Ted Friedman on Wed, 3 Feb 1999 18:58:44 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Semiotics of SimCity


Every encounter between reader and text is a kind of exchange. A book lies
inert until it you pick it up and begin to read, extracting meaning out of
the jumble of markings on the page. Once you've begun reading, your
understanding and expectations structure your encounter with each new
passage; that text, in turn, affects your subsequent response to the next
passage. The exchange continues, back and forth, so that a good book can
seem to "suck you in" until you lose track of where you end and the book

This magical connection between reader and book, however, is tenuous, and
difficult to maintain. A moment's distraction, and the words are once
again just markings on a page. In a way, the exchange is always one-sided;
no matter what you do on your end, the text remains the same. What makes
interaction with computers so powerfully absorbing - for better and worse
- is the way computers can transform the exchange between reader and text
into a feedback loop. Every response you make provokes a reaction from the
computer, which leads to a new response, and so on, as the loop from the
screen to your eyes to your fingers on the keyboard to the computer to the
screen becomes a single cybernetic circuit. 

Of course, there's many different kinds of software, and different levels
of engagement with computers. Using a word processor is a fairly
disengaged activity. You see the words appear on the screen as you type,
but the rest is up to you. Surfing the web offers a moderate degree of
engagement, as the term "browsing" implies. The feedback is incremental
rather than fluid - each new page offers a series of discrete options;
each surfing choice brings up a new page of hyperlinks. For a sense of
full immersion, there's nothing like a computer game, in which the
computer responds almost instantaneously to every action of the player,
which in turn provokes a new reaction from the player, and so on. 

If the feedback loop between user and computer is what is most distinctive
about human-computer interaction, then computer games are in many ways the
quintessential software products. Looking more closely at the dynamics of
computer games, then, may help us understand the new interactive
possibilities opened up by computer software. 


A "simulation game," SimCity gives you the opportunity to orchestrate the
building and development of a city. The tremendous success of SimCity
demonstrates the surprisingly compelling power of a particular kind of
human-computer interaction. Here's a description of the original game from
a Maxis catalog: 

SimCity makes you Mayor and City Planner, and dares you to design and
build the city of your dreams. . . . Depending on your choices and design
skills, Simulated Citizens (Sims) will move in and build homes, hospitals,
churches, stores and factories, or move out in search of a better life
elsewhere (Maxis Software Toys Catalog, 1992, p. 4). 

Beginning (in the basic scenario) with an undeveloped patch of land and an
initial development fund, you create a city by choosing where and what
kind of power plants to build; zoning industrial, commercial, and
residential areas; laying down roads, mass transit, and power lines; and
building police stations, fire departments, airports, seaports, and
stadiums. And so on - while playing the game eventually comes to feel
entirely intuitive, the system is quite complex, and the sequel SimCity
2000 offers even more options. Every action is assigned a price, and you
can only spend as much money as you have in the city treasury. The
treasury begins at a base amount, then can be replenished yearly by taxes,
the rate of which is up to you. As you becomes more familiar with the
system, you gradually develop strategies to encourage economic growth,
build up the population of the city, and score a higher "approval rating"
from the Sims. Which of these or other goals the player chooses to pursue,
however, is up to you. 

Computer Gaming as Demystification

Of course, however much "freedom" computer game designers grant players,
any simulation will be rooted in a set of baseline assumptions. SimCity
has been criticized from both the left and right for its economic model.
It assumes that low taxes will encourage growth while high taxes will
hasten recessions. It discourages nuclear power, while rewarding
investment in mass transit. And most fundamentally, it rests on the
empiricist, technophilic fantasy that the complex dynamics of city
development can be abstracted, quantified, simulated, and micromanaged. 

These are not flaws in the game - they are its founding principles. They
can be engaged and debated, and other computer games can be written
following different principles. But there could never be an "objective"
simulation free from "bias." Computer programs, like all texts, will
always be ideological constructions. The fear of some critics of computer
games, though, is that technology may mask the constructedness of any
simulation. Science fiction writer and Byte magazine columnist Jerry
Pournelle argues: 

The simulation is pretty convincing -- and that's the problem, because . .
. it's a simulation of the designer's theories, not of reality. . . . [M]y
point is not to condemn these programs. Instead, I want to warn against
their misuse. For all too many, computers retain an air of mystery, and
there's a strong temptation to believe what the little machines tell us.
''But that's what the computer says'' is a pretty strong argument in some
circles. The fact is, though, the computer doesn't say anything at all. It
merely tells you what the programmers told it to tell you. Simulation
programs and games can be valuable tools to better understanding, but we'd
better be aware of their limits (Pournelle, 1990). 

While Pournelle's warnings are well taken, I think he overestimates the
mystifying power of technophilia. In fact, I would argue that computer
games reveal their own constructedness to a much greater extent than more
traditional texts. Pournelle asks that designers open up their programs,
so that gamers can "know what the inner relationships are." But this is
exactly what the process of computer game playing reveals. Learning and
winning (or, in the case of a non-competitive "software toy," "reaching
one's goals at") a computer game is a process of demystification: one
succeeds by discovering how the software is put together. The player molds
her or his strategy through trial-and-error experimentation to see "what
works" - which actions are rewarded and which are punished. Likewise, the
extensive discourse on game strategy in manuals, magazines, bulletin
boards, and guides like The Official SimCity Planning Commission Handbook
and The SimEarth Bible does exactly what Pournelle asks, exposing the
"inner relationships" of the simulation to help players succeed more

Unlike a book or film which one is likely to encounter only once, a
computer game is usually played over and over. The moment it is no longer
interesting is the moment when all its secrets have been discovered, its
limitations exposed. Game designer and author Chris Crawford describes the
hermeneutics of computer games as fundamentally a process of
deconstruction rather than simple interpretation. David Myers observes,

[A]ccording to Crawford, the best measure of the success of a game is that
the player learns the principles behind that game "while discovering
inevitable flaws in its design . . . A game should lift the player up to
higher levels of understanding" (Myers, 1990, p. 27. Quote from Crawford,
1986, p. 16). 

Simulation and Subjectivity

Playing SimCity is a very different experience from playing an adventure
game like King's Quest. The interaction between player and computer is
constant and intense. Gameplaying is a continuous flow - it can be very
hard to stop, because you're always in the middle of dozens of different
projects: nurturing a new residential zone in one corner of the map,
building an airport in another, saving up money to buy a new power plant,
monitoring the crime rate in a particularly troubled neighborhood, and so
on. Meanwhile, the city is continually changing, as the simulation
inexorably chugs forward from one month to the next (unless you put the
game on pause to handle a crisis). By the time you've made a complete pass
through the city, a whole new batch of problems and opportunities have
developed. If the pace of the city's development is moving too fast to
keep up with, the simulation can be slowed down (i.e., it'll wait longer
in real-time to move from one month to the next); if you're waiting around
for things to happen, the simulation can be speeded up. 

As a result, it's easy slide into a routine with absolutely no down-time,
no interruptions from complete communion with the computer. The game can
grow so absorbing, in fact, your subjective sense of time is distorted
(See Myers, 1992). Myers writes, "from personal experience and interviews
with other players, I can say it is very common to play these games for
eight or more hours without pause, usually through the entire first night
of purchase" (Myers, 1991, p. 343). You look up, and all of a sudden it's

It's very hard to describe what it feels like when you're "lost" inside a
computer game, precisely because at that moment your sense of self has
been fundamentally transformed. Flowing through a continuous series of
decisions made almost automatically, hardly aware of the passage of time,
you form a symbiotic circuit with the computer, a version of the cyborgian
consciousness described by Donna Haraway in her influential "Manifesto for
Cyborgs" (1985). The computer comes to feel like an organic extension of
your consciousness, and you may feel like an extension of the computer

This isn't exactly the way the SimCity user's manual puts it. The manual
describes your role as a "combination Mayor and City Planner." In
Civilization, you're referred to as "Chief," "Warlord," "Prince," "King,"
or "Emperor" (depending on the skill level), and you can adopt the names
of various historical leaders - Abraham Lincoln when playing the
Americans, Genghis Khan when leading the Mongols, and so on. But while
these titles suggest that you imagine yourself playing a specific "role"
along the lines of the "interactive cinema" model, the structures of
identification in simulation games are much more complex. Closer to the
truth is the setup in Populous, where you're simply God - omnipotent
(within the rules of the game), omniscient, and omnipresent. While in some
simulations explicitly about politics, like Hidden Agenda and Crisis in
the Kremlin, your power and perspective is limited to that of a chief of
state, in games like SimCity you're personally responsible for far more
than any one leader - or even an entire government - could ever manage.
You directly controls the city's budget, economic and residential growth,
transportation, police and fire services, zoning, and even entertainment
(the "Sims" eventually get mad if you don't build them a stadium). While
each function is putatively within the province of government control, the
game structure makes you identify as much with the roles of industrialist,
merchant, real estate agent, and citizen, as with those of Mayor or City

For example, in SimCity, the way a new area of town is developed is to
"zone" it. You decides whether each parcel of land should be marked for
residential, industrial, or commercial use. You can't make the zones
develop into thriving homes or businesses; that's determined by the
simulation, on the basis of a range of interconnected factors including
crime rate, pollution, economic conditions, power supply, and the
accessibility of other zones. If you've set up conditions right, an empty
residential zone will quickly blossom into a high-rise apartment complex,
raising land values, adding tax money to the city's coffers, and
increasing the population of the city. If the zone isn't well-integrated
into the city, it may stay undeveloped, or degenerate into a crime-ridden

But while you can't control the behavior putatively assigned to the
residents of the city - "the Sims" - the identification process at the
moment the player zones the city goes beyond simply seeing yourself as
"the Mayor," or even as the collective zoning commission. The cost of
zoning eats up a substantial portion of a city's budget - much more than
it would cost a real city. This is structurally necessary to limit your
ability to develop the city, so that building the city is a gradual,
challenging process (something close to a narrative, in fact). The effect
on gameplay is to see the process less as "zoning" than as buying the
land. Not to say that you think of every SimCity building as being owned
by the government. But at the moment of zoning, you're not playing the
role of mayor, but of someone else - homeowner, landlord, or real estate
developer, perhaps, in the case of a residential zone. 

We could see playing SimCity, then, as a constant shifting of
identifications, depending on whether you're buying land, organizing the
police force, paving the roads, or whatever. This, I think, is part of
what's going on. But this model suggests a level of disjunction - jumping
back and forth from one role to the next - belied by the smooth, almost
trance-like state of gameplay. Overarching these functional shifts, I
think, is a more general state of identification: with the city as a
whole, as a single system. 

What does it mean to identify with an entire city? Perhaps attempting to
map "roles" onto the player's on-screen identification misses the point.
When a player "zones" a land area, she or he is less identifying less with
a role than with a process. And the reason that the decision, and the
continuous series of decisions the gamer makes, can be made so quickly and
intuitively, is that you have internalized the logic of the program, so
that you're always able to anticipate the results of your actions. "Losing
yourself" in a computer game means, in a sense, identifying with the
simulation itself. 

Simulation as Cognitive Mapping

In The Condition of Postmodernity, geographer David Harvey argues for the
primacy of spatialization in constructing cognitive frameworks: We learn
our ways of thinking and conceptualizing from active grappling with the
spatializations of the written word, the study and production of maps,
graphs, diagrams, photographs, models, paintings, mathematical symbols,
and the like (Harvey, 1989, p. 206).Harvey then points out the dilemma of
making sense of space under late capitalism: 

How adequate are such modes of thought and such conceptions in the face of
the flow of human experience and strong processes of social change? On the
other side of the coin, how can spatializations in general . . . represent
flux and change . . . ? (p. 206)

Representing flux and change is exactly what a simulation can do, by
replacing the stasis of 2- or 3- dimensional spatial models with a map
that shifts over time to reflect change. And this change is not simply the
one-way communication of a series of still images, but a continually
interactive process. Computer simulations bring the tools of narrative to
mapmaking, allowing the individual not simply to observe structures, but
to become experientially immersed in their logic. 

Simulations may be our best opportunity to create what Fredric Jameson
calls "an aesthetic of cognitive mapping: a pedagogical political culture
which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense
of its place in the global system" (Jameson, 1991, p. 54) Playing a
simulation means becoming engrossed in a systemic logic which connects a
myriad array of causes and effects. The simulation acts as a kind of
map-in-time, visually and viscerally (as the player internalizes the
game's logic) demonstrating the repercussions and interrelatedness of many
different social decisions. Escaping the prison-house of language which
seems so inadequate for holding together the disparate strands that
construct postmodern subjectivity, computer simulations provide a
radically new quasi-narrative form through which to communicate structures
of interconnection. 

Sergei Eisenstein hoped that the technology of montage could make it
possible to film Marx's Capital. But the narrative techniques of Hollywood
cinema developed in a way which directs the viewer to respond to
individuals rather than abstract concepts. A computer game based on
Capital, on the other hand, is easy to imagine. As Chris Crawford notes,
(paraphrased by David Myers), "game personalities are not as important as
game processes - 'You can interact with a process . . . Ultimately, you
can learn about it'" (Myers, 1990, p. 27. Quote from Crawford, 1986, p.


Friedman, T. (1998). Civilization and Its Discontents: Simulation,
Subjectivity, and Space. Discovering Discs: Transforming Space and Place
on CD-ROM. Ed. Greg Smith. New York: NYU Press, 1998. 

Haraway, Donna. (1985). Manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology, and
socialist feminism in the 1980s. Socialist Review 80, 65-108. 

Harvey, D. (1989). The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, MA: Basil

Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Maxis Software Toys Catalog (1992). Orinda, CA: Maxis. 

Myers, D. (1990a). Chris Crawford and Computer Game Aesthetics. Journal of
Popular Culture, 24(2), 17-28. 

Myers, D. (1991). Computer Game Semiotics. Play and Culture, 1991, 4,

Pournelle, J. (1990, February). Untitled column. Byte. 

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