I recently finished watching Mad Men. One thing that has always struck me about the show is the way that it uses verticality. It opens with the slow moving cartoon image of a man falling out of the window of a high-rise building decorated with aspirational advertising images. The show then proceeds to illustrate at least one narrative point per episode with a shot of people in an elevator, facing toward the camera, maintaining perfect composure as they ascend up to a workplace or conspicuously beautiful apartment.
The elevator has cinematographic value, as a cheap-to-produce set that allows all characters present to face the camera. It creates a shot that’s like a dollshouse: a cutaway view of a complete room. I like to imagine when I’m watching those scenes that I’m peering inside an intricate model building where the show is being acted out in miniature and a thousand things are happening at once, a different drama happening in the mind of every character who never gets a speaking role. The building is a system within a system that keeps some people on the ground floor and elevates others to the top.
Claris reflected, “the international style is a particular period of time where there’s an obsession with a building that can contain a person’s entire life. How do you feel coming at this architectural style as a simulation that has the same baggage around being obsessed with control and understanding?”
“I think it fits perfectly,” responded Viglione. “It is the era of talking about the giant building as a machine, and simulation games are machines with little levers that you pull and see what happens. The idea that we could build our way to the future and we could build this thing and everyone could live inside it and the happy in it. There was a utopian vision and an optimism. What translates down is the pessimism of ‘oh it didn’t work’ but what we’ve lost is that optimistic vision.”Within a game, this utopian vision works. “You can’t do that with society.” Click To Tweet
Simulation games allow you to have that optimism again for a little while. Games that are set in our own world play on our understanding of how the world works, letting us hang our strategies as players off our own pre-existing ideas and then recalibrate those assumptions in response to the simulation’s behaviour.”
“There is a bad side to learning from games,” say the Somasim team. If all of your knowledge of city planning comes from SimCity, that necessarily brings along a set of biases, because the game is designed to feel optimistic. The problems associated with the SimCity system are not made visible, because the simulation has no room for them. This might mean that a simulation game can only use history as a touchstone, rather than aiming at perfect accuracy.
“We don’t want to be limited by how offices worked in the 1960s” said Viglione, citing things like not having a Starbucks in every building, and not having computers. “What if Dieter Rams designed a computer?” is the sort of question that informs their design decisions. Eschewing the goal of perfect historical accuracy also allows Somasim to make their game’s optimistic fantasy more inclusive — instead of reproducing the gender politics of the mid-twentieth century, with ladies on typewriters and men in conference rooms, they plan to have gender be randomly assigned.
Mad Men was in part a TV show concerned with how people respond to being put in different positions in a system that benefits some people more than others: it was at times a resolutely pessimistic show. To simply enjoy the modernist aesthetic and appreciate the attempt to build something great, requires a self-consciously optimistic, radical reimagining of the historical context of mid-century modernism.
Mad Men elevator scenes
From the Wall Street Journal