Seeing Like SimCity
Mark Sample recently posted a short talk he gave at the 2011 MLA, called “Criminal Code: The Procedural Logic of Crime in Videogames.” There is a lot in this little talk that’s worth reading. (I applaud Mark’s call for humanists to do close readings of code, something we tried to do in my Digital History class last semester.) One bit that jumped out at me, just a tangent really, was a quote from the computer scientist Alan Kay, calling the famous game SimCity a “pernicious … black box.”
Kay was responding to news (this was back in 2007) that an open source version of SimCity would be bundled with every laptop distributed by the One Laptop Per Child project. “My main complaint about this game,” Kay wrote to the programmers adapting SimCity for the XO, “has always been the rigidity, and sometimes stupidity, of its assumptions (counter crime with more police stations) and the opaqueness of its mechanism (children can’t find out what its actual assumptions are, see what they look like, or change them to try other systems dynamics). So I have used SimCity as an example of an anti-ed[ucational] environment despite all the awards it has won. It’s kind of an air-guitar environment.”
I found myself nodding my head. SimCity is a beloved game (or toy?) and one would think that everyone at a blog like Play the Past would be gung ho about the use of simulation games for educational purposes. And mostly we are! But there is a danger in using simulations to teach or model history, and I believe it goes deeper than many of our conversations on this subject admit. Debates around the use of simulation games for education typically center on either their “accuracy” (a problematic concept) or on the ideologies they appear to endorse. Is SimCity right that the only way to counter crime is to put more police on the streets? Does Civilization turn history into a linear saga of technological progress and military expansion? Does Colonization whitewash the history of imperialism? Whenever I raise questions about simulations and history, people assume I am raising these concerns. And those questions are worth asking. But ultimately, I would argue, they are missing a deeper point.
In his (terrific) post about Colonization, Trevor made a nice point about the basic banality of the game: “It quickly became boring,” he said. “As you become mired in the banality of logistical shuffling, you are struck with the ennui of the bureaucratic evil at the core of the game. … Your “glorious” conquest is rewarded by endless project management and accounting: a sort of spreadsheet of cultural domination.” Trevor then cited Alexander Galloway’s “Allegories of Control,” but in my opinion did not spell out the full import of Galloway’s critique. Galloway does indeed rattle off a critique of the ideologies enacted in games like Civ and Colonization. Yet if I’m reading him right, he has a more profound reservation about the simulation of history:
The more one begins to think that Civilization is about a certain ideological interpretation of history (neoconservative, reactionary, or what have you) … the more one realizes that it is about the absence of history altogether, or rather, the transcoding of history into specific mathematical models. “History is what hurts,” Jameson wrote—history is the slow, negotiated, struggle of individuals together with others in their material reality. The modelling of history in computer code, even using Meier’s sophisticated algorithms, can only ever be a reductive exercise. So “history” in Civilization is precisely the opposite of history, not because the game fetishizes the imperial perspective, but because the diachronic details of lived life are replaced by the synchronic homogeneity of code pure and simple.
That’s chewy language, but it says a mouthful. “History in Civilization is precisely the opposite of history.” In simpler language, I think what Galloway is arguing is that a simulation’s game play erases its own historical content. Learning to play means learning to ignore all the stuff that makes it a game about history and not about, say, fighting aliens. The more you play, the less you think about history, as you learn to interact directly with the game’s algorithms. One could program a different game with a different set of ideological assumptions—Galloway imagines a “People’s Civilization” game by Howard Zinn—and see precisely the same de-historicizing effect. Mastering the simulation game involves a journey away from reality towards abstraction, away from history towards code.
Here’s how I’ve tried to make this point in the past. The rules of a game trump its framing fiction. The procedures trump its context. The board game Monopoly was once a radical critique of landlords and capitalists, designed by the Quaker Lizzie Magie to illustrate the ideas of Henry George. But the game’s procedures contain no real critique of capitalism, and when the original context is forgotten, it is the procedures that remain.
Once again, I’ve written myself into a spot where I have to reassert that I really do like computer games! I love Civilization. Indeed, I have refrained from getting Civ 5 because I know exactly how much, and for how many hours at a time, I will love it. I use the Civ series as a motif in my “big history” class, and I have my students imagining alternatives to its “tech tree” as we speak. And yet I wonder. Is there something ahistorical–and maybe even sinister–about any top-down simulation of history’s complexity?
“I could probably have done something similar – depicting the awesome regimentation and brutality of our society – with a series of paintings on a canvas, or through hideous architectural models. But it wouldn’t be the same as doing it in the game, for the reason that I wanted to magnify the unbelievably sick ambitions of egotistical political dictators, ruling elites and downright insane architects, urban planners and social engineers.”
–Vincent Ocasla, on his SimCity creation “Magnasanti” (see video above)
Mark Sample’s answer to this question is the same one suggested by Alan Kay, and adopted by the OLPC project. It’s the same one I tend to endorse. Open the black box. Expose and debate its assumptions. Teach kids to hack the simulation. The conversations and questions that entails will be, I think, far more productive learning experiences than any simulation alone. But does that fully address the problem? If you open up a simulation, hack it, tweak it, and then recompile it with your own assumptions and algorithms inside, you still end up with a simulation. You’re still engaged in top-down systems thinking, in turning history into code.
Trevor’s post also mentioned James Scott’s Seeing Like A State. That book is a catalog of the horrors inflicted by twentieth-century attempts to apply the top-down “high modernist” systems logic of Civ or SimCity to real life. I recently read a history of wargaming called The Bomb and the Computer, by Andrew Wilson. Published in 1968, it ends with an angry indictment of war games and gamers for their role in steering and distorting U.S. strategy in Vietnam. It contains some flowcharts attributed to Clark Abt, the man who coined the phrase “serious games.” The flowcharts are from a counter-insurgency simulation game run by Abt for the Pentagon in 1964 and 1965. They appear to be decision trees by which counter-insurgent forces can determine which Vietnamese villages to bribe, communicate with, or “terrorize” in order to secure the most loyalty. Should any of this give us pause?
I don’t think Clark Abt is a bad guy. I don’t think simulations are eeeevil because they were used to plan and fight (however badly) a monstrous war or two. But the games we play have histories and logics and roots that run deeper than the conquistadors on the box or even the way they model crime.