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The ideology hiding in SimCity’s black box – with comment from James Castañeda, AICP

By Clayton Ashley, Polygon, April 1, 2021

“[Game designer Will Wright began creating a] game about simulating cities after he started reading more on urban planning, specifically, the book Urban Dynamics, by Jay Wright Forrester.

“This book attempted to turn the idea of a city into a computer model, and then used that model to test social policies. Despite the seemingly neutral veneer of its formulas, the book concludes that many of the social policies meant to help cities are in fact detrimental to their success.

“While Urban Dynamics was meant to be taken very seriously, SimCity was never meant to be a super realistic simulation, à la the flight simulators that are used to train pilots. When asked what he thought people could learn from SimCity, Will Wright said that ‘it’s kind of hopeless to approach simulations like that, as predictive endeavors. But we’ve kind of caricatured our systems. SimCity was always meant to be a caricature of the way a city works, not a realistic model of the way a city works.’

“[Rather than a true simulation where formulas and models can be inspected and modified,] SimCity was hiding its formulas in a ‘black box.’ This is a concept that comes from computing and engineering, where a system with inputs and outputs doesn’t reveal the internal workings of how it actually went about turning those inputs into outputs.

“How SimCity’s hidden ideology affects the people who play it is difficult to untangle. An article from 1992 quotes a player saying ‘I became a total Republican playing this game,’ and even modern versions of the game contain oddly conservative viewpoints, including a preference for regressive taxation.

SimCity’s black box may just be inside a game, but it’s important to know that it exists. Because if you don’t know what’s inside the box, then you don’t know what it’s capable of doing to you.”

James Castañeda, AICP, comments: “I like to think that most planners work off available data but with a humanized approach. I’m still an avid player of SimCity, and it’s easy to forget that the game is based on rules and algorithms. Cities are evolving, organic organisms whose officials employ algorithmic predictions to guide change in the built environment. But it’s nearly impossible to model for all aspects of a city, which is why we need observant, curious, problem-solving planners.”

Read the full article here. (~6 min.; Video version: ~13 min.).

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