The Sim City: a simulated city, between fantasy and reality [3/6]
As we saw in the previous article, it took the "city-as-backdrop" years to move towards an increasingly advanced simulation of urbanity, to the point of almost being confused with reality. However, one should not forget that another urban figure was playing, from the start of videogame’s first steps, with that niche of the "simulated city"... This time literally. Here, the simulated city is not confined to a non-interactive backdrop: on the contrary, it is at the heart of the game and the gameplay, which even takes its name directly from it. You’ve recognized it, the figure of "Sim City" will be honored in this second decryption: "simulation of the city" or "simulated city", the nuance is unclear, and promises interesting implications for real representations of contemporary urbanity.
The Making of the city (and maybe more)
Released in 1989, SimCity gave the videogame industry its pedigree by shaping a full-fledged genre: the city builder, which, as its name suggests, allows the player to take control of the destiny of a city starting from nothing. The success of the game was incredible, and has since led to numerous iterations, from SimCity 2000 (1993) to SimCity Societies (2007), without forgetting the recently announced next episode in 2013.
What’s more, the game has contributed to the development of other predominantly urban simulations (if not truly urban), in particular games that manage mobility: consider, for example, Cities in Motion, a simulation of urban transportation networks, or the famous life simulations derived from the original game, The Sims. Let’s not forget either the direct competition in this niche of pure city builder, like Cities XLl, which hopes, like so many others before it, to find a place against the yardstick of SimCity. The list is obviously not exhaustive, as the games have multiplied and diversified since the first SimCity...
What to remember from this profusion of titles? With the increasing power of processors, simulations have become more complex, to the point that their realism competes with their counterparts in the real world. This is what led Erwan Cario to evoke a city designed "as a complex system" in the typology he had proposed at a Transit-City workshop on the subject, and from which we will draw directly in this series of articles. SimCity indeed tastes and looks like the complexity that is the salt of the real city. But the simulation of the city is complex only in name, a logical consequence of the inherent limitations of a game that is "pre-programmed" by definition.
The complex but familiar city
Like the city-as-backdrop, the first SimCity’s relied on a certain caricature of urbanity, for two main reasons. On the one hand, the constraints of the time automatically limited the ability to multiply at will the urban morphologies, both on an aesthetic and management level. The original city was thus relatively standardized, an imitation of the American city as perceived by the collective imagination: residential neighborhoods, neoclassical buildings, etc. But, secondly, this standardization addressed the immersion issue, already stressed with regards to the city-as-backdrop, but also and especially with gameplay.
The purpose is twofold: to enable the Western player (i.e. one who has assimilated these codified representations) to navigate and at the same time, ensure the player’s enjoyment by allowing him to manage a city that’s "complex", certainly, but not necessarily "complicated". In other words, to make a seemingly complex city familiar. In that sense, the original Sim city can be seen as an ode to "Simplexity", which was namely theorized in France by Alain Berthoz in an eponymous book (2009): "A property of the living to be able to reduce without changing it the complexity of treatment processes by a combination of simple rules" [source]
From the Sim City to the Smart city: the fantasy of a programmed city
Logically, this "Simplexity" also feeds contemporary urban thought... which even seems to be modeled on the precepts of the Sim city. Some observers had fun for example watching Herman Cain, a former Republican U.S. presidential candidate, propose a tax system similar to the one defined by default in SimCity 4 ("Plan 999", in reference to the percentages of the three primary taxes). In response, publisher Electronic Arts had actually put the SimCity games on sale... for $ 9.99.
But the influences between real and virtual, which are real communicating vessels in this highly urban niche, go far beyond this simple anecdote. Thus the fantasy of a "simulated city" has for some years extended past the boundaries of just video games, eventually becoming a founding precept of the current urban prospective. It is the advent of Smart city, a "smart city" based on optimal management of urban resources and networks. There’s only one problem: the Smart city envisions the city the same way as a Sim city, by wanting it to be programmed and programmable in the extreme… at the risk of seeing that complexity, however necessary, reduced to the state of simplistic and adjustable variables.
In that perspective, it is not surprising to see IBM, pioneer of the Smart city, appropriating the imagination of the city builders with City One, a serious game in the shape of a marketing campaign. That first try, which was launched in 2010, foreshadowed further iterations that would attempt to further refine that predictable "system" that the city should be in this fantasy concept. But a simple game, advanced though it may be, can never do justice to the complexity of the city – which instead needs to be preserved. "Sim city is not a city", researcher Nicolas Nova synthesized in a Madrid presentation devoted to the Smart city.
The best evidence undoubtedly comes from SimCity itself: the "perfect city" that the game makes possible to produce thus doesn’t look like anything, as demonstrated by the player who managed to push the program to its limits. SimCity is not programmed to simulate a city, but to suggest it to the player. A sizeable nuance when fantasy is confused with reality.