SimCity and “possibility spaces”: reshaping how we build the worlds around us

Tanner Howard is a writer on the weird intersections between the virtual and physical world, and many other things, based in Chicago. You can follow more of their work @tanner_howard.

We may not yet be able to modify our cities at the click of a button. But in the 30 years since SimCity first introduced players to the promise of click-and-create cities, the technology available to urbanists has transformed dramatically. Today, gamers and city officials have access to tools which increasingly resemble the kind of gods-eye view that made SimCity so addictive, in the process influencing physical space in new and unforeseen ways.

SimCity, which celebrates its 30th anniversary release on IBM this month, was the brainchild of Will Wright, who initially developed the game as a level creator. Soon, he discovered that building new spaces was more fun than ‘Raid on Bungeling Bay,’ the point-and-shoot game he was originally developing, in the process spawning a new genre of video games (and countless spinoffs and sequels).

Over their lifetime, SimCity games have become increasingly complex, but they remain rooted in several fundamental goals. In an interview for the game’s 25th anniversary, Wright described his creations as “possibility spaces” that melded entertainment and education, as he argued: “I think SimCity was just a simple example that for a lot of people started to remove the wall between the two.”

What is a (sim)city?

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As an educational vehicle, the game certainly influenced one obvious audience: today’s city planners. In a Los Angeles Times feature from earlier this year, planners documented the game’s impact on their future careers, helping them recognize the possibility of taking the skills and practices honed virtually and applying them to the real world. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without ‘SimCity,’” one transportation official said.

Cities are, of course, complex systems, with definitions of “success” largely dependent upon the beholder. But the SimCity franchise has largely modeled success in terms of capitalist development through unlimited growth. In its most extreme form, it’s a dystopian nightmare: Even as he used SimCity 3000 to build a city of 6 million without “water pollution, traffic, or crime,” architecture student Vincent Ocasla’s “Magnasanti” project, which took years to plan and execute, nonetheless keeps its virtual population in near-captivity, doomed to die by the age of 55. As The Outline described the project: “It’s a dense and brutal world, perfectly efficient and optimized, with no considerations for the human lives within it.”

Wright was himself inspired by the work of electrical engineer Jay Forrester, whose book Urban Dynamics studied cities as lively systems of interrelated variables shaping and reshaping one another. As Kevin Baker documented in Logic Magazine, the implications of Forrester’s thinking were troubling. With an emphasis on fostering a healthy business climate, and a raft of negative assumptions about low-income residents, Forrester’s predictions influenced the policy of “benign neglect” that pushed the Nixon administration to cut social services to poor city dwellers in the late sixties.

Moreover, Forrester’s simulated city was a complete abstraction: “There were no neighborhoods, no parks, no roads, no suburbs, and no racial or ethnic conflicts.” Yet the model proved useful to Wright’s game design, with its supposed distillation of city change down to “150 equations and 200 parameters” a way of making SimCity possible. Over time, the game has further reflected real-life cities, while still maintaining assumptions about how cities function that now feel outdated.

What should a city be?

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A 2013 revision introduced homelessness into the game; in response, players flooded forums with questions on how to banish the virtual dispossessed from their cities, in many ways mirroring real-life rhetoric towards the housing-insecure. Even as later editions have sought to more accurately reflect the real world, issues with the game’s approach remain: As argued in a piece called “SimCity and Black Box Simulations,” “the underlying game mechanics of SimCity are founded on baseline assumptions that cannot be changed by the player.” As SimCities games reject things like public transit and mixed-use development, it becomes clear that fresh visions for today’s cities remain lacking within the franchise.

In recent years, independent game developers have responded directly to these faulty assumptions. One such developer is Paolo Pedercini, whose company Molleindustria has produced a series of games which respond to the pressures of the Antrophocene and overdevelopment on city spaces. In a 2017 talk called “SimCities and SimCrises,” Pedercini argued that SimCity “is shaping the way a lot of people understand or misunderstand city planning.” Other projects, such as 2017’s “Block’hood,” aim to give players a different window into contemporary urban planning, centering concerns of “ecology, interdependence and decay” as guiding principles of city design. Despite its flaws, the SimCity remains influential on city planning and how we imagine it.

“I do think city planning games can empower people. I believe they can be integrated in the democratic process,” Pedercini argued in his talk. “But we need to take precautions, we need to adopt strategies that address the problematic aspects of city games.”

Impacts on contemporary urban planning

If building roads, trains and highways out of nothing remains a power best left to a game that “makes mayors out of middle schoolers,” as Doug Bierend described SimCity, that doesn’t mean that the principles of overarching control aren’t bleeding into contemporary urban planning. Largely thanks to the increasing prevalence of smartphones and other computing devices embedded in our cities, companies are developing programs which increasingly mimic the game itself. While their ability to influence the physical world remains limited, a growth in technologies like self-driving vehicles may herald a future in which cities can redirect traffic from above, all in conformance with the “best” outcomes as determined in the city’s “digital twin.”

The most obvious version of this technology is Replica, developed as part of Sidewalk Labs, a city design project under the Alphabet umbrella. The company describes its technology as “A Virtual World With Real Qualities,” giving planners up-to-date access to detailed information about transit use, traffic patterns, and other mobility questions. The company is able to deliver such detailed data by building a “travel behavior model” drawn from approximately five percent of the population. By using transit searches and GPS data, the company produces a “synthetic” population meant to model the living, breathing humans it’s drawn from, allowing planners to test assumptions and understand city patterns in detail. The result? According to the company, “When you combine travel behavior models with a representative population, you can confidently replicate trip patterns across a city or metro area.”

The implications of such technology are manifold. For urban planners who have begun using Replica in cities like Kansas City, the program introduces a level of complexity and fine-grain analysis previously unavailable. (As one planner told Sidewalk Labs: “The more detail you give me, the more questions I can answer.”) But while Sidewalk promises that people’s information has been de-identified before being placed into its simulation, experts warn that any point-to-point travel data is vulnerable to reidentification, especially with Google unable to confirm the exact source of many of its location data sources.

While Replica gives planners a virtual sandbox to contemplate changes to traffic patterns or transit systems, other advances in mobility technology may soon allow centralized decisionmakers to literally reroute city traffic from afar. In a feature for CityLab, Laura Bliss documented the rise of “digital twin” technology currently being developed by IBM, Microsoft, Google, and others. According to Bliss, officials from 13 major US have convened to discuss the adoption of protocols produced by the Open Mobility Foundation, a new nonprofit building digital infrastructure to follow physical space. The technology “would allow local governments to both trace the movements of individual vehicles, and control them to some extent.”

It’s an outcome which uncannily embodies a tagline for SimCity 2000: “If this game was any more realistic, it’d be illegal to turn it off!”