SimCity set path for games about systems, not about characters

In contrast to video games about characters, SimCity made the gameplay about the complex system at work in cities:

Such was the payload of SimCity: not a game about people, even though its residents, the Sims, would later get their own spin-off. Nor is it a game about particular cities, for it is difficult to recreate one with the game’s brittle, indirect tools. Rather, SimCity is a game about urban societies, about the relationship between land value, pollution, industry, taxation, growth, and other factors. It’s not really a simulation, despite its name, nor is it an educational game. Nobody would want a SimCity expert running their town’s urban planning office. But the game got us all to think about the relationships that make a city run, succeed, and decay, and in so doing to rise above our individual interests, even if only for a moment…

The best games model the systems in our world—or the ones of imagination—by means of systems running in software. Just as photography offers a way of seeing aspects of the world we often look past, game design becomes an exercise in operating that world, of manipulating the weird mechanisms that turn its gears when we’re not looking. The amplifying effect of natural disaster and global unrest on oil futures. The relationship between serving size consistency and profitability in an ice cream parlor. The relative unlikelihood of global influenza pandemic absent a perfect storm of rapid, transcontinental transmission.

And system dynamics are not just a feature of non-fictional games or serious games. The most popular abstract games seem to have much in common with titles like SimCity than they do with Super Mario. Tetris is a game about manipulating the mathematical abstractions of four orthogonally connected squares, known as tetrominoes, when subjected to gravity and time. Words With Friends is a game about arranging letters into valid words, given one’s own knowledge merged with the availability and willingness of one’s stable of friends. A game, it turns out, is a lens onto the sublime in the ordinary. An emulsion that captured behavior rather than light…

There’s another way to think about games. What if games’ role in representation and identity lies not in offering familiar characters for us to embody, but in helping wrest us from the temptation of personal identification entirely? What if the real fight against monocultural bias and blinkeredness does not involve the accelerated indulgence of identification, but the abdication of our own selfish, individual desires in the interest of participating in systems larger than ourselves? What if the thing games most have to show us is the higher-order domains to which we might belong, including families, neighborhoods, cities, nations, social systems, and even formal structures and patterns? What if replacing militarized male brutes with everyone’s favorite alternative identity just results in Balkanization rather than inclusion?

Fascinating argument. Could video games truly be a tool that help players move beyond individualism? At the same time, even a game about systems still can provide an individualized experience: SimCity players could spend hours by themselves crafting a city in their own image (and the game even provided some space for this with honorary statues and the like). Such games could be social – you could have various players interacting with each other either as leaders of different cities or even as leaders within the same city – but they generally were not.

This doesn’t have to stay at the level of argument. Why not run some tests or experiments to see how players of character-driven versus system-driven games compare on certain outcomes?

Lakoff on Obama: a progressive moral vision plus systems thinking

George Lakoff has an interesting take on President Obama’s April 13th speech. While the speech was ostensibly about the budget, Lakoff argues that Obama was making two larger points:

1. President Obama was laying out a progressive vision of democracy. Here is how Lakoff sums it up:

The basic idea is this: Democracy is based on empathy, that is, on citizens caring about each other and acting on that care, taking responsibility not just for themselves but for their families, communities, and their nation. The role of government is to carry out this principle in two ways: protection and empowerment.

Obama quotes Lincoln: “to do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.” That is what he calls patriotism. He spotlights “the American belief… that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security… that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard time or bad luck, crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us.” He cites the religious version of this moral vision: “There but for the grace of God go I.” The greatness of America comes from carrying out such moral commitments as Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.

It would be an interesting public discussion to have over whether these three programs are a moral commitment. I suspect that a good number of Americans would see it this way but this is not the typical angle taken in public discourse.

2. President Obama highlighted the role of systems and how a budget cannot be isolated from other important needs and goals in society:

President Obama, in the same speech, laid the groundwork for another crucial national discussion: systems thinking, which has shown up in public discourse mainly in the form of “systemic risk” of the sort that led to the global economic meltdown. The president brought up systems thinking implicitly, at the center of his budget proposal. He observed repeatedly that budget deficits and “spending” do not occur in isolation. The choice of what to cut and what to keep is a matter of factors external to the budget per se.

Long-term prosperity, economic recovery, and job creation, he argued, depend up maintaining “investments” — investments in infrastructure (roads, bridges, long-distance rail), education, scientific research, renewable energy, and so on. The maintenance of American values, he argued, is outside of the budget in itself, but is at the heart of the argument about what to cut. The fact is that the rich have gotten rich because of the government — direct corporate subsidies, access to publicly-owned resources, access to government research, favorable trade agreements, roads and other means of transportation, education that provides educated workers, tax loopholes, and innumerable government resources taken advantage of by the rich, but paid for by all of us. What is called a “tax break” for the rich is actually a redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class whose incomes have gone down to those who have considerably more money than they need, money they have made because of tax investments by the rest of America…

Progressives tend to think more readily in terms of systems than conservatives. We see this in the answers to a question like, “What causes crime?” Progressives tend to give answers like economic hardship, or lack of education, or crime-ridden neighborhoods. Conservatives tend more to give an answer like “bad people — lock ’em up, punish ’em.” This is a consequence of a lifetime of thinking in terms of social connection (for progressives) and individual responsibility (for conservatives). Thus conservatives did not see the president’s plan, which relied on systemic causation, as a plan at all for directly addressing the deficit.

This sort of systems thinking sounds like sociological approaches to the world: the complex social realm can be difficult to understand and predict but settling on simple (often individualistic) explanations leaves much to desired.

I can imagine that conservatives might find holes with Lakoff’s argument, not the least that all of this explanation still doesn’t say much about how the United States could deal with its budget issues. But Lakoff highlights the cultural ideas and values surrounding political debate: speeches and political activities may be about budgets and practical matters but there are underlying values that guide such actions.