Simulating Detroit, A City with Cars and Crime but No Races
Detroit bears the distinction of being one of the few cities in the world whose name alone stands in for an entire industry.
Ford, Chrysler, GM. And in the distant past, all those smaller manufacturers gobbled up by the Big Three—Lincoln, Buick, Chevrolet, and so on—and then those even smaller companies that simply died out. Packard, Hudson, Rickenbacker.
When we think about Detroit, we think about cars. Through the metonymic chain of associations, talk of cars invariably leads us to the economy. When the automotive industry is in the dumps, the economy is in the dumps. And when the automotive industry picks up, surely this means the economy is recovering as well.
This was the message of Chrysler’s highly acclaimed SuperBowl ad, featuring Clint Eastwood:
“The people of Detroit know a little something” about hard times, growls Eastwood. “But they all pulled together,” he concludes, “and Motor City is fighting again.”
Motor City, fighting again.
I’ve been thinking about this commercial lately because I’ve been writing about Micropolis, the open-source version of SimCity that was included on the Linux-based computers in the One Laptop per Child program. Designed by the legendary Will Wright, SimCity was released by Maxis in 1989 on the popular Commodore 64. Electronic Arts now owns the rights to the SimCity brand, and in 2008, EA released the source code of the original game under a GNU GPL License. The game was redubbed Micropolis—Wright’s original name for his city simulation—and it’s now playable in Linux, in a browser, and even on Facebook.
What does Micropolis have to do with the Motor City?
Micropolis—and SimCity before it—is one of the few videogames ever to have portrayed Detroit. The original SimCity included a handful of scenarios a player could run, preset cities teetering on the brink of some devastating disaster the player would have to overcome. Detroit was one of these scenarios. And to a player in the late eighties and early nineties, the Detroit scenario (which is named snro.666 in the game code) would be the most relatable scenario geographically and chronologically. The other preset scenarios were either too historical (San Francisco, 1906), too foreign (Tokyo, 1957), or too futuristic (Rio de Janeiro, 2047).
But Detroit. 1972. It’s right there in the game, close to home, mapped out in 8-bit graphics:
The crisis the player inherits when opening the 1972 Detroit scenario is all too familiar:
By 1970, competition from overseas and other economic factors pushed the once “automobile capital of the world” into recession. Plummeting land values and unemployment then increased crime in the inner-city to chronic levels.
You have 10 years to reduce crime and rebuild the industrial base of the city.
It’s remarkable how this narrative setup glosses over what had happened just five years earlier in Detroit—the real Detroit. The 1967 12th Street race riot. Sparked by a police raid of an after-hours bar that catered to activists in the Black Power movement, the riots eventually led Michigan governor (and Mitt’s father) George Romney to call in the National Guard. By the end of the riot, dozens were dead, thousands were arrested, and hundreds and hundreds of stores and homes were destroyed. Time dramatized the chaos on the cover of its August 4, 1967 issue:
What’s missing from Time‘s cover (and indeed, its coverage of the story) is what we usually think about with Detroit. Cars. They’re what Clint Eastwood uses to measure the American spirit. And cars are primarily what SimCity emphasizes too. The automotive industry is in trouble, and you the player must “rebuild the industrial base of the city.” If you don’t, then you’ll end up with greater crime. Not unemployment. Not race problems. Crime.
Just look what happens two years into my own inept treatment of Detroit’s challenges.
Crime is out of control. There are mobs. There is looting. The National Guard may soon appear. But what’s not there is race. The riots in my 1974 version of Detroit are virtually whitewashed. They are riots in the abstract. There are no people involved. Only algorithmically-determined mobs. If one could wish for an idealized riot—devoid of the race and class tensions that have historically been at the root of American civil disturbances—then the riot in my 1974 Detroit is it.
Of course, all simulations reduce complexity, stripping away factors and variables to reveal a core system that is constrained by computational, historical, and ideological limitations. That’s what simulations do.
The best simulations strive to find the essence of the system being modeled. In the case of Detroit in the early seventies, race—probably more so than even automobiles—was an essential aspect of the city. Yet it’s not here. In SimCity/Micropolis, race is deflected onto—conflated with—concerns about crime.
Will Wright was once asked by a journalist how much urban planning theory, demography, criminology, and sociology went into SimCity. Wright replied simply, “I just kind of optimized for game play.” It’s a disingenuous answer, almost a disavowal of intention. But Wright’s response, rather than foreclosing questions about the simulation, invites us to think further about what exactly optimization means in the context of a game. And when we head in that direction we must remember, just because the game appears to be colorblind doesn’t mean we have to be.
(Inside Michigan Central Station photograph courtesy of Flickr user Sean_Marshall / Creative Commons Licensed)