Behind one of the most iconic computer games of all time is a theory of how cities die—one that has proven dangerously influential.
Almost as soon as SimCity came out, journalists, academics, and other critics began to speculate on the effects that the game might have on real-world planning and politics. Within a few years of its release, instructors at universities across the country began to integrate SimCity into their urban planning and political science curriculums. Commentators like the sociologist Paul Starr worried that the game’s underlying code was an “unreachable black box” which could “seduce” players into accepting its assumptions, like the fact that low taxes promoted growth in this virtual world. “I became a total Republican playing this game,” one SimCity fan told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “All I wanted was for my city to grow, grow, grow.”
Despite all this attention, few writers looked closely at the work which sparked Wright’s interest in urban simulation in the first place. Largely forgotten now, Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics put forth the controversial claim that the overwhelming majority of American urban policy was not only misguided but that these policies aggravated the very problems that they were intended to solve. In place of Great Society-style welfare programs, Forrester argued that cities should take a less interventionist approach to the problems of urban poverty and blight, and instead encourage revitalization indirectly through incentives for businesses and for the professional class. Forrester’s message proved popular among conservative and libertarian writers, Nixon Administration officials, and other critics of the Great Society for its hands-off approach to urban policy. This outlook, supposedly backed up by computer models, remains highly influential among establishment pundits and policymakers today.