The urban theory behind SimCity

In constructing the game SimCity, Will Wright worked with the ideas of James Forrester:

Looking to understand how real cities worked, Wright came across a 1969 book by Jay Forrester called Urban Dynamics. Forrester was an electrical engineer who had launched a second career as an expert on computer simulation; Urban Dynamics deployed his simulation methodology to offer a controversial theory of how cities grew and declined. Wright used Forrester’s theories to transform the cities he was designing in his level editor from static maps of buildings and roads into vibrant models of a growing metropolis. Eventually, Wright became convinced that his “guinea-pig city” was an entertaining, open-ended video game. Released in 1989, the game became wildly popular, selling millions of copies, winning dozens of awards, and spawning an entire franchise of successors and dozens of imitators. It was called SimCity

Largely forgotten now, Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics put forth the controversial claim that the overwhelming majority of American urban policy was not only misguided but that these policies aggravated the very problems that they were intended to solve. In place of Great Society-style welfare programs, Forrester argued that cities should take a less interventionist approach to the problems of urban poverty and blight, and instead encourage revitalization indirectly through incentives for businesses and for the professional class. Forrester’s message proved popular among conservative and libertarian writers, Nixon Administration officials, and other critics of the Great Society for its hands-off approach to urban policy. This outlook, supposedly backed up by computer models, remains highly influential among establishment pundits and policymakers today…

Forrester spent months tinkering with this model, tested and corrected it for errors, and ran a “hundred or more system experiments to explore the effects of various policies on the revival of a city that has aged into economic decline.” Six months after beginning the project, and over 2000 pages of teletype printouts later, Forrester declared that he had reduced the problems of the city to a series of 150 equations and 200 parameters…

Forrester thought that the basic problem of urban planning—and making social policy in general—was that “the human mind is not adapted to interpreting how social systems behave.” In a paper serialized in two early issues of Reason, the libertarian magazine founded in 1968, Forrester argued that for most of human history, people have only needed to understand basic cause-and-effect relationships, but that our social systems are governed by complex processes that unfold over long periods of time. He claimed that our “mental models,” the cognitive maps we have of the world, are ill-suited to help us navigate the web of  interrelationships that make up the structure of our society.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. How many people dream that cities could be reduced to equations and parameters? Cities are both fascinating and frustrating because they are so complex. And the quest to find overarching rules governing urban life continues – see the work of Geoffrey West as an example.
  2. Figuring out when more government intervention is helpful or not is a difficult task, particularly when it comes to complex cities. Housing is an area I have written about before: free markets do not bring about fair results and the federal government has promoted one kind of housing, single-family homes, over others for decades.
  3. This is a reminder that game users can learn about how the world works – they are not just mindless entertainment – but they also do so under the conditions or terms set up by the designer. Cities are indeed complex and SimCity presents them in one particular way. All games have a logic to them and this may or may not match reality. How much theory do we imbibe on a daily basis through different activities? At the least, we are forming our own individual theoretical explanations of how we think society operates.

2 thoughts on “The urban theory behind SimCity

  1. Pingback: Playing SimCity, becoming an urban planner | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Simcity, Jane Jacobs, and the High Line increasing real estate values | Legally Sociable

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