Wednesday, February 20, 2013

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New SimCity Used to Recreate Player's Local Traffic Woes: Super Neat, but Not Super Realistic

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Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

A contributor to Gamasutra approached last weekend's one-hour SimCity beta with an interesting plan in mind. Unlike a lot of players he wasn't trying to find the magic planning layout needed to maximize city population, or the most efficient arrangement of residential, commercial, and industrial zones--Mike Rose was trying to figure out how a town with a relatively modest population of approx. 15000 could have rush hour traffic jams that would give urban centers a run for their money.

The results are incredibly interesting and seem surprisingly accurate, but that doesn't mean we should expect SimCity to be capable of providing serious solutions to real life urban planning issues... Especially not at launch. Here's why:

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Rose started by bringing up Google Maps to get a good aerial view to build from. He placed his roads and zoned the town as accurately as he could, and waited to see what would happen. The town's population maxed out at a figure not far off from reality, but the traffic still flowed smoothly. At that point he had to take a nearby town (which features a casino) into account. Because SimCity restricts the size of your city he had to do a little juggling to fit the neighbouring town in, but once it was in place the simulated traffic patterns soon mirrored real life. Lending even more credibility to this simulation is the fact that Main Street businesses began closing once the two towns were connected, also very true to the local reality.

Everything came together, right down to the author's own personal traffic shortcuts, so it's incredibly tempting to forget one simple thing: SimCity is still a game.

By that I don't mean that game scenarios shouldn't be taken seriously or that simulations in particular have no value for real life problem solving, but rather that there is a difference between a simulation game and pure simulation. Even when the simulation seems to line up perfectly, there are other factors beneath the surface to take into account, namely that in most simulation games the hard data is being cut with a healthy amount of other... stuff... to make it more playable and fun.

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Rose says himself "that [this simulation] means absolutely nothing."

"This was but a mere video game experiment," he continues, "And nothing here even closely resembles scientific evidence to support my theories, nor can it be used to diagnose the issues. Everything I did was hugely vague and nothing at all like real life."

It's hard to pin down what the balance between simulation and game really is in SimCity's (without knowing significantly more about urban engineering than I do), but what I do know is that previous SimCity games have a (very intimidating) following devoted to tweaking and modding the games to be as realistic as possible. They can talk at length about which game in the series had the best (or the worst) vanilla traffic algorithms and what the ideal urban models are to maximize land saturation, and even they never seem 100% satisfied with these simulations. If anyone can bring the newest SimCity closer to reality it will be them, but it will take time and it still may never be the truly accurate testing tool that we want it to be.

Simulation success stories can be incredibly seductive to virtual world and gaming enthusiasts because they seem to validate our interests, but while sim games can potentially point us in the right direction it's important to remember that they're still simplifying things (or even altering them) well beyond reality... Even if we can't see it on the surface.

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Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.


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Perhaps Roses findings are valid in this case, yet my students found the tool to be "good enough" in the company of readings about urban development, way back in 1992 with Sim City 2000. Five of their six cities failed for typically real-life reasons; there were no alien attacks involved.

The most hilarious case was a nearly bankrupt city that floated bonds for a big-budget sports stadium, only to see it flop.

I hope those tweaking Sim City are reading studies of America's failure with suburbia, notably James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere.

Kunstler and The New Urbanists with whom he is often associated propose a model that will get us past the decline of malls and big-box shopping, as we order more online and move into denser and walkable communities.

Arcadia Codesmith

All models are simplifications, by definition. If it's not simplified, it's no longer a model; it's the real thing.

As a mass-market game, the SimCity series isn't at the same level as high-end urban planning simulations, but out of the box it really isn't half bad, and it HAS been used to train real-world urban planners.

I'm not saying your caveats aren't valid, but don't short-sell this or any other virtual world "game" as a legitimate tool for simulating and understanding real world issues. The approach has its limits, but it also has its uses.

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