First Monday

Semiotics of SimCity

When does a game cease to be a game? Is it when the computer feels like an organic extension of your consciousness or when you may feel like an extension of the computer itself? This paper explores SimCity and its significance as a simulator not only of reality but consciousness. Computer gaming is essentially process of demystification, discovering how software is organized for a certain set of goals and actions.


Computer Gaming as Demystification
Simulation and Subjectivity
Simulation as Cognitive Mapping


Every encounter between reader and text is a kind of exchange [1]. A book lies inert until it you pick it up and begin to read, extracting meaning out of the jumble of markings on the page. Once you've begun reading, your understanding and expectations structure your encounter with each new passage; that text, in turn, affects your subsequent response to the next passage. The exchange continues, back and forth, so that a good book can seem to "suck you in" until you lose track of where you end and the book begins.

This magical connection between reader and book, however, is tenuous, and difficult to maintain. A moment's distraction, and the words are once again just markings on a page. In a way, the exchange is always one-sided; no matter what you do on your end, the text remains the same. What makes interaction with computers so powerfully absorbing - for better and worse - is the way computers can transform the exchange between reader and text into a feedback loop. Every response you make provokes a reaction from the computer, which leads to a new response, and so on, as the loop from the screen to your eyes to your fingers on the keyboard to the computer to the screen becomes a single cybernetic circuit.

Of course, there's many different kinds of software, and different levels of engagement with computers. Using a word processor is a fairly disengaged activity. You see the words appear on the screen as you type, but the rest is up to you. Surfing the Web offers a moderate degree of engagement, as the term "browsing" implies. The feedback is incremental rather than fluid - each new page offers a series of discrete options; each surfing choice brings up a new page of hyperlinks. For a sense of full immersion, there's nothing like a computer game, in which the computer responds almost instantaneously to every action of the player, which in turn provokes a new reaction from the player, and so on.

If the feedback loop between user and computer is what is most distinctive about human-computer interaction, then computer games are in many ways the quintessential software products. Looking more closely at the dynamics of computer games, then, may help us understand the new interactive possibilities opened up by computer software.


A "simulation game," SimCity gives you the opportunity to orchestrate the building and development of a city. The tremendous success of SimCity demonstrates the surprisingly compelling power of a particular kind of human-computer interaction. Here's a description of the original game from a Maxis catalog:

"SimCity makes you Mayor and City Planner, and dares you to design and build the city of your dreams ... . Depending on your choices and design skills, Simulated Citizens (Sims) will move in and build homes, hospitals, churches, stores and factories, or move out in search of a better life elsewhere" [2].

Beginning (in the basic scenario) with an undeveloped patch of land and an initial development fund, you create a city by choosing where and what kind of power plants to build; zoning industrial, commercial, and residential areas; laying down roads, mass transit, and power lines; and building police stations, fire departments, airports, seaports, and stadiums. And so on - while playing the game eventually comes to feel entirely intuitive, the system is quite complex, and the sequel SimCity 2000 offers even more options. Every action is assigned a price, and you can only spend as much money as you have in the city treasury. The treasury begins at a base amount, then can be replenished yearly by taxes, the rate of which is up to you. As you becomes more familiar with the system, you gradually develop strategies to encourage economic growth, build up the population of the city, and score a higher "approval rating" from the Sims. Which of these or other goals the player chooses to pursue, however, is up to you.

Computer Gaming as Demystification

Of course, however much "freedom" computer game designers grant players, any simulation will be rooted in a set of baseline assumptions. SimCity has been criticized from both the left and right for its economic model. It assumes that low taxes will encourage growth while high taxes will hasten recessions. It discourages nuclear power, while rewarding investment in mass transit. And most fundamentally, it rests on the empiricist, technophilic fantasy that the complex dynamics of city development can be abstracted, quantified, simulated, and micromanaged.

These are not flaws in the game - they are its founding principles. They can be engaged and debated, and other computer games can be written following different principles. But there could never be an "objective" simulation free from "bias." Computer programs, like all texts, will always be ideological constructions. The fear of some critics of computer games, though, is that technology may mask the constructedness of any simulation. Science fiction writer and Byte magazine columnist Jerry Pournelle argues:

"The simulation is pretty convincing - and that's the problem, because ... it's a simulation of the designer's theories, not of reality ... [M]y point is not to condemn these programs. Instead, I want to warn against their misuse. For all too many, computers retain an air of mystery, and there's a strong temptation to believe what the little machines tell us. ''But that's what the computer says'' is a pretty strong argument in some circles. The fact is, though, the computer doesn't say anything at all. It merely tells you what the programmers told it to tell you. Simulation programs and games can be valuable tools to better understanding, but we'd better be aware of their limits" [3].

First quote

While Pournelle's warnings are well taken, I think he overestimates the mystifying power of technophilia. In fact, I would argue that computer games reveal their own constructedness to a much greater extent than more traditional texts. Pournelle asks that designers open up their programs, so that gamers can "know what the inner relationships are." But this is exactly what the process of computer game playing reveals. Learning and winning (or, in the case of a non-competitive "software toy," "reaching one's goals at") a computer game is a process of demystification: one succeeds by discovering how the software is put together. The player molds her or his strategy through trial-and-error experimentation to see "what works" - which actions are rewarded and which are punished. Likewise, the extensive discourse on game strategy in manuals, magazines, bulletin boards, and guides like The Official SimCity Planning Commission Handbook and The SimEarth Bible does exactly what Pournelle asks, exposing the "inner relationships" of the simulation to help players succeed more fully.

Unlike a book or film which one is likely to encounter only once, a computer game is usually played over and over. The moment it is no longer interesting is the moment when all its secrets have been discovered, its limitations exposed. Game designer and author Chris Crawford describes the hermeneutics of computer games as fundamentally a process of deconstruction rather than simple interpretation. David Myers observes

"[A]ccording to Crawford, the best measure of the success of a game is that the player learns the principles behind that game "while discovering inevitable flaws in its design ... . A game should lift the player up to higher levels of understanding"" [4].

Simulation and Subjectivity

Playing SimCity is a very different experience from playing an adventure game like King's Quest. The interaction between player and computer is constant and intense. Gameplaying is a continuous flow - it can be very hard to stop, because you're always in the middle of dozens of different projects: nurturing a new residential zone in one corner of the map, building an airport in another, saving up money to buy a new power plant, monitoring the crime rate in a particularly troubled neighborhood, and so on. Meanwhile, the city is continually changing, as the simulation inexorably chugs forward from one month to the next (unless you put the game on pause to handle a crisis). By the time you've made a complete pass through the city, a whole new batch of problems and opportunities have developed. If the pace of the city's development is moving too fast to keep up with, the simulation can be slowed down (i.e., it'll wait longer in real-time to move from one month to the next); if you're waiting around for things to happen, the simulation can be speeded up.

As a result, it's easy slide into a routine with absolutely no down-time, no interruptions from complete communion with the computer. The game can grow so absorbing, in fact, your subjective sense of time is distorted. Myers writes, "from personal experience and interviews with other players, I can say it is very common to play these games for eight or more hours without pause, usually through the entire first night of purchase" [5]. You look up, and all of a sudden it's morning.

It's very hard to describe what it feels like when you're "lost" inside a computer game, precisely because at that moment your sense of self has been fundamentally transformed. Flowing through a continuous series of decisions made almost automatically, hardly aware of the passage of time, you form a symbiotic circuit with the computer, a version of the cyborgian consciousness described by Donna Haraway in her influential "Manifesto for Cyborgs" [6]. The computer comes to feel like an organic extension of your consciousness, and you may feel like an extension of the computer itself.

Second quote

This isn't exactly the way the SimCity user's manual puts it. The manual describes your role as a "combination Mayor and City Planner." In Civilization, you're referred to as "Chief," "Warlord," "Prince," "King," or "Emperor" (depending on the skill level), and you can adopt the names of various historical leaders - Abraham Lincoln when playing the Americans, Genghis Khan when leading the Mongols, and so on. But while these titles suggest that you imagine yourself playing a specific "role" along the lines of the "interactive cinema" model, the structures of identification in simulation games are much more complex. Closer to the truth is the setup in Populous, where you're simply God - omnipotent (within the rules of the game), omniscient, and omnipresent. While in some simulations explicitly about politics, like Hidden Agenda and Crisis in the Kremlin, your power and perspective is limited to that of a chief of state, in games like SimCity you're personally responsible for far more than any one leader - or even an entire government - could ever manage. You directly controls the city's budget, economic and residential growth, transportation, police and fire services, zoning, and even entertainment (the "Sims" eventually get mad if you don't build them a stadium). While each function is putatively within the province of government control, the game structure makes you identify as much with the roles of industrialist, merchant, real estate agent, and citizen, as with those of Mayor or City Planner.

For example, in SimCity, the way a new area of town is developed is to "zone" it. You decides whether each parcel of land should be marked for residential, industrial, or commercial use. You can't make the zones develop into thriving homes or businesses; that's determined by the simulation, on the basis of a range of interconnected factors including crime rate, pollution, economic conditions, power supply, and the accessibility of other zones. If you've set up conditions right, an empty residential zone will quickly blossom into a high-rise apartment complex, raising land values, adding tax money to the city's coffers, and increasing the population of the city. If the zone isn't well-integrated into the city, it may stay undeveloped, or degenerate into a crime-ridden slum.

But while you can't control the behavior putatively assigned to the residents of the city - "the Sims" - the identification process at the moment the player zones the city goes beyond simply seeing yourself as "the Mayor," or even as the collective zoning commission. The cost of zoning eats up a substantial portion of a city's budget - much more than it would cost a real city. This is structurally necessary to limit your ability to develop the city, so that building the city is a gradual, challenging process (something close to a narrative, in fact). The effect on gameplay is to see the process less as "zoning" than as buying the land. Not to say that you think of every SimCity building as being owned by the government. But at the moment of zoning, you're not playing the role of mayor, but of someone else - homeowner, landlord, or real estate developer, perhaps, in the case of a residential zone.

We could see playing SimCity, then, as a constant shifting of identifications, depending on whether you're buying land, organizing the police force, paving the roads, or whatever. This, I think, is part of what's going on. But this model suggests a level of disjunction - jumping back and forth from one role to the next - belied by the smooth, almost trance-like state of gameplay. Overarching these functional shifts, I think, is a more general state of identification: with the city as a whole, as a single system.

What does it mean to identify with an entire city? Perhaps attempting to map "roles" onto the player's on-screen identification misses the point. When a player "zones" a land area, she or he is less identifying less with a role than with a process. And the reason that the decision, and the continuous series of decisions the gamer makes, can be made so quickly and intuitively, is that you have internalized the logic of the program, so that you're always able to anticipate the results of your actions. "Losing yourself" in a computer game means, in a sense, identifying with the simulation itself.

Simulation as Cognitive Mapping

In The Condition of Postmodernity, geographer David Harvey argues for the primacy of spatialization in constructing cognitive frameworks: "We learn our ways of thinking and conceptualizing from active grappling with the spatializations of the written word, the study and production of maps, graphs, diagrams, photographs, models, paintings, mathematical symbols, and the like" [7].

Harvey then points out the dilemma of making sense of space under late capitalism:

"How adequate are such modes of thought and such conceptions in the face of the flow of human experience and strong processes of social change? On the other side of the coin, how can spatializations in general ... represent flux and change ... ?" [8].

Representing flux and change is exactly what a simulation can do, by replacing the stasis of two- or three-dimensional spatial models with a map that shifts over time to reflect change. And this change is not simply the one-way communication of a series of still images, but a continually interactive process. Computer simulations bring the tools of narrative to mapmaking, allowing the individual not simply to observe structures, but to become experientially immersed in their logic.

Third quote

Simulations may be our best opportunity to create what Fredric Jameson calls "an aesthetic of cognitive mapping: a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system" [9]. Playing a simulation means becoming engrossed in a systemic logic which connects a myriad array of causes and effects. The simulation acts as a kind of map-in-time, visually and viscerally (as the player internalizes the game's logic) demonstrating the repercussions and interrelatedness of many different social decisions. Escaping the prison-house of language which seems so inadequate for holding together the disparate strands that construct postmodern subjectivity, computer simulations provide a radically new quasi-narrative form through which to communicate structures of interconnection.

Sergei Eisenstein hoped that the technology of montage could make it possible to film Marx's Capital. But the narrative techniques of Hollywood cinema developed in a way which directs the viewer to respond to individuals rather than abstract concepts. A computer game based on Capital, on the other hand, is easy to imagine. As Chris Crawford notes, (paraphrased by David Myers), "game personalities are not as important as game processes - 'You can interact with a process ... Ultimately, you can learn about it'" [10].

About the Author

Ted Friedman is a graduate student at Duke University. He is currently finishing his dissertation, a cultural history of personal computers.


1. A previous version of the essay appeared in the collection CyberSociety : computer-mediated communication and community, edited by Steven Jones (Thousand Oaks, Calif.:Sage Publications, 1995). A revised version was distributed on nettime-l and also appears in the nettime collection, "ReadMe! ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge."

2. Maxis Software, 1992. Toys Catalog, p. 4.

3. J. Pournelle, 1990, "[Untitled column]," Byte, (February).

4. D. Myers, 1990. "Chris Crawford and Computer Game Aesthetics," Journal of Popular Culture, volume 24, number 2, p. 27.

5. D. Myers, 1991. "Computer Game Semiotics," Play and Culture, volume 4, p. 343.

6. D. Haraway, 1985. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s," Socialist Review, volume 16, number 2 (March/April), pp. 65-107.

7. D. Harvey, 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, p. 206.

8. Op.cit.

9. F. Jameson, 1991. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 54.

10. D. Myers, 1990. "Chris Crawford and Computer Game Aesthetics," p. 27.


T. Friedman, 1998. "Civilization and Its Discontents: Simulation, Subjectivity, and Space," In: Greg Smith (editor). Discovering Discs: Transforming Space and Place on CD-ROM. New York: New York University Press.

D. Haraway, 1985. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s," Socialist Review, volume 16, number 2 (March/April), pp. 65-107.

D. Harvey, 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell.

F. Jameson, 1991. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Maxis Software, 1992. Toys Catalog. Orinda, Calif.: Maxis.

D. Myers, 1990. "Chris Crawford and Computer Game Aesthetics," Journal of Popular Culture, volume 24, number 2, pp. 17-28.

D. Myers, 1991. "Computer Game Semiotics," Play and Culture, volume 4, pp. 334-346.

J. Pournelle, 1990, "[Untitled column]," Byte, (February).

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