Les Simerables

SimCity isn’t a sandbox. Its rules reflect the neoliberal common sense of today’s urban planning.

Once upon a time, a brilliant engineer by the name of Trurl built a miniature kingdom for the deposed dictator of another planet to govern as he pleased for the rest of his days. At such a small scale, the bored despot could harmlessly indulge his “autocratic aspirations” without risk to the “democratic aspirations of his former subjects.”

This fable, by Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem, appeared in 1981 in The Mind’s Eye, an anthology of reflections on artificial cognition, where it was read by Will Wright, creator of SimCity and founder of the Sim empire. In the many interviews he’s given, Wright cites his encounter with the story as an inspiration for SimCity.

Released in 1989 by then-indie game developer Maxis, SimCity was a gamble. Nobody thought anyone would bother to tinker with an urban development simulator — let alone one without a clear objective. The game is not a story but a managerial system. You can’t definitively win or lose.

The plot, if there is one, is generated by the player’s ability to model the city in her own head. With an hour and basic literacy skills, anyone can establish a city: the tools are intuitive, the graphics friendly. In the latest version of the game, starting is as easy as drawing roads, demarcating the city’s industrial, residential, and commercial zones, and plopping down buildings.

To play the game well, however, you must understand SimCity as it understands itself. In Mario, you jump. In SimCity, you anticipate. You try to predict a series of complex, emergent social phenomena. You optimize, maximize, and extrapolate from afar — no hand-eye coordination necessary. You embody, in essence, the spirit of urban industry.

In a profile of Wright in the New Yorker, the cofounder of Maxis, Jeff Braun, remembers the first time he heard the idea behind the game. The two had just met at a pizza party in Alameda, California where, as Braun explains, “Will showed me the game and he said, ‘No one likes it, because you can’t win.’ But I thought it was great. I foresaw an audience of megalomaniacs who want to control the world.”

As it turned out, Braun was right: the game was a smash success. It inaugurated a new golden era for computer gaming and was, until recently, the bestselling computer franchise of all time. It remains the most influential. By pioneering the simulation genre for computer gaming and introducing its diversions to new types of players, the game inspired a new generation of urban planners, architects, and social theorists.

From these simulations, the logic of the game goes, you can abstract urban design principles. Where our cities appear unpredictably chaotic and impossibly complex, SimCity harmoniously tames this uncertainty into a manageable landscape. It offers a micropolis (as it was originally titled) to serve as a model for our own. It represents our cities not as they are but as they could be: calculated, optimized, controlled.

That vision is rapidly becoming our reality. The game’s simulational thinking has restructured how we relate to our politics and ourselves, to our work and our play — in short, to our social space. So-called “smart” cities have already started to deploy its techniques as Silicon Valley — home to Wright as well as Cisco and Microsoft — moves into the business of constructing cities.

SimCity is at once an archive of these future cities and an engine of their algorithmic logic. So what can this game — a hallucination of urban consciousness experienced by millions — tell us about the gamified, scalable, smoothly rendered cities to come?

The Limits of Possibility

Wright has stated that his goal in designing the game was to create a space of possibility open-ended enough for the player to experiment in, “a problem landscape” large enough to generate infinite solutions. According to Wright, the game encourages utopian thinking: “So when you start SimCity, one of the most interesting things that happens is you have to decide, ‘What do I want to make? Do I want to make the biggest possible city, or the city with the happiest residents, or most parks, or the lowest crime?’ Every time you have to idealize it in your head, ‘What does the ideal city mean to me?’”

Possibility is a word he returns to often: “I think what we’re trying to do is build the maximum possibility space in your imagination when you’re playing the game.” In contrast to Wright’s open-ended vision, the promotional text on the back of SimCity 2000’s box playfully warns, “If this game was any more realistic, it’d be illegal to turn it off!”

SimCity draws on the contemporary city not only for its graphics, but also for its rules. Its situations are at once descriptive and normative — displaying what a modern city is while at the same time dictating conditions for how and what a city should be.

The manual for SimCity 4, released in 2003, takes on a friendly advisory tone:

Industry is what really drives your city and creates the most profit of the three zones. By providing jobs, industries provide money for your residents … Money keeps Sims happy and allows them to shop, which in turn makes the Commercial zones prosper. Industrial zones also produce the most amount of pollution of the three zones. Because of this, it’s a good idea to build your city’s industry away from the residential parts of town.

But these “good ideas” are coercive, not suggestive. To succeed even within the game’s fairly broad definition of success (building a habitable city), you must enact certain government policies. An increase in the number of police stations, for instance, always correlates to a decrease in criminal activity; the game’s code directly relates crime to land value, population density, and police stations. Adding police stations isn’t optional, it’s the law.

Or take the game’s position on taxes: “Keep taxes too high for too long, and the residents may leave your town in droves. Additionally, high-wealth Sims are more averse to high taxes than low- and medium-wealth Sims.”

The player’s exploration of utopian possibility is limited by these parameters. The imagination extolled by Wright is only called on to rearrange familiar elements: massive buildings, suburban quietude, killer traffic. You start each city with a blank slate of fresh green land, yet you must industrialize.

The landscape is only good for extracting resources, or for being packaged into a park to plop down so as to increase the value of the surrounding real estate. Certain questions are raised (How much can I tax wealthy residents without them moving out?) while others (Could I expropriate their wealth entirely?) are left unexamined.

These possibilities, or lack thereof, have led to criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Some see the game as replicating statist socialism in its centralized development and ownership of all utilities and major infrastructure; others, pointing to its regressive tax policies and rational-choice modeling, understand the simulator as a mouthpiece for neoliberal common sense. Neither is entirely wrong.

Players have attempted to build cities without capitalist elements, cities sequestered from government aid, realist cities that caricature Pyongyang, and cities that attempt to mirror decaying industrial centers like Detroit. Some of these efforts have succeeded; others, running up against the limits of possibility, have failed.

In 2010, Vincent Ocasla, a young architecture student in the Philippines, posted a video on YouTube announcing that he had “beaten” SimCity. His city, Magnasanti, was the product of three and a half years of planning and construction on the SimCity 2000 platform. News of his triumph quickly spread across the Internet. But many wondered: what did it mean to say that someone had “beaten” SimCity?

By analyzing the game’s algorithm for modular growth, Ocasla’s plan optimized the distances between resources, transportation infrastructure, and the energy grid to build the most densely populated city in SimCity history. Achieved at the cost of social repression and totalitarian control, Ocasla’s victory was a numerical one. His goal was not the quality of his Sims’ lives, but the quantification of technocratic efficiency; his intention, to critique the lethality of the game’s managerial assumptions.

Ironically, because of its precise techno-scientism, Magnasanti’s viewers speculated about its applicability to real-world urban projects. Many of the Reddit posts were optimistic: “Wow a city planning department needs to hire this person.” But their directive to study the logic of SimCity goes without saying: we’ve already been doing it.

Shiny Happy People

Even those who have never played SimCity, or have somehow avoided even hearing it mentioned in passing, are not immune from the game; it has infiltrated our ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Its engineering of perspective is itself a political technology.

The game employs a combination of 3-D modeling and isometric perspective so that the eye of the spectator is free to be everywhere and nowhere at once. It duplicates a gaze of mastery with roots in military and industrial management: the observant eye of the factory manager scrutinizing the speed of movements on the factory floor below; Napoleon surveying his battlefield from a mountain peak; the gaze from the police helicopter circling Washington, DC.

Just as divisions of vertical space are used in the military occupation of cities, where aerial space is splintered into terrains of policing and struggle, SimCity organizes the city’s data maps into 3-D layers for players to flip through with keyboard shortcuts. These systems of management are disciplinary, allowing for increasingly subtle forms of control.

A case can be made that the buildings themselves are the characters of SimCity: they become objects programmed with human relations, enacting the blurring of boundaries Marx termed commodity fetishism, absorbing into their digital bricks and mortar the social relations that created them in the first place.

In 2013, SimCity added people to the game for the first time. It visualizes them as contract wage laborers: laboring bodies perpetually tied to the rhythms of exploitation.

Every morning, the Sim “agents,” as they are called, wake up, arrive at whatever workplace needs laborers (within their programmed class bracket), and toil in this industrial zone until dinner. Every evening, they go to sleep at whatever random house slots them a space. Life as a Sim is lived in this constant present tense, shuttling through traffic to take whatever work or shelter they can get.

“Sims are selfless little troopers, working at any place they are required,” explains the designer of their algorithm on the SimCity website. “Even if their home was destroyed, they will take up occupancy in a new home all in the name of keeping the city running as effectively as possible.”

While this designer probably intended for these Sims to add texture to the game’s design, what he programmed is eerie: an endless loop of faceless, nameless labor. What’s terrifying about these “selfless little troopers” is not their strangeness but their familiarity. This nightmarish vision of a world where we’re all temps, deskilled and interchangeable, called up daily by different bosses, is already a reality for many.

Consider the success of TaskRabbit, a company founded in 2008 under the auspices of the “collaborative consumption” movement. TaskRabbit prides itself on turning the precarity of the temporary contract into a game.

Tasks are posted on an app; taskers, as they’re called, wait by their phones for the beep of a job, race to click first, then dissolve into blue GPS dots zipping through the streets, algorithmically sent to their next job site to build IKEA furniture, wait in line for new iPhones, read The Stranger out loud to spoiled children, or do any other type of short-term work someone might pay for.

These precarious workers can play the game of employment over and over again, sometimes up to five times a day. There is no compensation for the time spent “playing” — that is, searching, refreshing, applying. As long as the work is temporary, the game never ends. Likewise for SimCity’s populace: they simulate this labor for us so that we can play.

But even the free time we spend playing the game looks something like work. Prosumerism, the slippery ramp between production and consumption, participation and exploitation, is a hallmark of the flexible production schedule of today’s creative industries — the gaming industry included.

Devoted players are often tacitly recruited into being unpaid testers for the industry’s beta releases and contributors to its mod (modification) scene.

Consider the disastrous 2013 release of the undercooked new SimCity: there were many bugs — by some accounts, all of its advertised processing capabilities were a sham — and many angry prosumers. Electronic Arts outsourced the labor of spotting the game’s bugs to its hive-mind of dedicated players who, after buying the game, discovered all the sore spots in need of patches. They got to play at doing the labor that Electronic Arts had failed to invest in the product it took to market.

By the end of Lem’s fable, the formerly box-sized micropolis has colonized the face of the entire planet in its own image. Even the tyrant himself has disappeared, “as though the earth had swallowed him up.” The triumph of Trurl’s engineered simulation is total. Is Wright’s?

City OS

In a lecture last year entitled “Gamifying the World: From SimCity to the Future,” Wright discussed how companies used to ask him how to make their products more gamelike. They would ask him to attach his “simulation engine” to other experiences, as though it were some sort of mechanism external to the game’s immersive experience.

The world today, he stated, doesn’t need immersive gaming to escape from everyday life; today, life itself is gamified. What we are witnessing, Wright explains, is the emergence of a “blended reality” full of deeply personal, data-saturated games.

What he neglects to mention is that speculating on the city of the future has become another game — at least for the investors who can afford to play it. The market and technology of the exportable, downloadable smart city are still up for grabs — as Wright might say, a maximum “possibility space.”

As with the strategy of SimCity, where the best governance is that which promotes the best growth, governments are learning to become flexible and to mix and match enterprises in response. With the erasure of local history comes the influx of global investors. Honduras, for example, has been developing a charter city, clearing away existing laws and infrastructure to rapidly implement new infrastructural technology; even the constitution was amended to this end.

In South Korea, the government is placing its bets on an incarnate data cloud, otherwise known as the city of Songdo.

The city, outfitted with ubiquitous computing infrastructure, sensitive synapse-like sensors, and high bandwidth, is built on the assumption that the collection of its residents’ data is a useful and immensely profitable enterprise. The promotional materials (which use an aerial perspective reminiscent of SimCity) understand these data fields as digital resources that can be mined for wealth, so as to “smartly” decrease consumption of natural ones. As of 2012, Songdo was the largest private real estate project on earth.

But Songdo is as much a protocol as it is a city: other territories can “download” its plans. Its technology was bought by other cities before it had even been built in Songdo itself. Its master plan is being exported to Ecuador; meanwhile, China has purchased kits from similar companies to make its cities more closely resemble Singapore. Nations dissolve into transnational, portable, cities in a box. With simulation emerging as the dominant paradigm, material and lived histories are rendered obsolete.

SimCity’s faith in algorithmic development has proved prescient. The value of the city now lies in part in the immense repository of data it is outfitted to collect through cell towers and embedded sensors. Speculating on the future value of this data is what generates its present value. In other words, what’s smart about the smart city is the belief that all data, however meaningless, will someday become financially meaningful.

Yet as long as companies are competing to collect different data sets, their collections will have a limited range of smart integrated applications. That’s why former Sony chairman Nobuyuki Idei has called for a universal city software, a “city OS.”

This solution to urbanism according to Silicon Valley sounds a lot like an updated version of Wright’s immersive simulation. A universal “city OS” would serve as the underlying platform for the entire Internet of Things — the network of “smart” devices and objects connected to the internet. It would be a complete system.

LivingPlanIT, a start-up founded by a former Microsoft executive, has been developing what it hopes will be the Urban Operating System (UOS). Apps, buildings, people, traffic — all will be connected through its cloud. LivingPlanIT’s business model is to monetize and license its UOS for users — big players like governments and investors — to download. Their first prototype is a green smart city in the hills of Portugal.

SimCity and these “city OS” spin-offs promise that we can know the city in its entirety: scaled down to the size of a microchip, dematerialized into data clouds, predictable and iterative. Still, these seemingly invisible digital architectures are no more free of politics or history than their analog counterparts. How can we look back toward the messy, complex city without looking backwards?

As top-down city design becomes a market commodity, we will soon be forced to choose between the urban operating systems we want to inhabit. The choice might even be made for us through competition and mergers. In Songdo, Cisco is installing its TelePresence technology in every apartment, under the assumption that if you integrate it everywhere, people will inevitably live with it.

In these future cities, those who own the operating system will be those who own the property, the money, and the means of production. By owning your Sim data, they will own you. It is towards these relations of power and data — the power to engineer life itself — that we should turn our attention.

We should ask not what our ideal city on SimCity, LivingPlanIT, or some other Urban OS would look like, but what our ideal urban simulator would be. Given this or that operating system, who does the city work for and who works for the city? No longer is the goal to design an urban imaginary: you must now code the game.