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Coda - Modeling and Public Policy


In 1989, a relatively young software company released their first hit video game, which dealt with the unlikely topic of urban planning. Players of the game—which was called SimCity—took on the role of a semi-omnipotent mayor: sort of a cross between an all-powerful god, a standard city planner, and a kid playing in a sandbox. The player could set tax rates, construct (or demolish) various structures, set up zoning ordinances, and so on, all while trying to keep the city’s residents happy (and the budget balanced). Even in its first iteration (the success of the original spawned generations of successor games that continue to be produced today), the simulation was startlingly robust: incorrect tax rates would result in bankruptcy for the city (if they were too low), or stagnation in growth (if they were too high). If you failed to maintain an adequate power grid—both by constructing power plants to generate enough electricity in the first place and by carefully managing the power lines to connect all homes and businesses to the grid—then the city would experience brownouts or blackouts, driving down economic progress (and possibly increasing crime rates, if you didn’t also carefully manage the placement and tasking of police forces). Adequate placement (and training) of emergency forces were necessary if your city was to survive the occasional natural disaster—tornados, earthquakes, space-monster attacks[1], &c..

The game, in short, was a startlingly well thought-out and immersive simulation of city

  1. If the player was feeling malicious (or curious), she could spawn these disasters herself and see how well her police and fire departments dealt with a volcanic eruption, a hurricane, Godzilla on a rampage, or all three at the same time.