“For many, ‘counterintuitivity’ is the new intuition.”
February 4, 2019 2:52 AM   Subscribe

“I became a total Republican playing this game,” one SimCity fan told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “All I wanted was for my city to grow, grow, grow.” Despite all this attention, few writers looked closely at the work which sparked Wright’s interest in urban simulation in the first place. 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.
Model Metropolis by Kevin T. Baker. [via Anne Helen Peterson]
posted by Kattullus (44 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yassssss. It used to give me such crap about putting in all trains all the time. I finally had to star putying a racetrack outside town to make it stop nagging me about the lack of paved roads.
posted by tilde at 3:01 AM on February 4 [11 favorites]


Oof. “Incentivizes” them to bootstrap, mayhaps? Gahhhhhhh. That may be the official line, but it sounds more like an excuse to blame the socio- and economically-disadvantaged for not doing so, while making sure they simply can’t.
Forrester’s arguments enabled the Nixon Administration to claim that its plans to slash programs created to help the urban poor and people of color would actually, counterintuitively, help these people.


But I see this thinking so deeply pervasive every freaking where. Every conversation about minimum wage or school lunch, or affordable healthcare. “It’s a stepping stone job, work harder, get a raise.” “The PARENTS should be feeding their kids at school!” “If you’re that sick, go to the ER and get on a payment plan.”

Talking with the non-white, youngish divorcing mother of two who is an office manager at a local accounting services company ... she was looking at a house down the street that “Zillow” “Zestimates” would run $751 a month in mortgage. When she got the financing organized, it was more like $1700, plus co-op fees of $350 a month. She decided to wait and save up a bit of a bigger down payment... but with the crap that pops up in her life because it’s so expensive to be broke, will that down payment goal ever be attainable? And that $2k monthly nut is barely less than her current rent.
posted by tilde at 3:22 AM on February 4 [8 favorites]


So trying to be a liberal playing SimCity is like trying to be a pacifist playing "Civilization"?
posted by Brachinus at 4:25 AM on February 4 [17 favorites]


I'm not sure what kind of lessons my young self learned from those games. I remember when I was 11 years old I managed to gentrify my city in Simcity 2000 through a rather unconventional method. I remember it was possible to specify taxes by income bracket, so I raised taxes on the poor and lowered taxes for the rich, both residential taxes and industrial taxes.

It cleaned out all the low income neighbourhoods because they could no longer afford to live in my city and so they moved out and became someone else's problem, reducing crime in the process. It cleaned out all the polluting low tech industry like manufacturing, because they could not afford the taxes. My city became a utopia of highly educated professionals, working in sparkling, high tech industries, free of pollution.

I remember being quite pleased with myself for discovering this (remember, in the age way before the internet) and vaguely wondering if this would work in real life - hey, just tax people more for being poor, to give them an incentive to become rich! Isn't that how it worked, my teachers would punish us for getting a low grade at school, for example..

Worse to come was in my playthrough of Cities Skylines, despite its more complex modeling...

Businesses in the game have a theoretical max employment capacity and different education levels required (1-4) ... say a farm needs 15 education level 1 workers (not educated) to work the fields, and a handful of education level 2 and 3 people to be supervisors and maybe the specialists who test the soil or maintain the machines and maybe a single education level 4 person who is the director. A business can run with some leeway - it can run at reduced worker count (down to about 60% I think) with just loss of efficiency and output, but below that the business just fails to run and shuts down. It can also run with some leeway in education levels (it can staff an education level 2 position with a level 1 educated person) again with a loss of efficiency. Higher education people can work in low education jobs, but really they would rather not, because the pay is lower.

Businesses typically run at 80% of max employment, all things being equal. Maybe that's their most efficient point. If there was more supply of workers (unemployment rising in those categories), wages would fall, and businesses would hire cheaply up to 100% to increase output.

Ok so here is the problem. As a benevolent dictator, I have ensured that every citizen has the opportunity for education, and so everyone rises from level 1 to level 3. No child left behind and all that. This causes a sudden cataclysmic shift of workers from some industries to another. Because there is a 20% slack in the system... the offices which demand education level 3 workers suddenly get boosted to 100% job capacity, while the farms which offer education level 1 jobs are suddenly going out of business because no one wants to work there. Education level 3 workers who are unemployed will hang around for months or years, refusing the education level 1 jobs.

Now, let's assume we want farms to exist. They produce raw materials for higher level tier processing buildings, or maybe I just like the aesthetics of rows of cornfields. But how do we keep them in business?

Option 1 - create a suburb but deliberately deny them education - ensure they are too isolated from other suburbs to commute to school. This creates an underclass of level 1 education workers who will then work in the farms.

Option 2 - create mass unemployment. By boosting worker count and pushing unemployment to 15%, (allowing in mass migration for example) eventually even education level 3 workers will have to relent and take up education level 1 jobs. This is basically having people with university degrees serve fries in McDonalds or drive Uber.
posted by xdvesper at 4:49 AM on February 4 [26 favorites]


What I have learned from actually living in a city is that the road to hell is paved.
posted by srboisvert at 5:02 AM on February 4 [13 favorites]


Brachinus: So trying to be a liberal playing SimCity is like trying to be a pacifist playing "Civilization"?

In the original Sid Meier’s Civilization the overarching lesson is that humanity’s tendency to solve its problems eventually leads to world leaders reducing Earth to a nuclear wasteland, best left behind for other planets. This is the case even if the world leader is Gandhi. Especially if he’s Gandhi.

If there’s is a starker pacifist message to be found in computer gaming, I’ve yet to find it.
posted by Kattullus at 5:09 AM on February 4 [13 favorites]


Interesting. And I still play SimCity 4 regularly! Education is the key to prosperity usually.
posted by agregoli at 5:22 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


I recently discovered donoteat01's videos on youtube, where he explains urban planning (failures) through Cities: Skylines.

Fascinating and excellent stuff, probably worthy of its own FPP.
posted by BYiro at 5:29 AM on February 4 [12 favorites]


I mostly played Sim City 3000 - but I was quite successful in making dense, walkable cities with lots of transit. They weren't car-free, but my people were very happy with primarily medium density housing.

Of course, subways were unrealistically cheap to build. They should have been 100x the cost they were. In a small city, I could afford to put subways EVERYWHERE.
posted by jb at 5:37 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


This is my favorite SimCity 2000 story ever, and it seems especially relevant in this thread.
posted by compartment at 5:41 AM on February 4 [9 favorites]


I recently discovered donoteat01's videos on youtube, where he explains urban planning (failures) through Cities: Skylines.

Fascinating and excellent stuff, probably worthy of its own FPP.


Previously.
posted by egregious theorem at 5:44 AM on February 4 [4 favorites]


Nice!
posted by BYiro at 5:47 AM on February 4


If there’s is a starker pacifist message to be found in computer gaming, I’ve yet to find it.

I mostly played Civ 2, but the best case outcome for every war I fought was "status quo plus now I'm bankrupt." Then 9/11 happened and I realized it was the most realistic depiction of war in a video game I played as a kid.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:39 AM on February 4 [14 favorites]


My "I will die on this hill" thing is that city planning simulation games should have mixed-use zoning
posted by Automocar at 7:08 AM on February 4 [28 favorites]


So in urban planning circles they call apartments wrapping a parking garage a 'Texas doughnut', but shouldn't it be called a SimCity doughnut? That's the game where everybody learned to make those boxy R zone doughnuts with a park in the middle. If the R zone was successful the park eventually became something else didn't it?
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:29 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I was just doing some reading in this area!
I came across the Donella Meadows book, Thinking in Systems. Pursuant to my bad habits I read too many of the Amazon reviews. It seems like a love it or hate it kind of book, the type that tend to make statements that are a little too sweeping. That led me to her essay, Leverage Points which is a fun read but again comes across as very sure of itself when it comes to complex problems. That essay drags out the Forrester work - the claim that eliminating low-income housing is better for cities. That statement really bothered me, so I dug another layer deep and found this paper, Low Income Housing in the Context of Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics which uses Detroit as an example of a contemporary example of a city that doesn't follow Forrester's model. And really, why would it?

Reflecting on this adventure, I'm surprised that a computer model from the late 60's could have anything relevant to say about urban development. Meadows is right in several ways - large, complex systems are instated by people who have no idea what the outcome will be, and it's a move in the right direction to push for openness and scientific understanding of these systems. BUT - I doubt the central assumption - that any complex system can be modeled from initial assumptions and then run like an automaton. We are seeing a new age of this with algorithms - ideal black boxes for making decisions that individuals don't want to be held responsible for. One unpopular idea around here is that in some cases algorithms will turn out to be better and more fair at making decisions than the previous model using racist, terrible people. Systems designed by algorithms seems to be accidentally rather than intentionally racist, replicating the errors of the past made by terrible people.
posted by Dmenet at 7:30 AM on February 4 [8 favorites]


So trying to be a liberal playing SimCity is like trying to be a pacifist playing "Civilization"?

Most Civ games I've played are quite winnable with the house rules of "never attack" and "if attacked, accept any peace offered that doesn't demand tribute." Against the AI, anyway.
posted by mark k at 7:36 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


Funny. I think SimCity (or at least SimCity 2000, 3000, and SimCity 4) helped make me a Socialist.

At least in those SimCities, the Mayor is responsible for providing all the infrastructure and support systems that their citizens need to live. Healthcare, education, police, fire departments, water, garbage disposal, electrical power grid, they're all there, they're all run by city government, and they all are funded through taxpayer dollars. In the SimCity world, healthcare must be a socialized system, otherwise the healthcare system would not be under the auspices of the city. Your government doesn't make money from healthcare, it's an expenditure, but shows benefits by extending the lifespan of your virtual citizens. Any system in which a government owns these systems must, by its nature, be socialist.

It's not a particularly strong socialism. There's the ability to sway the economy in some ways, pushing low-tech, high pollution industries out via higher taxation, for example, but the fundamental social safety net and essentials of living are largely provided by government.
posted by SansPoint at 7:43 AM on February 4 [12 favorites]


This filled in a lot of gaps in my understanding.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:44 AM on February 4


If there’s is a starker pacifist message to be found in computer gaming, I’ve yet to find it.

Civ is the rare conquest game that can be won simply by having really super-mega-awesome culture that influences the whole planet. I've played since Civ 1 and I think I've only ever won Cultural and Space-Race victories.
posted by praemunire at 7:56 AM on February 4 [8 favorites]


Oh, and yeah, glib contrarianism is the new mindless orthodoxy.
posted by praemunire at 7:57 AM on February 4 [7 favorites]


It's interesting to see that SimCity's limitations weren't just simply because it's difficult to model an actual city in a computer game and so everything was a necessarily simplified model to make it fun to play.

The last time I spent significant amounts of time Simtropolis, around the time of SimCity 4 (aka the last good SimCity), there was a burgeoning community of people who wanted the SimCity model updated to reflect modern planning ideas. Elaborate mixed-use planning (including multi-storey building with mixed uses), the ability to emphasize pedestrian flows and walkability, and advanced transportation options like multi-use boulevards including public transit and bike lanes were all on the wish list.

Cities Skylines didn't implement very much of that wish list, which is fine because just getting "SimCity 4 but modernized" was more than enough at the time. But I do wonder if we'll ever see a city planner that can find a new balance between the SimCity we have now and actual city planning.
posted by chrominance at 8:08 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


"Libertarian Sim City" would be a really boring game.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:15 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


In the original Sid Meier’s Civilization the overarching lesson is that humanity’s tendency to solve its problems eventually leads to world leaders reducing Earth to a nuclear wasteland, best left behind for other planets. This is the case even if the world leader is Gandhi. Especially if he’s Gandhi.

Why Gandhi is such an asshole in Civilization: Basically, the original Civ gave Gandhi an aggression score of 1, the lowest possible in the game. The problem was that the code was set to lower any AI leader aggression score by 2 once they adopted democracy...which looped Gandhi's score to 255, making him the most aggressive leader possible. Later iterations of the game have decided to preserve aspects of this bug as some type of legacy, which is why he is still the nuke happy AI we know him as.
posted by nubs at 8:18 AM on February 4 [12 favorites]


But I do wonder if we'll ever see a city planner that can find a new balance between the SimCity we have now and actual city planning.

I had hoped that the massive success of C:S would lead to a new boom in city builder games that would add fresh ideas to the genre, but so far no such thing has materialised. There was an indie game, one of those single-person labour of love projects, called Citybound that looked interesting, but checking back in now it seems to also be extremely road-focused.

I fear this is one of those situations where the genre conventions are so entrenched that the market for a game that tries a different approach simply doesn't exist. We're doomed to an endless progression of Robert Moses Simulators.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:18 AM on February 4 [6 favorites]


"Libertarian Sim City" would be a really boring game.

I dunno, I could see myself developing a certain sick fascination with it, for much the same reason that Goat Simulator draws a crowd. You want to zone those 40 tiles as light commercial? Well you'd better be ready for a simulated court action by Reggie, the dude who has lived in a cabin in the middle of this municipally-held land for decades, and will file dozens of separate court actions to stop you from allowing a gas station to open up shop within eyesight of his bunker.
posted by Mayor West at 8:20 AM on February 4 [9 favorites]


I had hoped that the massive success of C:S would lead to a new boom in city builder games that would add fresh ideas to the genre, but so far no such thing has materialised.

I think this is why I not-so-secretly want Colossal Order to make another Cities in Motion game. That at least starts to vaguely resemble modern city transit planning; the last game even introduced timetables, though it didn't work that well because of the accelerated flow of time interfering with the "normal" times in the time tables. You'd have a bus leave the depot at 7am, but a round trip would take three hours of in-game time for relatively short routes.

I think if there's any hope for a Colossal Order to include things like separated transit lanes or bike lanes, Cities in Motion would be it unless CO is busy trying to merge that series into Cities Skylines. (Which, if that's actually the plan: yes please!)
posted by chrominance at 8:34 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


If only Wright had come across a book by Jane Jacobs instead. I would love a granular simulator like that, maybe one where you also had to face competing constituencies.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:35 AM on February 4 [7 favorites]


I want a Jane Jacobs based city building game and not a Robert Moses simulator.
posted by The Whelk at 9:08 AM on February 4 [8 favorites]


. Elaborate mixed-use planning (including multi-storey building with mixed uses), the ability to emphasize pedestrian flows and walkability, and advanced transportation options like multi-use boulevards including public transit and bike lanes were all on the wish list.
Cities Skylines didn't implement very much of that wish list, which is fine because just getting "SimCity 4 but modernized" was more than enough at the time. But I do wonder if we'll ever see a city planner that can find a new balance between the SimCity we have now and actual city planning.

I think if there's any hope for a Colossal Order to include things like separated transit lanes or bike lanes, Cities in Motion would be it unless CO is busy trying to merge that series into Cities Skylines. (Which, if that's actually the plan: yes please!)


Cities:Skylines has, between the DLC packs and the mod community, had most of this for years now. The first DLC pack in May 2016 added bike facilities and bus lanes; the second added tramways and a bunch of on-street tram options, dedicated lanes, etc. There was a dedicated Mass Transit pack May 2017, if you're into gadgetbahn "solutions" like blimps and monorails. Along the way, they've also added features to the main game with each DLC release, including more detailed views of the transport system (see who is going where), and toll booths. And the mod community has added a ton more. Pedestrian streets, shared streets, much finer grained control of each transit line. I have retrofitted sprawling suburbs with bike infrastructure and developed a booming cyclist community! I have built pedestrianized downtowns and transit-oriented town centres!

The main thing missing I think is better planning/zoning options; mixed use is the most obvious, but there's a "missing middle" in residential zoning, the separation and development of office and commercial is weird.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:45 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


Allow me to create a half-hearted defense of separate Residential and Commercial zoning in SimCity:

In terms of gameplay, it's easier for the player to make zoning decisions when Residential and Commercial are separated out. Mixed-use zoning is realistic, but complicates both modelling and gameplay.

FWIW, though, and IIRC, larger Residential towers in SimCity 4 did have teeny tiny shops on the ground floor that you could identify with the Query tool, and even counted towards commercial jobs in your city. (Typically Commercial Services $ and $$ jobs, if my memory serves.)
posted by SansPoint at 9:54 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


"Libertarian Sim City" would be a really boring game.

Yeah, plus how many Warhammer 40K games do we really need?
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:43 AM on February 4 [16 favorites]


My "I will die on this hill" thing is that city planning simulation games should have mixed-use zoning

I know it's not perfect, but I've gotten good mixed use at the neighbourhood level through micro-zoning - patchworking commercial into the residential. I also do the same with high density residential in Cities Skylines, so you don't end up with a forest of towers. I don't know why they didn't include medium density, but I did achieve medium-high by banning high rises.
posted by jb at 11:20 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I vividly remember realizing that Sim City had a ruleset that was a baked-in ad for 1980s-style GOP politics and it made me absolutely livid.

After I calmed down about it I started always trying to understand the underlying ideological bias of sim-type games whenever I encountered them, and it was and remains fascinating and was very helpful in being able to apply the sort of analytic approach to other things, including interpersonal relations. If you can figure out a person's biases when a person does not recognize them as such, you can work around them or help to change them incrementally.
posted by mwhybark at 12:53 PM on February 4 [9 favorites]


Sim City has always been highly ideological. It's just that most of us didn't notice because we were too busy letting 10 tornadoes and a giant monster loose to destroy our beautiful creation...or was that just me?

I mostly played Civ 2, but the best case outcome for every war I fought was "status quo plus now I'm bankrupt."

Yeah, in my experience, to win Civ 2 via war (rather than the scientific achievement of getting the hell off the planet), you had to be either incredibly aggressive VERY early in the game and destroy everyone before they'd built up their tech trees, otherwise it would inevitably result in nuclear war being the only winnable scenario. This would be more frightening if the consequences of this approach more closely resembled reality.
posted by asnider at 12:59 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]


I once saw a link to a blog about city planning entitled YOU WILL REGRET THIS!, but unfortunately I cannot find it again.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:22 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I always found that to conquer the world in Civ2, I had to go either communist or fundamentalist. Probably not the designers' ideological intention...
posted by zompist at 1:39 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


I'm putting the coliseum here.
🏟️

Next to the🏛️ of Jupiter. Near the🏚️ house.
And here's a rocketship 🚀 for the field of Mars.

-from The Annals of Caesar III®
posted by clavdivs at 1:53 PM on February 4 [6 favorites]


There was the guy who ‘won’ SimCity 3000 by creating an absolutely stable city of 6 million that lasted for 50,000 years. Behold Magnasanti.
posted by um at 4:06 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


One thing I remember about classic SimCity was how even if everything in your city was going great, citizens would still complain about taxes. You could have zero crime, low pollution, great public transit, whatever. People still complained about taxes. Nobody questioned it at the time, but in retrospect, this seems very reflective of the times.
posted by panama joe at 5:21 PM on February 4 [7 favorites]




This is really all just verification for the more modern phrasing, "algorithms are racist".

It's basically impossible for anyone to program something that doesn't somehow reflect themselves and advantage that reflection. This can take a zillion forms (facial recognition works better on white people, Sim programs reflect the politics of their designers, Barbie thinks math is hard and wants to go shopping),

Its something that is going to need to be figured out, either by developing means and methods of programming games and algorithms that don't end up being agenda-driven (even subconsciously) or with media literacy education which actively teaches that this is happening and needs to be recognized and accounted for.
posted by hippybear at 6:10 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]


even if everything in your city was going great, citizens would still complain about taxes

Every time anyone around me says anything complaining about taxes, I just say "well, I consider taxes to be payment for services rendered." and then shrug. It always derails whatever line they were considering on pursuing, apparently, because it usually leads to either silence or subject change.
posted by hippybear at 6:12 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]


Sim City has always been highly ideological. It's just that most of us didn't notice because we were too busy letting 10 tornadoes and a giant monster loose to destroy our beautiful creation...or was that just me?

If anyone's looking for SimCity Disaster Porn (SFW), here's somebody spending 4 minutes destroying their bustling metropolis with a series of disasters in SimCity 2000. Partway through, that goofy upbeat calypso music starts playing.
posted by duffell at 5:54 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


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