What makes this game genre so popular?
August 16, 2012 7:55 AM   Subscribe

What makes you gravitate toward time management and city simulation games? Looking for anecdata and citable studies.

I adore strategy/time management and city/town sim games and have been playing both since I was a little kid. I've been wondering lately about what it is exactly that makes these particular video game genres so popular and long-lasting.

Are there are any reliable scientific studies on the psychology of gaming and whether or not there are particular personalities that might gravitate towards one game genre over another?

Do you, as a personal fan of these games, have an idea as to what makes you gravitate towards the time management/simulation genre and why? I have ideas of my own, of course, but I'm curious as to what others might say on the topic.

Examples of this genre include: Civilization, Age of Empires, Zeus, Farmville, Diner Dash, Happy Street, the Sims, SimCity, etc.
posted by These Birds of a Feather to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I would say that even within this "genre" of games people of different personality types are drawn to different aspects of the game. My sister and I both played the Sims and Roller Coaster Tycoon a lot over long stretches of boredom during holidays. It always fascinated me to watch her play and think about how differently we both approached the games. I built for efficiency and maximum financial solvency - my sims/theme parks were very sparse and utilitarian and aimed at maximizing money inflow and capping off skills/career. Hers. . .well. . .let's just say that she ran in the red for most of the game but her parks were really fun looking and her sims had lots of friends and parties ALL THE TIME. That's pretty much a reflection of our real-world approaches to life. I think that's what makes these games so popular - different people can bring different approaches to the games and still have fun with them.
posted by minorcadence at 8:08 AM on August 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

These type of games don't rely so much on fast reaction times and a certain type of eye-hand coordination. First or third-person shooters aren't so much fun when all you can manage to do is fall over things and walk into walls for five minutes and then something comes up from behind and eats you.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:24 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many of them are also very easy to fit into a grown-up life. What? My daughter's pet cockroach escaped and it needs to be re-captured? No problem: Civ V isn't going to go anywhere without me.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:29 AM on August 16, 2012

It's dollhouses for grownups.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:30 AM on August 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

I was drawn into Eve Online years ago initially for gathering resources, trading, and other similar things to what you've described. It became a LOT more complicated as time went by, as the game is hugely political once you start interacting with other players in the zero security parts of space. There were economies, wars, pacts, and all sorts of corruption and sabotage.

I use Eve Online as an example, as it really drove home why I also like other games like Civilization, Age of Empires, Warcraft, Sims, etc. Eve Online is a microcosm of the real world (albeit a tad exaggerated). Understanding the concepts within the game and how they play out in simulation helped me also understand a lot of major things happening in the real world when it came to foreign politics, economy, and crime/corruption. The other games, while not as involved, also have this same trait. They feel like simulations of real world dynamics...and that's what draws me in.
posted by samsara at 8:37 AM on August 16, 2012

When I was younger, I had phenomenal hand eye coordination. I was a Tetris fiend and could play Dr. Mario up to like level 30. For those who aren't familiar with it, after level 20, any loss puts you back to level 20. So that meant I could beat it at least 11 times in a row at very high speed.

In spite of that, I suck at first person shooter games. I suck so badly at them that my then three year old quickly learned to do it himself or get his brother's help because mom is a Looozer. I find first person shooter games very stressful and cannot mentally coordinate the kind of info involved. Dr. Mario, Tetris and similar are pattern games. I have a strong-ish math background. I do well with that kind of patterning info.

I also love Simcity. I think there is probably some similarity between the patterning of laying out city grids and the patterning of schedules and the patterning of games like Tetris. I also like it that I can pause Simcity, lay everything out, then start the time moving forward again. Games which require too much real time reaction are a problem for mr. That is a feature of first person shooter games and I can't cope with it, especially since they are, like, trying to Kill me! Hello!

My sons have been slowly dragging me into other games by selling it hard that "It's like Simcity." They got me hooked on playing Master of Magic and helped me optimize my strategy for emphasizing the civilization building aspect and minimize the stress of having to go into battle. I do okay with those types of turn based strategy games. Again: Real time combat is still a show stopper. My youngest tried to introduce me to a game similar to Master of Magic but with real time combat. I promptly died and was very upset and wouldn't play anymore.
posted by Michele in California at 8:45 AM on August 16, 2012

I'm nuts about the Sims. Don't care very much about the people, love playing with the houses and furniture.

Sometimes I challenge myself to get my Sim to a specific level. That's fun.

One think I noticed about the Sims is that once you understand each Sims's motivation, it's really easy to make them productive and happy. Hello, can you say MANAGER???

And that's one to grow on.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:52 AM on August 16, 2012

It's dollhouses for grownups.

I would say it's world-building for grownups. I get the same pleasure from SimCity and Civ as I did from building 10 inch mud dams in the ditch after the rain as a kid, then populating the imaginary miniature lakeside with scrap wood blocks and overturned yogurt cups. I was a pint-sized civil engineer.

People get a base pleasure from understanding and imagining systems--especially communities and places. The adaptive advantage of such an interest is easy to imagine.

For what it's worth, I also think this impulse caused Gibbon to write the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
posted by General Tonic at 8:58 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I like them a lot because they're basically pure strategy rather than hand-eye coordination. Most of them let you pause and think about it, too, so it's not as much about reflexes as other games. I've tried games like starcraft etc and the multi-tasking and quick reflexes make them more stressful than relaxing for me, although I like the strategy aspects of those games.

(why did they stop making games like this? the recent ones like the sims are more grindy than strategy oriented. Luckily many of the great older games are still very playable)
posted by randomnity at 9:01 AM on August 16, 2012

I prefer Sim City because, since games became 3d, I really struggle to be able to play them. I'm dyspraxic so my spacial awareness is all out, and I can't cope with people shooting at me very easily either. With Sim City, you get to create your own world which also really appeals to me. There's no level or timeframe in which to complete a task, you can leave or come back to it.

I don't know if it's big in the US, but Football Manager is huge in the UK, and you may well find some studies or articles on that. A lot of people play it obsessively and many of these play no other games. From what I gather from an old housemate who played its predecessor, Championship Manager, people start with a small team and try and get them to win everything - it's seen as poor form to start off with a rich or successful team as it's easier that way. I don't know how much of the fandom is about the football and how much is about the type of game it is, but I wonder how much the playerbase for that and, say, FIFA overlap - I think the strategy is a big part of the appeal. It's almost like grinding in an MMO, where you create a character/team and have them do battle/play a match in order to unlock achievements/trophies, but there's no shooting and microtransactions involved, and it's based on something more mainstream that doesn't scare away people who would loathe the idea of being labelled nerds. (Ha, you lose, stats obsessions are WELL NERDY.)

I didn't get on with The Sims because I got frustrated with having to train the Sim to do everything. I much prefer the management thing on a bigger scale.
posted by mippy at 9:13 AM on August 16, 2012

These sort of games reward planning, creativity, and organization rather than skilled button-clicking, impulsivity, and shooting things.

The first thing I did when I got a new computer (my last one had had a broken CD drive for 3+ years) was install all my old Rollercoaster Tycoon and Sims games. Love.
posted by phunniemee at 9:29 AM on August 16, 2012

When I played The Sims as a kid, I would always just build elaborate houses for hours and not bother with the human aspect of it. I ended up studying architecture in college, so there's that. I think the appeal for me largely lies in the make-your-own goals element and the idea that you're building and not destroying something (unless you're really into natural disasters in Sim City I guess!). When I was younger these was an edutainment aspect too-- I pretty much coasted through World History in secondary school thanks to Civ and AoE.

I'm wondering if the whole omnipotent God-emperor thing is an attraction, too...

It makes me sad that most of today's equivalents of these games are terrible Zynga social gaming clones that are all about grinding and zero about creativity.
posted by sonmi at 9:31 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can lose days to SimCity and Civ.

I love how both games start as blank canvases brimming with potential - they give me the same feeling I remember having as a kid when faced with a pristine stretch of sand, the desire to jump in and start making a mess is irresistible.

After the "empty sandbox" phase I get to the "large scale role playing" phase where I get to live out a story of wheeling/dealing trading society/city - or a bucolic paradise of farmers - or a blade runner towering city of technology industry and squalor. The range of self-story-telling that these games allow is enormous.
posted by tempythethird at 9:54 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

While I am a Civ fiend, and do get sucked into Sims from time to time, I'm here to vehemently state that Diner Dash and its time management ilk are NOT the same.

I hate hate hate the style of time management games where I have to do a precise set of things in a precise order in a precise amount of time to please a customer to make money. Memorizing processes and having to restrategize on the fly stresses me out, and I don't play games to be stressed out.

But I *do* like sim games, and turn based strategy games. I like having time to think and plan long-term. It's fun to figure out how various buildings affect each other, and how to make a combo that grants out obscene amounts of resources.
posted by itesser at 10:13 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do not like games that are just kill kill kill kill kill reload kill kill. I enjoy the worldbuilding and nuance that comes with games like the Sims. I think this is because, in real life, I'm a crafter and a peacenik. And I can't stand really flashy or quick-moving games like racing games....gives me a headache.
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:33 AM on August 16, 2012

I'm a SimCity and Civ freak going back to 1.0 of both. There's a design aspect to both of them; you plot out a strategy and then try and execute it and see what the Sims in your city or what Montezuma will fight back with. There is also an aspect of seeing how the parts fit together; I've never thought of it until just now, but it's maybe the same impulse that kids have to take radios or cars apart, but virtually with an entire city.

In particular, there's a real-world aspect to these games. Zoning and roads are real things, and you can see cities in the real world through the lens of the game. I like to travel, and an interest in distant cultures and how different cities work certainly ties in as well. I have also always been fascinated by maps.

But maybe it's just inherent in my nature. I'm a transportation engineer today, and the simulation work I do is very close to SimCity; only the places are real, I have to write the program and the graphics suck. It's awesome.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:26 PM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's figuring out the algorithm to win, kind of like a very large slightly chaotic sudoku/crossword. It's very satisfying to play different ways and figure out the game's limits and internal structure until you have a sort of mental map of how to reliably win/destroy every other city. Then it's playing out all the variations until you understand the game entirely.

I like turn-based games because I don't have a clock ticking down, so I can pick it up and play for five minutes or five hours without pressure.

I don't like FPS or story-based games because I feel like a rat being guided through a maze by the designer - you have to play along the mission lines, and that annoys me badly. The sandbox aspect of Sims and Civ feels more like a puzzle I can improve than a puzzle I have to solve a certain way or else.

I have never and will never play Grand Theft Auto because the sandbox aspect of it is so enticing just reading about it, and I don't think I can afford to lose the time. I played Civ obsessively in high school, and during a recent hospitalization, rediscovered the iPad version.

Oh! And it's soothing. There's a certain rhythm you fall into when playing yet another variation of the same underlying game that is appealing, the same way I feel watching a rerun of a beloved TV show or eating a favourite comfort food. I can expect a certain measure of distracting low-key pleasure with enough variation to make it fresh.
posted by viggorlijah at 12:29 PM on August 16, 2012

I really, really like organizing and optimizing things. I have seriously been experimenting with inventory management systems in my pantry, for fun. I can't help myself; I had to fold and stuff and seal 1,000 newsletters for a charity once and I just kept optimizing and optimizing and optimizing the process and ended up finishing in literally half the time anybody else had taken. (They wanted me to do it every time and I was like OH HELL NO.)

Anyway, time management games let me do that real-time organizing and optimizing. I particularly like the road ones like "Roads of Rome" where you optimize your little dudes doing tasks to clean up a city. I'm less fond of the "Be Rich" style where you have to knock some down to build others to get to the optimal solution; I prefer just building to optimal conditions, not having to build and destroy.

I like the "casual games" because I can play them in small chunks. I love Civ (and Sims, for that matter), but I rarely have that kind of time to devote to a game these days.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:32 PM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think Eyebrows McGee is on to something. The kind of person whose mind automatically makes a plan for distributing dinner-paraphernelia among arms and baskets so as to minimize the number of 3-meter walking trips between kitchen and dining room (why no, I don't do that, why?) is probably the same kind of person who will be lulled into a joyous drooling transfixation by the task of layering housing zones, electric transmission, transportation, and plumbing just so.
posted by tempythethird at 4:10 PM on August 16, 2012

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