DENTSU PUBLIC RELATIONS, Tokyo / ELECTRONIC ARTS K.K. / 2019
Japan has a problem down at City Hall. Older inhabitants of towns and villages who helped build their communities are bowing out, while younger people don’t feel the same affection for their home towns. A Japanese government subcommittee studying depopulation has identified nearly 900 municipalities nationwide as cities at risk of disappearing because the number of inhabitants aged 20 to 39 years will fall by half to two-thirds in coming decades. One such city was Kobayashi, located in southern Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture.
Electronic Arts decided that as a Corporate Social Responsibility project, it would adapt its popular SimCity BuildIt urban development sandbox game – available as a free smartphone app – to a real-life situation. In doing so, it aimed to encourage young people to use the company’s digital model to devise solutions that can help prevent depopulation in their communities.
The SimCity BuildIt game series has been positioned as a teaching aid for schools, with students in their teens acting as city administrators to create imagined cities complete with infrastructure, malls, and residential communities. Kobayashi City had earlier gained fame across Japan for making a video inviting people to relocate there. Electronic Arts conjectured that Kobayashi’s local government might be keen to partner with it in a project – based on its SimCity BuiltIt app – aimed at inspiring a new interest in politics and town planning among its young people. Encouraged by Japanese government data showing that 70% of Japanese high school students play games on their smartphones, the game developer devised a game specifically for Kobayashi, which became the foundation for the CSR campaign it named ‘the Kobayashi City Department of SimCity BuildIt.’
After Electronic Arts secured the official approval of Kobayashi’s mayor for the project, a virtual city department was jointly created with a mix of students from Kobayashi Shuho High School and city government officials, about 20 of whom were assigned to the new SimCity department. Over three months, some 30 students used the game developed by Electronic Arts (based on Kobayashi’s actual town layout) in workshops to create their ideal Kobayashi City. Electronic Arts also helped foster a sense of belonging and commitment amongst the students engaged in the initiative by producing polo shirts, badges, and official business cards embellished with the specially created Department of SimCity BuildIt logo. The government employees temporarily transferred to the SimCity department wore them, too.
Kobayashi ensured that the project gained a nationwide audience by making an online video, designed to appeal to young people, communicating the department’s initiatives.
The campaign was executed between September and December 2018, with the core element being the 12 workshops (open classes) coordinated by the students on town planning that utilized the SimCity BuildIt game. The workshops held at Shuho High School created an opportunity for the students involved in the Department of SimCity BuildIt’s initiative to think, in specific terms, about their city’s future.
The promotion video aimed at young people was released on November 14 (‘yoi toshi no hi’ – a special day for cities). With the support of the local government officials seconded to the department, the students gave their formal presentation to the mayor and city assembly in mid-December. The urban development ideas for Kobayashi which the local high school students devised through the Department of SimCity BuildIt project were approved, and the decision was made to raise money through crowdfunding from spring 2019 to put them into action.
Prominent Japanese media including major national daily Asahi Shimbun lauded this initiative. Besides gaining significant media exposure and many impressions, the campaign’s positive outcomes led local authorities elsewhere in Japan to consider taking such initiatives.
The mayor of Kobayashi was also extremely impressed by the presentation given to city officials, commenting that the students had developed concrete proposals for the kind of Kobayashi they hoped to see, and he vowed to work towards their realization. For Electronic Arts, the campaign’s success exceeded its expectations, with city administrators so motivated by what the SimCity game had inspired in their community’s youth that they made the decision to enact real changes at the city planning and policy level. Moreover, as countless cities worldwide share Kobayashi’s depopulation challenges, other governments embracing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will have a successful blueprint for engaging their own youth in the creation of sustainable communities.