Friday, 26 August 2005

The Map is not the Terrain; the Sim is not the City

by Jamais Cascio (November 22, 2004)

SimCity is often seen as more than a game: SimCity, in all of its versions, shows up in classrooms, research papers, and (rumour has it) planning offices around the country. And that has some troubling implications.

I cannot agree more.

Two points were raised.

First by referring to "Playing With Urban Life: How SimCity Influences Planning Culture" by Daniel G. Lobo and Larry Schooler: [my emphasis]

the player operates in “God Mode,” with absolute power to build, demolish, tax, and spend. Unwieldy growth and megalomaniacal, destructive behaviour are the two poles of city operation and the player’s most likely courses of action. Thus the heart of the game is much less a universal vision of city design than it is a reflection of the most extreme tendencies of development in America, found in the few areas in which one person has total control over a large parcel of land

Second point by Jamais in the concluding paragraph: [my emphasis]

Simulation games like SimCity are valuable because they give a peek at the complex relationships between cause and effect in big systems such as cities. They're a chance to play at the edges of complexity, to see "what happens if I do this?" in both an iterated and replicable fashion. They can be wonderfully seductive digital sirens leading to unexpectedly staying up to 3:30 AM. But to be good educational tools, the models have to be transparent and changeable. We should be able to play with the system itself, not just the system's effects.

In other words, the opaqueness of the game is limiting the use of the game in education environment because the issues the learners want to explore and the underlying model of the situation may not reflect the best practise of the field. Remember, games are designed to be entertaining and its primary goal is NOT to reflect real reality.

Another problem is the implicit build-in "game goal". The game is set with a game goal of maximizing the return to the "god" which leads to "Unwieldy growth and megalomaniacal, destructive behaviour". This is not necessarily the best game goal for providing a balanced education.

As I have commented earlier, we should not be looking at existing commercial games and hope to find some useful things from these games to justify using them in classroom or learning situation. Instead, we should focus our energy in learning the engaging characteristics from the game designers in order to produce better educational software which is engaging. Is our field approaching the problem from the wrong end?

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