June 25, 2022

Urban collapse in video game trends: from SimCity and Civilization to Minecraft and Stardew Valley

The more I watch the streamers, especially the Vtubers, the more I've become aware of how broad the loss of faith in civilization and ever-marching progress has become. They are entirely online people, they are far more tech-hopeful than normies, they all live in cities, and as part of the entertainment sector, they're all left / progressive / etc.

They, and their audiences who watch them in droves, ought to be the most utopian and evangelist about civilization, urbanization, and the continual forward march of progress, whatever it means to them.

And yet the video game culture as a whole, including them, has decisively abandoned urban utopianism -- roughly since the 2008 Depression from which 90% of the country never recovered, and the lucky 10% only got to continue their consumption through trillion-dollar hand-outs from the central bank (quantitative easing).

By the same time, the complete failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also ended the average American's faith in an ever-expanding empire. And in a hyper-competitive endeavor like control over territory, what does not expand, contracts. As of roughly 2010, it's been over for us, and we've gradually come to accept it, and adapt to it.

Since then, the trend across the board has been to RETVRN to some earlier paradise -- how much earlier, and how far away from urban civilization, may depend on the streamer and their audience. But nobody can appeal to urbanism these days and get popular. They can't even ignore it, they have to outright appeal to the relatively more wholesome, cozy, and fertile past, as we seek to psychologically escape from the degenerate, hostile, sterile present.

This is a recapitulation of the pattern in European empires that were bloated, stagnating, and about to enter precipitous decline and collapse, around the late 19th and early 20th century. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Arts & Crafts movement, primitivist Post-Impressionism, and so on and so forth. The American empire was still expanding at that point, so although we did partake of Gilded Age libertarian degeneracy, it was nowhere near the levels of fin-de-siecle European empires. But now that our imperial lifespan has entered that autumnal stage, we will also behave that way -- in its good and bad ways.

* * *

What was the video game zeitgeist like as recently as the 1990s and early 2000s? That was the self-declared End of History, when the only other imperial rival to America -- Russia -- had started to contract and implode. Everything for us here in the sole empire left in the whole world, would only get better and better -- and there was no doubt about it. Not a hesitancy, not a guarded optimism. It was the era of the information superhighway, unrivaled humanitarian intervention, the dawn of the new millennium, etc etc etc.

Expressing this zeitgeist was the trend in video games of urban growth and imperial expansion, epitomized by three hugely popular series -- SimCity (~1990), Civilization ('91), and Age of Empires ('97). There was nothing that could go wrong with mega-cities and their empires, it was just pure entertainment, excitement, and unalloyed fun.

However, these series ran into a stagnant phase over the course of the 2000s. Age of Empires' last original game (AoE III) came out in 2005, and AoE IV was stalled until 2021 -- and was a rehash of the Middle Age empires from earlier games, part of the sequel / reboot / remake disease of the 2010s and after. Consensus among fans (and rough sales figures) is that Civ V was the peak of the series, from 2010, not the most recent entry, VI, from 2016. The SimCity series peaked after the 2003 release of SC4, and the reboot of the series 10 years later, also called SimCity, was a disaster and killed the franchise off for good.

Did any new series take their place during the 2010s? No. Only one major new game was launched, Cities: Skylines, in 2015. That is not even an ongoing series like the previous three, but a standalone game. There is simply no interest left in cities -- whether among creators or consumers, and whether in the managerial side of zoning, building, collecting taxes, etc., or the aesthetic side of high density, concrete and glass, skyscraper scale, and the like.

Of course, video games did not exist really before the 1980s, but there were other media that expressed the consensus that urbanization and territorial expansion would only ever go further than the present. Mostly they thought of that in good ways, like the 1960s cartoon the Jetsons, but even the dystopian visions like 2001: A Space Odyssey assumed that our society's material basis would only get more and more sophisticated going forward.

The 2000s put an end to that view of the future. Between the bursting of the dot-com stock market bubble in the early 2000s, and the neverending Depression of the late 2000s -- as well as 9/11 and the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- nobody could seriously come out of that decade thinking that futurism, expansionism, and urbanism were going to be the next big thing, ever again. Some hung on, to some extent, for a little while, but overall the 2010s were a period of adapting to, or at least prepping for, the start of imperial collapse.

* * *

What were the trends in video game culture over that decade, and into this one, if not futurism and urbanism? Why, RETVRNING, of course. And it's not merely a matter of leaving crime-ridden cities for safe suburbs -- that had already been under way during the falling-crime period of the '90s and after. This new zeitgeist was about abandoning modern industrial society altogether, and going back at least to an economy dominated by agriculture, and at most pre-industrial artisanal manufacturing.

Spore, from 2008, was a bridge between the two zeitgeists, simulating the evolution of organisms from their most primitive forms, up to tribal societies, civilization, and interstellar expansion.

The 2010s saw the explosion of the genre of farming simulators -- who wants to simulate a sterile, decadent city, when you can simulate a wholesome cozy farm and a close-knit community instead? People in a collapsing empire, that's who. The standout game in this genre is Stardew Valley from 2016, building on the success of the earlier Harvest Moon series. The farming craze has even spilled over into vehicle-riding simulators, like the hugely popular Lawn Mowing Simulator (from 2021).

By far, though, the game that epitomizes the RETVRN zeitgeist is Minecraft, originally released in 2011 but still dominating the streaming schedules of the most popular channels right now. (The keeper of nature herself, Fauna from Hololive, will be playing it this evening, in fact.) There are no factories, assembly lines, modern supply chains, or anything like that. Subsistence is derived from cultivated crops and herding livestock.

Manufacturing materials and methods are all pre-industrial (wood, stone, iron but not really steel, hammers, ovens, etc.). No synthetics, no "chemicals", no mass-producing molds and engines.

And not only is there no large-scale empire, there is evidently not even a nation or kingdom. Presumably there could be a king somewhere to whom these people owe allegiance and taxes, but you would never know it. Nor are you preyed on by other empires -- at most, bands of a handful of pillagers, zombies, and so on. Not a large, organized, hierarchical army.

The players in Minecraft construct their own worlds, so it's not that the game developers forced them into a non-urban environment. Hypothetically, players could build up cities -- as big as they can get in a pre-industrial economy, but that can still be huge. And yet they have all opted to not turn this game into pre-industrial SimCity. At most, they form small villages where the players all know each other and interact over the long-term.

And those are not small towns, like we might find today with paved streets, including a Main Street, shops abounding, and special service places like a hospital or whatever. They are rural and remote, much like the back-to-nature utopian communes of the stagnant European empires of the 19th century. (Ours fared much better in America because they were not a retreat, but an expansion and settling of undeveloped land, back when such a thing existed here.)

If you can't find a plot of land IRL to set up your commune, just do so in a video game simulation -- the point is psychological relief, and simulations can do a decent job, if they're designed well and have a large user base to provide the semblance of community and belonging.

For those who don't have a large team to play with online, they focus mainly on building their own standalone structure, whether a home, castle, treehouse, or whatever. But not a city. Not even an urban home that is transplanted to an outlying area, but a rural cottage or manor, fitting the rural estate they're living on, surrounded by grass and trees and critters.

What's most striking is that these simulators are not made and consumed as though they were fantasy, like Medieval knights slaying dragons, or Druids conjuring up nature spirits during the summer solstice. They are meant to simulate quotidian, mundane reality in these pre-industrial, non-urban environments -- with only fantastical flourishes and stylization, not in the substance of the core.

As our economy, government, empire, and legacy culture industries continue their contraction and implosion, this will continue to be the trend, in video games and elsewhere.


  1. Have you read Walter Scheidel's "The Great Leveler"?


  2. Here is one great detailed scenario of a much more rural world!


  3. Animal Crossing is another RETVRN series, where you inhabit a small village of cutesy man-like animals.

    It's not so much about the construction of the world, like Minecraft is, but it is still clearly about the abandonment of urbanism and futurism, for a wholesome cozy fertile rural location.

    First game came out in 2001, has been popular during the 2000s and 2010s, and the most recent game (New Horizons) came out in 2020, with the highest review scores and by far the most in sales -- probably 40 million by now. The next-best selling games were "only" 12-13 million.

    Fittingly, the one meant to be about urbanism, "City Folk", sold far less (3 million) and has much lower review scores.

    And like Minecraft and Stardew Valley, the Animal Crossing games are not fantastical and magical. They're about the ordinary day-to-day goings-on of a naturalistic environment.

    There must be a Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs thing going on, where magic and fantasy only grab our attention provided that our lower needs, in the mundane / ordinary levels, are already met.

    When those basic levels are falling apart, who has the luxury to speculate about magic and fantasy? -- just give us a pleasing and comforting sense of normal daily life!

    That gets into the "manual labor simulators," like the super-popular power wash simulator, but that's getting too far off-topic about urban vs. rural. The point is just that in a disintegrating society, we want to hold onto what's merely normal and mundane, it doesn't even occur to us to wonder about space expansion etc.

  4. Faunya read this before her stream tonight. :) She mentioned a few times how much like the countryside their world is, while the Hololive Japan world is somewhat more urban (still more of a small town, though, not a big city).

    I'm still working my way through your Spore streams, and I just heard you mention Civilization and Age of Empires II. Have you ever played a SimCity game?

    I'm not lying when I say that was considered one of the coolest games back in the '90s. It was not just for nerds who wanted to do student government, either. Not just for grown-ups, at least teens loved it (maybe kids too, dunno). I remember renting the Super Nintendo version several times at the video store (a crucial place for Gen X development).

    Y'knowww... speaking of Super Nintendo, you should join the Gura and Kronii club and play something from before you were born! Hehe.

    You're into Miitopia, you might like some of those old '90s RPGs. They're rural, RETVRN, small-town, although more about fantasy and action / adventure than simulating daily life like Minecraft.

    Secret of Mana is the easiest to get into. Terranigma has a "help the world evolve from primitive to advanced" storyline, somewhat like Spore.

    I never played the turn-based ones (can't stand that mechanic), but Chrono Trigger is always praised and has time-travel, while Earthbound has the mundane setting and random / gross-out humor that everyone says is charming.

    Even if you can't get perms to stream them, you'd still probably get a kick out of them on your own time.

  5. Vladimir Berkov6/26/22, 8:27 AM

    Among video games there's a couple other interesting ones related to this trend.

    For one, The Sims itself. You have it basically emerging at the height of the New World Order and End of History in the year 2000. At the time a lot of people asked "who would play a stupid game about mundane real life things when you can do that in RL anyway, why not play a game where you are fighting space aliens or WW2 or anything else?" Instead over the next 20 years the series thrived and it turned out a lot of people want to play house as adults and create their own little virtual home in a more comprehensible and human scale world.

    Or you have Secondlife. Also introduced in that same era, 2003, it started out largely as a techno-libertarian futurist platform where the creators intended things to be "far out" and wild-west like, but also involving big corporations in an enlightened techno-future. 20 years on it turns out the vast majority of users enjoy it as a way to have a community of virtual frens, build and decorate cozy houses, play dress-up, and have relationships with real people (even if only via the internet.)

    In the TV space one related trend from this era was the huge popularity and influence of the show Mad Men. This started right before the 2008 collapse and its height was during the peak of the dire economic and political times since. The show creators intended to show mid-century American suburbia as a conformist, sexist, racist, empty, hell. Much in the same vein as the media and intelligencia class have tried to picture the Great Compression era since even when it was happening. Instead they found that modern audiences during the great recession looked with longing at the intact, cohesive, clean, safe, and hopeful past of the 50s and 60s.

    The shows creators seemed to be upset at this. "But...but..don't you see that the people are BAD people, misogynists, patriarchal, DULL, normies?!" It turns out that what people focused on were the actually attractive clothes on everyone, the cozy, warm, human scale set design and furniture, and the idea of a community that wasn't vibrantly enriched yet.

    There was the most epic lol related to this trend when Man in the High Castle put out an early trailer showing life in the "bad old days" of a Nazi-dominated postwar America where everyone is white, men have jobs and are respected, women are thin and attractive, and neighborhoods are clean and safe. Rather than the intended message the takeaway and comments on the trailer were heavily "OMG I wish this actually happened, looks nice!" The trailer was pulled.

  6. Its funny just how topical this post is. Nintendo just had their latest Direct (showpiece for upcoming Switch releases), and there were no less than 3 farming/life sim games. One of them starring famous Japanese kids show mascot Doraemon, another one with Disney characters, and one by Square Enix that is a hybrid action RPG/life sim.

  7. Twitter banned Aimee Terese again.

  8. Sick since Sunday, probably COVID round 2. Starting to come off the lows today, knock on wood.

    The main thing this engineered disease does, to me at least, is make you waste away from malnutrition because of the aches, pains, and fatigue, preventing you from moving around, let alone making proper meals.

    Somehow I found the energy last night to make some beef stew in the crock pot before falling asleep, and started eating that today. Just like COVID round 1, where I had some steak, carrot, and tomato stew once I could eat and drink.

    But this time I didn't have any problems with digestion or dehydration. It's just the laying around, mentally fogged, unable to move.

    The only people who saw me through this are the Hololive girls, without knowing what they were doing of course. But when I was at the low yesterday, I played their English karaoke stream from their IRL meet-up -- and it was like a chorus showing up to the hospital to lift the spirits of whoever is there, wasting away.

    The chorus doesn't know any of those sick people beforehand, and maybe they never will see them again. But they intervened in their lives during a critical moment, and helped to save them from going under. :)

    The last thing your brain can do when it's shutting down, and feeling tortured, is on-the-fly processing. I couldn't even carry out a basic small talk conversation. But hearing familiar faves means the words are already there in my long-term memory, word for word, in order, just ready to be retrieved. And occasionally sing along with!

  9. My elderly neighbor, who I've been close with for years, stopped by to drop off some tomatoes, not knowing I was sick. And those gave me a nice energy boost that night. She checked in on me the next day, too, asking if there's anything she could go get me. I said it was fine. I do chores for her now and then, she drops off things every now and then.

    She's closer than my family is at this point -- and not because I dislike family. I gave my Herculean effort to bring the family back together, from about 2014-'15, and it lasted several years at least. But as of 2020, it's only getting more fractured and centrifugal, perhaps for good. Not out of hate or arguments or anything gay like that, just family life with Boomer parents, and Millennial siblings.

    I'm the only X-er in my nuclear family, and Gen X is what's holding together this fragile so-called country at this point. Unfortunately, I was outnumbered in my own nuclear family, and that Herculean effort was not going to last very long. But I did what I had to do, try to pick up after their individualist rootless chaos, and bring everyone closer whether they like it or not.

    Any Zoomers out there, please be grateful toward your Gen X parents for sticking together, not raising you in a permanently broken home, and not constantly shifting around in search of a higher return-on-investment like the yuppie Boomers.

    You guys are the first generation to grow up in a more stable family environment than your parents (who were from broken homes, and/or latchkey kids). And given how little angst I detect from Zoomers about their parents, I'd say you already appreciate that. But it doesn't hurt to let them know, overtly, every once in awhile.

    That goes for the lucky few Millennials who have Gen X parents, like Dasha from Red Scare. She should be the poster-girl for Millennial angst against her parents, except they're not Boomers, so she has nothing genuine to complain about. And she always talks about them being Gen X, so she's aware of why her parents are as cool and nice as they are.

  10. And lastly, my IRL guardian angel, my cat. :) In our wicked degenerate empire, your own flesh and blood won't be there to comfort and aid you, because they scattered themselves to the four corners of the globe to maximize their individual enjoyment, rather than stay close to meet their duties and obligations to others, 1st and foremost being their family.

    (And no, to the very low-IQ clever-sillies, nowhere else on earth does this. Northern Europeans do not move 10 hours apart from their nuclear and extended families, when they "move out on their own". Only Americans sever all roots with their family, obligatorily.)

    But cats (and I assume other animals) are not subject to these human cycles of imperial expansion, status-striving, etc. They're not even aware of them, and deliberately counter-acting them. They are blissfully ignorant of them -- innocent, pure, natural.

    That's why everyone depends so much on their pets these days. Not as substitute children (in some cases, yes, in most, no). As sentient creatures they can socially and emotionally relate to -- who are NOT part of this wicked, degenerate, individualist, sinking-ship of a human society.

    The noblest of savages. The only ones who will be faithfully right there by your side -- or even, on your lap -- when you're down and out. Purring, massaging, cuddling, whatever they can do to restore your health.

    In non-imperial societies, families play this role. In imperial ones, only during favorable periods does family play this role (like the proverbial and literal 1950s). For the most part, though, you're on your own, as far as your flesh and blood is concerned.

    Domesticated animals would never uniformly, all at once, start to go into a selfish wicked phase of a cycle. They're faithful and trustworthy no matter when, no matter what.

    I hate typing all of this, but I'm sick of pretending anymore.

    Maybe it sounds harsh if you're a Zoomer and your Gen X parents made your family life stable and close-knit. But to everyone else, it's something we all know is true, but won't say it.

    Me and my tiger-bear have formed a closer bond than I ever have with any other family member, and that's not my fault.

    Returning to the theme of everyone being a de facto orphan when an empire is collapsing -- that's why so many of us feel like Tarzan these days, living among / raised by noble beasts instead of our fellow human beings.

    That story was first published in 1912, right when all the others were -- Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, etc etc etc. Author was American, but the Tarzan character is contemporary British, i.e. right as it's about to collapse with the other Euro empires in WWI.

  11. Free Aimee Terese (she will be, yet again, much to the butthurt of the hoes-mad squad).

    Every time she comes back from the dead just makes her more iconic of an unkillable shitposter.

    Here's a forehead kiss through the bars at Twitter jail, special fren.


  12. Terraria sounds like another from this trend, from 2011. One of the top-selling games of all time.

    Looks like Gura & friends streamed it a little while ago, I'll have to check it out.

  13. Kronii sang "What Makes You Beautiful" too. She can act as tough as she wants, deep down they're all weak to the boy band serenade. :)

    Don't know why this didn't turn up last time I searched.


    This seems like a nice test of being a Zoomer or Millennial. Ame didn't have the lyrics seared into her brain, while Gura, Kronii, and Mumei do... so I'm thinking Ame is the very end of the Millennials ('95-'96).

  14. it's strange to see 2015'th Cities: Skylines being marked as irrelevant while marking much older 2011'th Minecraft otherwise even though both games are still actively being played.

  15. You misread the post, which says that Cities: Skylines from 2015 is the only example of a popular urban sim that's come out since the early-mid 2000s, showing that this genre is basically dead.

    Whereas the pre-urban or anti-urban sims have only skyrocketed in popularity, of which Minecraft is only one of a zillion examples from the 2010s.


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