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Is 'SimCity' Homelessness a Bug or a Feature?

A new 600-page, two volume epic about how to get rid of the homeless in SimCity.
January 13, 2015, 5:16pm
Little yellow homeless infestation drives property values way down. Image: r/SimCity sub-Reddit user firstness.

SimCity players have discussed a variety of creative strategies for their virtual homelessness problem. They've suggested waiting for natural disasters like tornadoes to blow the vagrants away, bulldozing parks where they congregate, or creating such a woefully insufficient city infrastructure that the homeless would leave on their own.

You can read all of these proposed final solutions in Matteo Bittanti's How to Get Rid of Homelessness, "a 600-page epic split in two volumes documenting the so-called 'homeless scandal' that affected 2013's SimCity."


"I started to find the discussion about homeless in SimCity way more interesting than SimCity itself because people were talking about the issue in a very—how can I say, not racist, not classist, but definitely peculiar way," said Bittanti, a visiting professor at IULM University in Milan who spent seven years teaching in the Bay Area.

Bittanti collected, selected, and transcribed thousands of these messages exchanged by players on publisher Electronic Arts' official forums, Reddit, and the largest online SimCity community Simtropolis, who experienced and then tried to "eradicate" the phenomenon of homelessness that "plagued" SimCity.

An excerpt from the book, in which 1ButtonDash has had it up to here with these pests.

SimCity's homeless people are represented as yellow, two-dimensional, ungendered figures with bags in tow. Their presence makes SimCity residents unhappy, and reduces land value. Like many other players, Bittanti discovered the online discussions when he was searching for a way to deal with them.

At first, players wondered if they were having so much problems with the homeless in their cities because of a bug in the game. Like many of 2014's big-budget games that launched in broken or barely-functional states, SimCity originally would only work if players connected to EA's servers, which repeatedly crashed under the load of players. It seemed possible that the homeless problem in SimCity was simply a mistake.


"Has anyone figured out a easy way to handle the homeless ruining those beautiful parks you spend so much money on?" asks one player on EA's site. "Create jobs, either through zoning or upgrading road density near industry, that helped me a lot," another player suggests.

In this quick YouTube guide, a player suggests eliminating the two crucial factors that make homeless flock to your city: abandoned residential buildings, and garbage, "which they live off."

In which an emotionless robot reads the books table of contents.

By removing the aesthetic markers of online forums—author's signatures, side banners, avatar pictures, and so on—Bittanti's book recontextualizes the discussion to reveal what players and the game are saying about homelessness.

"I have Community College and a University, plenty of police coverage, yet I still have a city with homeless ALL OVER….. so what the fix for this or do I just not worry about it?" asks a player on Simtropolis.

For Bittanti, it's impossible not to see the connections between the homeless problem in the Bay Area and the way it's portrayed in SimCity.

"That is, can we fix homelessness in SimCity, or because we haven't fixed homelessness as a problem in real life, therefore we are bound to lose?" Bittanti asked. "Is SimCity a reflection of what's happening in reality, and therefore is very realistic, or is it a programming issue?"

Bittanti says that it's impossible to distinguish between videogames and America in the same way that Jean Baudrillard thought it was impossible to distinguish between Disneyland and America. The book, he told me, is about simulation and its discontents, the unexpected convergence and collapse between reality and simulation.


"To me video games are the so-called 'real America,'" he said. "The real America operates according to a video game logic, and that game logic is neo-liberalism, and that absolutely manifests in San Francisco, that to me is the epicenter of inequality. In San Francisco you either have a Tesla and you drink a seven dollar cappuccino or you're homeless in the streets."

In A New American Dream, Bittanti documents San Francisco's homeless with Google Street View.

The SimCity series, and SimCity 4 in particular, is Bittanti's favorite game of all time. He even edited a collection of essays about it, including one by Neil Gaiman. If you choose to believe the creation myth, Maxis co-founder Will Wright came up with the idea while working on another game in 1989, Raid on Bungeling Bay. When he discovered that the tools he was using to build the levels were more fun than the game itself, SimCity was born, and the incredibly ambitious desire to frame reality through a simulation has carried it ever since.

When Maxis started talking about rebooting the franchise by making it prettier, simpler, and moving it online, devoted fans like Bittanti were worried. "They trivialized and simplified the game for the Facebook generation, for people who don't have the patience to spend hours and hours building a city. They had a vision, and some very good ideas, but it all came crashing down."

Bittanti thinks SimCity still matters a lot because it's a failure, and that it should teach us how to incorporate real life issues into simulations. It's all fun and games when developers are imitating Michael Bay and other Hollywood action movies, but when they tackle real issues, the programming and design disciplines that served them in the past don't cut it.

"Issues like homelessness require an approach that is beyond algorithms. It's beyond technological reasons. It requires psychology, anthropology, philosophy. It really shows the limit of the video game."

A limited run of 99 copies of How to get Rid of Homeless is available from Bittanti's Concrete Press via Amazon. Volume I is $150 and Volume II is $70.