The MTA Debuts an $80,000 Video Game About the Second Avenue Subway


The first phase of the Second Avenue subway might not be finished until December 2016, but a new video game simulator gives anybody the opportunity to drive through three new stations.

The newest attraction at the MTA’s Second Avenue Subway Community Information Center (Second Avenue between 84th and 85th) is the simulator, which resembles a stripped-down arcade machine. The game itself is just the latest in a colorful, rich history of video games that are really just about having a job, rather than saving a princess or collecting jewels.

Inside the shiny storefront space — decorated in the stainless steel of a subway car — the public can learn all about the long-awaited subway line via maps, a diorama, and big-screen displays powered by a row of iPads.

As virtual subway conductors, players earn points for lining up the train with the platform at each station, opening the doors, and promptly leaving the station, ensuring they make good time. Another feature is a meter that registers “passenger mood,” which fluctuates based on the smoothness of the ride — sudden stops annoy passengers in the game, too. There’s also a penalty for going over the 50 mph speed limit. (There’s no requirement to point at a sign at each station, though.) When you’ve driven through all the stops, you’re presented with the top ten scores, and probably jonesing to play a few more rounds as virtual conductor.

Artist Matt Schlanger designed the controls for the simulator off the same controls in a real R160 driver’s cabin.

“You get the physical experience of pushing the controller forward to control the speed of the train,” explains Robin White Owen, principal of MediaCombo, the company that managed the simulator’s production and five other exhibits at the center related to the Second Avenue subway. “It’s actually pretty tricky to go fast without going too fast.”

Carl Huebner, the game’s developer, says the computer that powers the simulator has the power of about “three or four PlayStations,” and while the MTA owns the game, Huebner says it’d be possible to make a stripped-down version for mobile devices. He adds that both he and Owen took steps to make sure the game didn’t resemble the real thing too closely.

“There was a security concern that the simulator was too accurate,” Huebner says. “We don’t have all the components in there by a long shot,” adds Owen.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz informs the Voice the simulator cost $80,000; if used through the second phase of construction over the next decade or so, Ortiz points out, the cost per year will be less than $8,000.

The MTA also paid MediaCombo $71,500 for five exhibits at the Second Avenue Subway Information Center:

• The history of the Second Avenue subway from the Twenties through today • The engineering behind building the Second Avenue subway • The future of the Second Avenue subway (slated to one day terminate at Hanover Square, from which passengers will be able to link up with the F) • The people behind its construction, from politicians to engineers — showing the “diversity of talent,” according to Richard Mulieri, senior director of government and community affairs for the MTA • The purpose of the fifth exhibit has yet to be determined.

“It’s a small piece of what we put into community relations, and given how the tenor of our relationship with the most densely populated neighborhood in the country has improved in the last couple of years, it’s money well spent,” Ortiz writes in an email to the Voice.

Ortiz shoots down a suggestion that an arcade-style video game might do better in neighborhoods where the population skews more millennial — “if you are saying that the simulator would play better [to the Bedford Ave./L crowd], you are absolutely wrong” — and reiterates that its objective is to draw the public into the center to learn more about the subway project.

“We also want to generate support for the project as Phase One nears completion and we start to move forward with Phase Two and beyond.”

As for progress on the subway, according to the L.E.D. board in the window of the information center, the first phase is 82.3 percent complete.

The first section of the line will head downtown from 96th Street and stop at 86th and then at 72nd before connecting with the 63rd Street station. The game follows that same route.

“You’ll be able to get from 96th Street to Coney Island in 66 minutes,” Mulieri says, rolling the phrase off his tongue as if he’s reading cue cards. (He sort of is — extending along one of the walls of the center is a map of the new subway line, with minute markers from 96th Street south.)

The information center is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. It’s open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and closed on Sundays. The center is closed the second Saturday of each month and on public holidays.

Here’s the first of two videos of the game in action:

Here’s the second video: