March 29, 2013

An architecture critic plays Sim City

Justin Davidson, New York - The game is a totalitarian dream. The player-mayor single-handedly scatters parks and runs utilities. There is no Con Ed to blame for service failures, only a Department of Utilities: me. Education policy flows from functionaries lodged in a monstrous, space-consuming building that takes its marching orders from a centralized administration: me.

The wizards at Electronic Arts seem to understand cities as market-driven algorithms. Input people, rules, and resources, and the results are stability, growth, and wealth. There is some rough justification for this attitude. The physicist Geoffrey West has plowed through vast quantities of urban data from all over the globe—frequency of illnesses, miles of roadway—and shown that cities become more efficient as they grow. Moreover, efficiency increases at the same rate everywhere, suggesting that you could predict the behavior of cities with one universal equation. It’s a mechanistic worldview guaranteed to delight a programmer, but West’s theory also has a second, squishier part. Cities, he points out, are physical manifestations of human interactions. The data reveal those social dynamics, but do not necessarily shape them. From Lagos to Los Angeles to Mumbai, the physical world is experiencing a great rushing tide of urbanization, which creates huge environmental problems and at the same time concentrates the creativity needed to solve them. In the Sims’ world, though, the masses migrate and settle, then file passively through their lives. SimCity’s engineers have repeated the same mistake made by countless potentates, forgetting that cities are forged both by master builders and the people who hack their grand plans.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

cities are a cancer on the face of the earth; studies like this don't account for the stripping of the surrounding countryside and countries to support unsustainable cities...
the mountaintops being removed, the rivers being polluted, the forests being cleared are to support unsustainable cities...

Uncle Goat said...

Nothing like reading way too much into something to sound intelligent. SimCity is the electronic equivalent of playing with a doll house. Houses and roads and the layout of the "city" is just part of it as you also get to design the the "people" you play. You're not the central government, you're god. You can make your characters' lives easy or hard or downright insanely savage -- all taking place in a suburban setting. Only a fool -- or someone with an article to write -- is going to view SimCity as anything else beyond a way to waste several hours.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Goat.

As to anon's "cities are a cancer", I'd suggest he read Jane Jacobs's books on the subject. Cities concentrate expertise and make their occupants richer on many levels. The trick is to size and site them correctly.