Understanding Video Games text-book
Virtual Real(i)ty: SimCity and the Production of Urban Cyberspace

Date posted: May 18, 2006
Updated: Oct 23, 2006

By Shawn Miklaucic

Until recent years, with the exception of research on violence, computer and video games have attracted little academic analysis despite their enormous impact on popular culture; estimates of total sales for computer gaming hardware and software exceeded $6 billion in 1999 and 2000, and are soon expected to overtake revenues for the film industry. While social scientists and the media have focused on violent games and their relation to youth violence, computer games and the culture around them have a much broader scope, subject matter, and influence than the media and effects research would suggest. Of the top 20 computer games sold in 1999, only one was a ´first-person shooter´ game of the sort made infamous by the Columbine shooting. Instead, the most popular games consist of classic board games and video arcade translations (Monopoly), tie-ins from other media (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) and strategic simulation games like Civilization.

This paper takes up the genre of strategic computer simulations, often referred to as “god games,” that has gained popularity in recent years. Some examples (right) are Gettysburg!, The Sims, Age of Empires, and SimCity 3000.1
One of the most popular of these simulations is a series called SimCity, the most recent installment being SimCity 3000, the top-selling computer game of 1999. SimCity 3000, along with its several predecessors, is more an interactive simulation than a game. There is no winning or losing, per se, nor does one play against an opponent. Instead, the game casts the player in the role of ´SimMayor´ of a fledgling city. The goal of the simulation is to manage an urban environment and allow it to flourish. A piece in Time magazine details its appeal and influence:

This week in Washington seventh- and eighth-graders from across the country will compete in the finals of the annual future-cities contest, judged by a panel of engineers. The contest’s software of choice? Sim City, of course. “They should introduce this game to all classrooms,” says Hayes Lord, a New York City planner.
Lord’s boss, Rudy Giuliani, would no doubt agree. He was in his first term when he found his son Andrew, then 7, playing Sim City. Andrew had placed police stations on every street corner. The crime rate was zero. Giuliani Sr. watched, fascinated, and began making suggestions on taxation, zoning, and so forth. Finally, Andrew wheeled around. “Dad,” he told the mayor of New York, “this is my city.” (Taylor, 1999)

Gameplay in SimCity 3000 usually begins with an empty grid of land on which to begin one’s city. A large Internet community has sprung up, however, which posts cities to the web for others to download and explore.

Often, these cities are painstakingly crafted replicas of real locations, as you can see here with “Manhattim,” complete with its own Statue of Liberty. Generally, though, one begins with an empty landscape, establishing a foundation by building roads, zoning districts, and providing power and water to the zoned grids.

After a basic infrastructure has been set, the simulation is turned on, and your city begins to grow, with Sims building homes, travelling to work, shopping, and, most importantly, paying taxes. The remainder of the ´game´ is a juggling process. If there aren´t enough homes, more residential zones need to be built. If there aren´t enough jobs, more industrial and commercial zones are needed. And the quality of life of the Sims requires lots of other familiar services: law enforcement, parks and recreation, fire fighting, hospitals, public transportation, etc. For those of you familiar with Urbana, you can see approximations of the library, county courthouse, and fire station. The large unoccupied commercial zone in the center of town befittingly represents Lincoln Square Mall.
Monitoring all the necessary information to keep things running is central to the success of your city. A vast array of charts, graphs and interfaces allow you to monitor cash flow, distribution of public services, pollution, crime, etc.

Again, the key to success lies in keeping sims happy, and the game allows something that many a real-world mayor would love´a map that shows the ´aura´ of the city, which translates into a kind of happiness-meter.

As you can see, Industrial zones create pollution, which makes Sims unhappy. By looking at these maps, I can see that my virtual Urbana is in need of pollution measures.

My project involves examining this virtual urban space and how we can best approach it theoretically. How do we make sense of the urban cyberspace that SimCity produces? The word simulation implies a certain representational correspondence´a good simulation will generally be one that models well what we perceive in its real world counterpart. Paul Virilio has suggested, however, that in looking at the virtual, we should think of substitution rather than simulation. Sim Cities can be said to mimic the real world, but in other senses they create an ontological site wholly separate from it. In what follows, I want to suggest three interrelated approaches to such sites. First, I want to pose the question: can computer games such as SimCity be considered aides in what Fredric Jameson calls ´cognitive mapping´? To consider this question, I shall take up two ways of thinking about virtual spaces and their representation: Henri Lefebrve´s work on the production of space and its elaboration by Edward Soja, and David Bolter and Richard Grusin´s concept of remediation.

Jameson and Cognitive Mapping

“Not whether the street fighter or urban guerrilla can win against the weapons and technology of the modern state, but rather precisely where the street is in the superstate, and, indeed, whether the old-fashioned street as such still exists in the first place in that seamless web of marketing and automated production which makes up the new state: such are the theoretical problems of Marxism today…”
- Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form

Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping (1991, 1992) is central to my understanding of the ways in which new media and interactive software can be understood. Jameson proposes the need for what he calls “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping.” Jameson borrows the term ´cognitive mapping´ from Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960). It refers to the conceptual maps that people develop to make sense of the increasingly complex urban landscapes they inhabit. Lynch used the term to refer to the mental maps American urban dwellers used to navigate their surroundings. Jameson uses ´cognitive mapping´ in a broader sense related to postmodern subjects´ difficulties in grasping the totality of systems that enmesh them. Cognitive maps “enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole” (Jameson, 1991, p. 51). Sean Homer elaborates:

The overriding problem with postmodern hyperspace, for Jameson, is our inability to conceive (or indeed the impossibility of conceiving) our situation as individual subjects within [the] new global network of multinational capital. This space has become unrepresentable and we are left with the ability to grasp only our most immediate surroundings. What is required is a new form of political aesthetic which places spatial issues at the centre of its concerns. Jameson proposes the notion of ‘cognitive mapping’ for this as yet untheorized aesthetic. (Homer, p. 138).

My larger project involves an analysis of how new media such as computer games can contribute to such an aesthetic of cognitive mapping, or if, instead, they contribute to our spatial confusion. Jameson specifically references new media technologies and their uncertain role in this project:

Since the world system of late capitalism (or postmodernity) is´inconceivable with the computerized media technology which eclipses its former spaces and faxes an unheard-of simultaneity across its branches, information technology will become virtually the representational solution as well as the representational problem of this world system´s cognitive mapping. (1992, 10, emphasis mine)

Does SimCity offer us a more nuanced and complex way of understanding urban space, one that allows us to understand our place in other ´real´ cities more effectively? Or does SimCity substitute its sanitized right angles and simplistic management processes for hopelessly more complex real world environments, further mediating and mystifying urban social relations? To the call for political actors to ´take to the streets,´ Jameson suggests that simply finding the streets in the postmodern world will require as yet undeveloped modes of representational mapping and aesthetic practices. Put another way, when the WTO begins meeting in virtual conference rooms, will there be virtual Starbucks outside at which virtual protestors will throw virtual bricks? These are the kinds of political questions that god games and virtual cities raise.

Lefebvre, Soja, and the Production of Space
In The Production of Space, Lefebvre lays out what he calls a ´trialectics´ as a way to analyze space and its social effects. Risking oversimplification, this trialectics can be understood as consisting of three types of space: Perceived Space, Conceived Space, and Lived Space. Edward Soja renames these First, Second and ThirdSpace, and this list gives some sense of what each entails.

Perceived

Conceived

Lived

Spatial Practice

Representations of Space

Spaces of Representation

First Space

Second Space

Third Space

Physical Space

Mental Space

Social Space

Surfaces

Transparency

Active Experience

Materialism

Idealism

Imaginative

Visual

Geometric

Phallic
Drawn from Lefebvre, The Production of Space, and Soja, Thirdspace.

Perceived space is the space of surfaces. It is material, socially produced, and empirically verified. It is also the space of production and reproduction´since, for Lefebvre, space is not given but produced, it always rests on social and physical processes for its continued existence.

Conceived space is made up of the mental representations of space that we generate. Euclidean geometry, diagrams and maps of all kinds constitute this Second Space. It is the ideal, abstract space that we mentally imagine and then apply to the world.
What Soja calls Thirdspace is more difficult to define, and he has devoted an entire book to its consideration. For present purposes, the key elements of lived space are that it both includes perceived and conceived space, and yet exists in opposition to them as well. It exists as a third element to the binary opposition of perceived and conceived, physical and mental space. Soja calls Thirdspace a ´political choice,´ a ´lived space as a strategic location from which to encompass, understand, and potentially transform all spaces simultaneously´ (68). Always concrete, Thirdspace resists the reductive abstractions of both materialist physical and idealist mental space. It is the site where our perceived and conceived notions of space meet and are lived, altered, contested and combined.

Keeping Lefebvre´s rubric in mind, I turn now to a brief discussion of hypermediation before returning to an application of both these conceptual frameworks to SimCity.

The Logic of Hypermediacy
God games can be differentiated from other genres such as the first-person shooter by what J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin, in their book Remediation: Understanding New Media, call “hypermediacy,” which refers to the formal qualities of the computer interface. Bolter and Grusin (1999) assert that new interactive media forms subscribe to a representational logic they call “remediation,” and that two elements generate this logic: immediacy and hypermediacy.
Immediacy refers to the claims of direct referentiality and simulation that suffuse much of the discourse around virtual reality. Computer simulations are increasingly evaluated by criteria of immediacy–first-person shooter games or virtual reality applications are judged by their verisimilitude and concordance with our experience of our own senses.

Thus, first-person shooters subscribe to the logic of immediacy. Players see, most often over the barrel of a gun, the spaces that open up before them, and they move through these spaces. What these games offer is not just a realistic visual imagery, but also a kinesthetic sense of movement through the virtual worlds they represent. Immediacy tends toward first person perspectives, although quite a few computer games meld first and third person perspectives to allow for a wider cinematic visual vocabulary. (Star Wars picture-boardish action punctuated by lavish images)
Hypermediacy refers to the interface logic that has dominated Macintosh and Windows applications since their move away from textual-command interfaces (Bolter &Grusin, 1999, p. 32). Windows, scroll bars, menus, and tables typify the representational mode of hypermediacy. Metaphorical models (the paint brush, the trash can, the button) are employed to give a familiarity and ease of use in manipulating information.

Shown here is the hypermediation of my computer desktop, which holds to a logic not of direct representational realism, but rather of iconography and metaphor. The key element of hypermediacy for present purposes is its reflexivity.
Hypermediacy thus serves not to make the interface transparent, but to make it easier and more “intuitive.” It aims, therefore, for increased efficiency and ease in the government and manipulation processes and information.
As such, we can read god games as the product of the hypermediated interface. God games are essentially the descendents of board games and war simulations that relied on their players to keep track of vast amounts of information.
The computer allowed such games and simulations a format in which the overwhelming calculations they relied on could be relegated to the processor, while the player´s job is to oversee and manage their flows.

Reading SimCity
Returning to SimCity 3000, I want to briefly consider several ways in which the concepts I´ve sketched out help us make sense of this virtual space. When I began researching strategic god games, my initial hope was to read them as viable tools for cognitive mapping. At first glance, a game like SimCity offers a broader perspectival scope that would enable those who played it a more nuanced, contextualized understanding of actual urban spaces. After playing Simcity for hours and having a god´s eye view of the city, one would walk through cityscapes with a greater sense of the ensemble of systems, labor and planning that interacted to produce them. One could sit on a park bench and experience its sights and smells, but with the underlying sense of its function and place within the urban space around it. In Soja´s terms, I felt that such games would facilitate Thirdspace understandings, constructively broadening our experiences of the city´s physicality by combining it with an understanding of the less immediate but fundamental systems through which it is constructed.

My experience with and analysis of SimCity, however, has altered this view, which now seems somewhat too simplistically hopeful. The central argument I want to put forward instead is that the logic of hypermediated interface in SimCity leads to a privileging of the mental, Second Space understandings of the urban spaces it simulates, and that this privileging of Secondspace comes at the expense of the type of integrated, systemic thinking I had hoped such games would invite. Rather than fostering contextualized thinking that combines First, Second and Thirdspace understandings, I want to argue that SimCity instead produces idealized, iconic representations of urban space, and that these idealized representations dominate the two other parts of the trialectic in several ways.

Secondspace appropriation of Firstspace has a dual character. First, and most obviously, it substitutes virtual, non-material representations for physical sites. In place of concrete and unique physical contexts, we have instead abstracted, idealized representations.

The first city park you build is just like the rest. More interestingly, though, is that while each park looks the same, their function is quantifiably identical as well.

This is the second aspect of the mental co-optation of the physical, because First Space is not just characterized by surface, but by the processes of production and reproduction as well. For a SimCity to work, it needs to have productive sims. For sims to be productive, they have to be happy. To be happy, they need things like parks. Each park, then, can be seen not just as an idealized representation of a real park, which is in turn an idealized representation of an accessible Nature for consumption by the public, but also as a neatly quantified function of exactly how much happiness it produces.

Each and every structure, ordinance, or public service represented in SimCity has this dual quality´it is visible directly as iconic representations, but its fundamental function is the cost-benefit equation it represents´so much money to build a park, so much money to maintain it, balanced against the quantifiable increase in aura and productivity it provides. Second space thus comes, through abstraction and quantification, to dominate and subsume First Space productive processes. Rather than allowing us to view a park space as a complex combination of systems, it reduces such spaces to an abstracted, instrumentalized site of exchange. Further, the productivity of the Sims is virtual as well. If products are reified social relations, Sim-products are the virtual abstraction of these material products. The numbers on the charts no longer refer to flows of capital and goods, but are ends in themselves. In this sense, SimCity gives the term ´information economy´ a new and intensified meaning.

Second Space dominates the lived, third space within SimCity as well. The use of the hypermediated interface allows the production of urban spaces that are distinctly mental in character. Simcities are second spaces. They deny at fundamental levels any real lived experience of their environments. SimCities work to instantiate Secondspace through the processes of abstraction and homogenization. Lefebvre claims that the abstract spaces that have arisen alongside capitalism strive always for homogenization. They reduce aspects of space to interchangeable parts for their greater ease of consumption. As I have noted, any given structure in SimCity is essentially identical in look and function to its counterparts. The underlying population of Sims consists not of individual citizens or even pieces of code, but an abstracted, demographic measurement of the population as a whole. You can even change to preferences so the Sims don´t appear in your city. In more than the most obvious sense, SimCity is about the erasure of specific, concrete bodies and their replacement by demographic and productivity charts.

Returning finally to cognitive mapping, I think my application of Lefebvre´s and Soja´s work on the trialectics of space raises both hope and concern. Cognitive mapping must, I believe, privilege the contested, concrete, lived aspects of Thirdspace if it is to be useful. But in looking at SimCity, I think it is clear that the possibilities for such lived experience have been closed in favor of dominating mental representations of space. A true aesthetics of cognitive mapping would make concrete both the reproductive processes of First Space, and the abstract relations of Second Space.

Above, I have transplanted the Hagia Sofia to downtown middle America, right between the trailer park and the public library. Cognitive mapping or postmodern pastiche?

The process of abstraction in SimCity works, I believe, against such interconnections.

An example of this comes from the interactive experience of such simulations and the ways they generate knowledge about what they model. To play SimCity, it can become not just ideological assertion, but empirically verifiable truth, that, for instance, putting a police station on every corner is the answer to crime. To play SimCity uncritically is not just to be told this is so, but is to learn it experimentally. Prisons and police stations must be the answer to crime, one can come to believe, because look!´when I build more prisons my crime rate drops. Further, the sim-criminals that inhabit these prisons have no race, no gender, no social class that complicates the model of crime and its punishment. As Lefebvre notes, abstraction is a form of violence, and even in the idyllic world of SimCity it would seem that race is, through its absence, more than ever an unavoidable problem of the city. The future of this project will be a more sober attempt to consider if such violent abstraction is an unavoidable, inherent part of the process of simulation, or if, perhaps more hopefully, we might conceive of ways games like SimCity could better lend themselves to Jameson´s political aesthetic.

Foot Notes:

1) My definition of “strategic simulation” differs somewhat from the various industry and academic rubrics. I am including all of what would be considered “strategy” games, whether classic god games like Civilization and Populous, planning simulations like SimCity, economic simulations like Capitalism, or more military/historical simulations like Gettysburg or Age of Empires. Essentially, any game with a “god’s eye” view involved that deals with micro- or macro-management of systems in real or turn-based time can be considered a strategic simulation for my purposes. In general, these are differentiated from “fast-twitch” shooters and other first-person games, as well as RPGs (role-playing games) and adventure games, in their focus on information management and resource allocation as the core aspect of gameplay.

Shawn Miklaucic, Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois. Paper presented at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities Conference: Producing, Consuming Cities. April, 2001. A modify version also presented at the Second International Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, ´Internet Research 2.0,´ in Minneapolis. Please do not quote without permission.

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