Sim City’s Simulacrum of Poverty

I was recently thinking over an article that appeared in News of the Week some time back, one dealing with the phenomenon of homelessness in the recently released video game Sim City. (In case anyone missed it, it’s available here.) As it turns out, many of the player-crafted cities within the game have been suffering from an intractable homelessness problem. The homeless clog the streets and parks, reducing property values and disturbing simulated citizens. The players’ online discussions about their attempts to come to grips with the digital homeless have apparently now been transcribed and turned into a book by a scholar named Matteo Bittanti.

As quoted in the article, Bittanti asks whether our inability to solve homeless in the real world fatally impairs our ability to solve it in a simulated context. Bittanti’s thought is apparently much in debt to French theorist Jean Baudrillard, who wrote, among other things, on the role of “simulacra” in the contemporary cultural context of the globalized world. For Baudrillard, Disneyland was a perfect example of a simulacrum whose artificiality and infantile quality are meant to point to a more sober “real”- the “real America” which is itself an ideological construct. The simulacrum thus gives rise to the reality of which it claims to be a simulation. Baudrillard refers to this phenomenon as the “precession of simulacra”. Bittanti apparently sees video games playing a similar role, reducing the capitalist culture of neo-liberalism to a caricature of the “real” in which we are immersed.

How does this relate to our class? I suppose this one could be filed under “Philosophical limits on creativity”. It’s a bit of a detour from legal concerns but it may be an interesting one. In video game law last semester we discussed the possibility of looking at video games through the lens of post-structuralist theory. Upon reflection it’s not too difficult to see how the concept of de-centering or the Derridean notion of “play” would readily relate to video games, and the potential legal implications seem considerable if challenging to describe in specifics. What I found interesting about the Sim City article is the suggestion that the range of creative freedom may be somehow influenced by the psychological tendency to create simulated worlds that reflect our concept of the “real” world and its cultural and ideological components. As Baudrillard might say, simulations of what we consider the real world serve both to give us a context we recognize as well as to reinforce the essential reality of the cultural and ideological context simulated. I cannot help but think of the recent Call of Duty title which, despite its pretensions to a certain kind of realism, nonetheless has the player “press X to pay respects” before a fallen comrade, a laughable and parodic gesture which interestingly just seems to reinforce the sober reality being simulated.

In the case of the new Sim City this might be what we are seeing in the video game cities plagued by chronic homelessness and other ills, and which offer only economistic solutions along the lines of “click to add more jobs”. In a more abstract sense, this may also be reflected in the surprising fact that such a huge preponderance of video games basically amount to “an abstract representation of the logic of capitalist production and efficiency”. (That line comes from the great talk linked at the bottom, also from video game law last semester and extremely worth listening to.)

Of course, many people would tend to dismiss Baudrillard’s thought as specious nonsense. But I think it offers an interesting perspective on creative media that involve simulation, such as video games. And just as some post-structuralist ideas have gradually begun to influence the larger culture (including legal culture), it’s difficult to predict how these things may influence our perception of creativity in the future.

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