Leftist dynamics for city simulation games


Dan Hicks


June 26, 2021

I’ve been playing Cities: Skylines recently, and that prompted me to go back and re-read Kevin Baker’s Model Metropolis, on the libertarian assumptions baked in to the dynamics of SimCity and its descendants, including C:S.

City simulators aren’t static. Successive games have added new dynamics and more complex models of older dynamics. Turning all of this over, I asked myself what dynamics I would like to see in a city simulator, that would (a) mitigate or replace the libertarian assumptions Will Wright took from Forrester, and (b) would enable users/players to explore some of the pressing issues in today’s cities? I can’t claim any expertise whatsoever in urban geography, sociology, or dynamics, so I would really be interested in how folks who do have such expertise would answer these questions. For what it’s worth, here are some of the things I came up with.

Cost of living and land/building/business ownership. Even in rural California we have conversations about homelessness, lack of affordable housing, and the cost of living. Insofar as C:S has a general measure of how well your city is doing, it’s land value. But, in the real world, protecting and promoting land value reflects the interests of owners rather than renters or employees; increasing land value tends to increase the cost of living, gentrification, homelessness, and sprawl. The simulation could also explore uncommon forms of ownership, such as co-operatives and publicly-owned residences or businesses.

Alternative services, especially for policing and jails. Last summer the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement prompted renewed calls for abolition of policing and jails. In C:S, increasing police presence causes reduced crime which increases land values. There are no downsides to the expansion of police, and no way to explore non-carceral alternatives such as greater mental health and counseling services. Notably, C:S provides a wide range of transportation options, giving players ways to explore cities that emphasize bicycles and public transit rather than cars. It would be great to be able to do the same with policing.

Factions are the first of two mechanics I’d like to see adopted from Stellaris, a 4X strategy game developed by Paradox (Paradox is the publisher of C:S). Briefly, factions have a happiness score based on the policies that the player has adopted; depending on how (un)happy the faction is, and the share of the population that supports the faction, they can give bonuses or penalties to gameplay. For a city simulation, I can imagine factions based on real-world movements such as NIMBYs, YIMBYs, and social housing advocates; small businesses, unions; abolition and “law and order”; and environmental justice. While not the most sophisticated simulation of democracy, factions would bring a model of politics into a genre that’s basically autocratic on its face. Perhaps, simulating the tension between a mayor and city council, significantly powerful factions would be able to enact or retract policies against the player’s will.

The need to hire managers is the other mechanic I’d like to see brought over from Stellaris. In Stellaris, you need to hire various officials to run your empire — scientists to conduct expeditions, governors of regions, military leaders. These officials bring bonuses (and sometimes penalties), and can also be allied with factions. Over time they gain experience, becoming more effective; but can also die. In a city simulation these managers would be heads of major service areas: policing, fire, education, health, sanitation, traffic, parks, etc. I can imagine complex interactions with the faction dynamics; different factions might support rival police chiefs, for example.

Finally, it would be really interesting to add explicit options to explore alternative dynamics, especially for controversial processes. For example, C:S uses the simple model that increased police causes lower crime causes people to be happy causes property values to increase. But Marxist and critical race analyses of policing suggest a different model of the effects of policing: increasing police protects ownership, which increases property values; this makes property owners and rich (white) people happy, but increases cost of living for poor people (of color) and (also) makes them unhappy directly, while increasing crime (as it’s measured by arrests and other data produced by the police), which can increase support for “law and order” factions. C:S already supports mods that change the population dynamics, and it’s easy to turn these on and off to compare different dynamics.