An archaeologist with a background in Russian literature and culture, Owen Vince's current research and writing interests are in; urbanism, architecture, video games, and capitalism (and, often, the interrelationships between these).

In September 2001, William Basinski began a project that would later become known as ‘the disintegration loops’. The avant-garde composer accumulated a number of earlier recordings that had been made on magnetic tape, and began the process of transferring them to a digital format. The tape, however, had already begun to disintegrate; as it passed through the tape head, the ferrite began to erode and fall apart. Basinski played the tapes, on repeat, allowing them to deteriorate over time, with each repeated playing. This introduced gaps, distortions, truncations, adding new and unexpected textures to the original composition.

But he could not have predicted the significance of the September 11th morning on which he finished the project. On that day, Basinski completed the recording and went to his rooftop, from where he watched the dual masses of the World Trade Center buildings disappear in smoke, and eventually collapse. It seems, from a gloomy and removed perspective, that the collapse was not by any means a single event, but a collapsing that set in motion other collapsings. It defined the trajectory of a generation, pre-determining everything from defence spending and European Union immigration quotas to public road signage and TV commissions. And these echoes of construction through disintegration (albeit, a kind of negative construction) came to a head.

Over the past year, gaming has attempted to drag itself from the barbaric shadow of Gamergate, in which colleagues and friends were sent into hiding, where the submersion of paranoia into everyday society had become so total that an entrenched community – under a false flag of ethics – aggressively defended the indefensible position of rejecting the creation of new and different games, and denied all attempts at their historicisation. I watched all of this unfold from Turkey. I watched as fighter jets tore across the immersive blue sky. I saw trunk roads that, plunging toward Syria, bore no traffic. In a store they said “you can’t buy Aleppo soap any longer”. The soap vats are empty. I saw two towers collapsing; an industry tear itself to shreds.

I wondered if it was any good attempting to grasp something of this crisis, this “rhizomatic” modernity where “any point” of the rhizome, of this complicated and self-involved structure, “can be connected to any other, and must be”. This intensification of crisis and commodification has given, somehow, new life to the creating of new “weird” games, as Zolani Stewart has argued. So how do we write about them, and how do we inject that writing and thinking into our present, and cast it toward our futures in an epoch of sustained crisis and uncertainty?

William Basinski handles magnetic tape
Photograph 0f William Basinski by Peter J Kierzkowski


If “weird” games celebrate their own lack of finality, their own brokenness, should we break our writing too? These games, and our playing of them, are a kind of expressive, emotive spectacle which doesn’t shut down when we press “quit”. It isn’t separated from our writing. Reviews create false dichotomies (game : text, experience : reflection). So how do we break (away from) and re-integrate them, as a kind of process?

Disintegration implies the unexpected transformation of a base compound, of a once-coherent unit, into a newly emergent form. That form might be toxic (decaying elements produce radiation), or positive. For Basinski, the fact of the tapes’ decay generated a sweeping and mournfully beautiful repositioning of them. It was unexpected, and added to the original object while taking away from it. But, as a loop,  it also always came back to it.

A black, stone walkway leads forward towards a fractured wall made of floating cubes, silhouetted against a sky at dawn
Img 1: Screen from Connor Sherlock’s Sanctuary

Recently, Stephen Bierne suggested that games criticism is rarely understood as a craft in its own right. That it receives a ‘bad press’, and that its detractors – there are many – argue that it ‘ruins’ games, or that (perhaps worse), it is irrelevant. Designers might argue that critics understand poorly how games are actually made (the, ‘how can you judge art if you can’t paint?’ argument). Others suggest that it has projected unrealistic social and political commentary onto the surface of the games, or that it has injected too much personal anecdote into its practice. I’m not going to address and criticise these complaints point by point. I think they’re quite dull, and unenlightening. But I want to suggest that games criticism – in tearing apart games, in performing deconstruction, in addressing and anatomising – is a productive, albeit destructive, act. It locates games in their critical, social, and aesthetic milieux. It says: culture is extended by having engaging, often difficult, conversations about artistic form and practice. It is GPS. It is a smoke signal – a flare among the ice.

But I want to go further. I want to say that the destruction of the source material is usually only rhetorical. We don’t actually jigsaw, melt, or decay the base compound away from its original size, or form, or identity, but we could do that, and it may be equally revealing, even if problematic. Maybe it would help us better understand what a game might be doing, and how it might be doing this, in a time of growth and ambivalence in the games community, and at a moment of intense historical anxiety for us as a whole.


I keep a scrapbook of architectural collages. My hope is that a few years down the line, I’ll actually be an accredited urban designer in the real world. For now, I get a lot of insight and inspiration from taking photographs of buildings, film stills of architecture, screenshots of buildings in games, and collaging them together. I use a broadly ‘constructivist’ method, as used by Italian architect and illustrator, Aldo Rossi, among many others (see gallery above). It is a humble sort of scrappy practice. I enjoy it.

Recently, something unusual happened. I was using my partner’s cheap HP 301 printer, and was running off a series of screengrabs from freeware games. I was doing it in a hurry, because we were heading out. The printer was running dry of colour. After a few false starts I put the image, from Connor Sherlock’s Sanctuary (Img. 1) through the printer, and what came out (Img. 2), was disarming. In an attempt to reproduce the image as well as possible, the printer had inverted, inaccurately, the image’s colours. What was looming, coherent and black came out in a dusty, powdered turquoise-blue. Its outline, once a shimmering, necrotic band, was a deeper waving line of green. The background, rather than being ominous, was calm, even placid. Like raspberry juice spilt in a glass of milk. It was not the original image. It was different, beautiful, and more importantly, accidental. In the process of extracting, or in Bierne’s term, “deferring” the game away from itself, I had created something unexpected that, regardless, still referred back to it.

This isn’t simply an aesthetic consideration – it doesn’t just look good. I think it offers two things; (a) a commentary on what exactly (or beautifully inexactly) games criticism is doing and; (b) a unique artistic practice that enables us, as critics, as ‘responders’, to extend the kinds of forms that we use to respond to games. It is to locate ‘games criticism’ outside of writerly practice, to annexe other arts that can influence, invest, and reimagine it. But we’ll always have writing. After all, that’s what I’m doing here, in order to frame the work.

new4Img 2: The distorted print-out

So how does my unexpected, disintegrated image refer back to the original game?

Sanctuary is an ominous, architecturally interesting, and very affective piece of design. I already knew, before the disintegrated image was made, that Sanctuary was about finding security and protection within a hostile environment. It conveys this using the architecture of the actual sanctuary building, a sort of church-like dark assembly that is lateral more than vertical, and squats beneath the big, dangerous sky. But I hadn’t yet thought about how particular emotional and affective responses were generated by that contrast between danger and safety. It’s a walking simulator/horror, so already we know that it’s going to put us in this kind of strange place, and it’s going to be like Suspiria (shown below) and Italian horror film. It’s also about encountering buildings – architectural forms – in a landscape.

The atmospheric and environmental emergence of the central built form, as it appears from behind the dark forest, has an alluring inevitability to it. Despite the gyrating terror of the experience, with its whip cracks of thunder, we can imagine an arc of inevitable and flexible progression by which we will ultimately end up, safely, within the sanctuary. This is quite an optimistic idea, but I hadn’t thought about how that relief was articulated, and how it plays on the psychological shock that what is protective is also necessarily ominous, and shares its qualities.

High-angle shot of a white, black and red room with a striking abstract mural on the ground. A person with white skin and long brown hair wearing a pink dressing gown appears to be running into the room from a forked stairway.
Screencap from Suspiria (1977) Director Dario Argento

We realise that the looming bleak form of the sanctuary building is simultaneously protective, but also worrying. Its mass, scale, and darkness are threatening because we cannot make it out against the storm. But the disintegrated image, in blurring the cube shapes (outside of the sanctuary) into the building’s framework/body (that which surrounds and protects you), makes you realise that actually they exist on the same plane, and are made of the same surface texture. It neutralises the cubes. We realise that our relief stems from this manipulation of perspective by which we find safety and comfort in a building that is exactly the same as the cubes. Our relief is in the act of neutralisation, that we can move our ‘body’ and perspective in the game so as to disappear and reappear the cubes. We can create and diminish them by how we stand, within the sanctuary, and look out onto the storm.

This is even more important because, to ‘end’ the game, you actually have to interact with a sort of ‘Alpha cube’ – boss cube – that normalises the world. That cube is contained inside a dark building. It is part of it, and to ‘resolve’ the game – to reach its end state – you have to interact with it. The earlier perspective-shift of cubes + sanctuary building had alluded to this. It was the architecture telling us what to do, what to anticipate.

Without the disintegrated image, I would not have understood how the interrelationship between ‘place of safety’ and ‘objects of fear’ produces our relief – how it structures it, and how it is manifested, and made real, through our gaze. The attractive way the image turned out also confirmed how dependent a game’s atmospherics are on its arrangement of architectural space, and the kinds of lenses and gazes that it affords us to perceive and encounter them. This felt, in a very small way, like the maturation of an industry that I first came into contact with when I was still a child.

But playing a game is always already a mesh of responses and reactions which defer away from the object, before coming back to it. You don’t have to be an ‘art critic’ to appreciate that. It is inherent to the playing process. Sure, some games are more likely to activate a greater number of points of reference, contrast, and connection, but the art critic doesn’t have some inherently privileged capacity that a non-critic does not. For Michael Benson (and he’s talking about abstract expressionism), “these responses mobilize the past in the present and, by so doing, open lost or buried currents or constellations to investigation and narration”. More than this, it isn’t just about re-recovering, but also emergent generation: about creating entirely new responses to that encounter. Maybe a realisation about architectural perspective (as above), or an idea for a photograph, a design reference for furniture, or a sketch that you might want to undertake. Thinking about games also spawns new games – it creates at least the potential for cascade, for influence.

So I followed that thread. I’m not Basinski, or Connor Sherlock. But I wanted to run with that disintegration a little longer. I started to unpackage and extend my thoughts beyond play.

A games criticism that takes a hard look at itself in the mirror, creating and demanding new things. Click To Tweet


With my responses to Sanctuary, I tried to pursue a strategy of accident and continuity. The initial image remains the focal point, but I also wanted to radiate outwards from that original, the ‘accident’, toward forms and images that sprung to me as a result of that initial realisation. An aggregate of response through which I was continually trying to work out what ‘sanctuary’ means, and how buildings and design make us ‘feel’.

Everything I was doing was to recreate those conditions of the relationship between chaos and serenity which Sanctuary itself embodies. I wanted to explore some of the relationships between form, light, line, and mass; to examine shadow and the visual trick by which cube-material becomes coincident (made safe) with sanctuary-material. So I made a negative collage (Img. 3); an amalgam of cutaway and negative fragments, shorn remnants, of the process of creating the actual positive collage, because, Sanctuary works by appealing to the cutaway, and to how negative and positive spaces shape how we visually encounter masses in the (game) world. It helps us to stop treating “graphics” as something that, in a two dimensional way, simply “looks good”. We want to ask why, and treat the designer as a designer, an artist, an architect.

An angular, layered construction of white paper
Img 3: Collage of collages

A lot of my thinking about Sanctuary was architectural; as in, how space and form are organised in the level design. These aren’t just aesthetic considerations, but formal ones; the creation of a sanctuary is enabled by the security of a built form that covers you, but also the kind of ‘dissolving perspective’ that you have, from inside the sanctuary, which enables you to manage your gaze of the ominous cubes.

I used folded paper on a white paper surface; the ‘architecture’ was made of negative cutaways made from the original collaging. They were accidental structures, which I used to create baked shadow (the soft-edged, dissolving kind you see below), so as to understand how shadow and form can interrelate and inform one another. It just struck me that the game was all about these ‘impossible architectures’, these peculiar and deranged shapes which – regardless of their aggressiveness (they are blade-shaped) – create more comforting profiles in terms of how shadow is cast, and light interrupted. By creating architectures that stem from the game’s architectures, I was trying to map the game and its effects into a kind of practice. Bringing it into my hands.

Img. 4: Re-Sanctuary 2 – baked shadow forms (light)


Img. 5: Re-Sanctuary 3 – baked shadow form (dark)

The final manipulation (Img. 6) involved a more straightforward manipulation of gradient, contrast and brightness. I decayed the image by ramping up the contrast, so as to ‘cloud’ and rough the forms and their appearances in space. This softening, or contortion, dispels the more cuboid and organised assemblies of the original level design, but also hints at its verticality and organisation. My white-line triangles were intended to convey the shaping of perspective that looking at the ominous outside, from within the sanctuary, entails. Our gaze is drawn upwards, making the most of what its perspective disappears and reveals. Again, it enables another visual clue that the ‘solution’ to the environment is actually to be found in the cubes, because our sense of architectural sanctuary is coincident, materially, with it. Just as we have power to see and unsee the cubes using the architecture, we can also control the activity of the cubes in the game world. To prevent the disaster that threatens to destroy it. It demonstrated the idea that we have a “gaze” inside of a game, and that space plays a crucial and complex way in which we “feel” within particular areas. It breaks the game away from feelings of action and reward toward something actually more human, more embodied.

Img. 6: Re-Sanctuary 4 – contrast form w/ perspective


I’m not claiming that my interpretations of the game’s design and aesthetic are definitive or should supplant the original (!). I’m saying that it’s good to think about, and that deconstructive or disintegrative responses to artworks such as games can push our minds in unexpected, explorative directions, and reconnect us with the fact that games are always enjoyment and reflection, always personal. Doing this kind of disintegration work helped me to think about atmosphere, architectural narrative, and formal level organisation in the game. Of how these are generated and sustained in both the act of play and the resulting process of thinking about that play. My work helped me to blur the line between experience and form, and to think beyond the tropes of “Graphics”, “Story”, “Mechanics”, “Sound”. They helped me to understand the kind of artificial embodiment which happens in playing a game, and how space doesn’t just imply where we can and cannot “go”, but how we feel about being there in the first place. It reinserted the person, and evacuated the “Player”.


Basinski’s loops extend across four CDs, and hours of content. I doubt I have fully listened to all of it, because I have not always listened with an open ear. I retrace the loops and explore them, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s probably the point, because this transposition is exactly what gave first breath to the composition that later became known as The Disintegration Tapes.

Disintegration explains the idea that art criticism and, in this case, games criticism, presents a kind of explorative data-bending in which the ‘object’ is received both into a culture and by individual who constitutes a part of that culture. Disintegration is what happens when the magnetic tape of the object’s composition – its basic state – wraps around and through a played experience. “Deferral” implies a looking away, or a passing on of responsibility. In fact, isn’t it better understood as a kind of absorption? The object is transformed, either rhetorically or literally, and so dispersed. Like I said above, a lot of this comes from the refusal of traditional writing modes to fully implicate themselves, messily, in the contexts and complexities from which games emerge, politically, emotionally, aesthetically.

We saw this position angrily rejected during Gamergate, as we have seen the hype and commercialization of the industry at large. Fear of context and fear of close, messy reading alike, and fear of diverse gaming communities, mean that most review writing treads water in the same stale categories. Locating criticism outside of this framework necessarily entails risk and ambivalence, but we should be okay with this; okay with it because this can be generative in its own right. It can create and establish new connections. Spark new thoughts. Without that printer malfunction and my subsequent screwing about with the images, I wouldn’t have come to certain conclusions about how space works in the Sanctuary.

By annexing the game and your response to it into the same, ambivalent space, you’re doing something quite radical. It frees both the game and the response from commodification and potentially oppressive, reductive frameworks. Surely this is a better way to think about writing and responding, and helps us – like the mass of contextualised, personal, engaging writing regularly curated by Critical Distance, for example – to begin to escape the false ideology of a commercial and anti-personal, anti-historical lens through which we “engage” with games. Not afraid to be clever; not afraid to say “I don’t know”. Not afraid to refuse to give a game a score. Capitalism is crisis; so writing in capitalism necessitates that crisis is transformed into construction. Into the uncertain certain of grabbing writing and thinking back from its jaws.

Of course, I’m not arguing for some superposition in which all criticism is reduced to a point of utter subjectivity – an “anything goes” scenario. I think there are stable, and more coherent, lenses and arguments which you can read through a game – especially when those games are thought about within their social and political contexts. We can talk about the formal arrangement and effects of level design; we can talk about game mechanics; we can talk about dissonance and story and politics; we can talk about the presence and “presencing” of the body; we can talk about gender and its articulation; we can talk about oppression; we can talk about reward and reward systems. (And so on.  I don’t want to disappear down the rabbit hole. My practice depends on not falling down the rabbit hole. There’s always got to be a promise that we can surface again.)

What this kind of disintegration does is deepen and expand the possible reactions and responses that we have to art objects, to games. It creates a manifold of new arrangements and lenses by which we can peer at, criticise, applaud, challenge, and reimagine a particular object; mediating how we receive it into our culture(s). After all, writing isn’t an inherent practice. It isn’t neutral.

I believe we can both say and do things – writing and collage, for example – that interact with one another in ways that ‘pull apart’ a work of art so as to see it more clearly and more coherently. Messy play with paper and digital manipulation helped me to better understand how mass, perspective, light and architectural narrative were serving the more atmospheric and ‘metaphysical’ arguments that Sanctuary, as a game, is making. But they also create practices and new objects that can of themselves be quite cool to look at and think about.

At the end of the day, after the critical work is done, the game is still there. Still whole. Click To Tweet


An article by Steven Cottingham recently described the idea that art criticism is maybe one hundred years behind its practice, and that the convention of mass art criticism – the jargonistic, posturing, and ultimately hollow language we’ve become used to sprayed in Helvetica on gallery walls – is tied so absolutely to Late Capitalism as to make it self-eating. Games criticism has its own bugbears, and has had its own peculiar, concentrated evolution – a lot of the best games writing is a rejection of the formula of review writing that is focused on aggregate scoring and commercial viability. It’s writing being done about race, gender, landscape, and narrative (etc!) on platforms like Twitter, wrapped up and read-over through useful things like Storify.

When disaffected arts writers shit-talk the domination of “artspeak”, you can also say that a lot of games writers are also disaffected, and have been doing a lot to break the mould, to be representative, and to think about producing a new writing and curation of games responses. Aren’t Let’s Plays a kind of conceptual approach that blasts apart the muck of wordage and revision and editing which refines writing, and opens it out into the concentrated albeit expansive moment of speech? LPs locate games ‘writing’ ahead of language, and prioritise effect. It fulfills just something of what Jane Rendell has called a “site-writing”, as an arts criticism that “puts the sites of engagement with art first”, above the act of writing. Acts like this.

I’m still an arts critic. I still want to write, for a vast number of personal and social reasons. But I also want to make a space for disintegration – the transformative action on an object – to occupy a distinct edge to my practice as a writer, and to let it reflect back onto it. I think that collage practice and print-art can offer a way (for me) to think about scenography and architecture, about how games and level design generate particular effects on us. If nothing else, they provide prompts for thinking, and avenues for pursuing otherwise hazy ideas. Games writing – as curatorial sites such as Critical Distance evidence – is becoming increasingly diverse, but the freeware and diverse games we celebrate, and the alternative perspectives and readings around AAA games that we attempt to assert, have been at risk as we come to realise simply how big and complex is the games industry – ranging from elite vulgar apartments to the small, cold, rented rooms I’ve so often found myself playing from. Between vulgarity and precariousness. So we create, and play, and talk about play, in ways that are sensitive to that fragmentation, to that ambivalence.


Beirne, Stephen. ‘How Game Criticism is Like Cooking a Roast Chicken Dinner’ Normally Rascal, 2015
Quick, Genevieve. ‘Art Writing’Temporary Art Review, 31 March 2014
Brenson, Michael. Acts of Engagement: writings on art, criticism, and institutions, 1993 – 2002. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004
Rendell, Jane. Site-Writing: the architecture of art criticism. I.B. Taurus, 2010

An archaeologist with a background in Russian literature and culture, Owen Vince's current research and writing interests are in; urbanism, architecture, video games, and capitalism (and, often, the interrelationships between these).

This article explores the relationship between simulation in urban design – as a professional, systematic attempt to model and plan the city – and simulation in video games, through the example of Sim City 2000 (Maxis, 1993).

Little separates the discourses and practices of professional simulation from ludic simulation. Click To Tweet

Both are based on normative and often problematic approaches to imagining cities and of the kinds of inhabitants who would live within these cities, and how. As Lee addressed in his “Requiem for Large Scale Urban Models” (1973), the implementation of effective conceptual modelling is held back not only by the data demands required of simulating the true diversity and dynamism of cities, but the failure of such models to encompass the complex behavioural patterns and interactions of a city’s population.

Even today, urban simulation software – while a useful and arguably fundamental tool for designing the built environment – often reflects the grandly modernist visions of designers such as Le Corbusier and Fritz Haller. The projects and ambitions of these designers helped to establish normative assumptions about how people should live within cities, and today’s simulation models reflect this. At the same time, critiques of these prefabricated, “radiant” cities – as the ideal product of these plans – have also often failed, for both similar and dissimilar reasons. Jane Jacobs’s contentious 1962 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities agitated against the predictive total planning of her contemporaries, yet has been attacked in turn for providing the basis and justification for free-market New Urbanism and the gentrification which it in turn promoted.

By playing Sim City 2000, I ask what makes “ludic” simulations similar to “professional” simulations, why this is important for urbanists and urban citizens alike, and what problems we encounter when simulating and ultimately building meaningful urban space. I suggest that what we need is a software that is open to the emergent and transgressive uses of space which are encountered in both the real and the simulated world.


Playing with radiant cities

It’s frustrating now that my first ever games of Sim City 2000 seemed so much easier than my most recent attempts. I was younger, and interested – first and foremost – in satisfying the mechanics of the game. It wasn’t necessarily important that my cities were uniform or bland, but rather that they met the victory conditions or end state of the game. In terms of Sim City, they were good cities. I named each of them, but it didn’t mean much, as they always ended up looking the same. These were cities which dovetailed almost ideally with the once attractive and idealistic modernist project of what Jacobs describes dismissively, and reductively, as the “Radiant Garden City Beautiful”. In fact,  Jacobs was referring to a range of broadly “modernist” urban planning models designed around the notion of the “total city”: a rational, often futuristic space which would cater, geometrically and functionally, to the needs of an increasingly densely organised human population. These were responses to disorganisation, overcrowding, and the possibilities – or problems – of motor cars. Yet they were also bold political statements and manoeuvres.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, German architects in both east and west Berlin submitted competing and variously impossible re-designs for the city centre, as well as for new densities of public housing, for which there was desperate need. From smaller, site-specific plans such as those of Hans Scharoun, to the “total stadt” of Fritz Haller, these were radical attempts which communicated the urge for “social and cultural transformation… and a deep optimism about the future”. This can be seen in the new Radikal Moderne exhibition in Berlin’s Museum for Modern Art. And yet, as much as these imaginations are attractive, totalising, and optimistic, they also fail to take into account the diversity of cities, and of why people might chose to live in cities in the first place. Underpinning all of this activity is the hand of CIAM, the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne, whose goal for the better part of the twentieth century was to utilise planning for “new forms of collective association, personal habit, and daily life”. Even today, these languages are often unconsciously reproduced and remixed – on my journey returning from shopping in Prague’s Palladium centre, I saw a sign advertising a new (and remarkably uniform) elite housing project, titled “Byty 2”, or “apartments 2”. In Slavic languages, this is only a breath away from the Soviet obsession with fundamentally transforming the inhabitant’s byt, or “daily life”.

I grew up in the countryside, and so only came to realise all of this later. We moved away from north London and its endless sprawl of suburbs, dual carriageways, the M25 and shopping malls, when I was only five. I didn’t really know what the city was. It wasn’t until years later, when I returned to the city – and to a host of other cities, whether as visitor or inhabitant – that I began to think about these spaces differently.

Beyond Sim City there was an activity that our teacher would occasionally arrange during art class. He’d give each of us a large sheet of paper on which he had drawn – in a wide, blue marker – the course of an imagined river. We’d then spend an hour filling in the blanks, drawing a city into being, around the bend of that impossibly, electrically blue water. These cities never looked anything like Sim Cities. But these cities also were, in their own way, simulated. They were based on a projection, a model for what worked in my head, as the “planner” – and since I was an obsessed kid, that model allowed for a great many theme parks and water slides. They were fun places, places where I could be with my friends.

The difference between the “real” and the simulated is in fact very porous. Click To Tweet

To say that Sim Cities and imagined cities  are “simulated” or “virtual”, and real cities are not, is misleading. Whole machineries of hardware are devoted to modelling the urban planning of real cities; software which makes use of algorithms, behavioural modelling, and increasingly sophisticated visual representations of both real and projected urban spaces . Urban “x-rays”, as an older colleague once put it. From accessible tools such as Google Earth, GIS, SketchUp, toward the more technical such as those made by Autodesk which have been used by urban planners in LeHavre. I spent hours in meetings and on city walk-abouts with planners who took the visual and the phenomenal and calculated back to models and processes. Planning exists – whether as software or concept – as a means to translate between people, places, and functions, and the planning process constructs plans and the cities that flow from them from moment to moment. At each stage in the planning process, its stakeholders – inhabitants, planners, policy makers – try and understand the way in which people might, whether ideally or not, make use of these spaces once the simulation becomes a finalised development.

Indeed, when I visited architects, and went to their studios, I watched with a sort of amused grace as they paid a lot of attention to filling the card and wood draft models with to-scale Human Figurines. The “inhabitants” who must be placed, rather than place themselves. They were a lot – I thought – like Sim City residents, only less busy, less frantic.


Urban planning software and Sim City 2000

Today, when I go back to Sim City, I notice that the software reflects some of the build and design tools of existing urban planning software. But its functionality – how you go about simulating the city itself – raises some alarms. The game’s functionality is very limited, the HUD a mere spray of buttons with smaller branch-off menus. Three types of dwelling (low, medium and high density); two kinds of industry (light and heavy); small parks, large parks; stadiums; a port; roads; bridges. The tools at your disposal are very limited, though perhaps this may simply acknowledge the limitations of executing an intended plan within complex zoning and policy regulations. Yet perhaps it also describes the often simplistic way in which the video game city is imagined and represented.

Preparing the ground for the city entails eradicating unpleasantly discontinuous landscape features such as hills, exploiting the flexibility of a digital materiality which does not exist in the physical world. You must lay the first stone before the city has even a single inhabitant. Build first, and the occupants will arrive. They always do. In a sense, you are creating formulaic grids into which you can pour a certain amount of a particular building or architectural typology, while also pouring – in the same act – an amount of representational “people” who will live or work there. The spatial relationships between these functional zones are more important than, say, placemaking, quality of life, urban diversity. Stick to the plan and succeed. It’s assumed that the Sims will inhabit these cities in normative ways.

This returns us to those criticisms made of the city as imagined by CIAM and other modernists working in areas such as public housing, of what Jacobs reduces to the “radiant garden city beautiful”. Jacobs’s counter proposal was based on neighbourhood quality, on historic urban roots, ways of life, and mutual aid. In contrast to the autonomy and integration of housing projects aiming to create new forms of social relation – which she vociferously attacked, Jacobs urged that the existing sociality of urban neighbourhoods must necessarily be retained. Critics of the CIAM city have challenged the underlying assumption that the architect-planner has access to an exclusive, predetermined science for the transformation of the built environment of the city. This critique stood against CIAM’s insistence that existing social and spatial forms had become defunct, with new and often naive proposals for new types of traffic corridor space, functional grids, determined public spaces and public uses. Such a city was, while optimistic, also negligent of people and of the specific urban and social needs of people – a city created from nothing and given to nobody, embodied in Costa’s formulation that the planner was “a technician, a sociologist and an artist”, the vision deriving from one place, a single projection.

Sim City is an expression of the argument that design should precede experience. Click To Tweet

Urban design is supposed to begin with an idealized vision of the designer, which subsequently unfolds in the development of smaller sites and projects, often executed by other architects. But as we see, the people who come to inhabit these cities cannot be strictly predicted, and are not merely the numbers and objects which appear in the initial designer’s calculations, or the architects’ models. They are individuals with full, complex lives who must exist within the spaces which the designer has laid out. Crucially, Sim City, however simple in its architectures and mechanisms, is neither intellectually nor ideologically far removed from the core steps that constitute urban planning. The main difference is that the urban planner rarely creates the city from scratch – the design is often an insert into a pre-existing social fabric, into existing developments and neighbourhoods. Sim City, meanwhile, is prejudiced to the kind of pristine development which – perhaps except in China’s new cities – is unheard of. It is perhaps no coincidence that the “scenarios” which you can play in Sim City – featuring already completed, often “real” cities such as Barcelona – seem almost impossible to construct through the sandbox element of the game, because visually they look more like an organic city. And yet, they have none of a real city’s complexity and diversity. There is no presumption or experience of poverty. Nobody – it is assumed – is denied access to vital services, or goes without access to public transport, or struggles to get their children in to a good school. “Real” cities are sites of immense power and privilege, of elite high rises and office areas where the homeless are confronted with – and systematically denied – fundamental rights of shelter and support.

Playing Sim City now that I have more experience living in cities, I wish I could play game cities which truly resemble them, in both their negative and positive attributes. And yet, Sim City does not reflect much of the cities where I’ve lived and visited. My first city – which I called “THE ARCHIVE” – began to look regular and bland. But it worked. And the economy grew. And I knew that I never wanted to inhabit THE ARCHIVE. I wanted it all to be more human. Liveable. Open to transgression and loitering, the pleasant uncertainty and creative illegibility of real city spaces. It was divided into “zones” for housing, industry and business, and punctuated by schools, hospitals, and police stations. A public transit system provided access between each zone, such that the presumed inhabitants could commute to work (presumably in the industrial or business zones), before returning to their homes in the evening. There is no possibility of admixing business among housing. Low density (i.e., expensive/elite) properties are not intermixed even remotely with high density. There is no capacity for the market forces of gentrification to exploit and transform neighbourhoods. Obviously, this is a good thing, but it is also extremely unrealistic. I was faced with the possibility that this meticulously planned city must then be a kind of utopia, but it was also ferociously bland and indifferent to the real mechanisms of exclusion, poverty, and power which structure real urban landscapes when they are occupied by real people. I wanted to create and problematise a dynamic urban space. Sim City doesn’t let you solve problems, only plough a more or less efficient furrow.

So I changed course. My next city (inventively, “THE ARCHIVE II”) began with a little zoning to get the inhabitants in, but then proceeded to mix development, to create complex and diverse patterns of adjacent function. I put industry next to homes, interspersed with commercial. My favourite flat in London was near a dockyard, factories, rail lines and busy morning markets, and I wanted more of that vibrancy. I built large and sprawling parks, a Hampstead Heath for my ARCHIVE II. I drove money into one particular commercial area and – using a cheat code – made sure that it grew some impressive towers. Other areas I tried to let coast, and made them ragged, pitted with voids. I had a “fun land”. Parks and stadiums and houses. I began to people this city, and saw in these citizens  a great range of hopes, interests, anarchic uses. After having accidentally deleted a block of houses, I imagined that a sort of community action group had emerged to attempt to block the removal. I imagined that when I lowered public spending on education to fuel business, the students would occupy the universities. But this city – too – died. Its economy took a nose-dive the moment I stopped flooding the city banks with cheated money. The people left this vibrant, colourful city, presumably to move in to ARCHIVE I, a short circuit away from ARCHIVE II on my hard-drive. I deleted both.


New Urbanism and new models

When critics from a range of backgrounds first began upending the then-dominant theories of urban planning, one of their primary targets were uni-functional developments, or zones. They were, in effect, critiquing the economic and sociological principles on which Sim City was designed. Such cities – built to concentrate wealth and to house the citizens either in suburban sprawl or tenement high-rises – created very little diversity, and a great deal of poorly-used and voided space. These hyper-functional, Sim City spaces are designed for a human as an economic and domestic units, just as with Le Corbusier’s proposals for how urban families should be organised in his plans, where the citizen/family became a statistic who wants only to maximise their personal profit and to concentrate their routines (shop here; travel here; spend X amount of time here). Jane Jacobs, while not herself an urban planner, produced one of the most thorough dismissals of this species of planning, in her highly contested 1962 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Broadly, Jacobs’ problem was with Garden Cities and Radiant Cities, with top-down plans of dense dwellings interspersed with parks and commercial development. She thought that the suburbs these plans spawned were boring, sprawling, and inhuman. She celebrated the natural street life and urban diversity of inner-city neighbourhoods. She advocated that adjacent, diverse uses, with complexly intermingling timetables and users, would encourage healthy urban environments. She agitated against “City Hall”, with its grand plans and broad brush strokes. In a sense, Sim City was the direct opposite of her vision. She was advocating perhaps for the more usable street life you see depicted in Grand Theft Auto. But Jacobs also came under attack by later and modern critics. They heard in her advocacy for comfortable, happy neighbourhood-level planning, and her suspicion against infrastructure and civic planning, the drum beat for the New Urbanism which had emerged during the 1960s.

New Urbanism was primarily concerned with what we might now call Gentrification, or “urban renewal”, valuing neighbourhood beautification and tradition over modernisation and public provision. In the latter sections of the book, Jacobs advocates the need to cultivate “primary diversity mixtures, as well as secondary diversity” (1962, p. 208) (meaning, things like malls, businesses, leisure centres etc and secondarily, smaller shops, housing, cafes etc). In order to do this, Jacobs calls for “incubation” (hazily defined by her as spaces which promote new business opportunities through zoning regulations and special business rates) that should, if “successful enough,” lead the “yield of the building [to] rise”, such that a “city’s enterprises [become] important economic assets” which “afford carrying costs of rehabilitation or new construction” (p. 209). In other words, while advocating for the little, comfortable, organic neighbourhood, she was sowing the conditions for inner-city land price increases, gentrification, and renewal led by private commerce rather than public intervention.

As land-values in Sim City rise, you don't see urban renewal. You see pressure for new housing. Click To Tweet

In later iterations of Sim City, this might express itself as protest at a lack of jobs or high rents, or housing demand. Sim City 2000 didn’t have this sensitivity. Your only solution is to (a) build more housing or (b) lower rents and taxes. Actual internal change in the quality or nature of neighbourhoods doesn’t happen, except for their abandonment. If nobody occupies a zone of housing, the tile-set transforms to semi-demolished buildings, even though these “slums” are uninhabitable. There is no homelessness in Sim City, but there is also no “transitory” housing, no precarious and illegal occupation. There are no squatters; there are no squats. The idea that Sims might occupy a semi-decayed or unsuitable building is not factored in. All Sim dwellers are either solvent, or absent. They always inhabit the City in the most efficient way. It is the same in Urban Planning models. Who, after all, would design a simulation to represent transitory failure?

At the time, in the 1960s, it seemed a good idea to encourage cities to build upon capitalistic rather than socialist growth cycles. Today, however, we see how such market-dominated growth leads to homelessness, precariousness, and the destruction of communities and small, local businesses through the speculation of real-estate developers and wealthy out-of-towners anxious to own a “place in the city”. Nobody, in the 1960s, imagined that such desire would gut out the very people who lived within those inner city neighbourhoods.

This also applies for later and more sophisticated versions of Sim City, where to attract more wealthy residents you need to meet a range of criteria about the city as a whole (pollution, crime levels, etc). But the core formula remains: you need to build first, and attract second. Internal change to existing building typologies doesn’t happen. This is the pre-New Urbanism approach to zoning for wealth (e.g., high wealth and low density; high density and medium wealth, etc, in Sim City 4). You don’t see landlords turning high-density, low-wealth inner city blocks into high-density, high-wealth areas, as happens in real cities under the market-led push of gentrification. You don’t see the New Urbanist’s attempt to evacuate the public sector from planning decisions.


Outside the simulation: Greenwich and Berlin

This is the dynamic of urban change that Sim City – in any iteration – doesn't show us. Click To Tweet

It doesn’t show us what New Urbanism can do. Instead it suggests an absolute confidence in the planner, rather than the mix of decisions and influence that constitute the New Urbanist’s inner city.

One Tower Bridge

Look at the One Tower Bridge development in London. Here, an “ideal” neighbourhood of apartment complexes has transformed what was once a low-wealth district, dependent on the docks and related industries, into a rather dull imagination of pleasant, empty, side-walks that copy a little from the arrangement of spaces in traditional Greenwich Village tenements. The developers have agitated against providing units of social housing, which they were once required to supply intermixed with these elite units. In fact, that policy requirement has since been quietly dropped from public planning regulations.

Berlin Haus der Statistik

The same sad story is repeated regularly in Berlin; so many of the city’s abandoned, transgressive spaces – the Haus der Statistik, the former ice factory of Eisfabrik – are slowly being taken away from squatters, immigrants, artists, and others. The Abandoned Berlin blog mournfully witnesses the passing of an age of strong communities and low rents toward an age of investment banks, security patrols, bricked up entrances, police clearances. “So long”, it says. The city will revert to its simulation, its projection, its valuation. But this was itself a strange hybrid of CIAM principles (themselves subject to internal diversity and disagreement) and the New Urbanism. The New Urbanism outcome is to produce settlements like Jacobs’ Greenwich Village. And yet, for not treating capital and speculation with sufficient caution, such settlements systematically fail to meet this imagination. Sim City does not imagine the “smallness” of Jacobs’ local planning, and is not sensitive to it. And yet it is as naive of private capital. The CIAM cities were designed from the “ground up”, in which particular kinds of usage and life were to be poured. Many resisted. The CIAM plans for Dresden were rejected as an “all out attack on the city”. But both CIAM and Jacobs share the same assumption; both began with an idea of how the people in these designs should look. For Jacobs, a reproduction of “her” Greenwich Villagers. For CIAM, the functional, modernist citizens of post-war Europe (efficient, healthy, routine). Capital stepped in to the gap between these projections and their realities.

But this is not to say that the discourses around gentrification are themselves unproblematic or straightforward. Neil Smith’s formulation of the rent-gap hypothesis has “transformed our understanding of [gentrification], from one which referred to specific neighbourhood contexts, to a broader theory of the way in which capital behaves in the city”. It put less emphasis on the role of individual “gentrifiers” – the owners who buy up low-value inner city properties and improve them, selling them on for more money and so raising the profile and land values of the area — and focused more on the processes of capital that spur and underpin this behaviour. These are the processes that the New Urbanism continues to promote, and encourage. But again, Sim City denies these forces.

Today, New Urbanism is neither new, nor is it the scrappy underdog of Jacobs’ writing. Contemporary city plans, whether written, calculated, or simulated,  reflect more readily something like Jacobs’ almost libertarian approach to urban changes in land use than the big-government plans of before.

Jacobs celebrated the small-scale neighbourhood community precisely because it was not abstracted; it was chaotic and emergent. But her imagination of these communities was itself an abstraction. Jacobs failed to understand how these communities had emerged. Her idealisation of them as organic, civic spaces was almost impossible to translate into techniques for actual development. Often, what she said about people living in these spaces was itself problematic, assuming a lot about social and cultural norms. Jacobs is seen as the instigator of the New Urbanism discourse which took hold and grew in momentum between the 1960s and the present day. Unfortunately, the primary economic consequence has been gentrification, rather than the preservation of natural communities which Jacobs so painstakingly and lovingly described in her 1962 work.

As has been observed, Jacobs couldn’t predict the fact that the old dwellings and brick houses of these inner city areas would not serve to keep down values – and thus preserve affordable housing for the poor – but would themselves become a key driver for increasing land values as the century wore on and the “old” became synonymous with wealth, culture, and the establishment. She talked of the fact that both “internal gentrification” and “external gentrification” are “useful to start with because it brings in new blood, new disposable income, and often helps the pride of the neighbourhood”. These acts of renewal – which “real” urban planning software can account for with the uploading of new tile sets and building typologies, and which Sim City cannot reproduce due to its emphasis on housing zone stability – were predicated on the market not acting, in effect, like a market. And so, we are caught “playing” the city – not only in Sim City 2000, but in later iterations and competing games like City Skylines – toward a particularly defunct and dehumanised imagination of the city which, like Jacobs, is ignorant of the market as a real and destructive force. Where are the city simulators which allow us to challenge and reimagine what cities might look like in reality, amidst the destructive forces of market liberalisation? Why can we only ever produce static models?

It seems that games have generally been very good at creating cities both as backdrops and models, but less focused on creating games where we can challenge and work within as “real” entities, with their possibilities as well as inequalities and transgressions. Nor do these games imagine ways to address inequalities, to challenge the market, to think about the modern city as urban “other”, the “city of difference”. Despite computer gaming’s obsession with city sim games since as early as the early 1990s, even more recent titles are left reproducing old-fashioned or, paradoxically, neo-liberal simulations of urban development. Some smaller games however reflect more realistic imaginations and contemporary critiques of the city – examples include 2006’s Tycoon City: New York,in which the player must compete against business rivals and achieve financial success by realising higher land values, and Capitalism Labwhich models the city’s development against macroeconomic dynamics which can generate cycles of boom and bust, employment and unemployment.

Ultimately, Sim City does not have the capacity to build a desirable city. Click To Tweet

Its model of urbanism, with its focus on segregated functional zones, transport infrastructure, and only occasional nods to the need for culture or leisure, is out-of-fashion and undesirable. Cities that work within its mechanics do not appeal to living communities, nor reflect life within them. Moreover, such cities also reproduce certain market-led ideals which stem from the New Urbanist’s fascination with market-led neighbourhood development, at the cost of urban mix, diversity, and placemaking.


Santolina, New Mexico – between the “real” and the “simulated”

By focusing so heavily on an organic and “intimate neighbourhood” design, and in paying less or even no attention to the necessity for urban infrastructure, civic buildings, and other facets of the city, Jacobs and the New Urbanism have had often disastrous consequences for the communities which Jacobs so earnestly sought to protect. As Nicolai Ouroussoff argues, “for those who could not see it, the hollowness of this urban planning strategy was finally exposed in New Orleans, where planners were tarting up historic districts for tourists, even as deeper social problems were being ignored and its infrastructure was crumbling”.

It does not take long to see in Sim City a certain uncomfortable metamorphosis of the New Urbanism with a form of aggressive conventional zoning. Such simulations of normative social interaction and “top down” city planning are not merely contained within our experiments while playing Sim City, but are happening “out there”, in the real world. Over the past few years, the bank of HSBC has, with associated investment partners, set out the plans for an entirely new city in New Mexico. Santolina – the name of this yet unbuilt city – is conceptualised as “a master plan designed for Bernadillo County’s future”. At present, it is no “more” than a projected simulation. And not unsurprisingly, its plan echoes both the impetus toward pre-planned zoning and building restrictions which we associate with the top down methodologies of Sim City, as well as the New Urbanism’s articulations regarding public space, pavement width, house design, and so on. In both images above, we see not only the way in which the city will have begun as a digital simulation, but also that its design aesthetic and neighbourhood composition reflect intimately the New Urbanisms dictates on space, size, and flow.


Ultimately, the real city – the cities we want to live in – are defined by their “placemaking”. Unlike Jacobs, and the New Urbanists who now dominate the bulk of suburban as well as city-core development, such an approach does not see such projections as something unproblematic and “organic”, but a more contested and disturbing phenomenon This is not about asserting the “community” versus “city hall” (like Jacobs), but rather about different groups and perspectives who do not want to be subsumed into Jacobs’ “community”, but at the same time recognise that a city also needs infrastructure and modernisation. Placemaking is about how people constitute themselves both as individuals and as groups within urban places.

New theories of urban planning reject the abstractions and neo-liberalism at the heart of New Urbanism. Click To Tweet

A city needs real people, but also needs institutions and infrastructure. Placemaking is about how to achieve these things without hurting the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. It’s about enabling space for transgressive uses, the unexpected, the daring. These are cities many, many miles away from the cities of Sim City. They are more like the city of City Life v.3 (a game), or of Occupy (a movement), or of the E15 Mothers group in London’s Stratford (a community protest). It is about rejecting the idealism of the zoned Radiant City, and of the neo-liberalism and vapid gentrification of the New Urbanism. It is something that cannot currently be found in city simulations, whether as games or software for town planners. Consistently, the city’s other is displaced by a normative profile of its ideal citizen, a rubric so broad – so general – as to embody both everybody and nobody (the citizen as sim).

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Focus E15 Mothers protest


A contested and divisive planning discourse can be read through the PC game Sim City 2000. While Sim City 2000 offers only a faceless and commercially-driven megalopolis, Jacobs’s alternative, and my happy pen-drawn cities from childhood, also fail in their attempt to capture and preserve the nostalgia of leisure and community. They fail to deliver cities which not only meet the needs of their citizens, but also protect them from gentrification and dispersal, from the bland mechanics of Late Capitalism. I’m sure that Jacobs never intended for her work to have the permissive consequences that it did, but her neighbourhood-focused planning – widened side walks, stoops, mixed-tenure and old buildings – created the planning justifications for a New Urbanism that would itself use those principles to gentrify those former neighbourhoods. A New Urbanism that dispersed the original tenants, paying little to no attention to the slow work building those communities, nor to the infrastructure, civic architecture and investment that those communities must rely on in order to live “in” a city.

The explosion of “regeneration” projects across the globe, and the vociferous impact they have had on existing communities, suggest that planning must necessarily take into account both the structural and the social, the community and the plan. But that it must also take into consideration that the city never comes only from the planner’s play-book;. Jacobs ignored the developer, the land-swallower, the property tycoon. Her emphasis was on micro-payments, loans, mortgages, and not on the way those could be corralled and marshalled to contain and restructure entire areas for the middle-classes. Her ideal for neighbourhoods “ha[s] become the gentrifiers’ ideal”. Such forms of economic activity are not given expression in Sim City, because of its emphasis on an unrealistic vision of top down total city planning. While citizens come and go, this is not articulated in terms of exclusion, poverty, or aspiration, but rather as a function of whether the city has resources for them — assuming that occupants of both high density and low density (i.e., wealthy and poor) housing are equally able to access these amenities, and that both have a freedom to come and go.

My city, ARCHIVE I, failed its inhabitants insofar as it was never built to satisfy them, but rather to satisfy a planner’s projection for a radiant urbanism, for the logic of the plan, abstracted. And yet, ARCHIVE II was hopelessly unsustainable, even within the narrow terms of reference and victory conditions of a now antiquated game. I would hope that ARCHIVE III – though there is not yet a game to hold it – might just tack between those poles of Chaos and Order. It would create the conditions for something like a habitable urbanism which protects the poor and the marginalized from gentrification, alienation, and insecurity, while also providing for the infrastructure – the bridges, roads, offices, and stores – which they need in order to survive and thrive as urban citizens.

Sim City reproduces a problematic mixture of New Urbanist market renewal and normative assumptions for zoning and regulation. These models misunderstand how people genuinely want to live in cities: people want to live in thriving, organic, transgressive spaces, and live in cities where there exist protections against the market. They want a genuine diversity and habitability that does not displace and disperse the communities who want to live there. Sim City 2000 will never satisfy those conditions. Nor will the urban renewal projects which increasingly shape the urban centres of Europe and the US. Simulationsmust take into account the city as desire, imagination, diversity, and hope. Perhaps the transgression and otherness provided by virtual “built environments” such as Minecraft and Second Life, give us a better clue toward how people may actually want to live than the more routinized and normative assumptions which underpin Sim City? Perhaps simulations are, while necessary, also incapable of finally delivering the whole picture?

Game designers and urban planners must abandon the predictable, normative simulation. Click To Tweet

These were the focus of much praise from Jacobs, and the total planning that threatened to demolish them was the instigating action that drove Jacobs to write her book in the first place.


Corbusier_cartesian_skyscrapersThe Radiant City was a masterplan by Le Corbusier. It was never directly realised, but was emulated by other architects for years to come – long after Le Corbusier had conceded that the plan was significantly flawed. Today, major cities such as Brasilia show the lasting impact of the Radiant City design principles.


Requiem for large scale models

1. In general, none of the goals held out for large-scale models have been achieved, and there is little reason to expect anything different in the future.
2. For each objective offered as a reason for building a model, there is either a better way of achieving the objective (more information at less cost) or a better objective (a more socially useful question to ask).
3. Methods for long-range planning-whether they are called comprehensive planning, large-scale systems simulation, or something else-need to change drastically if planners expect to have any influence on the long run.

Douglas B. Lee, Jr. (1973) “Requiem for large scale models”, p. 1


Jane Jacobs, the Death and Life of Great American Cities


Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart 1927. CIAM was the promoter of Modern architecture in the "Cubist style": Bauhaus, Weissenhof, De Stijl, modern projects of the Palace of Nations in Geneva. Parallel movements of the 1920s are: Expressionism, Constructivism, Art Deco, Traditionalism etc.The Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM), or International Congresses of Modern Architecture, was an organization founded in 1928 and disbanded in 1959, responsible for a series of events and congresses arranged across Europe by the most prominent architects of the time, with the objective of spreading the principles of the Modern Movement focusing in all the main domains of architecture (such as landscape, urbanism, industrial design, and many others).


Maxis (1993) Sim City 2000
Douglas B. Lee, Jr. (1973) “Requiem for Large-Scale Models” Journal of the American Institute of Planners Vol. 39 Issue 3
Jane Jacobs (1962) The Death and Life of Great American Cities