Could a computer game help Missoula shape its future?

This Monday, the Missoula City Council votes on the final draft of the Joint Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan, a document more than three years in the making and the product of more than two dozen neighborhood meetings, workshops and planning sessions involving residents, business owners, neighborhood councils, the City Council, the Office of Planning and Grants and other participants in the planning process.

Although it has been time-consuming, the goal of the plan was relatively simple: to forge a strategic, collective vision of how the Northside and Westside neighborhoods should grow over the next 20 years by creating a guide for future land-use decisions, legislative actions, budget allocations and other policy decisions.

“Adoption of the plan does not necessarily commit the city to immediately carry out each policy to the letter,” the plan warns, “but it does put the City on record as recognizing the desirability of the goals and proposals and the decisions and actions they imply.” In fact, many of the goals set forth in the plan are non-binding and will require further governmental action, such as adopting zoning and subdivision ordinances, historical designations and the like.

To refer to this document as an “end product” is something of a misnomer, since neighborhood plans are, by their very nature, works in progress, changing over time with the needs of the community. But if the level of community participation in drafting this document is any indication, Missoulians have demonstrated a willingness to devote a significant portion of their free time to growth and planning projects.

Over the last several years, this observation has caused me to wonder: What if Missoula launched a community project that compiled all these goals, visions and ideals into a computer simulation that could be shared, downloaded and tinkered with by anyone with access to a personal computer? Such a simulation could incorporate many of the variables readily available about Missoula, such as income figures, demographic trends, property tax rates, downtown rents, availability of open space, traffic patterns, energy costs, unemployment rates, and so on.

In fact, such a simulation already exists and is played by millions of people worldwide. For those of you who are more involved with actual reality than the virtual kind, the game is called SimCity, one of the industry’s most successful computer simulations that has transformed urban planning and public policy into popular entertainment.

SimCity was the brainchild of video game designer Will Wright, who was not an urban planner by trade, but who was working on a game called “Raid on Bungling Bay,” in which players fly planes and stage aerial bomb raids on islands. The game included an island terrain generator, and Wright soon discovered that he was having more fun building islands than blowing them up.

Thus was born the original SimCity, released in 1987 by the California-based game company Maxis, which has since sold more than 7 million copies of the game. Over time, the game has evolved from its simple, two-dimensional origins into a complex three-dimensional virtual landscape that incorporates such real-life factors as jobs, electricity costs, crime, pollution, real estate prices, and even political turmoil.

Although SimCity is a “game,” it has no set objective, conclusion, winners or losers. Instead, each player (known as the “Mayor” of SimCity) makes land-use, zoning, and budget decisions about where to locate power plants, fire stations, police departments, schools and whatnot, while the “Sims,” (or simulated citizens) move in or out, and build or abandon houses, factories and businesses based on the wisdom of those decisions.

Although the game is clearly a world of fiction, its similarity to real urban planning is striking in its complexity. The most recent version, SimCity 3000, allows players to offer tax incentives to new businesses, refinance bonds, allocate money for health, education and welfare, and even set budgets for primary and secondary education.

As in real life, the game includes disaster scenarios, ranging from the fanciful (Godzilla attacks and burning debris from space) to the eerily authentic (train derailments, toxic cloud releases and polluted rivers). Likewise, players are forced to make choices and then deal with their consequences, from the number of firefighters who can respond to a disaster to the city funds allocated for its cleanup.

I can imagine someone in Missoula developing a “SimMissoula” version of the game, in which Garden City residents choose where to locate the new baseball stadium, what elementary schools should be reopened or renovated, how the White Pine Sash brownfield site should be developed and what kind of livable-wage industries should be coaxed into town. I can see Smart Growth Missoula or the Missoula Chamber of Commerce holding contests to see who can best redesign Malfunction Junction or West Broadway, using real-life numbers gleaned from the Missoula Measures project, the Missoula Job Corps, the City-County Health Department and the Montana Department of Transportation.

Likewise, Missoula schoolchildren could use the project to learn modern problem-solving skills, how the planning process works, and even offer their own visions of what Missoula should look like. (Teachers guides for SimCity are already available on the Internet.)

Like any computer simulation, the game operates on certain hidden assumptions and built-in biases, making it both risky and unwise to invest too much stock in its “results.” (Not to pass judgment, but SimCities have no city councils, which would make the SimKadas a virtual dictator.) But if military forces and airline pilots can use simulators to hone their responses to a wide variety of circumstances, they certainly could be an informative—and entertaining—tool for Missoula’s civic-minded lot.

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