Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Simulated Escape

When I was a kid, the biggest computer game in my life was SimCity. I wasn't a big gamer - the only console I ever owned was a Nintendo 64 thing, which was older than me. My mother and I - as well as friends of mine now and then - would play the original Mario game on it, from 1985. That was fun. But other than the odd car-driving game, SimCity on the computer was really the only game for me.

I'll start with the backstory:

I was introduced to it through a boyfriend of my mother's way back. It would have been the turn of the new millennium. It was the classic SimCity he had on his laptop that wooed me over immediately. The idea of building a city was just so cool.

Over the years, I managed to acquire the succeeding versions of the game, with SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000. I had difficulty starting the former because I didn't realize you had to click and hold to get a drop-down menu to access power lines; I'd put in a plant but nothing would be powered. I had a lot of fun with that for a while, and then a work colleague of my mother's gave me a copy of SimCity 3000. That was a whole new experience. I filled out entire terrains with high-rises; I built cities on real-life parcels of land such as Vancouver or Tokyo. One day I was feeling under the weather and managed to persuade my mother to call me in sick to school. Once she left for work, I put a blanket up over the window, went on the computer, and spent the entire morning and afternoon (and evening) playing the game.

Then SC4 came along. That was a game I craved. My mother made me work for it. I got points for doing chores, and once I got to 100, I could install the game. My paternal grandmother went ahead and bought the game for me at Lincoln Fields despite my mother's instructions, so she had to hide it from me from then on, but it was some achievement when I reached a hundred points and was given the game.

It was that version that took me the longest to master. Up to then, I'd been using cheats and unlimited funds in the previous versions to work around budgeting too much. In 2000, I just "took out a bond" every time I needed money to pay for more zones or roads, etc. They never seemed to run out (they did - but only after taking out hundreds of them). In 3000, I used a cheat given to me by that work colleague that eliminated a cost for anything, so that all I had to worry about was the fees involved with running services and facilities such as schools and water towers and fire stations, etc. In SimCity 4, no such cheat existed (there was one that magically put a thousand dollars in the city funds, but that was it, and I only learned that months after I got the game working). I had to seriously do my best to balance a budget while growing a city.

It took a year or so, but eventually I was easily filling out terrains and creating whole regions of cities. The game became something I would come to and play intensely, at all times, over moderate periods of time, and then I'd lose interest to the point I wasn't playing it at all. The biggest problem I dealt with was computer memory. We never had a computer that could run the game at its proper speed or full graphics, at least not for SC4.

Then, a few years later, SimCity was revamped and updated for another version - SC5.

I didn't go near it until I saw it on a shelf in FutureShop around Christmas 2013 and bought it because it was there. I wasn't going to buy a game I had to use online all the time. But by that point the developers had finally enabled it to go offline, so I went ahead.

This is where I come to the main reason I'm writing this post. I hardly ever play it, ever.

My view and interest of the game has virtually become the polar opposite of my dedicated obsessiveness over it from before. Ten years ago, I wasn't going to the bathroom until I couldn't hold it anymore, or eating dinner away from the computer. It's true I still eat at the computer - it's in the basement, away from the trolling dog, and I can watch TV or movies on it - but back then it was all because of the game. Everything was because of the game. I had to be playing the game whenever I was awake and not at school.

My current attitude is this: It's the perfect thing to suck the life out of you. I mean this in terms of avoiding everything in real life to sit and play the game on the computer. After updating the operating system on my Mac, accessing an account on the Origin platform EA uses (I originally created an account to download the original SC4 because my old CDs of it wouldn't install) and starting the game, I found that it was the perfect thing to take up all of your time and attention. I created a city and began learning how to play; it wasn't too difficult coming from SC4, considering that game had the biggest learning curve for me. A veteran of that game should have little difficulty with this one. The way it worked was very intriguing, the style and and graphics very eye-catching and neat. You can go to ground level with it, and literally speed up time. Building shadows move. And I was quickly finding that it's easy to enter the game and play but extremely difficult to stop. There's always something happening, always something to watch, always stuff to monitor. The big thing about SimCity - all of its incarnations - is that it's more a monitoring game than an intensive, active one. You monitor the budget, the traffic, any fires that could happen, any development that springs up from the zones you laid out. The budget. I say that again because that's probably the thing you watch the most.

I personally find at this age and level of maturity, and responsibility I should note, that SimCity is not a game that should be dove into too much. You can lose track of time easily while playing the game, and more importantly, for someone with low self-control, track of your responsibilities, to tasks or to others. It's a game best for playing when you have a day to yourself, with absolutely nothing to do, nothing to worry about, nothing to wait for, nothing that requires your attention or responsibility. This is for adults, of course - with kids, I'd actually recommend the game. In easy doses that aren't eight hours long. It's a great teaching aid to how a city functions, or at least somewhat how it functions. Your advisors can be a substitute for real-world city counsellors. Budgeting is a huge skill to learn to manage and use once you're an adult with expenses and an income. SimCity taught me so much about managing money. I know how to prioritize what needs to be paid first, and how to direct where my money goes.

It's a great game - I'm not putting it down with this adult attitude - but if I stress anything about it, it's not to get lost in it. I lost myself in it when I was a kid and younger teen - it really was like a simulated escape. Nowadays I have no interest in playing it unless I have lots of time on my hands and literally nothing better to do in the real-world. I've got a couple of cities in my game. I'll return to them eventually. But whenever I play it, I feel like I'm ignoring things that shouldn't be ignored, that I'm leaving the responsible real-world behind and eating up my time in the game. I keep at it for short periods of time. After all, you're basically going from monitoring real-world affairs that might demand your attention to monitoring simulated ones in a game, which can be just as easy to be swallowed up in.

Red Cloud

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