Imagine a 14 year-old struggling with her inner demons, her heart, her height and her hair. Ok, so maybe it was only a shit year for me.
Lucky for me, the house I shared with my older, angrier brother and the mother of us both was one of 36.6% of American households that had a personal computer. My diminutive, solo, underemployed mother (and her job teaching with computers at a city school) had given us a precious gift. Atop a cheaply made, pressboard, corner-shaped desk, nestled securely in the shadows of the dark-wood cabinets and dirty floors of our family’s kitchen, we had a grayish-white, 35 pound Macintosh LC580 - and it was our savior.
That year, two years after the LC580 was released and one year before it was discontinued and replaced with faster, lighter models in the Apple-style we are so familiar with today, we spent hours playing Mahjong and exploring the tiny web. Instead of staining our white sneakers with the green hue of fresh cut grass or letting the sun fill us with Vitamin D and pink our cheeks (long before we knew the dangers of skin cancer) we stared at a screen.
From wherever she got things, my mother brought home a city-building game to play on the 8MB computer. SimCity 2000 captured my attention immediately. Ready to put the Chinese matching game away, I sat at the high-backed chair pulled away from the dinner table and loaded the CD-Rom, ready to design my city. Ready to have some control in this world. Amidst catchy low-budget music, the God-like player (humbly dubbed “The Mayor”) could begin the epic building project by adjusting the terrain. Adding hills, valleys and trees, raising and lowering the water level. The power was intoxicating, especially for a ratty-haired teen who felt so weak.
When the terrain is perfect, the Mayor-cum-City Planner strategically develops a schema of neighborhoods, water pipes and subways. The Mayor considers the needs of her people and builds fire and police stations, hospitals, prisons and schools. The Mayor can affect disasters just for the sadistic joy of it. The Mayor builds roads. And more roads.
It’s the roads that I remember the most.
There were options for how fast you wanted time to move. Stay at Turtle (Alt-1) and carefully and responsibly monitor your city; accelerate to Llama (Alt-2) and watch the years begin to spin away at a clip; put your skills to the test and, with the quick flick of an Alt-3, select Cheetah.
That’s right. Cheetah. You’ve got guts.
In Cheetah mode crime surges. Fires burn uncontrollably, your city crumbles as fast as you build it, the cycle of road repair is never-ending, and you feel the frenetic energy of life on the brink. It’s terrifying and exhilarating.
It turns out that there’s no way to “win” at SimCity 2000. The game just goes on forever as you watch the clock flip to those three strange looking zeros trailing behind a two - a new millennium that seemed frighteningly close and yet so far away - and keeps climbing. To win the game, you continue to rebuild your city as it falls into disrepair, starting over at the beginning each time you no longer have the energy to repair the damage. A little like the American Tamagotchi.
There wasn’t, that I remember, a game in the 90’s that challenged players to maintain a low BMI as they loped into their mid-thirties, to alleviate the hopelessness of a beige cubicled middle-management job, or to stitch and restitch a repeatedly broken heart.
But there was this game that taught us how to build and rebuild. To budget and create and sacrifice. To lay new roads from east to west, watching the first bits of asphalt begin to disintegrate just as you finish the final squares. A game that let you escape the powerlessness that the rising-action years of “finding yourself” always entail. A game that foreshadowed the ever-present adult feeling of never being able to catch up. A game that let you see into the future.
Outside of SimCity, there’s no place to select how fast we want time to move. Mostly, life runs in Cheetah speed, but at least we know how to manage it – how to put out the fires and rebuild the roads, even when we are struggling (still) with our hearts, our height or our hair. But, even without the title of Mayor, even without the Alt key, we have more power than we know. If we really focus, we have the ability to slip quietly back into Turtle mode, and for a few sweet moments, enjoy what we’ve built.
This is a cheat we should take advantage of more often.