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.

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.

One thing McMansions can do? Play host to Smash Bros. tournaments

McMansions are often derided for their size but imagine them as a fun site for a weekend of Smash Bros.:

Some tournaments take place in massive convention centers. Some grand finals even go down in giant arenas. While these events can be truly impressive, they don’t have the spark of early tournaments that captured the imagination and hearts of Smash players. Friends crowded around TVs, laughing, jeering, and, while the competition was fierce, they were still having the time of their lives. This is the atmosphere players will find at McMansion 7, a tournament that’s like a vacation with live music and a whole lot of Smash.

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This home in Pensacola Beach, Florida (according to the comments) is a modest home by McMansion standards. I can only imagine the kind of fun and mayhem that might occur in a larger and more opulent McMansion, say 8,000 square feet in a ritzy neighborhood. Still, a massive video game tournament may help fill out those great rooms, bonus rooms, and expansive spaces of the McMansion. But, what would the neighbors think about the kind of people who play video games, the noise, the cars, and the property values related to being near the video game heaven McMansion…

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?

The historical (in)accuracy of Assassin’s Creed Unity

Video games can help shape our understandings of historical events. Thus, a debate over the portrayal of the French Revolution in the new Assassin’s Creed:

The former leftist French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, called it “propaganda against the people, the people who are [portrayed as] barbarians, bloodthirsty savages,” while the “cretin” that is Marie-Antoinette and the “treacherous” Louis XVI are portrayed as noble victims. “The denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job to instill more self-loathing and déclinisme in the French,” he told Le Figaro. The secretary general of the Left Front, Alexis Corbière, said on his blog:

To all those who will buy Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I wish them a good time, but I also tell them that the pleasure of playing does not stop you from thinking. Play, yes, but do not let yourself be manipulated by those who make propaganda.

Ubisoft, the maker of the Assassin’s Creed series of video games, which has been going since 2007 and has sold more than 70 million copies, is in fact French. One of the makers of the game replied that Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a “consumer video game, not a history lesson” but did say that his team hired a historian and specialists on the Terror and other aspects of the Revolution. Le Monde lays out seven errors in the game here (in French).

In fact, the debate over who are the heroes and villains of the Revolution goes back to the 1790s. British counter-revolutionary thought often focused on the suffering of the monarchy in their stories, such as the King’s tearful goodbye to his family before his execution on Jan. 21st, 1793 or Marie-Antoinette’s perhaps apocryphal last words to her executioner after stepping on his foot just before her head was cut off: “Pardon me sir. I did not mean to do it.”

So perhaps the game simply reflects the ongoing debates of which actors in the French Revolution should be cast as heroes or villains? This all intrigued me because one of my classes recently considered how historical narratives are constructed and then played several historical video games to see how each portrays history. Some games clearly try to impart more historical accuracy – and these seem to be ones more intent on educational purposes – while others suffer from the gamification of history. This can lead to two things:

1. The games differ in their levels of ambiguity; after all, there has to be a winner. But, even as this debate illustrates, it is not always easy to depict who benefited or should have benefited from particular events. On one hand, it is easy to fight Nazis – there are a video game go-to for a clear enemy – but other events or periods are much more unclear. One solution is to simply drop in an outside story – as the Assassin’s Creed line does – and make it up from there.

2. This often means there is the potential to change history. This may just be a modern fad – This American Life recently asked some Americans about time travel and there was a subset of people who wanted to change big events:

Jonathan Goldstein

And even though they’ve been mulling this over for so long, many still reach for the most well-trodden sci-fi comic book staple.

Man 4

My first impulse about time travel is the same one that I would guess that everybody has. You know, thinking that I’m going to go back and I’m going to kill Hitler.

Sean Cole

What’s funny is that they know it’s kind of lame. You can hear it in their voices.

Man 4

Or kill Hitler when he’s a baby, or kill his mother or something.

Jonathan Goldstein

They preface it with phrases like–

Woman 1

It’s the thing everyone always says is–

Sean Cole

And then they say it anyway.

Woman 1

If there hadn’t been a Hitler–

Man 5

Put a bullet in Adolf Hitler’s head when he was still a student, I guess…

And of course, no one imagines that they’ll end up with an iron collar around their neck, working in a quarry. Instead, they have a starring role in the historical docu-drama. Like this guy, who’d set the controls for the Revolutionary War.

Man On Street 2

I don’t think I’d be like, a general in the field or anything like that. But I’d probably be more of like an adviser to Washington. Like Alexander Hamilton was, right? And a few other folks. So yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

I love how you’re already an officer in this.

Man On Street 2

Exactly. Yeah.

Historical games can pose an interesting “what if?” yet also lead to improbable events or outcomes.

I would guess most of these action-oriented games are not concerned much about historical accuracy outside of how it can enhance the backdrop or the gameplay. Yet, given the sales of these games, the amount of time spent playing them, and who purchases them (often younger people), such games could go a long way toward influencing perceptions of the past.

Using video game technology to give house tours “down to the millimeter”

The same technology used for Halo can be harnessed to give virtual home tours:

A new Seattle real-estate brokerage called Surefield hopes to improve the home-shopping experience by harnessing the power of video-game engines and computer-vision technology. Its service includes an online, 3-D, photorealistic model of the home which potential buyers can move through virtually…

“We want to give the homebuyer the ability to inspect down to the millimeter,” said Surefield CEO David Eraker, who in 2002 co-founded the real-estate website Redfin…

And by helping buyers become more selective about which homes they physically tour, home sellers “don’t have to live on eggshells to keep it looking like a hotel every day,” said Surefield COO and broker Rob McGarty, who led Redfin’s real-estate operations before he left in 2010…

Surefield’s technology actually uses a video-game engine similar to one used in modern games like Halo, where a character moves through a space in “first-person shooter mode.”

The company’s chief technology officer is Aravind Kalaiah, a Bay Area visual-computing engineer who led Nvidia’s development of a breakthrough technology in graphic processing.

Sounds like an interesting product that hopefully goes far beyond the picture slideshows available now, especially if a viewer could pan or zoom in and really see what the space was like. This also acts as an elaborate screening device for home listings. With this, potential buyers can get even more information about available properties and do more work on their own without middlemen. Yet, the buyer still needs a real estate agent or broker to get into the homes they are really interested in and relatively few buyers will want to buy a home without seeing it in person.

I wonder how this also relates to research on consumers having more choices. Imagine you could take these virtual tours of dozens of available homes. The consumer gets to see lots of options and can do so very quickly. However, the research on choice suggests giving people more choices tends to reduce their satisfaction as they are more aware of making the “perfect” choice. They might find the home choosing process more to their liking but does it lead to more satisfaction with their home in the long run?

Chicago stars in the new video game Watch Dogs

Curbed Chicago looks at how the city is portrayed in the new game Watch Dogs:

Chicago is finally getting a starring role in a new video game. New York, LA and Miami have all made cameos in the popular Grand Theft Auto series, but a new game called Watch Dogs will take place in an Orwellian version of Chicago. Although the scale and placement of buildings is not completely accurate, the graphics are quite surprising and this semi-fictional city depicted in the game definitely looks like our fair city. Some of the Chicago icons spotted in this promo video include famous buildings like the Willis Tower, the Trump Tower, the John Hancock Center, the Aqua Tower, and Marina City.

The pictures look pretty accurate.

So why doesn’t Chicago get more video game love? Do other American cities have glitzier and more worldly facades that are well-suited to garish video game scenes or dystopian scenes? Maybe all that Midwestern charm, winter weather, and gleaming International style architecture simply isn’t entertaining enough. Chicago may be the #7 global city but not necessarily for video game purposes.

Breaking Madden: tweaking the game to have the most unequal outcome

I’m a latecomer to the Breaking Madden series but here is what happens when you tweak the game to pit the two most unequal teams together on the same field:

I released every member of the Seahawks and Broncos that I possibly could, and replaced them with a total of 82 players I created…

Imagine also that this player is seven feet tall and 400 pounds heavy, and that there is no stronger, smarter, faster, or more skilled football player on the planet.

Now imagine 41 of them. In previous editions of Breaking Madden, I’ve made a small handful of these sorts of players — maybe one, or three, or five. Never 41…

In just about every way, these Broncos are the anti-Seahawks. They are as short (five feet tall) and light (160 pounds) as the game would allow me to make them. In every single skills category — Speed, Strength, Awareness, Toughness, and dozens of others — I assigned each of them the lowest rating possible…

I could not continue. My heart wouldn’t let me. I used the simulation feature to speed up the game to the end. I relinquished my ambitions of a 1,500-point game. Seahawks 255, Broncos 0. The machine and I agreed upon the final score.

The visuals are priceless: a team of giants overwhelming the team of scrawny players with the game just giving up at the end. I’ve never seen anything like it in my years of playing Madden football.

The premise of the project is interesting as well: just how much can the average video game be tweaked by the user to create different outcomes? I would count a lot of the newer games that have open maps and numerous playable characters as ones that can be tweaked a lot. Yet, there are still plenty of games that have you follow a fairly strict script. Both can be enjoyable but the autonomy of the gamer is quite different.

One thing I’ve always liked about sports games – and sports in general – is that the outcomes are somewhat unpredictable. Sure, there does come a point where the gamer reaches a skill level that overwhelms the computer every time but then you can set new goals: start a career team from scratch, play with some sort of handicap, or move up a difficulty level. This has been my recent quest: move up the ranks of English soccer in FIFA 2012 with Oxford United. At some point, the game can still be too easy or repetitive – this was the curse of earlier sports games when certain plays or players could just dominate – but playing a game within a game usually insures some flexibility.

A call for better statistics to better distinguish between competitive gamers

Here is a call for more statistics in gaming, which would help understand the techniques of and differentiation between competitive gamers:

Some people even believe that competitive gaming can get more out of stats than any conventional sport can. After all, what kind of competition is more quantifiable than one that’s run not on a field or on a wooden floor but on a computer? What kind of sport should be able to more defined by stats than eSports?

“The dream is the end of bullshit,” says David Joerg, owner of the StarCraft statistic website GGTracker. “eSports is the one place where everything the player has done is recorded by the computer. It’s possible—and only possible in eSports—where we can have serious competition and know everything that’s going on in the game. It’s the only place where you can have an end to the bullshit that surrounds every other sport. You could have bullshit-free analysis. You’d have better conversations, better players, and better games. There’s a lot of details needed to get there, but the dream is possible.”…

“There are some stats in every video game that are directly visible to the player, like kill/death,” GGTacker’s Joerg said. “Everyone will use it because it’s right in front of their face, and then people will say that stat doesn’t tell the whole story. So then a brave soul will try to invent a stat that’s a better representation of a player’s value, but that leads to a huge uphill battle trying to get people to use it correctly and recognize its importance.”…

You could make the argument that a sport isn’t a sport until it has numbers backing it up. Until someone can point a series of statistics that clearly designate a player’s superiority, there will always be doubters. If that’s true, then it’s true for eSports as much as it was for baseball, football and any other sport when it was young. For gaming, those metrics remain hidden in the computers running StarCraft, League of Legends, Call of Duty and any other game being played in high-stakes tournaments. Slowly, though, we’re starting to discover how competitive gaming truly works. We’re starting to find the numbers that tell the story. That’s exciting.

This is a two part problem:

1. Developing good statistics based on important actions with a game that have predictive ability.

2. Getting the community of gamers to agree that these statistics are relevant and can be helpful to the community.

Both are complex problems in their own right and this will likely take some time. Gaming’s most basic statistic – who won – is relatively easy to determine but the numbers behind that winning and losing are less clear.

Microsoft hoping to sell lots of political ads on XBox Live, video games

Ads in video games are not new but Microsoft is looking to use more recent technology and information to sell political ads in its online spaces:

Microsoft is trying to persuade politicians to take out targeted ads on Xbox Live, Skype, MSN and other company platforms as midterm elections begin heating up around the country. To plug the idea, Microsoft officials handed out promotional materials Thursday at CPAC, the annual conference for conservatives.

It’s the latest move by tech companies to seize a piece of the lucrative political ad market. The ads, which would appear on the Xbox Live dashboard and other Microsoft products, combine Microsoft user IDs and other public data to build a profile of Xbox users. Campaigns can then blast ads to selected demographic categories, or to specific congressional districts. And if the campaign brings its own list of voter e-mail addresses, Microsoft can match the additional data with individual customer accounts for even more accurate voter targeting.

The image of white male teens as the stereotypical average gamer is something of a myth; Microsoft says that of its 25 million Xbox Live subscribers in the United States, 38 percent are women. Forty percent are married, and more than half have children. Those numbers are important, because they represent key demographics that are among the most contested in political races. Microsoft is particularly aggressive in selling its ability to reach women, Latinos and millennials; across the company’s other platforms, such as MSN, Microsoft has developed consumer categories like “Ciudad Strivers” and “Nuevo Horizons” that attempt to describe a set of characteristics including age, type of residence and income level. At a time when virtually all politicians are resorting to microtargeting, this technology could help Microsoft become a major player in the advertising space…

Microsoft has made successful pitches to political campaigns before. In 2012, President Obama agreed to advertise on Xbox Live for his reelection campaign. The effort sparked some complaints among Xbox users who disliked the ad appearing on their dashboards. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, opted not to participate. Obama has also advertised within games themselves. With the release last year of the Xbox One, it’s safe to expect Xbox Live to become another important platform in the political ad wars.

It will be interesting to see how users respond and then how effective such ads are. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise to users: we shouldn’t be surprised if we volunteer data online and then it is used for targeted ads. Plus, given the time people spend playing video games (particularly for demographics that might not be accessing more traditional media as much), this seems like a relatively untapped market compared to television. Yet, it is harder to argue this has many benefits for users. While some might argue targeted ads for consumer goods show people what they might want, what average XBox Live user wants to be presented with political content while trying to play a game?