The debate over the Southwest Light Rail Transit project has been a bitter one, but it’s one that video gamers may be able to investigate from the comfort of their living rooms and home offices this week.
That’s the promise offered by the quarter-century-old video game series SimCity—the latest version of which comes out Tuesday. The game offers a variety of transportation options and a development model that centers on how well a virtual community’s transportation corridors are operating.
There’s just one problem, though. Just as critics and supporters in the Southwest LRT debate have their biases, the SimCity model has its own assumptions, as well as simplifications made for the sake of gameplay. The result can be a less-than-faithful representation of the real world.
Related Content: Click here to see how gamers think simulations like SimCity influence their opinions on public policy (or don’t). Click here to find out how two simulation designers model reality in their games.
There’s nothing nefarious in SimCity’s approach to reality. Like any art form, games filter the real world through a certain lens. The models that these games run on rely on conscious choices by their design teams: How do people respond to air pollution? What effects do roads have on development? Is light rail or bus rapid transit better?
“When designing a simulation/strategy game it's always difficult to choose the right balance between realism and fun,” Chris Sawyer, a Scottish game designer whose work includes transportation-focused titles like Transport Tycoon and Chris Sawyer's Locomotion, wrote in an e-mail interview. “I really only set out to create a fun game to play, a positive game where you are rewarded for good construction and management skills.”
The elements that a designer includes—or doesn’t include—reflect both the designers’ worldview and accommodations to gameplay needs. And while the real world may not have a straightforward formula to answer the questions above, computer models depend on it.
Locomotion is a good example. Sawyer designed the game so that all forms of transportation have pros and cons: Roads are for smaller quantities of cargo or when a budget is small. Trains are for transporting a large amount of cargo over medium distances. Ships are for times when cost is important and speed is not, while planes are perfect for the inverse scenario.
“There shouldn't be any worthless transport types in the game,” Sawyer wrote. “They all have their uses.”
In the real world, though, some options may simply not be economical or their relative strengths may be skewed in favor of one mode of transportation (which is precisely the point light rail critics and supporters are debating).
In the end, players fiddle with the variables, trying to find the optimum balance—at least according to the formula that the designers created.
More Than Just a Games
By itself, that’s not a problem; indeed, it’s a joy that’s consumed hours of my life. But when it comes to relating simulations to the real world, games and their models demand the same level of critical thinking reserved for movies, literature and TV shows.
“For me personally, I can't wait to see what happens when the game is released, and people with real scientific experiments give it a run for its money,” he concluded.
The editor conceded that his experiment didn’t mean much of anything—then added that it did give him “a sense for what could be accomplished with SimCity if put in the right hands.”
Dismissing these as “merely” games ignores the full extent to which they’ve been embraced. SimCity was mind-blowing when it first arrived, but it’s now just one among many simulation games that range from the light-hearted to the wonky.
When taking a local government course at the University of South Carolina, I had to devise goals for a city, use SimCity to try to attain those goals and then submit a report and my saved game to the professor.
“In the classroom, SimCity will be more than a game—it will be a way for the next generation of leaders to hone their skills through urban planning, environmental management and socio-economic development,” the company promises.
An Old Problem
Worries about the conclusions that people might draw from the series are not new. In the spring 1994 issue of The American Prospect, author Paul Starr described railing against the lack of mixed-use development in early versions of SimCity. Mixed-use development is now a staple of urban planning.
“In short, Sim City could be hailed as a triumph of reactionary brainwashing—in that it instilled in a generation of 1990s teen geeks all the worst assumptions of 1960s city planning,” Walker wrote.
With the latest version not due out until Tuesday, it’s not clear how the new design team addressed these issues.
The game does include a host of transportation options—including small shuttle buses, streetcars, light rail, heavy trains, ferries and airports.
Dan Stapleton—an editor of the videogame website IGN who played early builds of SimCity and is reviewing the game—said he didn’t think the game favored any form of transportation over another. He added that it felt like designers aimed for a balance between transit options, with no mode overpowered or underpowered.
“I ride around on Muni in San Francisco quite a bit, so my experiences are very mixed in the real world,” said Stapleton, speaking Tuesday before he had a chance to tryy the final code. “(SimCity) is kind of a perfect world situation where it doesn’t account for things breaking down. It doesn’t account for labor strikes or anything like that. But in terms of building the network, I’d say it’s fairly accurate.”
EA did not respond to repeated requests for comment— but Guillaume Pierre, the game’s lead gameplay scripter, did answer a post Patch made on the official SimCity message boards.
“We try to represent the various aspects of issues as fairly and accurately as possible while keeping the game fun, balanced and challenging,” he wrote. “Eventually we'd like our players to shape their own opinions about benefits and drawbacks of the ways to solve problems in their cities, and ask questions to their own civic leaders.”