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February 19, 2013

SimCity: Game, Modern Classic...Urban Planning Tool?

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

Video games have been called a lot of things in their tenure. They've been called tools to education, to hand-eye coordination, to teamwork and resources planning. They've been called resume boosters and murder simulators and just about everything in between. But few have called them “an aid to urban planning,” something that may need to change following one particular gamers' interaction with a copy of the new SimCity.

By way of background, the gamer in question was Mike Rose, the U.K video game editor for Gamasutra, who decided to take advantage of the second beta weekend of the new SimCity. Rose incorporated knowledge of his own hometown--Northenden, Manchester—and set about to build a simulated version of the town complete with traffic movement patterns and the like. The biggest problem Rose noted about Northenden is that, while the town itself is rather small—Northenden has a population of around 15,000, and can be driven through in about five minutes by Rose's estimation—the town has some positively crippling traffic issues. How bad is the traffic in Northenden? According to Rose, rush hour traffic can make for traffic waits of up to an hour, making for a wait of sufficient time to drive completely through the town 12 times over.

Rose explains the issue as being one of street design. While Northenden itself isn't busy, it connects to several major roadways, as well as being ringed by golf courses, a proposition that makes for few alternate road connections. With that in mind, Rose set out to not only replicate Northenden in SimCity, but also spot some ways to improve it and reduce that ridiculous traffic jam potential.

Interestingly, Rose's original Northenden tops out, population-wise, at 18,000, which is only a few more people than the actual Northenden currently hosts. But when Rose added in some more built-up sections with more tourist-centered features—including an area known as “East Didsbury” which features a casino complex—the traffic in one particular four-way intersection spiraled out of control, causing comparable backups of the kind that Rose experienced in real life.

Naturally, this is only a simulation in a video game. But what's downright disturbing about this particular simulation in a video game is that it so closely approximates real life. Maybe it's an issue of random chance, but it's amazing that the population of an area topped out almost precisely—a 20 percent difference isn't exactly a huge deviation—but when the traffic starts looking almost identical to the traffic in the area it's designed to approximate, well, that's saying something. One coincidence is just a coincidence, but when more than one coincidence happens in the same place, that's the kind of thing that draws notice.

Then there's the issue of the tool that's yielding all these coincidences. What's going to happen when more people start getting their hands on copies of the new SimCity? People are going to start running their own experiments with their own towns, and who knows what all those people will find when they start running similar scenarios? 

No one thinks of a video game as a tool to urban planning, but it may well be that games are getting more powerful than anyone wanted to envision. Improvements in simulations are likely to improve product quality in the future, and it's entirely possible that tomorrow's products and services will be the results of today's video game simulations.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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