Sin of SimCity

Victory and failure in virtual urban space

by Will Weatherly

published April 22, 2016

To a 15-year old Providence Journal writer named Joseph Braude, it made a lot of sense: invite five of the candidates in the 1990 mayoral election to compete in a SimCity tournament, design a SimProvidence for them to develop, and see who was most effective at leading a fake version of their real city. The groundbreaking computer game, which allowed players to act as virtual mayors controlling urban design, development, and management, was then only a year old. The Journal focused on getting as accurate a rendering of the city as possible on a Macintosh II; a computer scientist, cartographer, and research consultant used Providence’s ground plan and topographical data to provide a virtual clone, complete with a pixelated Providence River and Harbor, correct zoning, traffic congestion, and a then-towering crime rate (represented as a percentage which would decrease as the player built more police stations). 

None of the five candidates who agreed to compete were familiar with the game, and only a few owned a computer at the time, so Braude volunteered to sit at each candidate’s respective keyboards and Sim by proxy. With his help, each candidate’s performance in the game could be seen as indexical to their political and logistical finesse, rather than any technical skill. What started as a common-sense logistical decision ended up complicating the ontological dilemma of the competition itself. What was on trial here: the limits of a video game to approximate local urban management? Or the limits of urban management to fulfill their role in a video game? 

Providence was then (and still is) the only US city to host a competition of this kind. For Journal editor Alan Rosenberg, the competition aimed to provide more of an insight into “the aspect of computer simulation of running a city than the political ramifications of the story,” as he told Vice last year. But as the Journal started publishing the results of each candidates’ SimCity session, the implications of the project grew difficult to ignore. One player, Democratic candidate Victoria Lederberg, refused to let Braude control the keyboard, despite having no previous experience with computers and no familiarity with the game itself. Her predictably disastrous experience skewed the public’s perception of the competition against her; because other competing candidates didn’t have to contend with the machine behind the mayorship, Lederberg’s technical difficulties produced a dismal virtual city in comparison. As Braude reported in 1990, Lederberg “built more police stations in Providence than probably exist in all of Southeastern New England,” replaced an electric power plant with a nuclear reactor four years post-Chernobyl, and bulldozed a church in a state that was, in actuality, 63 percent Catholic. Frustrated, she “asserted that [the game] had nothing to do with her political aspirations.” Lederberg lost the Democratic primary by 482 votes to party frontrunner Andrew Annaldo, who credits his electoral success to his campaign promise to leverage fees on (real-life) local universities, and whose virtual taxes were rising by the end of his SimProvidence stint. The specter of Lederberg’s failure, however, and her apathy towards her virtual citizens, was hard to shake. “A lot of people felt that she lost the [Democratic] primary for having performed poorly,” Braude said. And despite being a family friend, Lederberg refused to speak to Braude following his article in the Journal; she died in 2003 after 13 years of sworn silence. 

Just as the tournament was mirroring, and in some ways adding to, the narrative of Lederberg’s fall, it also became part of some of the election’s most dramatic success stories. The competition and the election shared their two frontrunners: Fred Lippitt, an independent described by the Journal as a “paradigm of Rhode Island’s privileged class,” and Buddy Cianci, the famed longtime-serving mayor of Providence, who was then running for re-election as an independent 6 years after resigning on charges of an assault on a Bristol contractor. Both candidates’ success at SimCity came largely from their commitment to take the game deadly seriously; Braude observed that Lippitt and Cianci talked to the avatars on their computer screens like any other civic worker they could boss around, Lippitt going so far as to speak “into an imaginary mouthpiece [about] politics and his outlook on life.” 

Lippitt and Cianci shared a fondness for a strong police presence in their cities, but Cianci’s SimCity had the economic edge. Cianci was a great virtual bookkeeper. “He was the only candidate who had taken the trouble to scribble his expenses on a scratchpad,” Braude wrote. When Cianci was asked, before his death this winter, what he remembered about his SimCity, he remarked that it emulated much of his governing philosophy. “You spend some money here, you spend some money there,” he said. “You had to make those kinds of choices everyday as a mayor… you’ll lose some votes, you’ll gain some votes. Sometimes you make a good choice, sometimes it’s a not-so-good choice.”

Cianci won the 1990 election by 317 votes over Lippitt, and while Braude’s tournament declared no definite winner, his article lauded Cianci for his brass-tacks approach to virtual governance. Many commentators remarked that Cianci’s political success rode primarily on the back of his enduring local legacy, but it is harder to explain his simulated success so succinctly. By treating SimCity like real city management Cianci was able to identify and optimize its indicators of a city’s success, with a low crime rate, maximized city revenue, and a balanced budget. But his triumph over his competitors like Lederberg was equally as predicated on their observation that the simulation was limited and inauthentic—a judgment with equal merit, perhaps, that nevertheless hindered their ability to see the stakes of the game. 

Questions of the limits of SimCity’s reality seem equally entwined with Providence’s history when considering what else a video game necessarily leaves out of a view into Cianci’s rule: an alleged rape at gunpoint, an over-reliance on police power, and an administration rife with corruption. Yet our city’s past also marks one of the strongest cases for the game’s consistent allure of almost-reality. The 1990 tournament is a telling portrait of SimCity itself, a game just real enough to be disturbing, and just unreal enough to be fun. 




In accordance with SimCity’s frequent description as “a God game,” its origins are now near-mythological. (Though the game enables players a top-down control of legions of citizens, Will Wright, the original creator of SimCity and co-founder of its developer Maxis, would scoff at the religious description; he is a stout atheist). Inspiration for the game came from Wright’s original 1984 game Raid on Bungling Bay, a helicopter-simulator turned shoot-’em-up whose success in Japan funded the development of SimCity in 1989. Wright decided that constructing the buildings on the targeted islands was a lot more fun than actually bombing the islands, and set out to find methods of developing his productive urge into a new product. 

Wright eventually based his theories of simulation on three examples: the free-form creativity offered by his early Montessori school education, the computer scientists John Conway’s pioneering work in using cellular automata for increasingly advanced simulations, and M.I.T. professor Jay Wright Forrester’s book Urban Dynamics, which argued for increased implementation of computer simulation in urban planning. Forrester’s work proved to be the most indicative of the game to come; he was the one of the first scientists to simulate a city in a computer model. “Except in his simulation, there was no map; it was just numbers,” Wright told Gamasutra. “It was like population level, number of jobs—it was kind of a spreadsheet model.” 

Fundamentally, SimCity doesn’t stray too far from Forrester’s original simulation in relying on localized and highly visible metrics like crime rates and traffic flow to gauge a user’s success; Wright’s challenge was to gamify this spreadsheet. “I thought it might appeal to a few architects and city planner types,” he said, “but not average people.” His partner and Maxis co-founder Jeff Braun felt differently. “Will showed me the game and he said, ‘No one likes it, because you can’t win,” Braun told the New Yorker in 2006. “But I thought it was great. I foresaw an audience of megalomaniacs who want to control the world.” 

The game, and its more than 20 subsequent iterations and spin-offs, has exceeded $230 million in worldwide revenue for Maxis, prompting the New Yorker to call it “arguably the single most influential work of urban-design theory ever created.” It was so “influential” that, during Herman Cain’s 2011 Republican primary bid, commentators gleefully observed that his proposed tax code exactly mirrored the default rates in any SimCity. 

What is confusing in the game’s theoretical backing, and its reception as a revolution in urban simulation, is that Wright claims he never intended SimCity to be a work of urban-design theory at all. “A lot of the times, we’ll simulate things on purpose inaccurately just for entertainment value,” Wright told Gamasutra. “I realized early on…it’s kind of hopeless to approach simulations…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.” He gives an example of the original SimCity’s nuclear reactors, which, in something closer to an evocation of late 80s paranoia than of actual nuclear infrastructure, exploded at a high frequency for apocalyptic player scenarios. 

It is this contradiction between SimCity as a game or a simulation, as a commentary or a caricature, that produces some of its most interesting possibilities as a method of analysis for urban planning. Neither interpretation is entirely true without the other, and it is the confluence of the two understandings—the game within the real, and the real within the game—that ultimately proves most accurate. 

Later versions of SimCity have advertised themselves as increasingly accurate, with the latest version touting inter-regional trade, advanced systems for energy allocation, and discrete modeling for every vehicle, resource, and pile of trash in users’ SimCities. In an eerie case of cyclical history, Fast Company Magazine enlisted six urban design teams in 2014 to test just how realistic this new attempt at realism could be. Each team utilized their real-world expertise, from creating walkable and sustainable downtown hubs to optimizing industrial development. But despite their best intentions, many of the urban planners became tempted by the immediate gratification some planning decisions offered; they invested quickly and heavily in fossil fuels, failing to build enough pedestrian walkways or to adequately fund education in the process. For SimCity designer Stone Librande, the game’s incentivizing of bad policy is just another step towards the real. “It’s designed to make players make unsustainable decisions. We want people to understand why it happens in the real world,” Librande told Fast Company. But he also doesn’t deny that denying more utopian possibilities is equally part of SimCity’s game logic as well: “As a game designer, a utopia is kind of boring because once you achieve it, there’s no challenge. Once I come up with equilibrium, I have no compulsion to play anymore.”

By necessitating the impossibility of sustainable cities as part of a game, and by identifying this as realistic in the same breath, SimCity stops being a depiction of the ambition of the urban project and starts heralding its certain failure. As Fast Company writer John McDermott says, “Entropy cannot be stopped. A utopia is illusory. Everything is destroyed in time…SimLife sucks, and then you SimDie.” The stakes of SimCity’s Malthusian narrative, however, are much more consequential than video game nihilism, especially when real-world methods of neoliberal urban analysis present themselves as equally accurate, and with similar methods of erasure. Urban designer Daniel Lobo analyzed how urban planning has come to model itself after SimCity through its use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which uses similar tools for modeling, zoning, and census analytics. Schools often use SimCity as a teaching model for urban planning and politics for this reason. However, even more advanced GIS can produce a narrow understanding of urban policy choices, usually centered solely around data. “A GIS by itself cannot make choices on issues like gentrification, race inequality or immigration,” Lobo writes. “This SimCity-like analysis can blind city leaders to problems that lie outside of the system’s geographic or political scope.” 

SimCity’s depiction of homelessness is the logical end of this treatment, where a civic disaster can be seen and explained from the distance of urban metrics. IULM University of Milan professor Matteo Bittanti compiled a 600-page compendium of the backlash against the homeless on SimCity forums in 2013, and the transcript leaves a haunting impression of digital and urban disassociation alike. “I have 0 percent unemployment so it appears these sims are oddly choosing to be homeless. I don’t know if this is a bug...” one user wrote. Another: “Once you have homeless, they hang out, panhandling and eating garbage. Make sure your garbage collection is operating adequately and they will either disappear (die?) or wander off down the highway.” What was at first glance to be callous annoyance at the simulation is increasingly reminiscent of the way neoliberal urbanism problematizes homelessness as a failure of proper metrics, a glitch in an otherwise smoothly controlled machine.  




As in the fallout after the Providence tournament, we can never fully invest in our simulations’ claim to authenticity. Neither can we divest from the concrete, meaningful impact of what we call artificial. What we can do is make both operative, in relation to and against one another.  

Vincent Ocasla, a 22-year-old architecture student living in the Philippines, spent more than three years of his life conceptualizing, planning, and building Magnasanti: an artistic expression of urban economic and spiritual oppression through a SimCity optimized to have the maximum number of residents. The city is a feat of both magnitude and order. None of Magnansanti’s six million residents have to walk farther than their block for their work, so there is no traffic congestion. Due to noxious levels of air pollution, none of the residents live past 50 either. This, in conjunction with a “hyper-efficient police-state,” helps to quell any insurrection resulting from Magnasanti’s miserable conditions. Thus the city is remarkably stable; Magnasanti lasted upwards of 50,000 in game years, with every citizen stuck in a loop of work and rest, backlash and suppression, birth and death. Oscala may be stretching SimCity’s rules, and its grasp on reality, but in doing so produces a much more coherent account of urbanization’s elements of dystopia than any attempt at realism could portray. 

Neil Gaiman, in an essay titled “Simcity,” tried to evoke the possibilities of an urban imaginary: “There are good cities...There are indifferent cities...There are cities gone bad… There are even cities that seem lost… some, lacking a centre, feel like they would be happier being elsewhere, somewhere smaller, somewhere easier to understand.” To better understand our SimCities, perhaps, is for us to stop seeing them as models of here, and start imagining their possibilities elsewhere. 


WILL WEATHERLY B’19 has a twin brother who’s a real SimTyrant.