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.

5 Responses to “Scalable City‘s Game”

  1. Anne Sullivan Says:

    Something does not need to be a game to be enjoyable to play. Any child knows that given some imagination and possibly a few toys, there are hours of entertainment available.

    I would say that Scalable City is by definition a “toy” as opposed to a “game”. Toys are tools for creating our own “games” of imagination. Games have preconceived rules created by the designer (not that we must follow the designer’s rules when playing).

    I’d also go on to say that most “sandbox games” are merely playgrounds of toys with a few loose playground rules, and allow the player to play with the toys of their choosing.

  2. Ron Newcomb Says:

    Does anyone know the algorithm used to generate the non-intersecting curvilinear roads seen in the toyware’s movie demos? The website’s image gallery has, at the bottom, a picture of “yin-yang roads” that presumably were procedurally generated, not designed. I am curious the algorithm that was able to do that.


  3. Sheldon Brown Says:

    The algorithm that generates the curly roads is an L-system with branches made up of Archimedes spirals. The Yin-Yang is something that shows up on occasion. For some time, we were always on the lookout for them to pop up – it is a nice form for the construction/destruction acts that you are the instigator of when you play with the Scalable City.

    A comment about the “play” vs. “game” discussion – I aim more for play as an interface – it could also be characterized as wandering – or moving and acting as a kind of perception. The thing about the sandbox being less rule structured the games – it can also be said that the location of the rules differs – sometimes more based on the material properties of objects along with their symbolic suggestions of activities to be mimicked or transgressed or disregarded.

  4. Noah Wardrip-Fruin Says:

    Anne, I’m certainly familiar with people talking about software toys — but usually that’s a label applied to something like SimCity, which can be seen as less structured than the average game. I’m interested to hear you apply the term to Scalable City, which I’m describing here as more structured than the average game. Do you have any thoughts about this new (to me) twist on the concept?

    Sheldon, thanks for coming by and sharing some algorithm and interface thoughts. On a related note, I’ve also recently heard you say that the new installation includes some road forms that are suggestive of mazes. Of course, the maze is a quite gamelike form (with a winning condition, strategies, etc). Can you say anything about the maze algorithm and/or the shift it might represent in how people engage Scalable City?

  5. Sheldon Brown Says:

    The new maze scheme is making explicit the navigation schemes that are implicit in the other road systems- which include an L-system network of Archimedes spirals and grids of varying densities.
    I’ve always considered the maze to be the primary spatial logic of game or virtual space.
    This maze addition in the Scalable City only sort of suggests “solvability”, in part because it is no easier or harder to navigate then any of the other schemes. For instance, the dense grid city is one of the harder cities to navigate, despite the supposed availability of all paths at all times. It is easy to find oneself taking turns that aren’t intended, and most users adjust their navigation to move with more care. The curly roads, on the other hand, promote very rapid navigation. The maze city scheme is more like the curly roads, it is easy to move quickly, and the visual rewards benefit that approach, while the easy escapes do not punish excessive movement (there are multiple paths through the maze). What is useful, is that the maze reads like maze – so I’m more interested in what it brings symbolically to the road system, rather then operationally.

Powered by WordPress