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» REVIEW: Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan, Crossing the Boulevard, W.W. Norton & Company, 2003
 
» REVIEW: Howard Husock, America's Trillion Dollar Housing Mistake
 
» REVIEW: William J. Mitchell, ME++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
 
» LAST EXIT: Boston Through the Eyes of its Moped Gang
 
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Issue 6 - Technology & Cities - October 2004
PLAYING WITH URBAN LIFE: How Simcity Influences Planning Culture

by Daniel G. Lobo with reporting by Larry Schooler

Printable Version
     
Is it time—to be Mayor? Do you have the empire-building skills to develop a metropolis of soaring skyscrapers or the aesthetic sensibilities to create a city that delights the eye? Do you enjoy tinkering with an entire world—widening a riverbed there, increasing a tax rate here—to see the effects on the inhabitants under your sway? Or do you want to get down and dirty with The Sims in your streets, taking on missions that have you hurtling down highways in a tank?

These are the welcome lines to SimCity 4 Deluxe, the latest release of the most influential strategy game in the history of urban planning. While designing the game Raid on Bungeling Bay in 1984, Will Wright, a Macintosh programmer, discovered that flying an attack helicopter over a swath of islands wasn’t half as fun as designing the islands themselves. Out of a developing interest in city planning and computer modeling theory, he conceived of a game that would let players build cities and watch them operate. Wright and Jeff Braun founded the software company Maxis, and in 1989 they published SimCity. The game—and its spinoffs from the popular The Sims to the recently released SimCity 4—has paralleled and even influenced the now-omnipresent, if not always well-conceived, use of computer simulation in contemporary urban planning.

Early Influences

Wright and Braun founded Maxis out of a lifetime interest in systems dynamics, which analyzes how complex systems change over time. The “founding father” of the field and an outsider to city planning, MIT Professor of Management Jay Forrester laid the foundation for modern computer simulation in his 1969 book, Urban Dynamics. He tried to disprove popular conceptions about why cities deteriorate, demonstrating through a computer model of the relations between industry, housing, and population that low-cost housing policies in Boston at the time were actually worsening unemployment. Instead of simple intuitions about urban policy that treated symptoms instead of causes of urban decay, his book advocated a balanced, multivariate assessment of existing conditions and how they might fluctuate with changes in job training, new enterprise, and low-income housing. If his proposal was not entirely successful, it was because not all behaviors could be modeled and because of the large scale of the assumptions—even the smallest systems are hard to predict.

Forrester’s model applied statistical data to the city as a whole rather than treating their more localized effects. For example, the model, if applied to policing, would look at the ratio of total crime to the number of police employed citywide instead of focusing on differences in police coverage and crime trends in particular neighborhoods. Early versions of SimCity used citywide measures as well, but SimCity 4 remedies this problem. SimCity 4 producer Kevin Hogan said “we wanted location to matter, so that where you placed your schools made a difference.”

At any level from a neighborhood to the entire world (Forrester also wrote World Dynamics to model the entire planet, like the later Maxis game SimEarth), Forrester’s work reflects similar beliefs—people can understand evolving systems by studying any relevant variable through the lens of free-market philosophy, figuring out how changing supply and demand of any desired good could illustrate different outcomes.

Berkeley architect and mathematician Christopher Alexander provided the second key influence for SimCity. His architectural work and theories in the 1960s and ‘70s advocated an idealistic departure from then-popular top-down modernist models towards what he called a universal way of design and development, based in the logic of human-city interrelations. In his essay “A City Is Not a Tree,” he denounced cities that fit a “tree” pattern—cities that were compartmentalized so that sections functioned independently of each other—and he celebrated cities that fit a “semi-lattice”—where sections bleed into one another by virtue of overlapping functional systems. In his books A Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, Alexander applied his planning theories to the basic elements of architecture, suggesting that universal principles could be found that are applicable from the organization of everywhere from the entire countryside down to the construction of a home. The more abstract and timeless the set of principles, the more ways they could be reconfigured to create various and beautiful cities. His work, though ostensibly universal, claims particular American qualities—the very notion of throwing off the fixed ideas of the Old World and searching for broader truths has been embedded in New World planning since the beginning of colonization.

Witold Rybczynski, Professor of Urbanism at the University of Philadelphia, discusses other early colonial assumptions about cities that, consciously or not, SimCity has adopted. In his 1995 book City Life, Rybczynski argues that the American city is different from the European city because early planners were met with the sense of abundant open space and planned accordingly. They often allowed laissez-faire consumption of undeveloped land. The principles of freedom, equality, and respect, the theory went, would arise naturally in a world with the social and physical space for individuals to vote with their actions and real estate purchases. Early planners also often envisioned continued growth, and as such, to the extent planning happened, it was done in a way that provided the possibility of expansion, often through a grid that could grow proportionately with the population. In addition, gridded lots were easier to build on, divide up, and sell.

SimCity’s Black Box

The work of Forrester, Alexander, and Rybczynski serve as SimCity’s foundational ingredients. First, the game rates players’ performance based on whether all goods, from industrial land to public schools, are being supplied at levels that equal a computer-calculated model of demand. Second, the game allows numerous configurations of a limited number of categories of building design and zoning, which imposes a universal aesthetic on the cityscape. This aesthetic favors segregated zoning over mixed use—which Hogan says allows the player to more easily visually analyze their creation—and stresses homogenous, class-segregated neighborhoods. Third is an inherited colonial view of land as in infinite supply. The game begins by allowing the player to settle an area of land devoid of other cities or inhabitants, favoring urban grid structures over organic development.

But the black box hides several other assumptions, among them the emphasis on the power of the mayor. The only way that SimCity will eject a mayor from office is if the city budget goes in the red beyond 100,000 Simoleons. Other than that, you will not have to face questioning by the local council, campaign for re-election, nor undergo the pressure of any other democratic process. And what does SimCity tell you once you have lost the game? “Try an easier job. Run for senator.”

As mayor, the player operates in “God Mode,” with absolute power to build, demolish, tax, and spend. Unwieldy growth and megalomaniacal, destructive behavior are the two poles of city operation and the player’s most likely courses of action. Thus the heart of the game is much less a universal vision of city design than it is a reflection of the most extreme tendencies of development in America, found in the few areas in which one person has total control over a large parcel of land—whether a powerful mayor pursuing an urban renewal project, or a developer creating a massive planned community in the middle of desert or farmland. But the many parts of urban planning and development that do not reflect this model of total control over virgin territory get short shrift. SimCity’s narrow lens only tells half of the story of urban development. But aspiring and practicing urban planners have been looking through this lens for fifteen years, with influential results.

Not Just A Game

The utopian beginning of SimCity stressed a desire to influence policy, education in particular, through reflections on the nature of “ideal cities.” No other game had been used so widely in many levels of schooling to help illuminate the different elements of local government. For example, David Lublin, professor at the Department of Governance at American University, has used SimCity to teach 20th Century local government. After creating a SimCity of their own, his students had to write a paper analyzing the game’s underlying principles. “A fundamental aspect of the paper was to stress how SimCity reflected real world conditions, and what aspects were ignored or sent to a second plane,” he said. Because of the widespread use of SimCity in schools and homes, it is easy to make a case, as Paul Starr of The American Prospect has, that SimCity provides a more influential introduction to city planning than any book on the subject.

Though SimCity is now looking to the crossroads of simulation and action games, as in its new “Rush Hour” expansion pack, the game’s developers still consider the educational market one of its key audiences. Lucy Bradshaw, Maxis General Manager, says that the future success of the game depends upon special events outside the gaming industry like university partnerships, teacher’s guides for the game, and primary and secondary school licenses.

Although still significant, the differences between SimCity and a real city seem to be narrowing. The game has evolved to consider more sophisticated real-life issues—Maxis producer Hogan notes that based on feedback from users, the game designers added such features as development on hilly terrain, regional planning, and bedroom communities to resemble features of real-life urbanism. But more importantly, real world planning increasingly resembles SimCity because of the growing use of technology, often in support of a SimCity-like top-down model of local government.

Around 1990, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) replaced paper maps as the main medium of geographic analysis in government agencies across the nation. GIS integrates different sets of geographic data on computer screens by, in effect, allowing a user to overlay transparencies of different data sets. This system can then show, for example, which homes are within a five-minute drive of a fire station. While its roots were in evaluating how environmental conditions limited potential developable land, many planning departments now use GIS to evaluate social elements of city life. For instance, many departments overlay Census data to make zoning decisions relative to income, class, education levels, and development desirability. SimCity has the same basic analytic mechanisms as GIS; consequently, when schools use SimCity to teach urban planning and politics, they teach the framework of analyzing environmental and social relations via GIS.

Yet planners sometimes get overwhelmed with the technology and forget that GIS by itself cannot make subjective choices on issues like gentrification, race inequality, or immigration. GIS can tell planners what a policy’s likely effects will be (for example, how many existing residents might be displaced as a result of a new redevelopment project) but cannot ultimately say whether those effects are desirable.

Edward Soja, Professor of Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, calls it a “reconstitution of our realities” when cities are reshaped according to analyses that tell only part of the story with little public scrutiny. Soja notes the painful example of Orange County, California. In the early 1990s, facing strict limits on property tax increases, county tax collector Robert Citron modeled, and then implemented, a plan for investing the county’s tax revenue in the financial markets. For a short time, it seemed an extraordinary success. He was highly praised, and under virtually no scrutiny—until the systems crashed. His gamble, to invest on short-term interest rates betting they remain low relative to medium-term interest rates, failed after interest rates rose in 1994. Citron’s intriguing idea, divorced from the reality of possible decline in financial markets and bereft of oversight from people who could say no to playing the market with taxpayer money, left Orange County $1.64 billion in debt. And, as Soja points out, Citron’s game could not be rebooted and played again.

SimCity-like data analysis may also blind city leaders to problems that lie outside of its geographic or political scope. For example, Washington, D.C. Mayor Tony Williams has placed much faith in advanced GIS and data systems, which have supported his conclusion that, to solve its budget woes, the District must attract 100,000 new, wealthy workers who would provide high taxes. Other solutions may be viable, such as restructuring local taxes in a city in which 66 percent of the local income is not taxed and the Federal Government owns 42 percent of the real property. But such options remain unconsidered if the city model takes these fiscal factors for granted. These options may even be left out for sound political reasons—they require serious fights with the federal government and surrounding suburbs—but those politics should be subject to open debate, not hidden in the black box of model assumptions.

Power-Trip Planning

The family of Sim games always had subtle ironic undertones that compounded experience with a witty sense of humor. As Hogan notes, “it is a game… we tend to pick and choose the stuff that makes for good gameplay.” But new versions of the game add power-trip possibilities that would give a city planner a God complex—fine for a fun simulation, troubling for a game used as a training tool in the real world. In a return to Wright’s original helicopter attack game, not only can players now demolish buildings from a tank, but they can also run “vehicle missions.” Do you want to run a mission to drive a toxic waste truck through the city safely? Or even help a group of robbers escape the police? Criminal actions by the mayor may hurt popularity ratings, but if the mission is successful the money goes to the city treasury, offering greater possibilities to boost ratings. The mayor can drive to an area of low mayoral popularity which threatens to strike or revolt. Hold the space bar, et voila, the mayor is throwing bills from the limo that your Sims pick up on the fly. The mayor’s rating is restored. In some cities, of course, that scenario reflects reality. But shouldn’t a game with so much influence on future planners not just teach power accumulation, but at least attempt to instill a sense of what government can and should do—some sense of values transcending simple supply and demand that underlie planning?

 
The Next American City Inc. © 2004 | Printable Version