The decade since SimCity 4’s release has seen a major urban renaissance. For the first time in history, most of the world’s population lives in cities. Big cities are safer than they’ve been in generations, and cookie-cutter suburbs are falling swiftly out of fashion. In their place, the New Urbanism** movement has taken hold, spreading the gospel of dense, walkable, tech-savvy, environmentally friendly cities. These values have become paramount for cities around the world, and guiding principles for cities built from scratch.
It’s only right that the new SimCity, which Slate’s Farhad Manjoo deems “crazily addictive,” embraces these new precepts and builds on them, showing the rewards and challenges of the new urban planning. Chief among them: understanding all the systems at play in urban life, and figuring out how to manage the information they give us…
It used to be that ignorance was bliss. Beyond managing commercial, residential, and industrial zones, and their necessary infrastructure, players mostly just knew when things went really right—or very badly. Thanks to new computer modeling, however, SimCities are now functions of citizens, networks, resources, and consequences—making them more applicable to the real world than ever before. In past games, all it took to fix pollution was bulldozing some factories. Now, actions affecting the environment have real, lasting consequences.
Adam Sneed at Slate
Um, only someone who has never played the previous SimCitys, culminating in 2003’s magisterial SimCity 4—or, more likely, insists on filtering all his previous experiences through the vulgar Whiggishness of “things were worse in the past”—could come up with this stuff. How else does the new SimCity (to be fair, this was written before EA’s DRM/launch disaster) demonstrate The Way We Trend Now, per Mr. Sneed?
The second lesson was one in resilience—a wildly popular buzzword at the moment….If storage facilities filled up, or transportation shut down, or a fire broke out, people couldn’t work and the city couldn’t make money. Urban resilience had its big moment in the spotlight after Hurricane Sandy….But one thing that’s not as obvious to us, that SimCity demonstrates expertly, is how even small events can have cascading consequences.
So, let’s see. This new game includes, as is the wont of most interactive entertainments, some mechanism of cause-and-effect. Some of these mechanisms even reflect real life—Fires, bad. Also, I’ve read a thing about “resilience” and that big rain storm. I shall connect the two analogically—my SimCity with its beautifully rendered fire; NYC with its Sandy—through jargon that also happens, in everyday speech, to be a word that could mean more or less anything. Best to inoculate myself from charges of sophistry by saying, outright, “wildly popular buzzword.”
“Another way,” Sneed writes, “SimCity accurately captures in the leading edge of urban planning is through its use of Big Data…The game puts the player at the helm of the ultimate smart city as it tracks just about every metric of life in the simulation. At the click of a button, dynamic, colorful maps present real-time data on traffic, crime, pollution, public health, property values, and much more.”
But all these metrics were already in the SimCity of ten, and even 20 years ago. The difference with 2013’s entry is that the underlying complexity of the phenomena Sneed’s colorful overlays (“inspired by Edward Tufte!”) purport to map has been radically curtailed. Properly modded, SimCity 4 could offer not just traffic on streets and highways and trains—but subways, monorails, one-way streets, one-way cobblestone streets, one-way dirt tracks, canals, traffic circles, light-rail lines, tunnels and on-ramps and underpasses of almost pornographic variety (rail through mountain; road over rail; road atop avenue beneath y-junction). Straight out of the box, that game allowed for terraforming, and multiple zoning densities, and agriculture (!). It offered, if memory serves, dozens of (colorful enough) line graphs of finances and stats; the new one, as these hilariously fuming fanboys discover, does not.
Of course, I’m not really complaining about game design here. SimCity 4, besides being eminently expandable and addictive—I think I finally stopped playing upon losing a computer in 2009—was also conventionally understood as being too dense for “casual players.” (Though obviously its hyper-realism just meant capturing, say, 4% of a real traffic planner’s actual work, instead of 0.4% in the original. All games are easy to play!) Indeed, “accessibility” was always a key to the SimCity relaunch; it took a decade, by all accounts, because the suits were convinced that SC4 had led the series down a blind alley of ever-deeper simulation, in the technical sense. In the meantime, the company (Maxis) made billions on the archetypal “casual game” The Sims.
So really, compared to previous series entries, the latest SimCity can be said to pursue a strategy of Little (or Less) Data, even one of (Relative) Ignorance is Bliss. (Again, just a game!) This is problematic for Mr. Sneed, who wants/needs to link SC2013 with Cities qua Urbanism, 2013—i.e., the universal assumption that temporal adjacency = substantive similarity = discursive opportunity. In fact, conscientious Sneed actually talks to one of the game’s developers, who confirms its simplification on the data front. How he finesses this point—how he squares the circle to argue that cities using bigger data and a city-simulation game becoming simpler data-wise are actually manifestations of the same Deep Trend—is so teeth-shatteringly audacious one considers taking a moral vow never to use human language again:
The real problem for the game’s designers: figuring out how to turn massive amounts of data into meaningful information. “We knew from previous SimCitys that there’s this data overload that can happen that turns off a lot of players,” said Stone Librande, SimCity’s lead designer. “[That] game isn’t approachable because it feels like you’re playing a spreadsheet.” That’s a fact that real cities need to realize as they embrace technology and data to help inform their citizens. They can collect and release all kinds of data, but it’s essentially meaningless if it’s not presented in a useful way.
This is a truly diabolical paragraph—every sentence rings with facticity but the whole is entirely fatuous. No doubt, as real cities collect more and more data, the presentation of that data does become a problem. But does presentation matter for its own sake, to make maps of crime and traffic prettier and more “accessible” to citizens? No, if you click on Sneed’s link (to an article written, obviously, by Sneed), you’ll find tell of cities embracing “open data” in order to allow “university researchers and community members to find out what questions the city’s [bigger] data can help answer.” In other words, “accessibility” in this context means making extremely extensive data available in open formats so that third-party nerds can use it to discover the patterns not obvious in just the gathering thereof. In the process, they may design a pretty Google Maps overlay that relates, say, mental health expenses with cat ownership, but such attractive “presentation” is hardly the point even in Sneed’s linked story. How to “turn massive amounts of data into meaningful information”? Not by creating a supercute and pointlessly proprietary application displaying every cat in the neighborhood. Rather, by opening all data sets up to easy manipulation, so that someone discovers just what a public health hazard cats are, even if no one started out looking for that. In other words by making the raw facts—the spreadsheet—available for all.
Which is to say, the true-enough tech-journalist filigree Sneed places around the quote has absolutely nothing to do with what SimCity developer Librande actually says, and comes close to inverting it all together. For Librande, the SimCitys, up to and including 4, were approaching “data overload” in a manner that “turns off a lot of players”; his job was to make the new game feel more “approachable” and less like a “spreadsheet.” The obvious way to do this—use less data, which SC2013 certainly does—can’t be uttered by Sneed as it’d be fatal for his thesis. Instead, he focuses on what was surely one of Librande’s secondary strategies—make the data that does remain in SimCity more comprehensible and visually appealing—as if this “accessibility” at all resembled the problem described in his earlier article: Namely how to make the best use of the urban data that real cities (unlike SimCity) are gathering in exponentially growing quantities.
In the next paragraph, Sneed notes a visual resemblance between SC 2013’s data overlays and a high-tech command center IBM built for Rio de Jeneiro, which I certainly don’t doubt. In the game, “one map might show a high death rate in a corner of a city [and] glancing at a map for crime or illness can shed light on the fact that emergency vehicles can’t get there in time, or pollution is out of control”; the point of Rio’s system is, apparently, to make such correspondences legible in real-life. But these don’t really represent the same world-historical development so much as an accident of representation: Rio’s system, to be successful, would have to be able to discover all the hundreds or thousands of factors that could be behind a neighborhood hike in death rate—something a graphically intuitive presentation would surely help with. The new SimCity, as far as I can tell, is simply presenting some of the information the series has always tracked visually—pollution, emergency coverage—in a manner that resembles the graphically intense urban command centers that Sneed has read about. Because the game is actually tracking less data in many ways than before—you won’t know what effect zoning density has on death rates, because you can’t control density; you can’t examine whether subways bring crime, because they’re aren’t no subways—all the synthetic possibilities of Rio’s systems are probably better reached with SC4’s maps and graphs (which again, pace Sneed, were already plenty colorful and clean.)
Words giveth; words taketh away. That “technical” terms can mean just about anything offers a way out of this profoundly confused mess.
If Sneed (or some editor) insists on connecting SC2013 with the zeitgeist evolutions of the last decade, his bit about “thanks to new computer modeling” has potential. That is to say, the new SimCity may not model “citizens, networks, resources, and consequences” more (or as) completely as previous editions, but it certainly models polygons better. In fact, ever since 1999’s SimCity 3000, Maxis has flirted with a “full-3D” re-haul of the series. Until now, technical limitations have always left the game in its familiar isometric perspective—your view could be zoomed and rotated, but was stuck at the same angle.
All that computing power Sneed imagines anchoring a revolution in sociological simulation is, more likely, devoted to keeping the frame rate up. SC2013 is, in this sense, more “realistic” than all that’s come before; the details are sharper, and you can go from in-the-clouds top-down god view to street level first-person. But even 10 years of silicon advancement aren’t enough to actually recreate SimCity 4 in today’s visual standard: In the new game, city sizes are limited to perhaps a fourth of the old max, or under the size of Central Park. For anyone interested in cities rather than, say, hamlets, even the SC4 max size seemed puny, but that game allowed you to expand across massive regions (then still simply enough visually to allow for a terraforming tool). Regions in the new game are part of its re-orientation to massively multiplayer (read: internet-only, verisimilitude-averse) “social” gameplay.
In short, the new modeling prowess has served to make SimCity more “gamey” and how could it not? If one were to really simulate the process of being a municipal bureaucrat, the visuals could in fact just be spreadsheets. Up to SC4, the graphics improved, but increased computing power was largely pushed to simulation: new infrastructure, new zoning, new demographic parameters. This gave the game’s images a schematic quality: one could imagine the city on screen as a model of the city you were actually controlling through all those spreadsheets. More profoundly, perhaps SC4 really reached (or implied) a certain uncanny valley of simulation beyond which the player would just, say, go to grad school. The beautiful SC2013 converges the models and the simulation: The player feels he’s controlling a “city” just as complicated as the rendered buildings suggest, and no more—no extra imagination or outside suspension of disbelief necessary.
For wide-eyed-leading-the-blind enthusiasts like Mr. Sneed, the new SimCity is geisty because it looks like the other nifty visualizations—including some very important IRL ones—that our graphics cards have made possible. Which is to say, SC2013 as rhetorical object is a simulation of a simulation, a fact obvious enough to the serious beholder. For it doesn’t use it’s graphical power to actually attempt to replicate a real cityscape (where the more conventional uncanny valley looms); instead, it sticks to cartoony exuberance, and adopts the real aesthetic/ideological trend of the decade: When you zoom out, the new SimCity simulates “tilt-shift photography” (which these days means “a digitally processed simulation of tilt-shift photography”)—in short, a computerized model of a model city, a cutesy-beyond-words abnegation of reality as it actually looks, and is.
**This goes without saying, but New Urbanism as such probably peaked, of course, closer to the 1989 release of the original SimCity. As usual this is a biographical/historical conflation—Steed appears to be thinking mainly of “my New thoughts about Urbanism,” which may indeed correspond with the recent release of the new SimCity game.