Designed to introduce issues of energy management and environmental protection to schoolchildren, ElectroCity allows the player to control a New Zealand town and its surrounding landscape -- building power plants, extracting fossil fuels, trading on the energy market, and setting conservation policies. At the end of 150 turns, the player is graded on the town's size, environmental cleanliness, energy supply, and citizen satisfaction. The finished town layout can be uploaded to the ElectroCity server, to be viewed and ranked against other submitted towns.
The FAQ claims that ElectroCity is politically neutral and takes no stance on controversial questions such as the necessity of nuclear power, and that the intention of the game is educational.
Viewed as education, it does work quite well. You quickly pick up the pros and cons of assorted conservation and energy schemes. As with many sandbox games, you're allowed to set your own agenda; you can aim to build a metropolis of a million citizens, or adopt a no-growth policy and aim for a 50,000-person environmental haven set amid national parks.
That's not to say that playing feels like homework. The game is fun and balanced, making it easy to optimize for one goal but difficult to achieve them all. The landscape varies on replay, too, so that unusual resources like geothermal vents or whale-inhabited ocean waters do not appear in every playthrough.
What's more, the production values are gratuitously high-quality, with a bright, easy-to-learn interface and terrific graphics. This is one of the prettiest games I've ever played for free. Tiny waves crash against the shore, clouds float across the landscape, whales surface from the ocean. Plant a forest and it sprouts and matures over multiple turns. Build a ski resort and you get cable cars moving up and down the mountain. Install an airport and tiny airplanes soar over your environment. The game comes with a Zoom mode that is, I think, principally an excuse to wallow in the detail of the graphics. It's easiest to play if you have the distant view of the whole board, but from that far away you can't see the mist thrown up by your hydroelectric dams, or get a good look at the sheep on the farms. This is a place that looks like it's worth protecting. If you pollute heavily, the landscape visibly degrades, with a black haze collecting over the town center and ugly industrial buildings cluttering the view.
Even so, I am a little skeptical of the claim that the simulation is completely apolitical -- and not just because ElectroCity is sponsored by New Zealand power company Genesis Energy. Neutrality may have been the intention of the designers, and the game may avoid any overt stance on the issues, but any simulation inevitably incorporates some assumptions about how the world works. Playing many rounds of ElectroCity reveals that it's hard to avoid nuclear plants in supporting a really large city, and the scoring penalizes the player for choosing a no-growth approach. Moreover, nuclear plants negatively affect your popularity, but they never melt down, and the problem of storing radioactive waste gets no special attention. Meanwhile, an optimal strategy involves extracting coal and gas and selling it on the market rather than using it to polluting effect yourself; the game does not explore the possibility that a neighboring town buying and using your coal might have a negative effect on your own territory. Similarly, experimental new power technologies are generally portrayed as low-yield or unreliable. While this is probably accurate for the time being, the scope of the game's simulation prevents the player from exploring the long-term future effects of developing alternative power technologies.
To some extent, all this just reflects the difficulty of the issues. The game avoids exaggerating rare risks (like nuclear meltdown) or being groundlessly optimistic about untried solutions (like widespread reliance on tidal generators), and that's probably a responsible way to design a simulation. But in the real world our policies are determined in a state of partial ignorance about risks and benefits. No deterministic set of simulation rules can reflect that situation perfectly.