October 27, 2008

Scalable City‘s Game

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 8:45 pm
Scalable City

A new installation of Scalable City — created by Sheldon Brown and UCSD’s Experimental Game Lab — just opened at the Calit2 Gallery. While I haven’t seen the new version created for this installation (yet) the event prompts me to share a few thoughts about games, processes, and choice that Scalable City has helped me bring into focus.

I believe that games express ideas about the world through the design of their systems. Even a family tabletop game like Monopoly expresses something about the positive feedback loop of unregulated capitalism and its effects — inequality producing greater inequality — during its excruciating endgame. Of course, the systems of family-oriented board games tend, by necessity, to be relatively simple. Their players are responsible for carrying out all the processes involved, which means the rules can’t take too long to learn or execute.

Computer games, on the other hand, can have an immensely complicated set of processes in their repertoire. Simulation games such as SimCity or strategy games such as Civilization don’t always produce the same result — unlike Monopoly‘s inevitable string of bankruptcies — but rather can develop in a variety of ways. The player is invited to understand the system through experimentation. We come to see the ideas expressed through the game system by seeing how it responds under a variety of circumstances.

Sheldon Brown et al’s Scalable City, on the other hand, offers something quite different. On one level the gameplay reverses something familiar. Players crash through its simulated suburban landscape like an inverted Katamari — blowing structures apart, rather than gathering objects, and laying road behind rather than becoming increasingly dismissive of established pathways.

But more unfamiliar than this inversion is another element: The roads run in a pre-determined pattern. There is very little choice, therefore, in which direction one exercises one’s aggressive eminent domain. Given this, for those who subscribe to Sid Meier’s conception of a game as a “series of interesting choices,” Scalable City‘s experience may not seem like gameplay at all.

This doesn’t reduce the visceral pleasure of running one’s road-laying car cyclone through the misplaced pseudo-Meditteranean architecture of Scalable City‘s simulated San Diego suburbs. But it does reduce the possibility of learning to understand the ideas encoded in the system through experimentation with choices that lead to different outcomes. It may lead one to wonder: How do we understand a system designed in this fashion?

In the case of Scalable City, I recommend turning to the larger context of its processes. Scalable City‘s simulated San Diego suburb was created by taking height values from satellite imagery of Southern California, generating a location-specific landscape, and then overlaying fractal-style road geometry. This created the space for the first experience — the first map, or perhaps the first “level.” In recent work, this process has been abstracted and sped considerably, opening the possibility for this process to be carried out for any location specified by players.

This further step turns the player into a kind of DR Horton, Centex, Hovnanian, KB Homes, or any of the other oversize players in this decade’s rapidly-deflating property bubble. Each made it their business to bring the same logic to the creation of neighborhoods of cul-de-sacs and McMansions, regardless of whether running roads across former farmland, desert, marsh, or landfill.

In other words, Scalable City‘s gameplay serves to express a logic with an outcome as inevitable as Monopoly‘s and with many fewer pathways to that result. Rather than present the player with a conceptual landscape of possible choices, it is a system that reduces all geographic landscapes to opportunities for imposing the same pattern.

Yet, rather than resistance to playing my role, with so little agency, in Scalable City‘s system, with my hand on its oversize trackball I experience visual and kinetic pleasure. It feels like playing a computer game, but manages this with no challenge, little choice, and no end. That this can be a pleasure is perhaps what Scalable City most strongly poses as a question regarding our cities and our games.