clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The ideology hiding in SimCity’s black box

Did Urban Dynamics do more than just inspire SimCity?

Clayton Ashley , senior video editor, has been producing and editing videos for Polygon since 2016. He is the lead producer of the tabletop gaming series Overboard.

City simulators like SimCity are serious games — the kind that gets coverage well beyond the video game press. The kind of game that appears in school curriculums. The kind of game your non-gaming uncle has probably spent hundreds of hours in. On the surface, they appear to be exactly what they say: a simulation of a city. But any simulation is only as good as the model it’s built on, and the model underpinning SimCity has quite the history. In the video above, I unboxed the secret ideology hiding in the formula that built SimCity, and how that’s reflected in one of the most popular gaming series of all time.

The story starts with Will Wright, who came up with the idea for a city-building game after he discovered how fun it was just building the levels in his first video game, Raid on Bungeling Bay. It became a game about simulating cities after he started reading more on urban planning, specifically, the book Urban Dynamics, by Jay Wright Forrester.

This book attempted to turn the idea of a city into a computer model, and then used that model to test social policies. Despite the seemingly neutral veneer of its formulas, the book concludes that many of the social policies meant to help cities are in fact detrimental to their success. As Kevin T. Baker noted in his article Model Metropolis, this strain of thought was quite similar to that of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an advisor to President Nixon. “Indeed, Moynihan was an enthusiastic proponent of Forrester’s work and recommended Urban Dynamics to his fellow White House officials. Forrester’s arguments enabled the Nixon Administration to claim that its plans to slash programs created to help the urban poor and people of color would actually, counterintuitively, help these people.”

The book’s model was also very abstract. None of the people in the city belonged to racial, ethnic or gender categories and it left out any representation of the city’s geography, like neighborhoods or parks. When criticized by urban planners and anti poverty activists, Forrester would protest that his model was merely a tool for understanding how cities worked. Any conclusions it made couldn’t be assumed to fit for a particular city unless the model was adjusted to account for its specific situation. At the same time, he was happy to write articles for libertarian magazine Reason using his computer based analysis to broadly argue against social policies and their counterproductive effects.

While Urban Dynamics was meant to be taken very seriously, SimCity was never meant to be a super realistic simulation, à la the flight simulators that are used to train pilots. When asked what he thought people could learn from SimCity, Will Wright said that “it’s kind of hopeless to approach simulations like that, 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.”

Despite this intention, Maxis was happy to use the apparent realism of the series to sell SimCity. The tagline on the back of the SimCity 2000 box read, “If this game was any more realistic, it’d be illegal to turn it off!” This perception extended into the realm of politics: On more than one occasion, politicians have been “tested” in the game to see how well they can manage a pretend city.

A screen shot of a city from SimCity 2000

The impression that the game was a realistic simulation created a demand for more professional simulations, a demand Maxis attempted to meet by creating a division focused on business simulations. You can read more about this in The Obscuritory’s extremely in-depth feature on Maxis’ brief attempt to make true simulations.

One of the products of this venture was SimHealth. This “game” allowed players to test different forms of healthcare reform and how they affected the costs of the system. What made SimHealth more like a true simulation than SimCity was that players could actually view and change the formulas the model was built on. In effect, SimCity was hiding its formulas in a “black box”. This is a concept that comes from computing and engineering, where a system with inputs and outputs doesn’t reveal the internal workings of how it actually went about turning those inputs into outputs.

Scientific simulations, like those used to model climate change, don’t keep their formulas hidden in a black box because replicability is a big part of the scientific method. Without knowing the formulas that a model uses, other scientists can’t verify the output. SimCity’s black box is part of what makes the game a fun challenge, and it encourages the toy box style of play that Will Wright is so fond of. Players are pushed to test things out and see what the results are … they just aren’t supposed to know exactly what assumptions the formulas in the black box are making.

A screenshot from SimCiy 3000 depicting Magnasanti with the same drab buildings repeating in symmetrical patterns.
Magnasanti repeats the same neighborhood design over and over again.

But there are ways for players to probe the black box more directly. The art project Magnasanti revealed the contours of the black box when it attempted to “beat” the game that famously doesn’t have a win state (a decision of Wright’s that initially made it very difficult for the game to find a publisher). Artist Vincent Ocasla accomplished this feat through rigorous trial and error, eventually creating a crime-free city that maintained a stable population of 6 million sims, but only by creating a dystopian nightmare. Few of its citizens live beyond the age of 50. The entire city was a carbon copy of the same dreary neighborhood design, repeated ad infinitum. There are no hospitals, schools, or fire stations: just a robust police force to keep the population in check.

Magnasanti reveals the contours of the black box, showing how citizen health and happiness were ultimately unimportant. What the game considers a successful city doesn’t look at all like one we would actually want to live in.

This is perhaps inherent to the design of city simulators, which start with a blank slate of land that’s only valuable once it’s built up and populated. This is rarely the way modern cities are born: cities are built on history, politics, and racial bias. Revealing this side of how cities grow and change is exactly what Justin Roczniak does on his YouTube channel DoNotEat01. Though he uses Cities: Skylines, a competitor to the SimCity, the game nevertheless inherited much of the same ideas about city simulation.

A highway divides two neighborhoods in a modded version of Cities: Skylines.
Justin Roczniak uses a modded version of Cities: Skylines to explore the ways capitalism and politics shape our modern cities.

Roczniak’s series looks at urban planning from an unabashedly socialist perspective, revealing the ways that things like highway construction, redlining, and gentrification dramatically affected how our modern cities are designed. None of this is really possible in the base game, so Roczniak makes heavy use of mods. These mods represent a potential way to affect what’s going on inside the black box, except that the majority of them make only surface-level changes. The black box is still inaccessible to most players.

How SimCity’s hidden ideology affects the people who play it is difficult to untangle. An article from 1992 quotes a player saying “I became a total Republican playing this game,” and even modern versions of the game contain oddly conservative viewpoints, including a preference for regressive taxation. It’s easy enough to find praise for the game’s big government progressivism from liberal outlets, critiques of its statism from “free market” think tanks, or interrogations of its neoliberal tendencies from socialist magazines.

There’s a lesson to be learned just from knowing the black box exists. Real cities are also guided by formulas hidden in black boxes. Algorithms are used to assess child welfare, evaluate teachers, and even “predict” where crime is likely to occur. When Yale researchers asked a bunch of cities to reveal the algorithms that controlled these systems, most of them either denied the request, gave the researchers everything but the actual formulas, or just didn’t respond at all.

SimCity’s black box may just be inside a game, but it’s important to know that it exists. Because if you don’t know what’s inside the box, then you don’t know what it’s capable of doing to you.