To win Populous, you've got to think like a god. You cannot live
many small individual lives and succeed. Nor can you manipulate every
individual simultaneously and hope to remain sane. Control must be
surrendered to a populous mob. Individuals of Populous land, who are no
more than a few bits of code, have a certain amount of autonomy and
anonymity. Their pandemonium must be harnessed collectively in an
intelligent way. That's your job.
As god, you have only indirect control. You can offer incentives, play
with global events, make calculated tradeoffs, and hope that you get the
mix right so that your underlings follow you. Cause and effect in this
game is coevolutionarily fuzzy; changing one thing always changes many
things, often in the direction you wanted least. All management is done
Software stores sell other god games: Railroad Tycoon, A-Train, Utopia,
Moonbase. They all enable you, the neo-god, to entice citizens to create
a self-sustaining empire. In the game Power Monger you are one of four
godlike kings hoping to rule supreme over a large region of a planet.
The population below, which numbers in the hundreds, is not faceless.
Each citizen has a name, an occupation, and a biography. As deity, your
job is to urge the citizenry to explore the land, mine ore, make plows,
or hammer them into swords. All you can do is adjust the society's
parameters and then set the beings loose. It's hard for a god to guess
what will emerge. If your folks manage to rule over the most land, you
In the brief annals of classic god games, the game of Civilization ranks
pretty high. Here the goal is to steer your bottom-up population through
the evolution of culture. You can't tell them how to build a car, but
you can set them up so that they can make the "discoveries" needed to
build one. If they invent a wheel, then they can make chariots. If they
acquire masonry skills, then they can make arithmetic. Electricity needs
metallurgy and magnetism; corporations first require banking skills.
This is a new way of steering. Pushing too hard can backfire. The
denizens in Civilization might revolt at any time, and occasionally they
do. All the while you are racing against other cultures being tweaked by
your opponent. Lopsided contests are quite common. I once heard an avid
Civilization player boast that he overran the other society with stealth
bombers while they were still working on chariots.
It's only just a game, but Populous embodies the subtle shift in our
interactions with all computers and machines. Artifacts no longer have
to be inert homogeneous lumps. They can be liquid, adaptable, slippery
webs. These collectivist machines run on myriad tiny agents interacting
in ways we can't fathom, generating results we can only indirectly
control. Getting a favorable end result is a challenge in coordination.
It feels like herding sheep, managing an orchard, or raising kids.
In the development of computers, games come first, work later. Kids who
become comfortable relating to machines as if they behave organically,
later expect the same from machines at work when they are older. MIT
psychologist Sherry Turkle describes the readiness of children to
perceive complicated devices as organic as an affinity for a "second
self" -- a projection of themselves onto their machines. Toy worlds
certainly encourage that personification.
SimEarth, yet another god game, bills itself, somewhat tongue in cheek,
as "the ultimate experience in planet management." An acquaintance of
mine told a story of making a long car trip with three 10-12-year-old
boys in the back seat, the trio equipped with a laptop computer running
SimEarth. He drove while eavesdropping on the boys' conversation. He
gathered that the boys had decided their goal was to evolve intelligent
snakes. The kids:
"Do you think we can start the reptiles now?"
"Oh shoot. The mammals are taking over."
"We better add more sunlight."
"How can we make the snakes smarter?"
SimEarth has no narrative or fixed goals -- a nonstarter for many adults.
Kids, on the other hand, fall into the game without hesitation or
instruction. "We are as gods, and might as well get good at it,"
declared Stewart Brand in 1968, who had personal computers (a term he
later coined) and other vivisystems in mind when he said it.
Stripped of all secondary motives, all addictions are one: to make a
world of our own. I can't imagine anything more addictive then being a
god. A hundred years from now nothing will keep us away from artificial
cosmos cartridges we can purchase and pop it into a world machine to
watch creatures come alive and interact on their own accord. Godhood is
irresistible. The hemorrhaging expense of yet another hero will not keep
us away. World-makers could charge us anything they want for a daily fix
of a few hours immersed in the interactive saga of our characters'
lives, and to keep our world going we will pay it. Organized crime will
make billions of dollars peddling crude artificial calamities -- first
class hurricanes or high priced tornadoes -- to addicts compelled to buy.
Over time, god-customers will evolve fairly sturdy and endearing
populations, which they will be eager to test with yet another fully
rendered natural disaster. For the poor there will surely be underground
exchanges of generic mutant beings and pilfered scenarios. The headlong
high of substituting for Jehovah, and the genuine, overwhelming, sheer
love for one's private world, will suck in any and all who near it.
Because simulated worlds behave -- in a tiny but measurable way -- similarly
to worlds of living organisms, the ones that survive will grow in
complexity and value. The organic ambiance of distributed, parallel
world-games is not mere anthropomorphism, despite the second self
projected upon them.
SimEarth was meant to model Lovelock's and Margulis's Gaia hypothesis,
which it succeeded in doing to a remarkable degree. Fairly serious
changes in the simulated Earth's atmosphere and geology are compensated
by convoluted feedback loops in the system itself. For instance,
overheating the planet increases biomass production, which reduces CO2
levels, which cools the planet.
Scientists debate whether the evidence of self-correcting cohesion seen
in the Earth's global geochemistry qualify Earth as a large organism
(Gaia), or merely a large vivisystem. Applying the same test to SimEarth
we get a more certain answer: SimEarth, the game, is not an organism.
But it is a step in the direction of the organic. By playing SimEarth
and other god games we can get a feel of what it will be like to parry
with autonomous vivisystems.
In SimEarth, a mind-boggling web of factors impinge on each other,
making it impossible to sort out what does what. Players sometimes
complain that SimEarth appears to run without regard to human control.
It's as if the game has its own agenda and you are just watching.
Johnny Wilson, a gaming expert and author of a SimEarth handbook, says
that the only way to derail Gaia (SimEarth) is to launch a cataclysmic
alteration such as titling the axis of the Earth to horizontal. He says
there is an "envelope" of limits within which the SimEarth system will
always bounce back; one must bump the system beyond that envelope to
crash it. As long as SimEarth runs inside the envelope, it follows its
own beat; outside of it, it follows no beat. As a comparison, Wilson
points out that SimCity, SimEarth's older sister, "is much more
satisfying as a game, because you get more instant and clear feedback on
changes, and because you feel like you are more in control."
Unlike SimEarth, SimCity is the paramount example of an underling-
driven god game. This award-winning simulation of a city is so
convincing that professional urban planners use it to demonstrate the
dynamics of real cities, which are also driven by underlings. SimCity
succeeds, I believe, because it is based on the swarm, the same
foundation that all vivisystems are based on: a collective of richly
linked, autonomous, localized agents working in parallel. In SimCity a
working city bubbles up from a swarm of hundreds of ignorant Sims (or
Simpletons) doing their simple-minded tasks.
SimCity obeys the usual tail-swallowing logic of god games. Sims won't
take up residence in your city unless there are factories, but factories
generate pollution which drives away residents. Roads help commuters but
also raise taxes, which drive down your ratings as a mayor, which you
need to survive politically. The maze of interrelated factors required
to construct a sustainable SimCity can unfold along the lines of the
following fairly typical account from a heavy SimCity-using friend of
mine: "In one city which I built up over many Sim-years I had a 93
percent approval in the public opinion polls. Things were going great! I
had a nice balance of tax-producing commerce and citizen-retaining
beauty. To lessen pollution in my great metropolis I ordered a nuclear
power plant built. Unfortunately I inadvertently placed it in my
airport's flight path. One day a plane crashed into the generators,
causing a meltdown. This set fire to the town. But since I hadn't built
enough fire stations in the vicinity (way too costly), the fires spread
and eventually burnt down the whole city. I'm rebuilding now,
Will Wright, the
author of SimCity and coauthor of SimEarth, is thirtyish, bookish, and
certainly one of the most innovative programmers working today. Because
Sim games are so hard to control, he likes to call them Software Toys.
You diddle with them, explore, try out fantasies, and learn. You don't
win, any more than you might win at gardening. Wright sees his robust
simulation toys as the initial baby steps toward a full march of
"adaptive technologies." These technologies are not designed, improved
upon, or adjusted by the creator; rather, they -- on their own
accord -- adapt, learn, and evolve. It shifts a bit of power from the user
to the used.
The origins of SimCity trace Will's own path to this vision. In 1985
Will wrote what he calls "a really, and I mean really, stupid video
game" entitled Raid on Bungling Bay. It was a typical shoot-'em-up
starring a helicopter that bombed everything in sight.
"To create this game I had to draw all these islands that the helicopter
would go bomb," recalls Will. Normally the artist/author modeled the
complete fantasy in minute pixelated detail, but Will got bored.
"Instead," Will says, "I wrote a separate program, a little utility,
that would let me go around and build these islands real quick. I also
wrote some code that could automatically put roads on the islands."
By engaging his land-making or road-making module the program would -- on
its own! -- fill in land or roads in the simulated world. Will remembers,
"Eventually I finished the shoot-'em-up game part, but for some reason I
kept going back to the darn thing and making the building utilities more
and more fancy. I wanted to automate the road function. I made it so
that when you added each connecting piece of island, the road parts on
them would connect up automatically to form a continuous road. Then I
wanted to put down buildings automatically, so I built a little menu
choice for buildings.
"I started asking myself, why am I doing this since the game is
finished? The answer was that I found that I had a lot more fun building
the islands than I had destroying them. Pretty soon I realized that I
was fascinated by bringing a city to life. At first I just wanted to do
a traffic simulation. But then I realized that traffic didn't make a lot
of sense unless you had places where the people drove to...and that led
layer upon layer to a whole city; SimCity."
A player building a SimCity recapitulates Will Wright's sequence in
inventing it. First, he makes the lower geographical foundation of land
and water which support the road traffic and telephone infrastructure
which support residential homes which support the Sims which support the
To get a feel for the dynamics of a city, Wright studied a simulation of
an average city done in the 1960s at MIT by Jay Forrester. Forrester
summarized city life into quantitative relations rendered as
mathematical equations. They were almost rules of thumb: it takes so
many residents to support one firefighter; or, you need so many parking
spaces for each car. Forrester published his findings as Urban Dynamics,
a book which influenced many aspiring computer modelers. Forrester's own
computer simulation was entirely numerical with no visual interface. He
ran the simulation and got a stack of printouts on lined paper.
Will Wright put flesh onto Jay Forrester's equations, and gave them a
decentralized, bottom-up existence. Cities assembled themselves
(according to the laws and theories of the god Will Wright) on the
computer screen. In essence, SimCity is an urban theory provided with a
user interface. In the same sense, a dollhouse is a theory of the
household. A novel is theory told as story. A flight simulator is an
interactive theory of aviation. Simulated life is a theory of biology
left to fend for itself.
A theory abstracts the complicated pattern of real things into the
facsimile pattern -- a model, or a simulation. If done well, the miniature
captures some integrity of the larger whole. Einstein, working at the
peak of human talent, reduced the complexity of the cosmos to five
symbols. His theory, or simulation, works. If done well, an abstraction
becomes a creation.
There are many reasons to create. But what we create is always a world.
I believe we may be unable to create anything less. We can create
hurriedly, in fragments, in thumbnail sketches, and streams of
consciousness, but always we are filling in an unfinished world of our
own. Of course we sometimes doodle, literally and metaphorically. But we
immediately see this for what it is: theory-free gibberish, and
model-less nonsense. In essence, every creative act is no more or less
than the reenactment of the Creation.