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SimCity: Not for Educational Use

This article was written by Jamais Cascio in November of 2004. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

windfarm.jpgAll models of reality make assumptions about reality. The better sorts of models try to make those assumptions explicit and, best of all, changeable. More worrisome are the models which hide the assumptions within swanky graphics and animations. Many of us here greatly enjoy SimCity, the well-known and highly-regarded urban planning simulation from Maxis. We're not alone -- SimCity is now in its fourth iteration (Windows users can even play the original SimCity online for free.), and continues to be a steady selling game. Unfortunately, SimCity is often seen as more than a game: SimCity, in all of its versions, shows up in classrooms, research papers, and (rumor has it) planning offices around the country. And that has some troubling implications.

Daniel G. Lobo and Larry Schooler, in October's The Next American City, have a terrific article about the history, use, and model assumptions of SimCity. "Playing With Urban Life: How SimCity Influences Planning Culture" walks us through the ways in which models and simulations alter the way planners think about cities.

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.

While some of Lobo & Schooler's complaints arise from the fact that SimCity is built as a game -- the "God Mode," for example -- most derive from inability to modify the underlying model, whether to include mixed-use development (the ground-floor commercial/upper-floor residential buildings which help to make dense urban environments livable), to vary the demand ratings for various services, to make pedestrian travel more acceptable, or to alter the efficiency and availability of renewable power generation. As a result, some models of urban development, such as the "New Urbanism" movement of the mid-late 1990s, fall outside the scope of the simulation, and become invisible to developers-in-training. While a free/open-source version of the software would be the ideal (if highly unlikely) solution, format information and tools for altering the model would be sufficient. They have tools for changing the appearance of buildings and props, why not tools for the parts of the sim that really matter?

Simulation games like SimCity are valuable because they give a peek at the complex relationships between cause and effect in big systems such as cities. They're a chance to play at the edges of complexity, to see "what happens if I do this?" in both an iterated and replicable fashion. They can be wonderfully seductive digital sirens leading to unexpectedly staying up to 3:30 AM. But to be good educational tools, the models have to be transparent and changeable. We should be able to play with the system itself, not just the system's effects.

This piece is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Lucky us: since Mr. Cascio first wrote this article, an open source version of Simcity, dubbed non-infringingly Micropolis, has indeed been released as a side-effect of the OLPC project. Given the waves that group seems to make in the realm of...well, of world-changing organizations, I'm a bit surprised that no one on WorldChanging team had noticed the chance to add a hopeful editor's note to the end of the article when it was republished.

Commentors, to the rescue!

I would have liked to know about other complex simulation games with similar educational potential. I do know about Democracy 2, whose creator promotes it as an educational tool. Players portray political figures attempting to effect legislation and manage crises while a relatively sophisticated model tracks the responses and approval of a great many intersecting electoral demographics. The program is not open source (or free), but instructions are provided on how to add or change countries and policies, including their hypothesized effects on the country and poll numbers, which different groups frequently disagree on...If a model is deemed insufficient in some way, it seems it can be replaced.

Posted by: Nick Novitski on 5 Sep 08



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