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‘SimCity’ and the Culture-Making Power of Stories

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SimCity, the city-building simulation video game, was released 30 years ago—spanning computer, console and now mobile gaming. Not only did it challenge players to grow their town into a megalopolis, the game also shaped a generation of actual city planners.

On a positive note, SimCity inspired kids to become involved in their community and seek to improve the places they live. They saw the importance of local government and became mayors, council members and urban planners.

However, the game also “oversimplifies some of the mundane elements of urban planning” and provides “binary solutions to problems.” Players are taught to respond to situations in only one way. Creative strategies and new approaches weren’t options. As such, many city planners who grew up playing the game had their thinking molded — unaware, but fundamentally — by SimCity.

The influence of SimCity on city planners reminds us of an important truth: the fictional worlds in which we immerse ourselves shape the way we view the world in which we live. This is true for video games like SimCity, along with movies, television shows and books.

It’s not the simplistic notion of “violent video games make you violent,” but rather as you place yourself into a fictional world, you are forced to that see world through the lens of its creator. And that in turn impacts the way in which you see yourself and others around you in this world. This allows us to expand our perspective, gain empathy and learn more deeply than we often do when someone simply presents statements of facts.

The fictional worlds in which we immerse ourselves shape the way we view the world in which we live.

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis speaks of a friend who isn’t a reader. “He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world.” The reader, on the other hand, is able to explore far beyond his own world. “My own eyes are not enough for me,” writes Lewis, “I will see through those of others.”

In visiting these other fictional worlds, the reader is able to not only learn about others, but also about themselves. “But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself,” Lewis writes. “Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

Christians often miss this about art. We are looking to immediately jump to the “point.” The movie needs a dramatic moment of conversion to faith in Christ. The book must have a character explicitly demonstrate His trust in God.

Art, however, is not mainly about the explicit, but the implicit, giving us the “myriad eyes” to see beyond our normal vistas. As Karen Swallow Prior says in On Reading Well, “Great books offer perspective more than lessons.”

Granting us that perspective often removes our blinders, which may be self-imposed. Lewis wrote how, as a child, biblical lessons never had the desired effect on him. Certain inhibitions he had “paralyzed” his feelings toward God and Christ’s sufferings, so as an adult convert he sought a way to bypass those inhibitions in others.

“But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency?” he asked in the essay Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said. “Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?”

Jesus understood the power of stories. Notice how He often used parables to sneak behind the enemy lines of a sinful heart. For example, He could’ve commanded the expert in the law to be more compassionate to everyone in need. Instead, He told a story of a good Samaritan who stopped to help a man left for dead by robbers (cf. Luke 10:25-37).

Jesus could’ve stated how God feels about us and what our response to Him should be, but he told listeners of a loving father with a prodigal son and a self-righteous son (cf. Luke 15:11-32). Jesus didn’t simply state the radical way in which grace levels us; He told about a generous landowner who gave the same wage to everyone who worked in his field (cf. Matthew 20:1-16).

Jesus understood the power of stories.

In attempting to reach his listeners, Jesus did more than communicate propositional statements. He created stories which captured His audience’s attention and avoided the “watchful dragons” anxious to devour dangerous truths before they could find their mark.

Jesus reminds us why literature and art are so important. Stories are the very definition of culture making. In creating a new fictional world, artists and writers influence the way we see the world around us. Their imaginative creations take root in our hearts and result in the fruit of a changed perspective and potentially new behaviors.

As a result, we Christian must examine the stories in which we immerse ourselves, recognizing they are working to reshape us in their image. That doesn’t mean we cannot engage works and artists that disagree with us. Quite the contrary. We read the stories and watch the movies (obviously within reason) to better understand the needs of those around us and how Jesus best meets those needs.

More importantly, though, this truth should challenge Christians to spend time developing stories that will engage culture. SimCity shaped the way a generation of American city planners thought about urban development. Imagine what could happen if a generation of Christian artists devoted themselves to more stealing past dragons and less preaching to the choir.

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Aaron Earls

Aaron Earls is the online editor of Facts & Trends magazine and a freelance writer living outside Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and four kids. He earned his M.Div. in Apologetics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter at @WardrobeDoor.

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