Sim City: Not For Educational Use?

4 09 2008

I don’t generally worry about violence in games. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, on the whole, have the negative effects that the anit-videogames lobby attach to it. I do, however, still worry about the potential negative effects games could have. As vehicles for the transmission of information, they have potential to actually do damage, much like biased news coverage and mistaken text books.

Jamais Cascio writes about Sim City on WorldChanging:

While some of Lobo & Schooler’s complaints arise from the fact that SimCity is built as a game — the “God Mode,” for example — most derive from inability to modify the underlying model, whether to include mixed-use development (the ground-floor commercial/upper-floor residential buildings which help to make dense urban environments livable), to vary the demand ratings for various services, to make pedestrian travel more acceptable, or to alter the efficiency and availability of renewable power generation. As a result, some models of urban development, such as the “New Urbanism” movement of the mid-late 1990s, fall outside the scope of the simulation, and become invisible to developers-in-training.

As games become more commonplace, especially in training and simulation, such effects will probably be far more pernicious and widespread than the risk factors associated with someone from a gang-ridden area playing Grand Theft Auto. Nonetheless, the passing on of harmful assumptions is absolutely nothing new to culture; it’s something we’ve always done with all forms of media.

Will spoke at BAFTA a few year ago and mentioned that Sim City has caused kids to think about urban planning, which is great, but when assumptions cause us to see it as valid training that’s not so good. It’s kind of like average FPS players thinking they’ve learned to be soldiers or commandos, when in fact they’ve generally trained themselves to get killed over and over again.

The patching process a modern game goes through could easily alleviate this, though the codebase for such a project could easily become a nightmare as it’s incrementally modified over the years. Blizzard are one of the few developers I’ve known to cope well with this, patching Starcraft a decade after release. Perhaps a modern iteration of Sim City could become an excellent urban planning trainer?

(CC image of the Shanghai projected for 2020 by eugene)

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