Is this the world's most dangerous video game?
Emergency: When town planning becomes a matter of life and death.
Parents worry about Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. They don't want their darlings playing video games in which they pretend to steal cars or murder civilians in airports.
Ridiculous. If I was a father, I'd let them shoot, punch and steal to their little hearts' content. True gamers know that the really frightening programs are those that take something far more precious than innocence: time. And the most dangerous of all are often those that seem simplest. Mowing down virtual soldiers didn't make me more likely to murder anyone for real. Losing days and days to strategy games, however, quite possibly cost me more than one exam.
Pollution: Make dodgy development decisions at your peril.
For me, the original time-sucker was SimCity 2000. I was introduced to it on a school touch-typing course, when we were allowed to play games during breaks. The only one available was SimCity, presumably because the teachers thought that "town planning" was such an unappealing prospect that we'd rush out to play football instead.
How wrong they were. Aged 10, I discovered a world much more complex and enthralling than any brainless shoot-'em-up. For those who haven't had the pleasure, SimCity makes you the godlike mayor of a new town. Mine were usually called Edville, but sometimes Cummingdale, Edianopolis, or Little Edding-upon-Ed.
You start with a blank map, with only hills, lakes and water for company, and set about designing the town, providing industrial, commercial and residential zones. You lay out roads, put in power plants, schools, water pipes and fire stations. The sort of buildings depend on the quality of the area. A leafy suburb with low crime and hospitals would attract wealthy mansions. Densely packed housing next to a vile industrial complex means tower blocks, or slums.
Protest: Citizens take to the streets.
I realise that none of this sounds very glamorous, but I was hooked. As with a good novel or film, little details helped you feel you were part of a wholly formed universe. If your city had a problem - crime, say - a newspaper report would pop up announcing the fact in tabloidese, along with other humorous and unrelated stories. A note at the top of the screen told you what the weather was like. There were little running jokes throughout, such as an obsession with llamas. As long as you could balance your town's books, it went on. I could play it all night. Once or twice, I did.
At a time when Goldeneye and Pro Evo were cooler, however, I kept my interest to myself. But I wasn't alone. The game was a phenomenon. SimCity 2000 was already a sequel to the original SimCity, released in 1989. Its creator, Will Wright, was working on a game called Raid on Bungleing Bay when he realised that designing the levels was more fun than blowing them up in a helicopter. SimCity 2000 was released in 1994, and SimCity 3000 followed in 1999, adding improved graphics and complexity. SimCity 4, in 2003, introduced whole new layers of infrastructure, and was accused of alienating more casual gamers. Between them the titles have sold millions of copies. The game's attention to everyday life also helped inspire Wright to create The Sims, in which players take control of individual lives as they live, work and socialise. That series has become the biggest PC franchise ever, selling 150-million units.
Now, 10 years since the last instalment, SimCity has been fully re-imagined, with a new version bringing it up to speed with the online, sociable gaming world. To compare the latest iteration with its forebears is to see a history not only of gaming but technology. The original had top-down, 2-D graphics, and simplistic drawings. It could run on 90 per cent of modern mobile phones. The new game is fully 3-D, with each of the town's citizens individually rendered. They move in, look for work, go to the cinema, get stuck in traffic jams: all the things that you or I would do. The online connection means that your city exists even when you're not playing, and interacts with the cities of other gamers.
"I wanted to have a SimCity that was like a model train-set, except where everything was alive and present," says Ocean Quigley, the game's creative director. "One of the reasons for the series' success is that the games are about things that people actually understand and experience. None of us have ever been a space marine, but most of us live in cities or towns, and have a connection to them. People play them as a hobby as much as a game."
This ruminative quality - not to mention the long hours of focus - means you pay attention to the surroundings. I might have spent weeks (cumulatively) playing SimCity, but the time wasn't entirely wasted. I could remember details from the game long after the information about oxbow lakes and irregular verbs had flown from my head. I wouldn't argue for replacing the traditional curriculum entirely, but SimCity taught me more than Doom (or Monopoly, or rugby, or Harry Potter, for that matter).
It was through SimCity that I realised how inefficient wind power was, and how much better it would be if we could discover workable clean fusion. I learnt that council services, from collecting the bins to maintaining the roads, don't come for free. Building a new airport might well attract more commercial interests to my city, but it is also highly disruptive and extremely costly. Volcanoes and hurricanes are very unhelpful when it comes to balancing the council books.
It wasn't the only instructive game from my childhood. Caesar taught me more about ancient Rome than any number of tedious lectures. From Sid Meier's Civilisation, I learnt more about the intricacies of history and international diplomacy than from newspapers I was forced to read for Current Affairs. As with all the best lessons, you learn most if you don't know you're learning.
Even franchises as venerable as SimCity, however, can't help but remind us how young games are. The industry still has an appealing optimism, compared to the gloom in other media. "I studied fine art," Quigley says, "but to pay my way I worked in computer graphics. Oil painting is a fantastic medium, but I had the sense that its golden age was in the 17th century. Computer games were poised to be the most important medium of the next century, and I wanted to be a part of it. Imagine what we'll be able to do with computers a thousand or a million times more powerful."
Imagining the quality of the games, still gently instructing players about municipal infrastructure, is one thing. Imagining the amount of time which they'll suck from young hands and eyes is quite another.