One of the themes at this year's Game Developers Conference is games for change. Electronic Arts took this concept to heart with the development of SimCity, a new PC-exclusive, 3D reboot of the franchise from Maxis that's scheduled to ship in 2013.
The Game Changers event -- presented by EA at the W Hotel -- was hosted by Lucy Bradshaw, senior vice president of Maxis, and featured Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. While Guggenheim wasn't involved in the development of the game, he did lend his environmental star power to GDC 2012 to help showcase the social consciousness behind the new SimCity.
"Video games like SimCity allow gamers, including my own kids, to see the consequences of their actions," says Guggenheim. "Games can educate people, without making them feel like they're taking their medicine. SimCity gets under your skin and sticks with you."
"If we're going to solve global warming, we need to find a way to create cheap alternatives to coal," he adds. "There are scientific channels and political channels to navigate, but just as important is the psychological channel to connect with people."
It's that connection that may represent the greatest difference between this version of SimCity and the four versions that have preceded it. According to EA, the decisions that players make during this game will have far-reaching impacts beyond the limits of the cities they create. Everything from the depletion of natural resources to the rate of global climate change can be affected.
Maxis's Bradshaw has watched the world change dramatically since she first worked on SimCity 2000 with original SimCity designer, Will Wright. Today, people walk around with smartphones that have the computer capacity of high-end machines from back then. She has also seen her own teenage daughters adopt technology to not only stay connected, but also actively shape and engage in the world. That concept was woven into the new SimCity.
"Your decisions go beyond the boundaries of a single city in this game," says Bradshaw. "They impact the cities of your friends and of the online community. Pollution affects everyone in the game, just as it does in the real world. Resources are finite and players must make hard decisions, like going for the cheaper coal factory or investing more time and money into solar power and keeping a greener environment."
Maxis is also trying to reach the growing audience of casual gamers that have come into the game industry through social and free-to-play games. Gameplay has been designed to allow people to jump in and play and have fun. The sandbox offers depth for those who want to invest more time, but the world is open to the very audience Guggenheim was targeting with his documentary.
SimCity borrows important life lessons from two great teachers in Guggenheim's own life. The first is his late father, Charles Guggenheim, also an Oscar-winning documentarian who told his son to always let the audience do half of the work. In gaming, of course, the audience does the majority of the work. The second is David Milch -- the creator of "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood" -- whom Guggenheim worked with on the "Deadwood" series and always admired for his writing and storytelling.
"Time is the hidden and unspoken player in every story," says Guggenheim. "SimCity allows players to experience the result of time. If a player opts for the quick solution of coal for powering their city, over time the city will be plagued with smog and dirty water, as well as angry citizens. It's brilliant that this game can bring this to life, without preaching to the audience."
The developer is using a brand-new game engine to enable more elaborate cities to be built than ever before in the franchise. But as games have progressed since the original launched in 1989, the new SimCity has been designed for social action. In developing this latest version, Maxis worked with Games for Change, the group founded in 2004 to help develop games with humanitarian and consciousness-raising themes.
"We wanted to collaborate with Games for Change because we think of play as something transformational," says Bradshaw. "Games allow players to have hands-on experiences that show how the world works. We talk about how games can inspire players, and we hope that SimCity can play a role in the world today."
Guggenheim says that the issue of global warming is much worse today than when he filmed An Inconvenient Truth five years ago. More than 35 billion tons of carbon are released into the air every year. And nine of the 10 warmest years on record have been in the 21st century. Guggenheim took time out of his Hollywood schedule to talk about SimCity because he and his son love to play the games. And he believes the new game could have a profound effect on important societal changes moving forward.
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