Seductions of Sim: Policy as a Simulation

Jon A. Lambert jlsysinc at
Fri Apr 10 13:55:51 New Zealand Standard Time 1998

Here's an article I found very interesting...  I thought I'd share.


--J. Lambert


    Copyright 1994 by New Prospect, Inc. Readers may redistribute this ar=
    to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text an=
d this=20
    notice remain intact. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or=20
    redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written perm=
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    The American Prospect, P.O. Box 383080, Cambridge, MA 02238, or by ph=
one at=20
    (617) 547- 2950.=20
    Preferred Citation: Paul Starr, "Seductions of Sim: Policy as a Simul=
    Game," The American Prospect no. 17 (Spring 1994): 19-29=20

    Seductions of Sim
    Policy as a Simulation Game
    Paul Starr=20
    Standing around the computer, my two older daughters, nine and eleven=
    old, scan the picture of the city we're creating and debate whether i=
t needs=20
    more commercial or residential development. My six-year-old son sugge=
sts we=20
    look at the city budget. In just a few weeks he has learned enough to=
    the critical question: "What's the cash flow?"
    This is SimCity, one of a series of computer simulations that turn pu=
    policy and ideas into popular entertainment. With the advent of drama=
    improved graphics and powerful, low-cost multimedia computers, a new=20
    generation of "edutainment" software has finally begun to fulfill the=
    long-touted promise of computers in education. Most of the new progra=
ms use=20
    interactive multimedia to make games out of traditional subjects such=
    arithmetic or geography. In MathBlasters, for example, children solve=
    problems in order to fuel up a rocket and find a villain in outer spa=
    However, the Sim series, produced by California-based Maxis, goes a s=
    further: it makes games out of simulations of complex natural and soc=
    systems, based on advanced and sometimes controversial areas of scien=
ce and=20
    decision making, such as climatology and environmental science, genet=
    and sociobiology. Those who think designing cities is prosaic can mov=
e on to=20
    simulating the development of planetary ecosystems (SimEarth) or the=20
    evolution of new life forms (SimLife). Other programs make games out =
of the=20
    management of railroads (A-Train), and farms (SimFarm), and even nati=
    health policy (SimHealth). These are unlikely ever to challenge Ninte=
    SuperMario World in sales. Still, it isn't only policy wonks who are =
    the games for themselves and their kids. SimCity has sold two million=
    since its release in 1989 and has probably introduced more people to =
    planning than any book ever has.
    When my family first began playing SimCity and others like it not lon=
g ago,=20
    my initial reaction was a mixture of excitement and skepticism. The n=
    simulations are certainly a lot more fun than most textbooks. Rather =
    present information, they provide tools for inventing worlds, explori=
    hypotheses, and stretching imaginations. Several have a public viewpo=
int. In=20
    SimCity--unlike Monopoly--the player builds a community. One of the=20
    "scenarios" in the latest version of SimCity puts the player in Flint=
    Michigan in 1974 with the task of rebuilding the local job base and=20
    community. In SimEarth and SimLife, the object is to create sustainab=
    environments and avoid extinctions.=20
    But I worried whether the games might not be too seductive. What assu=
    were buried in the underlying models? What was their "hidden curricul=
    Did a conservative or a liberal determine the response to changes in =
    rates in SimCity? While playing SimCity with my eleven-year-old daugh=
ter, I=20
    railed against what I thought was a built-in bias of the program agai=
    mixed-use development. "It's just the way the game works," she said a=
    My daughter's words seemed oddly familiar. A few months earlier someo=
ne had=20
    said virtually the same thing to me, but where? It suddenly flashed b=
    the earlier conversation had taken place while I was working at the W=
    House on the development of the Clinton health plan. We were discussi=
ng the=20
    simulation model likely to be used by the Congressional Budget Office=
    to "score" proposals for health care reform. When I criticized one=20
    assumption, a colleague said to me, "Don't waste your breath," warnin=
g that=20
    it was hopeless to get CBO to change. Policy would have to adjust.=20
    There are, of course, important differences between computer simulati=
    games and the simulations used to assess policy options. The games ar=
    designed to be entertaining; fidelity to empirical reality is not for=
    But simplification is inherent in any simulation. Even "real" simulat=
    (if that is not an oxymoron) inevitably rely on imperfect models and=20
    simplifying assumptions that the media, the public, and even policy m=
    themselves generally don't understand. Both types of simulation are e=
    of what might be called a crossover intellectual technology, one that=
    only recently moved from academic and technical fields into popular a=
    public use. The crossover of simulation holds out the promise of an e=
    understanding of the world, particularly of complex systems. But ther=
e is a=20
    danger too: forgetting that simulations depend on the models on which=
    are built.
    The danger is particularly worrisome when simulations are used to mak=
    predictions and evaluate policies. And when policymakers depend on=20
    simulations to guide present choices--especially when legislators put=
    government on "automatic pilot," binding policy to numerical indicato=
rs of=20
    projected trends-- they cede power to those who define the models tha=
    generate the forecasts. This is happening in America today, most nota=
    with the rise of the CBO as a power center in national policy. In a s=
    Washington is already Sim city.=20
    Original Sim=20
    Although it has taken three decades for them to come of age, simulati=
    games-- and SimCity in particular--are really children of the '60s. I=
    their development follows a classic pattern of our time. In their inf=
    simulations and related advances in computer technology were nurtured=
    government grants for both military and domestic policy purposes. In =
    maturity, they are being turned by private initiative and investment =
into a=20
    phenomenon of popular culture.=20
    To be sure, the genealogy of simulation can be traced back to a varie=
    history preceding the 1960s. At least since their use by the Prussian=
    in the eighteenth century, simulations of combat have been a staple o=
    military training. War games were, so to speak, the cradle of simulat=
ion. By=20
    the post-World War II era, engineers and corporate managers were usin=
    simulations to design and run power grids, telecommunications network=
    factories, and businesses. Business simulations, which began primaril=
y as=20
    training exercises, evolved into a routine management tool. And as=20
    researchers gained access to computers in the 1950s and '60s, simulat=
    came into wide use for scientific purposes to understand complex syst=
    such as climates, economies, ecosystems, and international relations.
    As these examples suggest, simulations referred to at least two types=
    activity. One kind of simulation created a role-playing game and enga=
    participants in working out a scenario under prescribed conditions an=
    rules. The other kind projected the behavior of a complex system on t=
    basis of a quantitative model. The new computer simulations create ga=
    based on models of complex systems and, in that sense, they combine t=
he two.=20
    The forerunners of these games were developed in the 1960s. "Social=20
    simulation" took off during the '60s in several independent forms. At=
    Hopkins, the sociologist James S. Coleman and his colleagues worked o=
    simulations as a means of both advancing social theory and improving=20
    education, particularly for minority youth. Role-playing simulations =
    games, they argued, would enliven the teaching of subjects as diverse=
    mathematics and social studies. One of the games, called Ghetto, soug=
ht to=20
    expose the logic of inner-city life. The hope was that as a tool of=20
    research, simulations and games would enable the theorist to define a=
    grasp the underlying rules of social systems. (Economics, of all the =
    sciences, has most used games this way.) As a tool of school reform,=20
    simulations would provide a more accessible, participatory method of=20
    education for children who did not respond well to traditional instru=
    John Dewey's educational ideals would finally be realized--or at leas=
    Advanced training programs and consensus-building for professionals a=
    decision makers also made increasing use of role-playing simulation g=
    sometimes involving large groups working under a trained facilitator.=
    of the earliest games simulated urban conflicts over resource allocat=
ion. In=20
    1964, one of the founders of the field, Richard Duke, designed a game=
    Metropolis for the city council in Lansing, Michigan. The game used=20
    role-playing to work through policy decisions and employed computers =
    track the effects, as the group went through one cycle of decision ma=
    after another. By the mid-1970s, a later version of the game, Metro-A=
    gave computer simulation a central role.=20
    During the 1950s and 1960s, a variety of planners and social scientis=
    concerned with urban problems had been developing large-scale compute=
    models of cities to simulate and predict their development under vary=
    policies. These models were first designed primarily for transportati=
on and=20
    land-use planning. The federal highway program provided a major impet=
    Modeling burgeoned in both academic and professional city-planning=20
    departments and displaced older traditions that conceived of planning=
    "architecture writ large."=20
    Large-scale urban simulation models first caught the public eye throu=
gh the=20
    work of an outsider to the field. In 1969, Jay W. Forrester, an elect=
    engineering professor at MIT with no background in urban research, pu=
    Urban Dynamics, a book purporting to disprove common intuitions about=
    policy. Forrester's next work, World Dynamics, proposed a model for t=
    entire planet. A group based at MIT and led by his prot=82g=82s prepa=
red the=20
    1972 report The Limits to Growth sponsored by the Club of Rome, which=
    claimed to show that the world was reaching the end of its ecological=
    Because of their dramatic conclusions, Forrester and the Club of Rome=
    captured the public imagination, but the reception accorded their wor=
k by=20
    researchers and professionals was much cooler. Forrester's urban mode=
l was=20
    not based on empirical evidence and had no spatial dimension. Accordi=
ng to=20
    Britton Harris, a leading exponent of modeling and emeritus professor=
    planning, transportation, and public policy at the University of=20
    Pennsylvania, Forrester's model had little influence on urban plannin=
g. The=20
    Club of Rome report did incorporate data and had real influence, thou=
gh it=20
    too had no spatial dimension. From the vantage of the Club of Rome, t=
    world consisted only of aggregates and averages. While undoubtedly=20
    contributing to public awareness of global environmental problems (an=
    better subsequent research), the report itself has not withstood the =
    of time. For example, nearly all the resources that it predicted woul=
d be in=20
    short supply at escalating prices in the 1990s now have larger known=20
    reserves and are available at lower prices than they were in 1972.=20
    Professional disillusionment with large-scale models was already sett=
ing in=20
    at the time of the Club of Rome report. In 1973, a leading journal in=
    planning published a "requiem" for large-scale models. The emerging=20
    consensus was that the models had overreached; both the theory underl=
    the models and the available data were inadequate to make the kind of=
    predictions the modelers were attempting. The modelers' "loss of fait=
h," as=20
    one of the leading urban modelers, William Alonso, calls it, became p=
art of=20
    a broader collapse of confidence in planning in the 1970s and 1980s. =
In the=20
    same era, efforts to apply simulation and games to the education of m=
    youth were also proving a disappointment. Critics questioned whether =
    educational payoff was worth the effort.=20
    But while social simulation flagged, work on simulation models and ga=
mes did=20
    not actually disappear. Rather, it retreated into more specialized ci=
    Role-playing simulations have become a standard technique for profess=
    training and conflict resolution. During the next two decades, the=20
    development of computers, software, and data resources transformed bo=
th the=20
    scientific and popular potential of computer simulation. By the late =
    there was talk of a "renaissance" of large-scale models in urban plan=
    even though many in the field are still as wary as ever about the mod=
    predictive powers.=20
    The spread of desktop computers and advance of visualization techniqu=
es have=20
    been particularly important for the revival and popular crossover of=20
    simulation. Early computer simulations and games required access to=20
    mainframe computers and skills that were, to most people, esoteric. I=
    graphics made simulations and games not only more accessible and abso=
    but also more "playable."=20
    Much of the research behind advances in computer graphics was origina=
    sponsored by the Department of Defense and space programs and grew ou=
t of=20
    work on flight simulation, which in the 1960s and '70s was centered a=
t the=20
    University of Utah. The defense and space programs had a similar cata=
    role in the development of the Internet. Virtual reality has followed=
    same route.=20
    Improved graphics hit the home market with the growth of video games =
and the=20
    advent of the Macintosh. Even flight simulation has crossed over to b=
    home entertainment.
    It was while working on a video game for bombing islands that Will Wr=
ight, a=20
    Macintosh programmer, came up with the idea for SimCity. Wright told =
    recently that while designing a "terrain editor" to create the landsc=
ape, he=20
    discovered that he had "more fun building the islands than bombing th=
    Wright had never studied urban planning--his background was in roboti=
cs and=20
    computer games--but on his own he found his way to the planning liter=
    including Forrester and Jane Jacobs. The subject became interesting t=
o him=20
    only after he began simulating urban development. (Many people who ha=
    since played SimCity have probably had the same experience.) Drawing =
    research begun decades earlier, Wright fashioned the models of land u=
    traffic, power systems, and other aspects of urban development that u=
    SimCity. He says he conceived of SimCity not as a game but rather as =
a "toy"=20
    because at least in its standard use there is no preset goal or conte=
st. The=20
    player decides what kind of city to build--whether to emphasize its s=
    wealth, beauty, or harmony with the environment. In 1987, unable to f=
ind a=20
    software publisher who thought there was a market for such a toy, Wri=
    joined with a businessman, Jeff Braun, to start Maxis and develop Sim=
    The company now has more than 20 titles on the market and has spun of=
f a=20
    separate firm to create business and public policy applications.=20
    Inside SimCity
    The seductive power of computer simulation games lies partly in their=
    extraordinary variety and intricacy. Generating complex variation is =
    thing that computers do especially well. But interest in such games w=
    limited as long as the "user interface" was text. Adding stereo sound=
    three-dimensional graphics enables people to handle greater complexit=
y at a=20
    faster pace. This is what makes multimedia simulation such a powerful=
    communication medium. SimCity shows why.=20
    Like several other programs in the Sim series, SimCity offers a choic=
    between two types of play: building a system from scratch or solving =
    problems in a specific scenario. (All references here are to SimCity =
    the more elaborate, three-dimensional version of the game released in=
    The player who builds a city de novo receives a starting fund and a r=
    generated, five-square-mile terrain whose features can be chosen and=20
    modified at no cost prior to the start of play. For example, the play=
er can=20
    decide whether to locate the city on a coast or river and how much ar=
ea will=20
    be covered by water, hills, and forests. The terrain will be differen=
t every=20
    time. Once play begins, the development of the city is open-ended, wi=
th no=20
    fixed objectives or time limits, except as the player defines them. I=
    contrast, in the second type of play, the player loads a scenario wit=
h a=20
    given map and limited time to accomplish a specific task, such as=20
    revitalizing Flint, rebuilding Charleston, South Carolina after a hur=
    or turning "Dullsville, U.S.A.," into an exciting community.
    As mayor of SimCity, the player has extraordinary powers; there is no=
    council, state government, or public employee union to worry about. (=
    Rudolph Giuliani, weep.) The mayor can set local tax rates and locate=
    build various community facilities and services, such as power plants=
, water=20
    systems, roads, highways, rails, airports, police and fire stations,=20
    schools, and hospitals. The mayor can also control annual spending on=
    services, adopt ordinances on matters ranging from pollution control =
to the=20
    promotion of tourism, and zone areas for industrial, commercial, or=20
    residential use.=20
    SimCity operates on a "field of dreams" principle. If as mayor the pl=
    creates the right environment, the Sims--the imaginary inhabitants of=
    city--will come and build factories, shops, and homes. When they do,=20
    buildings and factories pop up on the land and change as the city dev=
    But if things turn sour--if unemployment rises or high crime rates in=
    neighborhood drive people away--the icons on the screen change or go =
dark to=20
    indicate population losses or building abandonment. All this takes pl=
ace in=20
    vaguely historical time (the player can set the starting data at 1900=
, 1950,=20
    2000, or 2050), which primarily affects the available technology and =
rate of=20
    energy consumption.=20
    To help make decisions about zoning, taxes, expenditures, bond issues=
, and=20
    other policies, the program provides a wealth of constantly changing =
data in=20
    maps and graphs showing the city's population growth and density, dem=
and for=20
    residential, commercial, and industrial land, unemployment, power and=
    supply, crime, traffic congestion, pollution, and various other aspec=
ts of=20
    the city's development. The same sources report changes in interest r=
    and the growth of the national economy and neighboring cities. Newspa=
    periodically deliver reports of local sentiment, including the latest=
    opinion polls and inane, jumbled stories about local and made-up=20
    international events. A hallmark of the Sim games is a light touch. (=
    favorite example: In SimAnt, which translates the sociobiology of ant=
    behavior into game form, one ant curses a group from another colony, =
    queen mates with termites.")=20
    The key to SimCity is the interaction of private land values with the=
    budget. As the player constructs a city, the value of property zoned =
    development is continually changing. These changing values are critic=
al, for=20
    they affect property tax receipts and determine--as my six-year-old q=
    discovered--whether the cash flow in the city budget is positive or n=
    and therefore whether the player has to raise taxes, cut spending on =
    services, and skimp on public investments.=20
    Will Wright aptly refers to the basic conceptual framework of SimCity=
 as a=20
    "capitalistic land value ecology" and argues that it fits the develop=
ment of=20
    American cities in the twentieth century but would not account for th=
    development, for example, of St. Petersburg. In fact, SimCity is some=
    more constraining; the game seems to require a particular type of Ame=
    city built on an industrial base.=20
    The model in SimCity, as Wright describes it, consists of a series of=
    "concentric rings." At the core is a so-called "basic/nonbasic" or=20
    "export/import" model, borrowed from the traditional urban developmen=
    literature, that describes the evolving relationship of the industria=
    commercial, and residential sectors. SimCity assumes that while 70 pe=
    of industrial production is exported outside of a city, 70 percent of=
    commercial production is consumed internally. Thus in the early stage=
s of a=20
    city's development, while its internal market is small, the industria=
    sector must predominate. As the city and its internal market grow, co=
    begins to expand, ultimately overtaking industry as the main source o=
    employment. The demand for residential space depends on the growth of=
    sectors. If jobs outnumber potential participants in the labor force,=
    will move to the city and demand for residential development will inc=
    If the local economy is doing badly and there are fewer jobs than wor=
    unemployment will rise and people will leave the city.
    According to Wright, SimCity uses a "bid rent" model to determine lan=
    valuations. Property carries different values depending on its use; f=
    example, proximity to the urban center is valued most for commercial =
    residential purposes and least for industry. The actual numbers used =
    SimCity for land values, city investments, and other items bear no re=
    to the real world. However, the overall valuation of SimCity and thus=
    tax base will depend on how the player distributes and locates differ=
    zones and allocates resources among roads, schools, and other public=20
    Wright says SimCity is built "from the inside out." In the outer ring=
s are=20
    models for traffic, energy, water, and other systems, which react bac=
k upon=20
    and modify the land-use model at the core. The hardest problem, accor=
ding to=20
    Wright, is not what to put in but what to leave out. He is disarming =
    the game's limits. Inevitably, SimCity is a "caricature" of reality. =
    models deliberately exaggerate effects to provide feedback to the pla=
yer; in=20
    real life, the effects of many decisions would be imperceptible. The =
    of SimCity is not accuracy or prediction but communication. "Unless i=
    entertaining, the educational value is irrelevant." Asked how he hand=
    controversial choices, like the effects of tax rates on development, =
    dodges the question and says, "We go for game play"--whatever is most=
    Still, when players make decisions in SimCity, the game generates eff=
ects on=20
    employment, crime, population growth, tax revenues. I would be more w=
    about too easy an acceptance of the validity of those effects if SimC=
    worked with real data. Games of that kind may well be on the market n=
ot long=20
    from now, enabling players to download real maps and data into a game=
 with a=20
    visual interface like SimCity. But, as now designed, SimCity is clear=
ly a=20
    fictional world and the effects seem only as real as points scored in=
    video game. This is even true of the Flint scenario because of the pa=
    fictional quality of all the numbers used in the game.=20
    SimCity's players learn not from any particular aspect of the model b=
ut from=20
    the process of being forced to make choices and face the consequences=
. Most=20
    immediately, they confront choices of spatial design in distributing =
    among potential uses and locating community resources like schools an=
    NIMBY's like power plants. These choices have a temporal as well as s=
    dimension. Players who overinvest too early in costly capital project=
s like=20
    an airport or stadium will quickly find themselves in fiscal trouble.=
    The important payoff comes from struggling to master complexity. Wrig=
    observes, "Playing the game is the process of discovering how the mod=
    works." Of course, few players will be able to give any formal expres=
sion to=20
    the model. But much of it is implicit in the manual that comes with t=
    game, and many players will be able to figure out critical relationsh=
    from the signals that the game provides. To keep up with a city's cha=
    size and demands, the game requires constant monitoring of the city's=
    water, transportation, budget, and other systems.
    If there is a "hidden curriculum" in SimCity and other Sim games, it =
    here. Shoshana Zuboff's 1988 book In the Age of the Smart Machine des=
    the confusion and alienation of workers in factories and offices as=20
    computers were first introduced over the previous decade. Physical co=
    with the production process had been an important source of practical=
    knowledge; for example, workers at pulp mills that Zuboff studied had=
    able to tell whether anything was wrong merely from the color and odo=
r of=20
    the pulp. Now the workers were asked to make decisions based on infor=
    flashing on a computer screen. This shift deemphasized sensory knowle=
dge and=20
    put a premium on more abstract, "intellective" capacities. This is ex=
    what SimCity teaches: the management of complex systems based on=20
    "intelligent scanning" of streams of constantly changing information.=
    As SimCity has evolved, it has incorporated increasing levels of comp=
    For example, in the original SimCity, the fiscal options were limited=
. There=20
    was one tax rate that players could raise or lower, no possibility of=
    floating bonds, and just three types of operating=20
    expenditure--transportation, police, and fire protection. In SimCity =
    the player can vary property tax rates by class (residential, commerc=
    industrial); offer tax incentives to specific industries; impose a sa=
les or=20
    income tax; borrow funds; refinance bonds; budget a wider variety of=20
    programs now including education, health, and welfare; and vary expen=
    within each budget category (for example, primary and secondary schoo=
    versus higher education) and even by neighborhood.=20
    This degree of complexity may seem astonishing in a game for children=
. But=20
    when children play SuperMario World and other popular adventure games=
, they=20
    must learn the most intricate facts about the many imaginary places t=
    navigate. These worlds are typically filled with strange creatures, h=
    passageways, and special treasures. Going from one level of the game =
to the=20
    next demands an extraordinary mastery of detail. Compared with these=20
    demands, managing SimCity is surprisingly straightforward.=20
    SimCity makes complexity manageable partly by enabling players to ign=
    much of it when they are first learning the game. For example, player=
s can=20
    turn on "auto-budget" and let the program follow its default options =
    they are ready to take up fiscal alternatives. When they do, they wil=
l find=20
    that SimCity allows the mayor to get advice from various city council=
    members--or are they consultants?--who appear at the click of a mouse=
. Their=20
    recommendations may not, however, always be consistent. As I was play=
    one adviser urged me to raise taxes to cut the city's deficit, while =
    said I should cut taxes to stimulate growth. This difference seemed t=
o me a=20
    truly real-world touch.=20
    Wright says that the next stage in SimCity's development may enable t=
    player to dive into a city to run a business inside it. He also wants=
    give players the ability to modify the model's assumptions. "We want =
    user to be able to define more and more of the model." Ultimately, he=
    the game could allow players to build the models themselves. Whether =
    people would use this opportunity is unclear. But the option would pe=
    mastery of a simulation in the more fundamental sense of being able t=
    manipulate the assumptions and relationships behind it. In its curren=
    version, the model is an unreachable black box. A new Sim game, SimHe=
    does allow players to modify assumptions and define the governing val=
    But in practice, SimHealth shows some of the limitations of the genre.
    A Simulation Muddle
    The premise of SimHealth is that you have been elected to Congress in=
    and seek to get reelected by choosing policies for health care. The g=
ame and=20
    the voters then rate your performance not against an independent stan=
    but rather against your own--the values you have selected at the outs=
    This is an attractive concept. However, the framework for "clarifying=
    values adopted by SimHealth is based on hackneyed and misleading prem=
    SimHealth asks players to define their values in terms of two=20
    dualities--liberty and equality, and community and efficiency--on the=
    premise that more of one value in a pair necessarily means less of th=
    But is this the case? Historically, many societies that have denied b=
    liberties have also had extreme inequalities. When we talk about righ=
ts, we=20
    generally mean equal rights; thus the two concepts overlap, often=20
    reinforcing one another. For example, does the right to assemble peac=
    for redress of grievances express the value of liberty or equality? W=
    about equal educational opportunity? Compared to the U.S. system toda=
y, is=20
    Canadian-style national health insurance an expression of equality (s=
    everyone is covered) or of liberty (since all are guaranteed individu=
    choice of physician and no one suffers from job lock)?=20
    To assume a zero-sum relation between liberty and equality, and commu=
    and efficiency, obscures a central challenge of policy--how to achiev=
    progress on more than one value at a time. For example, few would dis=
    that by eliminating administrative sources of inefficiency, we are be=
    able to carry out aims benefiting the community as a whole. But in=20
    SimHealth, efficiency and community are counterposed. Perhaps even mo=
    fundamental, SimHealth's framework fails to appreciate that the main=20
    political differences in health policy, as in other areas of American=
    politics, concern conflicting interpretations of widely shared values=
. Those=20
    who take different positions do not necessarily differ in the value t=
    place, for example, on liberty; they often disagree about what libert=
y means=20
    in relation to health care (freedom to change jobs without fear of lo=
    coverage, freedom to pick a health plan, freedom to pick a doctor, fr=
    to consult alternative healers, and so on).=20
    SimHealth's philosophical muddle is inadvertently apparent from the=20
    arbitrary connections it asserts between values and particular statem=
    that are supposed to embody them. The value of community supposedly c=
    for "restructur[ing] health insurance to provide the highest quality =
    But it is obscure to me why "community" should mean an emphasis on qu=
    of care rather than, say, careful stewardship of resources, priority =
    public health measures, or universal coverage.=20
    SimHealth does no better a job of explaining health care policies and=
    proposals. Indeed, the game is littered with crude simplifications an=
    outright errors of fact. It mixes up the concepts of managed care and=
    managed competition, confuses an individual's share of premiums with =
    coinsurance rate (the individuals' share of payments for covered serv=
    and misstates the basic arrangements proposed in the Clinton and othe=
    proposed health plans in Congress. The effects of particular policies=
    public opinion seemed entirely arbitrary and capricious. I did not de=
    any particular political bias. But SimHealth contains so much misinfo=
    that no one could possibly understand competing proposals and policie=
s, much=20
    less evaluate them, on the basis of the program. And although SimHeal=
    enables users to modify some assumptions, the model is never clearly=20
    explained and the basic architecture is beyond reach.=20
    The oversimplified values framework and misinformation in SimHealth c=
ould be=20
    fixed, but the bigger problem is false pretensions. Unlike the plainl=
    fictional SimCity, SimHealth claims to simulate the effects of differ=
    real-world proposals, which it cannot do. I suspect that if SimCity=20
    purported to help evaluate policies toward the homeless, it would see=
    equally inadequate.
    SimHealth is a case of overshoot. The Sim games generally achieve the=
    impact by engaging players in concrete tasks. SimHealth, however, see=
ks to=20
    engage players in formulating policy, which is entirely different. A =
    can start playing SimCity without any conceptual understanding of urb=
    development. But to choose among various policy options in SimHealth,=
    player needs to understand their relation to one another. The concept=
    threshold is too high, and it is not clear that a game can overcome i=
t. On=20
    the other hand, for those who are familiar with the elements of healt=
    policy, playing SimHealth quickly becomes repetitive; it lacks the co=
    variation and intricacy of SimCity and other Sim games. Once the nove=
lty of=20
    making health policy into a game has worn off, I doubt SimHealth will=
    much interest. It certainly has no value in assessing health care ref=
    Simulation in Reality=20
    The critical problem raised by simulation is the black-box nature of =
    models. In the "real world" of policy simulation, the models are subj=
ect to=20
    criticism and debate, at least among professionals. Opposing sides in=
    disputes often come armed with their own simulations, ready to fight =
    with numbers. However outrageously biased some of these may be, there=
    nothing remarkable or offensive about the practice--it is simply one =
    of today's pursuit of politics by other means.
    The troubling questions, in my view, concern the use of simulation as=
    element of statecraft. In principle, models used for official purpose=
s are=20
    more open to scrutiny than are those in the private sector, and that =
    enormously important. Within and across the branches of the federal=20
    government, the validity of the models and assumptions is subject to =
    scrutiny, and a strong sense of professionalism limits political=20
    manipulation. However, to most participants in policy debates as well=
 as the=20
    public at large, the models are opaque. Only a few can penetrate the =
    box and understand what is inside. This has two opposite effects. At =
    conscious level, many people are distrustful of official projections,=
    much else about government. In practice, however, the numbers take on=
    immense importance. As a result, those who have technical authority o=
ver the=20
    black boxes acquire an extraordinary degree of influence in the polit=
    process. And technical authority matters because the outcome of simul=
    often depends on what is assumed in the first place.=20
    There is no obvious remedy to the black-box problem, and it affects=20
    conservatives as much as liberals. Conservatives who are wary of plan=
    still depend on large-scale models for budgetary projections. Indeed,=
    most recent version of the balanced- budget amendment would require C=
    to balance not actual outlays and receipts but projections of future=20
    streams. Since those projections would be produced through computer=20
    simulations, the amendment would give unprecedented authority to whoe=
    served as official simulator--a role that sounds like the modern equi=
    of court magician, and perhaps is.=20
    The official simulator today, CBO director Robert Reischauer, may now=
 be as=20
    powerful a figure as any member of Congress. The CBO has no veto over=
    legislation, but it has a power that is nearly as great--the power to=
    "score" legislation to determine compliance with budget rules and fut=
    effects on the deficit. When someone in Washington today claims savin=
gs for=20
    a proposed change in national policy, people ask not whether the savi=
ngs are=20
    real but rather, "Are they scoreable?" This aspect of national policy=
    all the features of a game with arcane rules and assumptions. (One of=
    staff economists at the Council of Economic Advisers joked last year =
    after leaving he would write a kiss-and-tell book called How to Score=
    From the formative stages of policymaking, the effects are substantia=
l. For=20
    the past several years, the CBO has cast a broad shadow over the deba=
    about health care reform. Among the cognoscenti, cost-containment pro=
    have been classified in two ways--"scoreable" and "unscoreable"--depe=
    on whether the CBO was likely to smile or frown. The prospect that th=
e CBO=20
    would frown on a policy and deem it "unscoreable" has been a grave,=20
    sometimes fatal strike against it.=20
    When the CBO finally made its report on the Clinton health plan, it w=
    front-page news, and again the black-box problem was apparent. Now it=
    time to hear the score, though few understood what went into it. The=20
    president's critics heralded Reischauer for saying that premiums paid=
    health alliances should be counted in federal receipts (albeit as an=20
    "off-budget" item) and that the plan would raise the federal deficit =
by $70=20
    billion in the years prior to 2004 before reducing it. It almost did =
    matter that the CBO estimated a near-term increase in the federal def=
icit in=20
    part because it projected larger savings to state and local governmen=
    (indeed, recapturing those savings for the Treasury would make the pl=
    virtually budget-neutral). Nor did conservatives who were praising=20
    Reischauer seem to appreciate the implications of CBO's general view =
of cost=20
    containment. While casting a skeptical eye on the market-oriented mea=
    generally favored by conservatives, CBO has endorsed the effectivenes=
s of=20
    regulatory measures that conservatives dislike. CBO accepted the Clin=
    premium caps as 100 percent effective. It has favorably assessed the =
    of single-payer plans, particularly on administrative costs. This is =
by no=20
    means to say that CBO's judgments will be decisive, only that they ha=
ve come=20
    to hold unprecedented influence.=20
    CBO has emerged as a power center as the influence of Congress has gr=
    relative to the executive branch over the past two decades. But CBO h=
as also=20
    become a force in its own right, apart from the Congress, because of =
    predominance and persistence of budgetary issues in national politics=
    the search by the Congress to find ways to bind itself, like Ulysses =
to the=20
    mast, to resist strong impulses within. The official simulator is now=
    upon to provide not just clairvoyance but collective self-discipline.=
    discipline will hold only if the simulations do--only if there is one=
    authoritative mechanism for defining the future in the present. The p=
ower of=20
    CBO has become an institutional necessity.=20
    In the wider world, there is no comparable imperative to find a singl=
    mechanism for simulating alternative policies and theories. If there =
must be=20
    black boxes, at least we should have many of them to discourage faith=
 in any=20
    one. Even better, we need to open up the boxes by making the models m=
    Transparency ought to become both the objective of simulation designe=
rs and=20
    a critical basis for judging their success. Richard Duke--the pioneer=
    first introduced computers into urban simulation games in the 1960s--=
is now=20
    deeply skeptical about models embedded in computers that oblige the u=
    simply to accept an outcome as valid. Currently a professor at the=20
    University of Michigan and president of the International Simulation =
    Gaming Association, Duke says, "If a simulation hides the model, it's=
    little interest to me. If a simulation exposes the model, I'm much mo=
    interested." His own work now emphasizes role-playing policy simulati=
    exercises that allow different players to engage each other, not just=
    black-box model. Besides allowing participants to practice skills in=20
    negotiation and group problem solving, the role-playing approach is m=
    less deterministic: it introduces an unpredictable element of human c=
    into simulation games.=20
    Computer simulation games with many simultaneous players linked throu=
gh the=20
    Internet may also introduce more unpredictability. Moreover, as compu=
    games become more elaborate and widely used, their sheer multiplicati=
on and=20
    increasing plasticity may promote a healthy skepticism about their=20
    predictive power. Playing with simulation is one way to see its limit=
s as=20
    well as its possibilities.=20
    For better or worse, simulation is no mere fad. Indeed, to think of=20
    simulation games as mere entertainment or even as teaching tools is t=
    underestimate them. They represent a major addition to the intellectu=
    repertoire that will increasingly shape how we communicate ideas and =
    through problems. The advent of this new medium has escaped the atten=
tion of=20
    cultural critics because it has come in the form of children's games.=
    the computer simulation game is an art form; when combined with=20
    three-dimensional graphics and sound, it is an extraordinarily powerf=
ul one.=20
    We shall be working and thinking in SimCity for a long time.=20
    The American Prospect / Send us a message at prospect at
    =A9 1995 New Prospect, Inc.

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