic groups are generally willing to pay for hardware and essential software, but the days of laying the best part of fifty-to-one-hundred US dollars on the table for a single game appear to be fading into history.
But this shift surely has deeper implications. Ceteris paribus, the complexity, sophistication and pure brilliance of offerings from the likes of studios such as Rovio Entertainment – the Finnish operation behind the Angry Birds franchise – are incomparable to even decade-old Japan-developed titles such as Virtua Tennis World Tour (Sumo Digital with Sega, 2005). Nominally-priced gaming apps may be impressive in their mastery of certain yet-to-be-historically-proven monetisation models, but culturally it is difficult to see this sharp trend towards gaming-by-numbers as anything other than a regression. Similarly, while China and some European economies such as Finland and Slovakia can certainly undercut Japanese manufacturing and deliver excellent goods to consumers at low prices, their capacity to innovate – and push forward and reconceptualise entire industries – arguably remains relatively weak.
The example of Japanese industrial decline is from almost every angle a sobering one: the sight of formerly unbeatable corporations being choked by probably unserviceable debts is something that engenders contemplation. But even more disturbing is the fact that many of these entities are still designing and making truly amazing things; artifacts, sadly, that we no longer seem to have the appetite for, even at the risk of civilisational decay.