SimCity Bricolage

In the references to The World Beyond Your Head I found an intriguing paper by Mizuko Ito, Mobilizing Fun in the Production and Consumption of Children’s Software, following the interactions between children and adults at an after-school computer club. It’s written in a fairly heavy dialect of academicese, but the dialogue samples are fascinating. Here a kid, Jimmy, is playing SimCity 2000, with an undergrad, Holly, watching:

J: (Budget window comes up and Jimmy dismisses it.) Yeah. I’m going to bulldoze a skyrise here. (Selects bulldozer tool and destroys building.) OK. (Looks at H.) Ummm! OK, wait, OK. Should I do it right here?

H: Sure, that might work… that way. You can have it …

J: (Builds highway around city.) I wonder if you can make them turn. (Builds highway curving around one corner) Yeah, okay.

H: You remember, you want the highway to be … faster than just getting on regular streets. So maybe you should have it go through some parts.

J: (Dismisses budget pop-up window. Points to screen.) That’s cool! (Inaudible.) I can make it above?

H: Above some places, I think. I don’t know if they’d let you, maybe not.

J: (Moves cursor over large skyscraper.) That’s so cool!

H: Is that a high rise?

J: Yeah. I love them.

H: Is it constantly changing, the city? Is it like …

J: (Builds complicated highway intersection. Looks at H.)

H: (Laughs.)

J: So cool. (Builds more highway grids in area, creating a complex overlap of four intersections.)

H: My gosh, you’re going to have those poor drivers going around in circles.

J: I’m going to erase that all. I don’t like that, OK. (Bulldozes highway system and blows up a building in process.) Ohhh …

H: Did you just blow up something else?

J: Yeah. (Laughs.)

H: (Laughs.)

J: I’m going to start a new city. I don’t understand this one. I’m going to start with highways. (Quits without saving city.)

As Ito puts it, “by the end Jimmy has wasted thousands of dollars on a highway to nowhere, blown up a building, and trashed his city.” So what’s the point of playing the game in this way?

Well, for a start, it lets him make cool stuff and then blow it up. That might be all the explanation we need! But I think he’s also doing something genuinely useful for understanding the game itself.

Ito mainly seems to be interested in the social dynamics of the situation – the conflict between Jimmy finding ‘fun’, ‘spectacular’ effects in the game, and Holly trying to drag him back to more ‘educational’ behaviours. I can see that too, but I’m interested in a slightly different reading.

To my mind, Jimmy is ‘sketching’: he’s finding out what the highway tool can do as a tool, rather than immediately subsuming it to the overall logic of the game. The highway he’s building is in a pointless location and doesn’t function very well as a highway, but that doesn’t matter. He’s investigating how to make it turn, how to make it intersect with other roads, how to raise it above ground level. While focussed on this, he ignores any more abstract considerations that would pull him out of engagement with the tool. For example, he dismisses the budget popup as fast as he can, so that he can get back to bulldozing buildings.

Now he knows what the tool does, he may as well just trash the current city and start a new one where he can use his knowledge in a more productive way. His explorations are useless in the context of the current game, but will give him raw material to work with later in a different city, where he might need a fancy junction or an overhead highway.

I first wrote a version of this for the newsletter last year. Reading it back this time, I noticed something else: Jimmy’s explorations are a great example of bricolage. I first learned this term from Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert’s Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete, which I talked about here once before. In Turkle and Papert’s sense of the word, adapted from Lévi-Strauss, bricolage is a particular style of programming computers:

Bricoleurs construct theories by arranging and rearranging, by negotiating and renegotiating with a set of well-known materials.

… They are not drawn to structured programming; their work at the computer is marked by a desire to play with the elements of the program, to move them around almost as though they were material elements — the words in a sentence, the notes on a keyboard, the elements of a collage.

… bricoleur programmers, like Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur scientists, prefer negotiation and rearrangement of their materials. The bricoleur resembles the painter who stands back between brushstrokes, looks at the canvas, and only after this contemplation, decides what to do next. Bricoleurs use a mastery of associations and interactions. For planners, mistakes are missteps; bricoleurs use a navigation of midcourse corrections. For planners, a program is an instrument for premeditated control; bricoleurs have goals but set out to realize them in the spirit of a collaborative venture with the machine. For planners, getting a program to work is like ”saying one’s piece”; for bricoleurs, it is more like a conversation than a monologue.

One example in the paper is ‘Alex, 9 years old, a classic bricoleur’, who comes up with a clever repurposing of a Lego motor:

When working with Lego materials and motors, most children make a robot walk by attaching wheels to a motor that makes them turn. They are seeing the wheels and the motor through abstract concepts of the way they work: the wheels roll, the motor turns. Alex goes a different route. He looks at the objects more concretely; that is, without the filter of abstractions. He turns the Lego wheels on their sides to make flat ”shoes” for his robot and harnesses one of the motor’s most concrete features: the fact that it vibrates. As anyone who has worked with machinery knows, when a machine vibrates it tends to ”travel,” something normally to be avoided. When Alex ran into this phenomenon, his response was ingenious. He doesn’t use the motor to make anything ”turn,” but to make his robot (greatly stabilized by its flat ”wheel shoes”) vibrate and thus ”travel.” When Alex programs, he likes to keep things similarly concrete.

This is a similar mode of investigation to Jimmy’s. He’s seeing what kinds of things the motor and wheels can do, as part of an ongoing conversation with his materials, without immediately subsuming them to the normal logic of motors and wheels. In the process, he’s discovered something he wouldn’t have done if he’d just made a normal car. Similarly, Jimmy will have more freedom with the highway tool in the future than if he followed all the rules about budgets and city planning before he understood everything that it can do.

Alternatively, maybe I’m massively overanalysing this short contextless stretch of dialogue, and Jimmy just likes making stuff explode. Maybe he just keeps making and trashing a series of similarly broken cities for the sheer fun of it. Either way, mashing these two papers together has been a fun piece of bricolage of my own.

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