For most of my life I have been terrified of amusement parks. It’s not the roller coasters, as much as the immersion of physically being in uncanny space. I am told that when I was young I ran out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not and was almost hit by a car. I guess that’s just trauma. Yet, despite this fear I have retained a deep yearning all my life to continue experiencing them. Rather than actually going, I have spent a large amount of time watching videos on YouTube of riders’ perspectives. In the last year, this has taken the form of me watching all Kevin Perjurer’s Defunctland video essay series on YouTube, which narrates stories of the most famous failures in theme park history. As a result, I also felt inspired to go back to some of my favorite theme park manager games. However, as I have continued to spend more time building and learning about these spaces, I kept running into a similar theme: the propagation of the “great creative executive” figure.
Despite the genre’s ups and downs, theme park builders have maintained popularity in computer games since the explosion of Rollercoaster Tycoon in 1999. Compared to other management sims, the genre allows players to take a more fun approach to construction. The gameplay doesn’t challenge the player to dominance or survival, but finding what visitors think is fun, and how to stay afloat while maintaining creative control. Theme park builders challenge players by asking what really is fun. Most of all, players are able to more concretely imagine the parks of their dreams through the tools provided by the game.
The amusement park is a recurring motif throughout videogames. Think of horror games and there is probably a level or even an entire game (see Illbleed on Dreamcast) set in a malformed fairground. In platformers, there is almost always a level for a cartoony protagonist to speed around. In all of these, there is a nostalgic invocation of amusement park aesthetics, but it’s in theme park builders that the player is able to “live” out their dreams inside the park.
Despite “builder” being the primary verb in the genre title, a large part of these games occur with observing visitors. The player will spend time imagining the ways that their coasters, shops and utilities are all utilized and attempt to make it all fit together. Then a lot of the satisfaction comes from just seeing how the little people in the park react. A family of four will shy away from the ultimate thrill rides, and maybe decide not to buy the overpriced shakes as they walk to the carousel. Some of these games will even let you observe from their first person perspective, taking in the ways they look around and what they walk by. In these moments the player is living through the little virtual park guests.
Yet in all these games, the player also takes the unacknowledged role of the invisible constructor. They oversee the park, make all the executive decisions, terraform the earth and receive awards, but never face any realities of the world within. This aspect of play is equally present to observation, creating a role for the player as that of the dream executive, working away in a tower. The player is an ascendant from the world below, leaving gifts in the form of thrill rides and bathrooms for the visitors in the virtual world which they cannot ever enter.
Cedar Point recreation in Planet Coaster by pitzony
When we construct an amusement park in videogame form, we manifest dreams of what we perceive amusement parks as they used to be, currently are, and could be. Some will design their parks to precisely replicate parks that hold importance to them. Others will create parks that have never existed, and likely would never be able to be justified materially.
People enjoy amusement parks because of their spatialized design of the entanglement between embodied response and cultural emotions. Riding The Beast at King’s Island provokes a series of emotions, including adrenaline and suspense as you weave in and out through the trees. And it’s also a shared affection between others who enjoy that thrill and spatialized emotions. In a way, theme parks are very comparable to other forms of media in terms of the way that a person experiences them both.
Amusement parks are also sites of nostalgia. For some, a vacation to the nearest local theme park can be a tradition that repeats itself for generations. In others, they may find the appeal of a nostalgic media property built into an attraction appealing. Plus, these nostalgias have created an aestheticization of theme parks in media for others to form desires to experience those spaces when they never have before.
In Defunctland, creator Kevin Perjurer narrates stories of the most famous failures of theme park history. These cover both warmly missed attractions, like King’s Island’s Tomb Raider: The Ride, to such painfully comedic failures such as Disney California Adventure’s Superstar Limo. Each of Perjurer’s videos are so enjoyable because they capture the drama and historical nature of each ride. In these videos there is also a focus on the executive as the primary factor in creating these histories, and our nostalgia as we know it.
An episode in particular where this is highlighted is in the story of Walt Disney’s production of his “utopian city of the future,” E.P.C.O.T. At the end of the video Perjurer narrates how Walt Disney left his legacy after dying in the midst of planning the project. Melodramatic strings play in the background as he notes, “Walt Disney was a simple man, and at the same time he was a very complicated one. He was a futurist that traded in nostalgia, a conservative obsessed with progress, a gentle mentor with an impatient temper.” From a narrative perspective, it’s engaging to tell the story of history through the perspective of the individual. It’s also deeply flawed, though.
This perspective falls into what is classically known as “the great man theory,” where the work of many others in less grandiose positions, and all other outside influences, are obfuscated. To Perjurer’s credit, most of his videos note the ways employees were treated at the time, and how people reacted to parks. However, it always circles back to a great man and the way he achieved his dreams without much mention of everyone that made it happen.
In theme park managers, the single great man—or, we should say, single great person—is embodied by the invisible constructor and observer that is the player. There is no one that influences the player’s decisions, and because these games are so focused on construction, they isolate themselves from any external cultural, economic, or political factors. The workers of your digital theme park do not go on strike when they are exploited, and there is never a possibility that you will make anything that emotionally harms your riders. The player is the fantasy creative entrepreneur, building their dreams with the only limits being the will of fictional digits and the games’ designed confines. Their vision is a great monolith only to be stopped by loan sharks and the games’ concept of “fun.”
At the moment, much of the ways we narrate and remember theme parks returns to this vision of the single executive. However, this view erases many of those below, in and outside of the theme park. Just like so many other media, artists and engineers spend massive amounts of creative labor with all of the concepts that eventually come to light. Construction crews put in the physical production to install these into space and park employees are foundational to keeping it all running. But even outside of the park, when we focus on single great figures, we internalize that way of thinking about how the world works rather than seeing the ways that we all have agency and potential to change the world. It’s time to appreciate a peoples’ theme park, a peoples’ dream, and end the story of the great executive.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.