Simulation Games Might Be What The World Needs Now
As with many, the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 made me dispense with a lot of rules I had set for myself, like shaving, exercising, and straying away from vices like drinking. Even the three meals in a day seemed insufficient; I couldn’t get through the workday without also having brunch, “Dinner II”, and “fourthmeal”.
But the vice that hit me hardest was video games, something I had largely sworn off since college. There were plenty of titles I’d picked up on Steam in some sale or another but had been too busy with life to try.
Most of the titles on my backlog did not hold my interest for very long amidst the unfolding disaster. But I found myself I falling hard for simulation games. We are, I discovered, living through a golden age of the genre. There are now countless, thoughtfully-designed games to simulate just about everything: cities, offworld colonies, airports, factories, transit systems, and more. And I gobbled them up.
One I kept coming back to, and what seems to me still like the apex of the genre, was an obscure title from a Slovakian studio called Workers and Resources: Soviet Republic. The game tasks players with managing, in exacting, exhausting, minute detail, the planned economy of a Soviet-era republic, from the logistics of steel smelting, to foreign trade, to the provisioning of goods and social services to the proliteriate, to its power grids, to even laying out water and sewage systems with the proper grades.
Depending on your outlook, this description may seem like great fun or like a gigantic waste of time. During those months in 2020, when life felt like being stuck on a long, transcontinental flight with an indeterminate time of arrival, they were a relief from endless zoom calls, wiping down groceries, bickering with my spouse, and stocking up on masks. Tweaking the railway signals so that my imaginary republic’s bauxite could be more expediently exported to the Eastern bloc was a welcome respite.
Andrew Yang, who ran a stillborn presidential campaign that year, in his book “The War on Normal People”, devotes an entire chapter to “Video Games and the Male Meaning of Life.” Despite his enthusiasm for games like Starcraft and DOTA growing up, some time after college, he says, he began to treat it as a vice, realizing that “virtual world-building and real-life world-building are at odds with each other.” He goes on to argue that in the coming decade, a lot of men whose jobs have become obsolete due to automation and offshoring will fall hard for video games (as I did during the nadir of the pandemic). He cautions:
“A number of my guy friends have gotten divorced in their thirties and forties. Others have become detached from society. Male dysfunction tends to take on an air of nihilism and dropping out. The world and relationships take work. You gird yourself for the workplace in a suit of armor. If you ever take it off and stop working, you get swept away.”
Reading this part of his book during lockdowns in 2020 made me moderate the hours I’d found myself spending on games.
It made me realize video games are, in this sense, a kind of fake work, in the same sense that porn is a kind of fake sex.
And while games are a versatile medium that can take on many purposes like telling a story, or pumping our adrenaline with combat scenerios, or even giving us a forum to hang out with friends – the sim games I grew to love during the pandemic offer none of that.
Sim games, compared to other types, are rather unadulterated and dry in their focus on challenging the player to decode and master complex, interconnected systems. They are not the sort of games that one might play when they are tired – they take one’s full mental faculties. Simulation games are, in this sense, the purest embodiment of the notion of video games as fake work.
I found it hard to fully accept this notion, though, or to fully cut out this habit, because I couldn’t shake the thought that there was also something redeeming to be found in Sim games in particular that I couldn’t put my finger on. So which is it?
* * *
As a genre, sims are nearly as old as video games as a whole. One of the earliest entrants, Sim City, famously began when creator Will Wright added simulated cities for the player to bomb in his Commodore 64 shoot-em-up game “Raid on Bungeling Bay”. Wright became so engrossed in building out this aspect that it became a key element of the game – winning required disrupting the enemy’s supply lines and industrial production in a strategic manner.
When he showed this element of the game to his neighbor, Bruce Joffe, an architect and urban planner, Joffe suggested Wright check out some of the works of Jay Wright Forrester. Wright dug into Forrester’s 1969 book “Urban Dynamics”, which lays out a computer model of the major internal forces that govern life in a city: its population growth, jobs, industries. Forrester, a professor at MIT, is credited with created the field of systems dynamics and applied it to numerous fields during his career. Wright explains:
“So I took his approach to it, and then applied a lot of the cellular automata stuff that I had learned earlier, and get these emergent dynamics that he wasn’t getting in his model. I found when I was reading all these theories about urban dynamics and city behavior, that when I had a toy simulated version on the computer, it made the subject much more interesting than reading a book – because I could go to my computer model and start experimenting.”
As a model, Sim City is not an exhaustively accurate one. Notably, it has always omitted or downplayed parking lots near buildings because showing them at the size and proportions they’re built with in American cities would look ridiculous. And it makes many concessions to make the game actually fun.
Sid Meier, the prolific game designer best known for Civilization faced many of these tradeoffs when designing the first Railroad Tycoon game. At first, he had designed the game so that the railroad bridges the player built were vulnerable to being washed away by floods and other disasters – this is, after all, realistic. But, as he relates in his memoir, it just wasn’t fun:
It seems like players ought to appreciate the hardships we throw at them—that the whole reason they play is to prove their worth. But it’s not. People play games to feel good about themselves, and random destruction only leads to paranoia and helplessness. … A sudden reversal of fortune is only exciting or dramatic when it happens to someone else. When it happens to you, it’s just a bummer.
Meier debated making bridges indestructible but ultimately decided instead to add different kinds of bridges to the game:
So rather than eliminate the flooding, I introduced different kinds of bridges. A wooden bridge was cheap, and would get the railway up and running right away. A fancy stone bridge was more expensive, and took longer to build, but would be impervious to flooding. By giving the player control over how much risk they would tolerate, the floods not only stopped feeling unfair, they became a source of genuine reward. To imagine their bridge emerging whole from the receding water line felt better than if it had never flooded at all.
This led him to a key insight that underpins all the games he’s designed – that good games give players a series of interesting decisions:
Interesting decisions are not about the specifics of what you let the player choose between, but whether the investment feels both personal and significant to the outcome. If you present players with options A, B, and C, and 90 percent of them choose A, then it’s not a well-balanced set—an interesting decision has no clear right or wrong answers. If players are evenly distributed among A, B, and C, but they all chose within three seconds, then it’s not a very meaningful decision. Any answer would have worked. Ultimately, the most fundamental characteristic of an interesting decision is that it makes the player think, “I wonder what would happen next time, if I did it differently?”
As for Sim City, even though it lacks parking lots, mixed used zoning, and incorporates fantastical futuristic elements like fusion power and archologies, it succeeds in capturing the essential nature of the reality it’s simulating: it challenges the player not just with interesting decisions, but surprises them with the unintuitive, emergent phenomena resulting from those decisions. As Wright explains:
“So we’re kind of enhancing dynamics, emphasizing them in a way where you can start seeing ideas, these kinds of truisms in city planning that we manage to capture. Things like the idea that roads don’t relieve traffic, they breed it. You think we need to build more roads, but when you put more roads in, it actually encourages more volume, and the traffic gets worse. Those are kind of counterintuitive dynamics that you can capture in a model like SimCity, even if it’s not accurately modeling traffic elements in a real city.”
These sort of counterintuitive dynamics always muddle public policy debates. A casual scroll through Nextdoor will reveal most people are not aware of the dynamics of induced demand on traffic that Wright points out.
During the early days of the pandemic, few seemed to grasp the necessity of stopping the spread as, even with Covid’s relatively low rate of mortality, the second order impacts – people who caught it from us passing it on to the vulnerable – were not intuitive (though this certainly be intuitive to anyone who’d gotten good at Plague, Inc.). On the other side, later on, there were many who remained overly cautious and argued for the continued shutdown of schools and other public places, not aware of the counter-intuitive way that even partially-effective and inconsistently-applied mitigations like vaccinations and masks reduced risk of infection drastically.
We also saw the bewildering economic impact of the virus itself and various policy responses. Suddenly, “supply chain” was the phrase on everyone’s lips. Goods that became in demand during the pandemic turned into a glut as preferences shifted. We felt the full brunt of the bullwhip effect, also known as the Forrester effect – first described by the same Jay Forrester that inspired Sim City.
The confidence Jay Forrester had in his models were common in his time. The computers needed to run them had only recently been invented. Ambitious efforts to use sophisticated macro models to smooth out the cognitive biases of humans making tactical decisions on the ground level proliferated during that era, like the telex network the eminent cybernetics researcher Stafford Beer set up in Chile in the early 70’s to hook control of all factories into a government mainframe.
Mitchell Walldorp’s “Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos” contains an account of Citicorp CEO John Reed’s relaying his frustration with this sort of thinking in a 1986 presentation:
Basically, he said, his problem was that he was up to his eyeballs in a world economic system that defied economic analysis. The existing neoclassical theory and the computer models based on it simply did not give him the kind of information he needed to make real-time decisions in the face of risk and uncertainty. Some of these computer models were incredibly elaborate. One, which Singer would be talking about in more detail later, covered the whole world in 4500 equations and 6000 variables. And yet none of the models really dealt with social and political factors, which were often the most important variables of all. Most of them assumed that the modelers would put in interest rates, currency exchange rates, and other such variables by hand—even though these are precisely the quantities that a banker wants to predict. And virtually all of them tended to assume that the world was never very far from static economic equilibrium, when in fact the world was constantly being shaken by economic shocks and upheavals. In short, the big econometric models often left Reed and his colleagues with little more to go on than gut instinct – with results that might be imagined.
Reed would go on to describe how none of this sort of analysis would prepare him for the challenge of leading Citicorp through the era of 70’s stagflation and the ensuing painful macroeconomic remedy that Fed chair Paul Volcker doled out in the early 80’s, a situation now repeating itself in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. For this reason, Reed was an enthusiastic booster of the Santa Fe Institute and its effort to define new kinds of models that can deal with complex, emergent, collective behavior.
There’s a great deal of difference, though, between Reed’s teams of analysts at Citicorp and the average angry town hall participant arguing against apartment buildings or facemasks. We could all do with a bit more modeling and a bit less gut instinct. As Forrester argues in “Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems”:
“The mental model is fuzzy. It is incomplete. It is imprecisely stated. Furthermore, within one individual, a mental model changes with time and even during the flow of a single conversation. The human mind assembles a few relationships to fit the context of a discussion. As the subject shifts so does the model. When only a single topic is being discussed, each participant in a conversation employs a different mental model to interpret the subject. Fundamental assumptions differ but are never brought into the open. Goals are different and are left unstated. It is little wonder that compromise takes so long. And it is not surprising that consensus leads to laws and programs that fail in their objectives or produce new difficulties greater than those that have been relieved.”
The actual details of Forester’s models that served as the basis of Sim City, for what it’s worth, have been criticicized for containing classist assumptions that inevitably lead to conclusions on the apparent uselessness of welfare or housing programs in cities, positions now held only by the most right-wing economists. 1
The moral, though, is not that we can model these confounding properties of reality perfectly and thus make better decisions. Rather, by working through any model at all – and then arguing in what aspects it is or isn’t appropriate, we can make better decisions together and create better policy. As the saying goes, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
Sim games, even those that dispense with any pretense of accurately modeling reality, do aspire to inspire players to take this sort of thinking to the real world. As Meir explains:
“With enough reinforcement, players may even find themselves asking the same question in the real world, where the choices are less clearly delineated. In the right context, a game is not just a vehicle for fun, but an exercise in self-determination and confidence. Good games teach us that there are tradeoffs to everything, actions lead to outcomes, and the chance to try again is almost always out there.”
University of Michigan professor Scott Page argues in his book “The Model Thinker”, that the key is knowing and switching between different models and knowing their limitations.
“To rely on a single model is hubris. It invites disaster. To believe that a single equation can explain or predict complex real-world phenomena is to fall prey to the charisma of clean, spare mathematical forms. We should not expect any one model to produce exact numerical predictions of sea levels in 10,000 years or of unemployment rates in 10 months. We need many models to make sense of complex systems. Complex systems like politics, the economy, international relations, or the brain exhibit ever-changing emergent structures and patterns that lie between ordered and random. By definition, complex phenomena are difficult to explain, evolve, or predict.”
The problem with so much of the way we think and talk about the problems in the world is not just, as Forrester argues, our models are fuzzy, but that we tend to tend to look for heroes and villains and clumsily anthrophomorphize the “emergent structures and patterns” Page speaks of.
For instance, the Bay Area’s current housing crisis, caused by the confluence of supply shortages and incentive-distorting laws at the state and local level is easy to blame on mustache-twirling tech workers and private housing developers (and never, of course, existing landlords).
Conservatives blame gas prices – the result of the macroecnomic policies the previous and current administrations, the pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions, and the war in Ukraine – singularly on President Biden, as if he alone can control the price.
Biden, himself, tried to pin inflation on companies somehow experiencing an uncanny spike in greed, as if was their previous benveloence stopping them from passing along price increases before.
Public discourse is awash with this sort of lazy thinking. We want clear narrative arcs and to know who the bad guys are. In History Has Begun – one of the myriad books that came out in 2020 to make sense of the unfolding geopolitical miasma – Bruno Maçães writes:
“My hypothesis is that American life continuously emphasizes its own artificiality in a way that reminds participants that, deep down, they are experiencing a story. The American way of life is consciously about language, storytelling, plot and form, and is meant to draw attention to its status as fiction.”
The American political landscape, in Maçães’s view, has been uniquely shaped by TV and movies as media. He traces this from the rise of JFK and Reagan to more contemporary figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Trump. In criticizing AOC’s “Green New Deal” and the way she rolled it out, he notes:
Like all quests, the Green New Deal is set in a kind of dreamland, which allows its authors to increase the dramatic elements of struggle and conflict, but at the obvious cost of divorcing themselves from social and historical reality. The detailed consideration of technological and economic forces, for example, is ignored. The causal nexus between problem and solution appears fanciful. Since the authors of the Green New Deal have invented the story, they alone know the logic of events. There are perplexing elements in this logic. Why, for example, would one want to rebuild every building in America in order to increase energy efficiency when we are getting all our energy from zero-emission sources anyway? But a dream world follows different rules from those we know from the real one, which only increases its powers of attraction.
In the book, though, Maçães saves most of his ire for Trump:
At times it looks as if Trump simply does not know any better. He owes his elevation to the highest office in the land to reality television and intends to continue exploring its resources from the telepulpit of the White House. Over and over again he has striven to produce a vision of political events “real enough to be compelling but fantastical enough to be entertaining.” All the defining traits of television are there: the episode form, the continued interaction between writers and producers on one hand and the public on the other, and the logic of spectacle taking things to an extreme. The great wall, the witch hunt, the atomic button, the “king of China”. As for the direct relation to the viewing public—the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum calls it “a messily intense feedback loop between viewers and creators”. Donald Trump imitates reality television stars with his furious Twitter activity but goes much beyond television by offering what no reality show could dream about: the prospect of changing the course of world history. Democracy may be redefined as the ability to get the show we want.
It’s arguable, then, that one counterweight to this melodramatic, narrative-infused fantasy worldview inflicted by too many movies is, of course, simulation games. While other video games may be little removed from this outlook – Call of Duty is not substantively different from Saving Private Ryan – simulation games do not afford us the scaffolding of narrative. They have no characters, no conflicts, no lore, only models for us to painstakingly figure out. They are what Marshall MacLuhan would term a “cool” medium. As Wright points out in an interview in Bill Moggridge’s Designing Interactions:
“A lot of games are built around a movie model, where there’s a beginning, middle, and end; perhaps there’s some dramatic climax, or you’re defeating evil. The Sim games are more like a hobby where you kind of approach, and you have a shared interest with other people, and you can take the aspects that interest you most and really focus on those.”
Indeed, in the real world, few major choices leaders make are clear-cut or justly be cast as heroes or villains on just the direct consequences of their actions. Sid Meier writes that the process of designing Civilization, underscored this point to him:
Of all the things Civilization taught me, I never expected one of them to be empathy for politicians. It’s easy to criticize leaders for their choices, but it only takes a few rounds of nation-building before you begin to appreciate that it’s not as easy as it looks. Everything comes with a price — and if playing a game of Civ gives you a bit of perspective, then designing one gives you a whole wagon train of it.
Meier would face questions and criticisms on Civilization’s accuracy – like why, when, playing as Montezema, you start out with bronze working when the Aztecs were more well known for their pottery – or why it glosses over subjects like slavery. But, as he goes on to argue, whether it’s realistic isn’t the point:
“Are Aesop’s fables meaningless because real mice can’t talk? What we encourage is knowledge-seeking in itself, and ownership of one’s beliefs. We want you to understand that choices have consequences, that a country’s fate can turn on a single act of diplomacy, and that historical figures were not black-and-white paragons of good and evil—not because we’ve told you, but because you’ve faced those complex dilemmas for yourself.”
Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke argues a similar point – positing that games like Factorio teach transferrable skills for dealing with complex strategic tradeoffs that aren’t taught in business books. It’s difficult at first to imagine this at first with a game like Factorio in particular. After all, it doesn’t even come close to simulating reality – its object is to build and streamline a factory on a hostile alien planet whose purpose seems, perversely, to be to produce the materials needed to further expand the factory.
But even the most unrealistic sim games speak directly to this ever-present, essential, structural truth to the reality we inhabit. These games reenforce that the world is always more complicated than it looks. They teach us that the laws governing the material outcomes we live with don’t care at all about our virtue or intentions – that the Covid virus doesn’t care whether you trust Tony Fauci and the supply chain doesn’t care whether you’d prefer the items you purchase be made in your own country. And most importantly, they teach us how to model, analyze, and problem-solve in the face of such a complex, cruel, and indifferent world and ignore hucksters offering us easy remedies.
* * *
I wondered if that was all there was to it – that Sim games are created by people who love to dork out about models to bring this way of thinking to the public. If so, what is it that makes them so compelling? What psychological needs would drive the creators to go through the drudgery of creating them. Are they the same as those that keep us hooked playing them?
In his memoir, Sid Meier, quoted earlier, talks about the genesis of the Railroad Tycoon series and “Railroads!”. One summer in his childhood, for reasons he wasn’t aware of at the time, his parents sent him away to live with his extended family in Switzerland. He became enamored with railroads there, in all of their characteristicly Swiss efficiency:
“The train platform served double duty as the town’s central plaza, and included a smattering of shops where one relative or another would occasionally buy me a treat. But even without the promise of ice cream, I soon found myself hiking there alone each day to watch the trains…
The trains always came in exactly on time, one after the other. I waited for one to be a minute early, or two minutes late, but they never were. Somehow, the trains just knew.
My grandfather got me a copy of the train schedule, a thick book that held the times for every train in every station across Switzerland. I began to learn which engines made which routes, and mentally follow a particular train’s path in the book for days until it returned once again to our little township of Bülach. The efficiency of the whole thing was both awe-inspiring and deeply satisfying, and I tried to imagine the person who ran the system, planning and coordinating and never being off by even a single minute.”
Initially after arriving there, Meier had been miserable, writing his parents mopey letters wanting to return. But later he learned to enjoy life there, not just for the magnificent Swiss railway system, but the way he got along with kids there. By the end of the summer, he wrote his parents asking to extend his stay and enroll in primary school there, having picked up enough Swiss to enroll in a local school. He was ecstatic when they agreed.
After a year or so, he returned to the US. These memories inspired him to build a model railroad with his dad:
“It never really got finished, although I think that might be an intended feature of model railroading in general. It did, however, manage to take over the whole dining room. First we had to construct a large wooden frame for our future track to sit on, and then my father brought in rolls of chicken wire to sculpt a papier-mâché landscape over it. It was clear he enjoyed the painting and crafting more than the trains themselves, but they had recently become an obsession of mine, so he was willing to compromise for the sake of father-son bonding.”
The introduction cinematic to Meir’s later game “Railroads!”, the spiritual successor to his earlier Railroad Tycoon franchise, depicts a model railroad, no doubt like the one he built with his father:
Many years later, Meier connected the dots about that time in his childhood, which until then, he had mostly remembered being about trains and ice cream. Around then, he’d lost his teenage sister Dorothy to Hodgkin’s lymphoma:
“I can remember my mother leaving me home alone in the evenings while she visited my sister in the hospital. I remember the quarter she’d give me each night to buy a bag of chips across the street, and watching the old sitcom My Mother the Car while I waited for her return. I remember getting only vague answers, but understanding enough to know that Dorothy wouldn’t be coming home with her any time soon… I remember walking to school alone. I remember visiting her gravesite with my father, flowers in hand.
And I remember considering for the first time, many decades later, that my trip to Switzerland may have served at least partially to shield me from what was going on at home, and that lengthening the stay might not have been entirely, 100 percent my idea.”
Will Wright, like Meier, grew up building models with his father, who would pass away from leukemia when he was only nine. As an adult, some years after publishing the first SimCity game, Wright lost his house in the 1991 firestorm in Oakland. According to a New Yorker article, this inspired another intellectual foray that would lead to The Sims:
Over the next half hour, the smoke got worse. “I thought, Uh-oh, this isn’t trending well.” He and his wife decided it was time to evacuate (Cassidy was away at a friend’s house). They grabbed some family photos, jumped into Jones’s car, and drove away. When they returned, three days later, the Oakland Hills firestorm had destroyed everything. Nothing was left except for some lumps of melted metal, the remains of their other car. In the months that followed, as Wright went about replacing his belongings, he started thinking about all the things people needed. “I hate to shop,” he said, “and I was forced to buy all these things, from toothpaste, utensils, and socks up to furniture.”
Where SimCity had been inspired by the works of Jay Forrester, this time, he discovered new influences which led him to ultimately create The Sims:
Three works helped Wright understand how he could turn these life experiences into a game. One was the book “A Pattern Language,” by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure, in Berkeley. The book identifies two hundred and fifty-three timeless ways of building, which are classified as patterns—“Stair Seats,” “Children’s Realm,” etc.—and it shows how these patterns can create satisfying living spaces. The idea is that the value of architecture can be measured by the happiness of the people who live in it. The second was the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” in which Maslow described a pyramid-shaped hierarchy of human needs, with “Physiological” at the bottom, and above it “Safety,” “Love,” “Esteem,” and, at the top, “Self-actualization.” The third inspiration was Charles Hampden-Turner’s “Maps of the Mind,” which compares more than fifty theories about how the mind works. Putting these works together, Wright formulated a model with which to “score” the happiness of the people in his doll house by their status, popularity, and success, and by the quality of the environment the player designs for them—the more comfortable the house, the happier the people. Wright told me, “I don’t believe any one theory of human psychology is correct. The Sims just ended up being a mishmash of stuff that worked in the game.”
One can see clear inspiration from Maslow in the various meters that would show a decade later up for one’s characters in The Sims.
But even more concretely, a disaster scenario that ships with the earlier Sim City 2000 literally challenges players to handle the disasterous firestorm that struck the Oakland hills and engulfed Wright’s house on that fateful day in 1991:
The creators of my beloved Soviet Republic have suffered, too. A frequent request from fans is to add things like army bases and gulags. After all, the Tropico series – which has a lot in common with Soviet Republic – incorporates this well, adding a realtime strategy element where players must fight off coups and invasion attempts of their banana republic, and the abilility to assasinate or frame leaders of rival factions.
Tropico can treat its setting with the removed, irreverent cheekiness that has become a hallmark of the series because its designers did not live under despots like Castro or Chavez. But the Soviet Republic team lived through the horrors of socialism in Czechloslovakia, where even until the 80’s, intellectuals and dissidents were silenced and exiled. They argue that had it not been for the fall of socialism in their country, their game wouldn’t have come to exist. They’ve thus resisted all requests to add more political or military elements to the game:
“Last work week in Slovakia was shorter. On Tuesday 17th November we had a national holiday which we celebrate to remember the fall of socialistic regime. This is important to mention because many people may misunderstand the inspiration we draw when creating the basics of this game. We are glad that the regime has fallen because there is more freedom than there was before.
There are calls for implementing those terrifying political aspects of Soviet era into the game because people want to repress their workers and control them instead of taking care of their needs and making them happy.
The game itself is an utopia which cannot exist in real world as there are always people who want to have power, who want to control and satisfy their own selfish needs at any cost by repressing and manipulating with lives of others in name of some ideology they use to gain power. If you look back socialism is never about what people want and need but what political leaders proclaim as their ideology.”
After the outbreak of the recent Ukraine war, developers volunteered helping refugees and even released the game’s first ever DLC package, featuring classic Ukranian buildings and vehicles, which they sold to raise money for the Red Cross. They re-enforced their message of pacifism:
“There is no military in the game right now and many players like that the game is peaceful and economy oriented. Our hope is that we have taken something from the past that made sense from game’s perspective and made it into a game where you can play and have fun, but in real life things are different. The real world is not that simple and not that peaceful as our game is.”
Stories like these made me realize many of my favorite sim games were borne of some tragedy in their creators’ lives – and the resulting desire to bring order, clarity, and meaning to them, which is no doubt also what draws us to them as players.
It made me think back to Andrew Yang’s framing of video games. As he argues:
“I still understand and appreciate video games on a visceral level. I even imagine that I could get into them again. They speak to a primal set of basic impulses—to world creating, skill building, achievement, violence, leadership, teamwork, speed, efficiency, status, decision making, and accomplishment. They fall into a whole suite of things that appeal to young men in particular—to me the list would go something like gaming, the stock market, fantasy sports, gambling, basketball, science fiction/geek movies, and cryptocurrencies, most of which involve a blend of numbers and optimization. It’s a need for mastery, progress, competition, and risk.”
But Yang’s central framing in the chapter still rings hollow to me – the idea of video games as sirens, using “fake world-building” to seduce otherwise capable young men away from “real world-building.” This tendency and the psychological need he’s getting at seems older than video games.
Maybe there’s always been something funny about men2 in this way. Sometimes the only way for us to cope and come to terms with our feelings on, say, the death of a sibling, or getting divorced, or the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, or bond with each other, are through these silly, useless things like model railroads, baseball, superflous home improvement projects, and, of course, overly complicated simulation and strategy video games.
Maybe, when these kinds of moods strike us, we desire fake work even more than fake sex. To the extent that these sort of games could be described as escapism, it is in that they offer an escape not to any fantastical, exotic world, but simply to one where we can, for a moment, feel that we are useful in and have a modicum of control over. One where our where our efforts yield fruit – and one’s little railroad bridges don’t just get washed away for no reason, one’s house doesn’t burn down, the Russians don’t invade, and one’s loved ones aren’t taken away far too early, because none of those things are in the model. Even if it is, at the end of the day, all fake.
Ultimately, then, maybe sim games can be both of these things. They are, indeed, a time-sucking vice catering to this particular kind of nihlistic desire to escape a real world that makes us feel confused and purposeless. To see the total number of hours I’ve spent on a game displayed in Steam still gives me a momentary feeling of shame.
Yet this fake world-building cannot always fully supplant real world-building. Sim games inspire us to approach the real world with new eyes when we re-emerge, seeing it as the complex, interconnected, counter-intuitive mess it truly is, and one which we can, only with discipline, thoughtfulness, and careful compromise, set out to better.
The game CityState, a brilliant spin on the city building subgenre that focuses on social and economic policy, has faced similar criticism – that it is nearly impossible to win with more socialistic policies. Its developer responds that he’s not sure whether this is a bug with the game or with socialism. It is hard to get around the fact that the trouble is you eventually run out of other people’s money. It’s possible, though, to lose with either extreme in the game – a lack of policies to promote a social ladder will also hold back economic progress. ↩
I hope it doesn’t come off as sexist that identify this tendancy with men, as Yang does, simply because I have never seen any women get as drawn into these sorts of games as men do, or to the sort of destructive ends he describes, but I’m sure there are many! ↩