Building a City Without Borders or Walls
by Sylvia Artiga
Scrolling through the news, I see children with fine black hair and round faces, like mine, and mothers with curves in their shoulders and hips, like my mother. I see them crying for each other. My heart breaks in a way that’s deep and permanent.
And I do what I’ve done for most of the past 30 years—look to video games to escape.
I think I’m drawn to city-builders the way other people love to play instruments or write. The sensation of learning a new system, a new set of variables. Constructing a working balance is a rush, and the central focus on building a new community transforms what should be a chore into something like bliss.
Whether the game is set in a fairy-tale forest, Mars, or ancient Egypt, the tasks are the same. These people need homes, make them. They need to eat, feed them. They are cold, warm them up. They need to rest from their work, give them soft things like music or art or faith.
The best games push you just when you feel balanced with the ultimate test—your success at building a community out of rock and wood means, inevitably, that more people will come. Children and strangers alike, they require the same as your settlers. If you cannot provide for them, the game ends and you are the failure.
Some games give you the option to stem the tide, a cruel switch that reads something like “No Births Allowed,” or simply, “Deny.” They are the weaker for it.
City-builders can be more than digital puzzles, asking the players to do little more than study each piece until they find its place on the board. They can stir a different sense of labor, property, culture-building, or even what constitutes “the public.” You learn to stare at empty pieces of land and dream about all the different lives it can live as it evolves alongside your community.
Will children need to play here? Will farmers need to grow crops here? Will this become a home that then becomes a theater and then the corner parcel of a grand monument where everyone will celebrate what they have made and everything that they have survived together?
The true fantasy of the city-builder is this: not just control of a tiny world that you can shape like a garden and watch like an ant farm, but an exercise in making abundance and the practice of sharing it with everyone who wants to call the same place home.
The true challenge of the city-builder is this: If the city falls, it is the fault of the builder who could not make it strong enough to support everyone.
This is what I am escaping to now. ◒