A Film and Media Ph.D. candidate, Chris Goetz investigates how users explore the internal world of a videogame using both their own imaginations and the game’s interface to transcend the body and engage in an interactive fantasy.

If we are to believe popular press, then the technology for affordable virtual reality experiences, long thought “just around the corner,” may have finally arrived with the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard. But excitement over these and a spattering of similar devices has prompted proponents of virtual reality (VR) videogames to confront a longstanding stumbling block: the need to somehow harness VR’s vague futurism and redirect it to the task of designing actual games in the present.
The August 2015 Time Magazine VR cover story demonstrates how this redirection implicates more than just games; the many industry voices represented there struggle to stay ahead of the complex ramifications of VR’s expected disruption of the western visuospatial regime. But the problem with games is also unique. While VR mania has generally waned since the 1990s, swept aside by the radical changes in Internet and Web 2.0, a now-dated splinter rhetoric about virtual worlds has stubbornly clung (unchanging) to videogames. Even today, the virtual world paradigm exerts a subtle influence on both games academia and popular press.

For decades, the fact that VR tech was not quite there yet—and likely wouldn’t be for three to five years—acted as cover for hyperbolic proclamations about an imminent future when we would spend more time in cyberspace than in the “real world,” when everyone would simply dwell inside a virtual world where anything was possible. Take a representative print article early in 1990s VR craze:

Lanier and a companion donned helmets, goggles and body suits, switched on and were instantly transported to their newly hatched universe. They experienced the illusion of being in a solid, three-dimensional world…. Other users have described the experience as like being a character inside an animated cartoon. Some have tried just that—being Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny; in virtual reality you can be anyone or anything you like. “You might choose to become a cat,” suggests Jaron Lanier. “You might very well be a mountain range, or a galaxy or a pebble on the floor. Or a piano … I’ve considered being a piano. I’m interested in being musical instruments quite a lot.” (Frith, 1990)

This article demonstrates the common slippage between the novel experience of three-dimensional graphics and the fantasy of immersive virtual reality. There is an important difference between “immersion” in the general sense of any engaging or engrossing activity—certainly many or most games fall into this category—and “immersion” as a narrative “mode of address,” which occludes the space of spectatorships (hidden behind a “fourth wall”) and offers a window onto diegesis, the world of the story.

Videogames, of course, have never been virtual reality. Click To Tweet

They have never generated spaces where one can be or do anything. Their spaces and the actions possible there are constrained by rules and affordances that have been designed and programmed in advance. This fact is never acknowledged in writings about VR, which tend to view all games as “temporarily embarrassed” VR experiences. This teleological attitude is supported by the simultaneous assumption that the point of all games is to offer virtual worlds, or self-contained secondary realities—“cyberspaces.”

While most commercial games do contain fictional settings or characters of some kind, very few games are organized strictly around a make-believe fantasy of dwelling within a separate, virtual world. Videogames offer varied pleasures far in excess of this goal, and sometimes in direct contradiction of it. Games can at times best be understood through the kinetic, embodied, and multisensory action of play. Virtual world discourses construe games as disembodying departures to virtual spaces, leaving our bodies behind. Some games are better understood as puzzles, which have nothing to do with virtual worlds. Even games predicated on the pleasure of exotic transport, as Fuller and Jenkins once argued of Mario games (“Nintendo and New World Travel Writing”), which have a virtual world component (visiting a world apart from your own), do not for that reason rely on textual or diegetic fullness or coherence. These games, I would argue, productively frustrate this desire. Often, games are built around complex reward systems including level-ups, accruing “loot,” or advancing to more difficult stages. Games are just as likely to self-referentially poke fun at their own lack of narrative coherence as they are to try and flesh out every conceivable diegetic detail. Many games tout their narrow scope of meaning: “this is a game about collecting Garfield trading cards” (Garfield Collections).

People who play a lot of games, or who study games, already understand that the point of most games is not to provide a virtual world experience. Even though some games do try to do this, and many games have some virtual world component, which is rarely the sole focus of play. For example, the Dragon Age series presents an immersive story world filled with diegetic characters where players act out the role of a customized avatar. And yet the series is also structured by the extended processes of accruing power, dwelling on player statistics, sorting item and equipment menus, leveling up, the tension of spatial exploration, and agonistic conflict and bodily combat. The discontinuities to immersive, 3-D optical perspective entailed by these other elements of gameplay complicate and exceed the virtual worlds paradigm.

And yet for many scholarly and cultural commentators gaming is a monolith of virtual worlds. This is especially evident in game studies’ over-emphasis on the few fully fledged virtual worlds games out there (Second Life, The Sims) as if these were somehow representative of games in general. But it is also there in games scholarships’ obsession with the social aspects of hybrid games with a virtual world component, especially MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The virtual world view is popular across a variety of academic fields, from economics (Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds) and psychoanalysis (Turkle’s Second Selves and Alone Together) to sociology (Taylor’s Play Between Worlds) and, of course, theater and performance studies (Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck). And the virtual world is a stock image in the pop-cultural imaginary, which represents games as separate worlds where anything is possible and players retain full bodily articulation and control. This can be seen as early as the 1982 movie, Tron (or 1984 novel, Neuromancer and its progeny), and more recently with The Matrix (1999) or Gamer (2009), as well as with popular television like American Dad (“Virtual In-Stanity,” 2010), Adventure Time (“Guardians of Sunshine,” 2011), and Community (“Digital Estate Planning,” 2012).

While imagining cyberspace futures may be necessary, the prevalence of this conception of videogames has drawbacks. Click To Tweet

First, it tends to force a teleological view onto the history of videogames—that, as virtual worlds, all games are assumed to be VR in the making. In this sense, game studies seems to be echoing film studies, which for decades viewed early silent cinema as “pre”-narrative. The earliest films were considered “primitive” and failed attempts at storytelling when studied mid-century, after the establishment of Hollywood’s narrative-continuity system. In 1986, Tom Gunning disrupted film studies by identifying a distinct mode of audience address in those early, pre-1915 films. This was the “cinema of attractions,” which addressed its audience directly through a series of perceptual shocks and thrills, much like vaudeville or the carnival midway, and quite distinct from narrative immersion. A decades-long narrative teleology had masked this other mode of address.

Today a VR teleology pulls videogames into its frustration over the technological limitations of the present—games can only be made sense of as failed virtual worlds. The description of current high-definition VR games as “Pong,which was recently offered by Valve’s Ken Birdwell (“You’re seeing the Pong version. These are early, early days”), is not just an example of VR’s perpetual futurism (Stein, 2015: 45). It also represents a historical teleology which denies Pong (and any other non-VR, non-virtual world game) any meaning of its own. Pick up Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld if you find yourself somehow imputing the notion that 1970s videogames only mattered for the subsequent game development they fostered.

The wishful notion that videogames, as a medium, hail to us from the near future—i.e., are interesting only for what comes next—has perhaps covered over sustained consideration of gaming’s actual address to the player. This seems to be the case for at least a segment of the VR community focusing more on new tech than anything in an actual game. The Time piece says (quoting “a senior researcher at Sony”) of Sony’s VR research “that in the past few months it has gotten the hardware far enough along that the software will now matter more”. The same article suggests that software designers, despite decades to mull over the problem, “are still trying to figure out which types of 3-D games translate well into virtual reality” (Stein, 2015: 44-45). Now that the rubber has hit the road, there seems to be a paucity of wisdom about what games are, what makes them compelling, and what role they should play in the design of VR technology.

A second problem with the virtual world paradigm seems far subtler, but it has serious ramifications. While videogame console manufacturers carefully consider how their console and controllers will fit in the living room, VR proponents recommend emptying a sizeable room of all furniture to free up space for virtual-reality gaming. The erasure of the living room reflects the virtual worlds paradigm’s tendency to ignore the situated context of play. Assuming that games are always only there to immerse us in a separate reality blinds us to how games are “tangled up” with the rest of our lives, how they might even help us make sense of our social and interpersonal selves through play. Approaching games ethnographically as part of a broader project on games ecology—the relation between games and the world around them— Stevens et al (2008) identify and counteract what they call the “separate worlds view” in game studies. This is roughly the idea that videogame play (which is very often “framed in technocentric terms like ‘immersion in virtual worlds’”) “is a world apart from people’s other activities in everyday life” (2008: 43). While these authors only seek to expand the narrow scope of the “separate worlds” view by supplementing it with ethnographic data, I recommend a more direct challenge. Something central to gaming-as-we-know-it actually includes our experiences of the spaces where we play games. The interaction between game spaces and the spaces where we play games is an important part of any game.

But this leads to a final pitfall of the virtual world paradigm—seeing games as “separate,” “virtual” worlds often reveals a moral judgment. Psychoanalytic articles questioning the moral value of videogames, like Lemma (2010), often view a game’s complete separateness from this world as a reason to interpret play as a way to avoid confronting problems in real life—especially as concerns one’s body, which is assumed to be supplanted by the (player-designed) idealized avatar substitute. But seeing gameplay as a waste of time better spent outside the fantasy (in “real life”) reveals a broader moral complaint. Zoya Street (2014) puts it this way: “The ‘real’ in ‘real life’ is not phenomenological, but normative. When someone tries to tell me to ‘join the real world’, I suspect that her concern is not that I am delusional, but that I am failing to live within the proper moral constraints” (2014: 20).

Over-indulgence in videogames is time spent in an inadequate copy of the world we already live in Click To Tweet

Just like seeing games as storytelling devices tends to put them at a disadvantage against principally narrative media—a move that films and television shows are more than happy to make—viewing them as virtual worlds tends to set them up as inferior, a-priori. It also masks what is unique and interesting about them, the very things most likely to help their cause for legitimacy.

So far, I have framed the VR and virtual world problem as a kind of refusal to recognize games: VR is a perpetual deflection toward the future, virtual world is a misrecognition of the present and the past. But the problem could also be stated as a matter of emphasis on hardware, or a conflation of software with hardware. VR is an emphasis on interface at the expense of everything else, and virtual world a slippage that begins with the presentation of three-dimensional computer graphics, but ends with the full articulation of a technologically-mediated fantasy world (the Holodeck). A recent VR article on Pacific Standard ponders: “Sure, these bulky helmets give us a simulation of three-dimensional space directly to our eyeballs. But then what?”:

What virtual reality needs to make it feel, well, real at this point is not new helmets, new screens, and higher resolution. Rather, the medium needs compelling experiences that make a case for why it’s unique and important. The people who are going to make the first acclaimed works of virtual reality aren’t Google engineers, but novelists, artists, and designers ready to work in multimedia. (Chayka 2015)

This is true—except artists and designers have already been working with this “multimedia” technology, and their videogames have proven entertaining, surprising, sometimes inspired. Game designers have had, from the very beginning, to think hardware and software together, and to find something interesting to do within severe constraint.

VR, it is imagined, will affect music distribution and access to live performance (“what its like to be backstage at a Paul McCartney concert”), virtual fieldtrips for underprivileged classrooms (“field trip in a box”), will result in a reconfiguration of domestic space and furniture (“Sell your dining-room table and eat over your sink… Get a murphy bed”), will change how we tell stories (“storytelling rules of video games don’t work”), will change how we study and understand empathy, (“where people become aged versions of themselves to help them save for retirement”) —and it will be the “final platform” we develop for the circulation and consumption of media (Stein, 42-45). Jaunt’s Jen Christensen is quoted saying VR will make “actual flying cars and jet packs… irrelevant”—not that these technologies have been front and foremost on inventors’ minds in the past several decades. While Hollywood seems to be making the move to the supposedly more immersive 3-D movies, VR is “not necessarily a medium for filmmakers”—James Cameron has recently said he has “no use for it” (Stein 49). The relation between VR and other media technologies seems in tremendous flux, with nobody quite sure how VR will fit in: Mark Bolas has been working on VR since the 1980s, but he has still employed film students to help him “figure out what [to] do with this” technology now that it has finally arrived—the article asserts more generally: “now that the hardware can be made at a price for the consumer market, a lot of people are trying to figure that out” (Stein: 48).
I argue in a forthcoming publication that the over impossibility of this journey is part of gaming’s nostalgic address to its player.

Sudnow’s text is well known in game studies for its thorough documentation of the author’s obsession with mastering the Atari game, Breakout (1976), a Pong-like game involving bricks that break when a small ball bounces off them, and which he played at home as a port for the Atari 2600. Sudnow describes the fine-tuning of his muscle memory, the way the game fit in with everyday activities, and the exhilarating emotions stemming from slowly overcoming its challenges. What may today seem like an archaic entry in the history books, or perhaps a simple smartphone game to kill a few idle minutes, was for Sudnow not only an exciting cultural phenomenon but also a matter of prime-time, full-body engagement, like a favorite sport both played and spectated. It was what he looked forward to doing after work, not just on his way home. And it was treated as a nearly inexhaustible text despite not having a diegesis, and being one of the earliest and visually simplistic commercial videogames:

Now I told myself, ‘Concentrate’. I did a little seat squirm, as when entering a freeway on-ramp and you have to hit sixty in a real hurry, peeked up to the band to get the jump on when it was coming, stiffened up and sat on the edge of the chair, and handled one. I missed the follow-up but had returned my first slam. Actually, I got myself in its way.

In a half hour of just ‘concentrating’ I’d refined the instruction. I discovered if I told myself to ‘glue my eye to the ball’ I could start fielding first slams much better and get some of the follow ups as well. For about twenty minutes I sat there mesmerized, tracking the ball like my life depended on it, my entire being invested in the hypnotic pursuit of that pea sized light. Kneading my eyeballs into the guts of its movement like following a guy in a fast crowd where a momentary diversion would lose him, I soon got to a four or five round volley of fast ones. (Sudnow, 1983: 35)



Works Cited

Castronova E (2008) Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Chayka K (2015) “What Will We Do With Virtual Reality?” Pacific Standard Magazine. http://www.psmag.com/nature-and-technology/what-will-we-do-with-virtual-reality
Frith D (1990) “Lucy in the sky—with Rubies? Not a Problem” Sydney Morning Herald.
Fuller M and Jenkins H (1994) Nintendo and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue. In Jones S (ed) Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Sage Publications, pp. 57-72
Gunning T (1986) The Cinema of Attractions. Wide Angle, 3(4).
Lemma, Alessandra. (2010) “An order of pure decision: growing up in a virtual world and the adolescent’s experience of being-in-a-body.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 58.4 (2010): 691-714.
Murray J (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Stein J (2015) Inside the Box. Time Magazine. 17 August 2015. 40-49.
Stevens R, Satwicz T, and McCarthy L (2008) In-Game, In-Room, In-World: Reconnecting Video Game Play to the Rest of Kids’ Lives. In Salen K (ed) The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp. 41-66.
Street, Zoya. Delay: Paying attention to energy mechanics. Rupazero. 2014.
Sudnow D (1983) Pilgrim in the Microworld. Warner Books.
Taylor T (2009) Play Between Worlds. Cambridge: The MIT Press
Turkle, Sherry. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic books, 2012.

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).

2014-09-23 13.40.26_0
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

The independent game developer behind roguelike work-in-progress Ultima Ratio Regum, and an ex-professional gamer turned game studies academic, Mark Johnson's work is inspired the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco and informed by Science and Technological Studies.

Red Alert 1, released in 1996, was one of the few Real-Time Strategy (RTS) releases of its era to shy away from a historical fantasy or far-future sci-fi setting. Warcraft II depicts a fantasy medieval world of humans, elves and orcs, Starcraft paints a futuristic world where humans share the galaxy with the aloof aesthete Protoss and the inhumanly ravenous Zerg, and Total Annihilation’s far-future galactic war is fought between the centralized Core and the decentralized Arm — but Red Alert was set in around the Second World War, with a little bit of a sci-fi twist.

Red Alert blended the real and the imagined. Click To Tweet

Actual history met alternate history, as objects we might recognize in the everyday stood alongside objects from worlds we have never visited. How did the Red Alert games in the Command and Conquer series use these aesthetics to tell stories? How does its art and design narratologically locate the different editions in the series? How did it thematically navigate between overlapping realities and architectures?

Red Alert

Red Alert’s central conceit is that Albert Einstein created a time-machine, went back in time to “Landsberg, Germany, 1924”, and erased a young Adolf Hitler from history. Upon returning to the present, Einstein’s assistant questions him about the success of the mission and the implied impact: he replies that only “time will tell”. Once the player reaches the main menu, however, it becomes apparent that the WW2 we knew has been unintentionally replaced by a new timeline, in which the Allies and the Soviets, not the Allies and the Axis, battled using a range of new, and imagined, technologies. This time travelling endeavour is portrayed in full-motion video (FMV), a long-term standard of the Command and Conquer series (of which Red Alert was the second release). These videos showed actors , sometimes recruited from among the game developers at Westwood Studios, explaining briefings to the player, filling in gaps about the fictional universe, and sometimes were combined with CGI imagery to position the actors more fully within the Red Alert’s world.

Einstein carries out this mission as the world’s first chrononaut from a room identified as being in “Trinity, New Mexico: 1946”. In our own timeline, Trinity was the birthplace of the nuclear bomb. This sets much of the tone, and in turn the aesthetics, of Red Alert – it takes its cue from the most significant military technology of the era (nuclear weapons) and the technoscientific structures of political and economic support associated with it, and applies similar conditions to other fictional technologies.

To locate itself firstly within the “real” Second World War, Red Alert is replete with images of iconic technologies of the WW2 and immediately post-WW2 eras. Submarines can be deployed as player-controlled units and feature in many cutscenes; the Allies are able to launch a satellite which gives them omniscient sight of the entire map; Sputnik is visible in one of the introductory cutscenes, whilst nuclear weapons can be launched by both sides. The iconographic use of these technologies is expanded by the game’s fictional ones; these are what we might call “alternate history” technologies – the type of thing we might expect to see in Marvel media depicting WW2. It also draws on the contemporary cultural imagination around powerful weaponry, for example Third Reich proposals for “wunderwaffe”, the “wonder weapons” whose imagined deployment promised a miraculous turn-around in the Axis’ impending defeat.

Two technologies define the science fiction aspects of Red Alert: the Chronosphere and the Iron Curtain. Click To Tweet


The Allied unique superweapon developed by Einstein, this is a building which charges up a unique “chronoshift” ability, which allows the player to transport one tank (attempting to transport troops results in their immediate death) temporarily to another part of the map (rather than through time, strangely enough). After a period this unit will return to its original location. If the player transports enemy naval units onto land, or land units into the ocean, they are immediately destroyed.

Iron Curtain

The Soviets, meanwhile, deploy a device that can turn a single unit temporarily invulnerable, rather than transporting it around the map. Although the real world Iron Curtain was merely a metaphor for the spatial divide between NATO and Warsaw Pact nations, Red Alert uses this term to describe a literal structure. There was no Cold War in the Red Alert chronology, and therefore no spatial divide which could have been named such. In this way it acts as a signpost for the fictional universe which plays upon our knowledge of the real universe, and takes a term from real history into the fictional universe and redeploys it in a new and unexpected purpose.

The Two Superweapons

These two technologies are explicitly positioned in opposition to each other and as emblematic of the greatest research of both sides, and their greatest hopes for victory. One Allied mission briefing explicitly states this dichotomous opposition: “With [the Chronosphere] to help you, even Stalin’s new Iron Curtain will not be able to stop us!”. Not only does this quote illustrate the sometimes rather campy dialogue of Red Alert’s cutscenes and briefings, it also draws on the Iron Curtain as an ideological and physical boundary in the real world, and the Soviet superweapon in the Red Alert world. .

Whereas in the real world the nuclear weapons of both sides came to define the immediate aftermath of WW2 and the subsequent Cold War, in Red Alert each side has a different signature superweapon in addition to their nuclear arsenals. Atomic weapons still exist, but they are hardly talked about compared to the Chronosphere and the Curtain.

The superweapons are depicted as highly unusual structures – they look nothing like the buildings surrounding them and appear out of place in the otherwise-WW2 visuals. In the picture to the left, the Iron Curtain is the black spherical structure within a protective latticework, and in the picture to the right the Chronosphere is the smooth chrome structure.They stand out visually against the military utilitarianism surrounding them. These structures have not become normalized or domesticated within the dictionary of standard constructions for either army – they are one-of-a-kind, somewhat improvised, with no stable housing like the architecture of other structures, perhaps designed to be removed and redeployed.

Superweapons are less like “structures” or “buildings”, and more akin to performative experiments. Click To Tweet

In Red Alert’s cinematics, these extraordinary aesthetics are portrayed in full CGI, where we see strange energies – in Soviet red and Allied blue – enveloping the Iron Curtain, and emanating from the Chronosphere.

The Chronosphere also has a unique “damaged” animation – when most buildings in Red Alert drop below 50% health they appear fractured, crumbled or aflame; the Chronosphere’s damaged image instead flashes and emits uncontrolled bursts of energy, again speaking to its experimental nature (the Iron Curtain’s damaged graphic shows the scaffolding around it broken, but the central sphere intact).

There is a “distance” between the superweapon technologies and the real technologies they exist alongside – perhaps this is simply because we don’t know what a “real world” Chronosphere would look like, but the Iron Curtain and Chronosphere do strongly stand out from the WW2 buildings which surround them; they appear fragile and experimental. This positions them as new and untested technologies which may yield unsettling or unknown outcomes – indeed, the player is warned in one briefing that the Chronosphere may yield “unexpected side effects”, and sure enough, using the Chronosphere will sometimes create a strange effect known as a “chrono vortex”. This map-distorting visual effect has a 20% chance of being triggered , and drifts around the map destroying buildings and units it crosses until it dissipates.

Superweapons are unusual, complex technologies, poorly understood even by those who deploy them. Click To Tweet

These technologies displace nuclear weapons as the emergent technology that the commanders of both sides fixated over and considered essential to the success of the war. The in-game characters treat them in ways we might associate with nuclear weapons: immensely powerful, war-altering technologies. Both superweapons and nuclear weapons can only be constructed if the player has access to the highest “technology level” of structures (a telling indication of their implicit comparability), both are extremely expensive to construct, and both are crucial objectives for destruction or capture in various singleplayer missions. In the Chronosphere and the Iron Curtain the familiar does give way to something unfamiliar, but the same kind of unfamiliar as nuclear weaponry: something new, but contained within the same socio-technical systems as our own world. Several years prior to WW2 and the creation of atomic weapons, might the concept of the ability to bestow temporary invulnerability or shift briefly through time have actually appeared equally implausible, and equally in the realm of science fiction, to the average observer, as a bomb which could destroy an entire city? Although the two superweapons are primarily unfamiliar, distinct, and represent a disjuncture with real-world history in their visual style, Red Alert also positions them as existing within the logics of its fictional universe.

Red Alert 2

Red Alert 2 – released in 2000 – played off Red Alert 1’s visual style in an intriguing way. Whereas the visual style of Red Alert 1 could be reasonably called alteration – the designers took an existing style (WW2 visuals) and twisted it a little bit to add a sci-fi angle to them (the Chronosphere and the Iron Curtain) – the visual style of Red Alert 2 is better defined as extrapolation. It took the aesthetics of the first Red Alert and moved them forward into a visual outcome set several decades in the future within the fictional universe. It treated the history of Red Alert in the same way Red Alert treated the history of the real-world – as a set of aesthetics and background assumptions which can be reproduced, played with, and adjusted.

Red Alert 2 lies somewhere in the intersection between dieselpunk, Raygun Gothic, and retrofuturism. Dieselpunk is an aesthetic style perhaps best-known to gamers in Bioshock, with its focus upon Art Deco visuals coupled with extremely “modern” technology; retrofuturism focuses on the depictions of past futures, which is to say the visions of the future which have since failed to come to pass (perhaps best embodied by SF films of the Forbidden Planet era, and the more recent Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow); whilst Raygun Gothic, a subset of retrofuturism, is a depiction of a particular alternative future extrapolated from modernist aesthetics and often used interchangeably with retrofuturism (sometimes associated with the Fallout series, particularly its most recent iterations).

A history that features rayguns centres the popular imagination over scientific development. Click To Tweet

These styles all speak to a distinct set of speculative or imagined historical changes: they combine past social ideals and structures with modern and postmodern technology in complex anachronisms, and they consider how contemporary conflicts might play out with the technologies of the past — or more refined, improved or developed versions of these same technologies.

In Red Alert 2 the two memorable alternate-history technologies of the original Red Alert return. The Allies still possess the Chronosphere, but it is now able to transport nine units instead of merely one, and there is not a time limit on their transportation, making it orders of magnitude more useful, whilst the Soviet Iron Curtain has been similarly upgraded to a nine-unit max. They are joined by a range of other technologies. The Allies possess a range of “prism” technologies to complement the Chronosphere – a series of tanks and buildings which emphasize smooth lines, geometric exactness and the implied precision of a focused laser weapon.


The Soviets, meanwhile, have expanded the role of Tesla as their equivalent of Einstein via “Tesla technology” such as “tesla troopers” and “tesla tanks” as well as the “tesla coils”, a base defence from the original Red Alert. These structures share the same aesthetic of “experimental” technology we saw in Red Alert 1 – they are depicted sparking electricity and possess a clear lack of refinement or care in their construction –  and an implicit danger to the electricity they use as their weapon (this aesthetic is similar to Tesla’s laboratory in 2006 film The Prestige).

ra2 superweaponsThis Allied/Soviet visual difference is even reflected in walls: Allied walls are extremely smooth and clean and appear to be made of concrete, whilst Soviet walls are less regular, spiked, and covered in barbed wire. These screenshots show (from left to right) the Chronosphere, “Battle Lab” (a required building for more advanced units), two Prism Towers and a “War Factory” (for producing tanks) for the Allies, alongside some wall; whilst the right-most screenshot shows the Iron Curtain, a Tesla Reactor (provides power), two Tesla Coils, and the Soviet War Factory, making these different visual styles particularly clear.

We can see that this difference is also reproduced in their superweapons – the Chronosphere enables rapid movement and deployment, whilst the Iron Curtain strengthens the units it affects (these are the left-most buildings in both screenshots). The Chronosphere (unlike its Red Alert 1 progenitor) now appears slick and refined, whilst the Iron Curtain still has much of its inner workings visible. Red Alert 2 thus takes the Allies/Soviets dichotomy established in a small way with the aesthetics of the Red Alert 1 superweapons, whilst simultaneously filtering out the WW2 aesthetics they grew out of.

The picture below, from Red Alert 2’s concept art, shows us an Allied prism tank on the left, and a Soviet Tesla tank on the right. This makes the intensifying of these technologies, and the different technological trajectories – the Allies have refined their technologies, whilst the Soviets continue to experiment – very clear once more. Indeed, Red Alert 2’s manual notes that after the Allied victory in Red Alert 1 (the Allied singleplayer campaign is considered the canon ending), the Soviets swore that because “the Allies had won with superior technology”, they would be the ones to develop the most unusual and innovative weapons for the next futures. Allied structures and units show a futuristic refinement and smoothness in Red Alert 2, whilst the Soviets have continued towards greater “innovation” and, therefore, a more “punk” aesthetic of experimentation.

Red Alert 2 emphasizes the futuristic units rather than the WW2-esque era of the original Red Alert, but these are still a performance of some “historical” sensibility, for their visuals and aesthetics speak to an extrapolation from the original alternate-history technologies deployed in Red Alert. The Allies were victorious in Red Alert 1 and thus refined and improved their technologies, yielding structures and buildings which appear predominantly retrofuturist; the Soviets, smarting from their previous defeat, continued to experiment and develop their own technological path, resulting in the experimental dieselpunk visuals we see here.

In the Red Alert universe the ideology of scientific progress has been pursued to its limit, and beyond. Click To Tweet

The “Total War” of WW2 never gave way to a Cold War and the accompanying nuclear standoff, and so new weapons continued to emerge on both sides. The weapons and structures of both sides in Red Alert 2 reflect the Allied victory in the first war in Red Alert 1, and the confidence and resentment embodied by the two armies. The political upheaval caused by the time travel experiments of Red Alert 1 resulted in a different technological landscape and a very different kind of arms race, where both sides pursued different means to victory instead of stockpiling the same devastating weapons to face off against one another.  This burst of technological upheaval eclipsed even the world-changing technologies developed in real-world human history in that same period.

The Prestige

The Making of The Prestige (2005) Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Touchstone Pictures


“Real world”

Memory Insufficient‘s style guide usually cautions against unproblematically reproducing the idea that one world is “real” and all others are fake, virtual, or otherwise less real by virtue of their digital materiality. However, in this piece we found it unavoidable to preserve the use of “real” to describe the factual in contrast to the counterfactual history represented by time machines, rayguns and the like.