SimCity and Society


Earlier this month, Electronic Arts released its latest installment of SimCity, the ever-popular city-simulation franchise.

Writing at the New York Times, Stephen Totilo suggested that, “The new SimCity has all the potential to be a fascinating social experiment.”

I think there’s even more to it. Besides being a social experiment, SimCity can also reveal some very provocative things about the society in which we live.

With astonishingly elaborate new features including a world commodities market and customizable buildings, the new SimCity is more realistic than ever before. The game is incredibly detailed and allows players a greater level of control over the city than they previously had, right down to each individual Sim on the street. (For those unfamiliar with the lingo, a “Sim” is a simulated human being.)

With the click of a mouse, you are able to know any Sim’s name, occupation, and residence; you can see where that Sim came from, where he/she is going, and for what purpose. As always, Sims respond in real-time to the actions of their government; just like in the real world, the consequences of government action are often unintended and unforeseen.

Let’s say you want to build a park. Or, perhaps, you want to improve a park that already exists. What do you do? You might begin by raising residential property tax levels. But people quickly reject this and begin moving elsewhere, leaving you with less revenue than before.

You’re a clever fellow, though. Next, you try raising taxes on specific industries and businesses, perhaps those conventionally perceived to be antithetical to healthy parks (e.g., dirty manufacturing). In a short amount of time, however, Sims are negatively affected by an unnecessary disruption in the labor market. If Sims cannot find work in your town, they leave.

Every act of government is met with a response. Some react positively, others react negatively; many react without deliberate consideration. Nevertheless, everyone reacts in some way.

Of course the Sims’ actions are predetermined algorithmically by gawky programmers in thick-rimmed glasses, but that doesn’t detract from broader illustration. In both the game and the real world, there is an unknowable, indiscernible, interconnected web of actions of thousands upon thousands of individuals that all affect one another.

Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek’s most important contribution to economic science was his explanation of the limits of human knowledge:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that…he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible.

Attempts by any man to defy his own natural constraints and centrally plan society, “may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.”

SimCity proves to be a useful representation of the effects of government action and the boundaries of human knowledge, but it has many limitations, as well. It is a video game, after all, and as mentioned above, everything that happens during gameplay is the result of predetermined outcome possibilities. A greater limitation than the one placed on the game by technological restrictions, however, is the limitation imposed on it (and likewise, on society) by arrogance, blithe ignorance, and a lack of imagination.

In general, we tend to reject—or, at the very least, ignore—the possibility of a good or service being produced privately if it is currently controlled by the state. Roads, airports, schools—you name it. If the government is involved, we assume its involvement is necessary, unavoidable, and often beneficial.

The game is a reflection of the narrow-mindedness of our society. Our proclivity for the status quo is simulated without imperfection.

Let’s return to the park example. Rather than employing government “solutions,” a more elegant, efficient, and sane proposal would be to surrender to the undeniable wonder and mystery of the market. Allow private developers to act spontaneously in response to the profit motive. If there is true freedom and if there is demand for a beautiful park, then a beautiful park will inevitably be constructed. Furthermore, there is every reason to believe that this market park will be cleaner, safer, and altogether better than any park provided by the state. Of course, this cannot be done in the SimCity. Nor can it be done in society as we know it.

Economist and philosopher Hans-Herman Hoppe, drawing inspiration from the Aristotelian tradition, abstracts the park example:

What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. Men pay most attention to what is their own; they care less for what is common; or at any rate they care for it only to the extent to which each is individually concerned. Even when there is no other cause for inattention, men are more prone to neglect their duty when they think that another is attending to it.

Framing the ethics of property in terms of economic calculation, Ludwig von Mises wrote nearly a century ago that in a non-competitive economy, decisions such as whether or not to build or improve a park, “depend at best upon vague estimates; [they] would never be based upon the foundation of an exact calculation of value,” and are akin to “groping in the dark.” The distribution of resources by government dictate will always be less optimal than the distribution determined by freely acting and cooperating individuals.

As anecdotal support, consider the following: Would you rather wait in line at your local grocery store, or wait in line at the DMV? The answer is obvious, and it is difficult to exaggerate the expansive chasm that exists between the two situations.

Finally, the release of the new SimCity was not without imperfections. Technical difficulties resulting from the overloading of a server hosting the game’s online component proved to be quite bothersome. Totilo reports that, “Electronic Arts’s servers couldn’t handle the immediate influx of players, sticking gamers in queues to wait to play and eventually blocking them altogether.”

Computer programmers overestimated their own abilities and led themselves to believe they were capable of more than they actually were. The resulting unintended consequences were disastrous for everyone involved. In the same way, governments relentlessly attempt to do too much and end up failing at everything. The eventual breakdown of overzealous bureaucratic planning and false assessment of available knowledge is inevitable. To acquiesce in the magnificence of the market is always the better alternative.

Published in

Post a comment