Summer Break is approaching, which means unstructured time, our most precious resource. I plan on using that time to work on some long-delayed eBooks—including one on Christmas carols—and to teach my History of Conservative Thought course. I’m also hoping to rebuild my music lesson empire after The Virus sacked the imperial capital. There will also be lot of family time built in.
In addition to all of those wholesome and productive activities, there is also the siren song of video games. Video games can become a major time sink (I’m learning that with Stellaris), but they’re a good way to unwind, and require a bit more focus and decision-making than passively consuming television.
One of the major video games meta-series of my youth were the various Sim games from Maxis—SimCity, SimEarth, SimAnt, etc. (I had a particular fondness for the scope and breadth of SimEarth, which I obtained on a bootlegged 3.5″ floppy disk from my buddy Arun in high school, back before I knew about or respected intellectual property rights). The sandbox style in play, which encouraged experimentation and open-ended decision-making, really made those Maxis games fun (not unlike Minecraft, which also encourages exploration and free play).
So it was with great interest—and a heavy dose of nostalgia—that I read “When SimCity got serious: the story of Maxis Business Simulations and SimRefinery” on The Obscuritory, a website dedicated to exploring games lost, forgotten, and never played.
The lengthy piece (seriously, give yourself an hour to read it, though I skimmed it in about twenty minutes and got the main bullet points) by Phil Salvador is a well-documented bit of corporate history. Salvador details how, following the success of SimCity, the tiny Maxis studio began experimenting with business simulations for companies, ultimately spinning that division off into its own company.
The first piece of software from this new division was SimRefinery, a piece of software that no longer exists. Chevron needed a way to graphically teach its staff the basics of how a refinery works, so they could more accurately understand the complexities of such an operation. Operators tended to focus myopically on their single area of expertise, but failed to understand how that area fit into the whole.
Part of the fun of Sim titles—and part of the educational appeal—is the ability to blow stuff up. That was, in part, the purpose of SimRefinery: give employees the ability to manipulate the simulation in such a way that it would destroy everything:
Destroying a simulation can be an educational experience too, and this is how SimRefinery was meant to be played. John Hiles said that most of the trainers at Chevron wanted to use it as a conventional training tool, “but some of the more astute teachers said, ‘Let’s just get you started here by seeing if you can wreck the oil refinery, if you can abuse the inputs and the settings and essentially get fired,’” he remembered.
That was a legitimate way to learn how a refinery worked: if you start breaking the refinery, you can see how ruining one part of the plant will affect the other parts of the plant. “The tool – the game – was agnostic,” Hiles explained, correcting himself. “It would work for someone trying to ruin an oil refinery just as well as somebody trying to run it efficiently.”
Every kid remembers unleashing earthquakes and giant monsters onto their SimCity creations. That allowed players to experiment with the emergency response features in the game (such as surrounding fires in SimCity 2000 with those red fire hydrants on poles, which represented firefighters). Similarly, the ability to trash an oil refinery in a simulation was a harmless way to teach employees what not to do.
The essay is definitely worth a skim. It’s got me wanting to dig up that illicit floppy of SimEarth. Playing God is ill-advised for mere mortals; destroying the planet in SimEarth is a good way of reminding us of how difficult His job really is.