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« Clothes Make the Cocktail Waitress | Main | Personal Pace »

December 03, 2009

Zdeno Sims

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"Johnny" von Neumann was a central figure in the development of digital computers. He and Oskar Morgenstern wrote the book on game theory. And, since the days of D&D on minicomputers and Pong on Ataris (and even before), there have been computer games.

Below, frequent guest-blogger Zdeno meditates on a popular computer game and and politics.

* * * * *

I haven’t played SimCity since it’s “2000” incarnation, but some faint memories returned to me once after I’d spent several years steeping myself in Libertarian. My thought at the time was: “That game was implicitly socialist in the kind of behaviour it encouraged from the player!” In case you haven’t played it or something similar, success requires massive investments in public education, fire safety, police, parks, strict zoning regulations, and subsidies for various business sectors. The fiery teenage Libertarian Zdeno was briefly enraged.

Upon reflection though, I realized that this did not so much reflect the pinko, fellow-traveller sympathies of the EA Games development staff, but rather the inherent dullness of a video game planner that minimizes the role of a central planner, in which the player is a central planner. EA tinkered with the parameters of the Sims’ behaviour until they got what they wanted. And they made a fun game.

Now, what if we developed a SimCity for the purpose, not of entertaining the bored and megalomaniac, but of educating ourselves on the art and science of effective government?

I don’t propose an attempt to perfectly model human beings in a simulated environment – if we did, we’d have created the world’s first true AI, and populating SimCity 2009 would be well down our list of things to do. But if some model of human action were constructed, we could use SimCity-like simulators to determine what kind of assumptions are necessary to make given sets of public policies workable.

For a rough example, SimCity2000 takes a Conservative approach to the question of law enforcement – more and better-funded police stations result in less crime. A Sim-AI designed with Progressive assumptions about human behaviour would react to an increased police presence by feeling more oppressed, and acting out his perceived marginalization by robbing a liquor store. Or something. Either way, this exercise forces ideologues to quantify exactly what it is their policy proposals require of human nature. Once we have those assumptions written down, we can test them in real life.

Obviously this is a pipe dream, and I doubt it will ever come to pass. I’d much rather see actual policy experimentation in the real world (for example: impose mandatory minimum sentences for various crimes in 25 randomly selected US states). But in an imperfect world where the latter is, for now, politically infeasible, an open-source SimPolitics may have legs, even if it has to wait for a doubling or two of computing power.

So, Blowhards of a technical, game-savvy bent: Is such a thing technically feasible? Anyone know anything about the process of endowing video game characters with what limited AI they have? What other ideas do you have for encouraging scientific policy experimentation?

* * * * *



posted by Donald at December 3, 2009


I'm a professional video game designer. I've never worked on a sim-style game, but the thing to know about AI in games is that it is always more smoke-and-mirrors than anything. Even in games where a "realistic" AI is touted, the reality is behavior is scripted to get certain game effects. As you point out, fun is the goal, not realism.

That said, what you're talking about with a more diverse ideological spread of AI in a city-builder seems totally possible. I would hesitate to draw any kind of real-world conclusions from it, however. All you're doing is taking an oversimplification of social reality and further oversimplifying it to fit into the game mechanics. Sounds like a recipe for bad policy formation to me.

(Sidenote: One of the more recent sim-city games, SimCity Societies, took a pretty big break from the standard zone-and-tax formula and tried to get into a kind of social engineering element. For instance, it had you balancing and manipulating social values. Wikipedia tells me the values in the game were: productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, authority, and knowledge.)

Posted by: Chris Floyd on December 3, 2009 10:40 AM

Liberals have a plan and they're staying the course. It's called "tax and spend". Anything that fits that template gets a thumbs up. As LBJ famously said, "Just get the legislation passed. We'll figure out how to pay for it later."

Posted by: Bob Grier on December 3, 2009 11:17 AM

As you pointed out, gaming needs to be fun. Last weekend, I and some friends played out the end of a tabletop wargame, using 15mm figures. I won't name the rules, but they fill 179 pages of 8 1/2 x 11 paper, with microscopic detail.

For instance, Rule 15.10.1 covers "Replenishing infantry ammunition".

A substantial part of the rules set is devoted to restrictions on moving troops into battle, where they can go, and what they can do - and not in terms of how fast they can cover ground, but rather the process of getting orders issued and accepted. This is in fact highly realistic, as that process was very important and decided battles.

But it's no damn fun! A player dedicates a day to one of these games - and spends the first three hours making occasional die rolls to get his troops "activated".

So I think Zdeno has put his finger on something. A simulation has to reward the player for playing. A sim where he is paralyzed for hours, or can't affect the results is not rewarding.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 4, 2009 10:07 PM

SimCity did more or less accept the Laffer Curve, though. In order to get access to the sexiest buildings, and get a prosperous economy, you at least usually had to start by UNDERtaxing the rich.

Posted by: karlub on December 11, 2009 7:36 AM

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