Playing SimCity, becoming an urban planner

Building a city on a computer screen led to a future career for some SimCity players:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014…

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

“I used to draw maps of cities for fun. I had no idea it was an actual career,” said Nicole Payne, now a program official for the National Assn. of City Transportation Officials in New York City. When she was 10, a librarian saw her drawings and told her there was a video game she should try…

In more than a dozen interviews for this article, people who went from “SimCity” enthusiasts to professional planners talked about what they liked about the game: The way you can visualize how a single change affects a whole city. The ability to see how transit, livability and the economy are all connected. The fact that no one likes to live near a landfill.

This could be my story too: I enjoyed drawing cities as a kid, reading about cities, and visiting Chicago. I discovered SimCity during elementary school, playing for the first time on a green monochrome monitor. It opened up new possibilities, particularly as the game evolved. I spent endless hours creating cities and, like some of the people interviewed in this story, trying to make them pristine as well as based around different principles. We played Simcity as enrichment time in middle school and I probably trailed off in playing by early high school when I was more taken by Civilization II and franchise mode of sports games. All of that SimCity playing did push me to think about urban planning and serving in local government.

At the same time, as this article notes, SimCity likely shaped how I thought cities worked. SimCity is not neutral in its planning philosophy. At the least, it presented the idea that a planner from above could shape everything, even down to the terrain. The speed at which it could happen was also impressive: a mouse click could add residences or take them away while the game speed could be paused or sped to impressive speeds (usually to add money to the coffers if one was not playing with the cheat codes). Cities and communities do not work this way; even powerful leaders usually need at least a team of elites to get things done and significant urban projects often take a long time.

Publication on the Soprano’s McMansion

The home of Tony Soprano and his family on HBO’s The Sopranos is a key setting for the show. It is here that Tony considers his own unrest and anxiety, where the family interacts with each other alongside Tony’s other “family,” and the home embodies the search for the suburban good life as encapsulated in a spacious home in a wealthy neighborhood.

I am grateful for the opportunity to explore this in more detail in a recently published paper: “A McMansion for the Suburban Mob Family: The Unfulfilling Single-Family Home of The Sopranos” in the Journal of Popular Film and Television.

Showing a McMansion while saying, “I love all the brick. I love all the character.”

In a recent HGTV episode intro, the host is driving through a Chicago suburb. He says, “I love all the brick. I love all the character.” And this is the home we see as he says this:

HGTVMcMansionMidwestCharacter.jpg

This is a McMansion due to at least four features:

1. The two story entryway.

2. The multi-dimensional roofline.

3. The three car garage and large driveway.

4. The lighter brick and other style choices that date the home as roughly a 1990s build.

(For aesthetic purposes, the dangling power lines in the front do not help.)

This home may have plenty of brick but critics of McMansions might argue the brick is deployed poorly. This home may have character – but of the negative kind rather than the charming variety.

Of course Tidying Up with Marie Kondo starts in Lakewood, CA

In watching one of the popular new TV shows, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I was not surprised to see the first episode take place in Lakewood, California. Here are several reasons this makes sense:

  1. Lakewood is a paradigmatic suburb. It does not quite receive the amount of attention as Levittown but it is known as an important post-World War II suburb of Los Angeles. Read more about the suburb’s unique history on the city’s website.
  2. The home depicted is relatively small compared to many of the suburban homes constructed today. This is part of the tidying issues the family faces: the American pattern is to accumulate more stuff over a lifetime (partly to express a certain status) and one solution for adjusting to this stuff is simply to purchase a larger home.
  3. The family is depicted as living an ideal family lifestyle: they have been married five years (if I remember correctly), have two small kids, and live in a suburban single-family home. This family/single-family home connection is strong in the suburban psyche.
  4. The emphasis of the episode is on the private life of the family inside the home. Even with the show focused on the belongings inside the home, there is very little connection to the outside world, whether neighbors, or the larger suburb, metropolitan region, or nation. All these privately-held goods and familial relationships look like they are in a small bubble that the participants prefer to stay in.

Given the suburban emphases on single-family homes and consumption, perhaps it makes all the sense in the world to start such a show in a well-known suburb.

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.

The changing concept of TV ratings

Recent report from Netflix about the number of viewers for certain movies and TV shows raises questions about what ratings actually are in today’s world:

These numbers were presumably the flashiest numbers that Netflix had to offer, but, hot damn, they are flashy—even if they should be treated with much skepticism. For one thing, of Netflix’s 139 million global subscribers, only about 59 million are American, something to bear in mind when comparing Netflix’s figures with the strictly domestic ratings of most linear channels. Another sticking point: What constitutes “watching”? According to Netflix, the numbers reflect households where someone watched at least 70 percent of one episode—given the Netflix model, it seems likely that most people started with Episode 1—but this doesn’t tell us how many people stuck with it, or what the average rating for the season was, which is, again, an important metric for linear channels…

Ratings are not just a reflection of how many people are watching a TV show. They are not just a piece of data about something that has already happened. They are also a piece of information that changes what happens, by defining whether we think of something as a hit, which has a knock-on effect on how much attention gets paid to that show, not just by other prospective viewers, but by the media. (Think how much more has been written on You now that we know 40 million people may have watched it.)

Consider, for example, how something like last year’s reboot of Roseanne might have played out if it had been a Netflix series. It would have been covered like crazy before its premiere and then, in the absence of any information about its ratings at all, would have become, like, what? The Ranch? So much of the early frenzy surrounding Roseanne had to do with its enormous-for-our-era ratings, and what those ratings meant. By the same token, years ago I heard—and this is pure rumor and scuttlebutt I am sharing because it’s a fun thought exercise—that at that time Narcos was Netflix’s most popular series. Where is Narcos in the cultural conversation? How would that position have changed if it was widely known that, say, 15 million people watch its every season?

Multiple factors are at play here including the decline of network television, the rise of cable television and streaming services, the general secrecy Netflix has about its ratings, and how today we define cultural hits. The last one seems the most interesting to me as a cultural sociologist: in a fragmented media world, how do we know what is a genuine cultural moment or touchstone compared to being a small fad or a trend isolated to a small group? Ratings were once a way to do this as we could assume big numbers meant it mattered to a lot of people.

Additionally, we today want quicker news about new trends and patterns. A rating can only tell us so much. It depends how it was measured. How does the rating compare to other ratings? Perhaps most importantly, the rating cannot tell us a lot about the lasting cultural contributions of the show or movie. Some products with big ratings will not stand the test of time while others will. Do we think people will be discussing You and talking about its impact on society in 30 years? We need time to discuss, analyze, and process what each cultural product is about. Cultural narratives involving cultural products need time to develop.

Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade”

Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:

  1. People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
  2. The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
  3. A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
  4. The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
  5. There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
  6. The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.

On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.

On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?

Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?