🎮 Educated by SimCity

There was a point in my life, when everything I knew about cities and urban planning, I had learned from SimCity.

It sounds like a setup to a joke. But what's funny is that what I learned was not nothing. 😃

Rather the opposite. Back in high school I knew basically nothing about urban planning, transportation engineering, or green transit (it was the 90s). But in retrospect, it feels like I had learned a little bit about it operationally.

For example, that rail lines seem better than highways. But why? I got the broad strokes from the game. After all, I had built cities with them and without them, and experienced the difference — I saw rail lines deliver so many more passengers, faster, produce less pollution, and make surrounding neighborhoods very happy. They had none of the smog and unhappiness producing aspects of traffic-snarled highways, which made them highly appealing. So while I hadn't read much about how rail lines worked, I had experienced some of it, in a very specific sense, in SimCity.

But, of course, my experience was only that of playing with a simulated model, and only now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see how this kind of learning also produced interesting blind spots. It wasn't a matter of huge errors, or mistakes in the simulation, more of a collection of barely noticeable sins of omission. For example, building a brand new rail line to connect well-heeled suburbs made them very happy, and reduced traffic — but what about all the poor neighborhoods that I had flattened, Richard J Daley style, to make this vision happen?

On that topic SimCity was silent. It never even entered into calculation. Rail brought uniform happiness and reduced pollution, and razing entire neighborhoods was never an issue — the little computer people didn't care about their communities were getting torn apart, about being evicted from the homes they grew up in. That particular kind of human cost was not simulated. And so the player would never even learn about it — and never realize what they didn't know.

Looking back, this is an interesting power of games. They open a window into a new world, they give the player a chance at agency in a new simulated setting, they speak about the world not just by portraying it, but by shaping player's abilities to act. But what they say about that world is never truly neutral and objective — because it can't be. By deciding what to model, and how, and what not to model, they say things about the world.

And so it is with models. They are always editorial. They are always rhetorical. They say things about their subject by choosing how to model it. And what they say is not always obvious.

So in the following few posts I'm hoping to explore this a bit more. Games present themselves as playful models of a world — but what do they say? And more importantly, how do they say what they say?

I'm going to look at it from a few different angles. I don't know where it's going to take me, but as I turn these ideas over in my head, I'll try to also do this in public, on this blog, and I hope you'll ping me back with your feedback. Please do. 😃

I'll add forward links in this post as the articles show up:

Saturday, February 12, 2022 - Contact: @rzubek