Cities in Gaming: Smart Cities for Dumb Reasons

Introducing Dumb Cities

Bruce Sterling's article "Stop Saying 'Smart Cities'" in the Atlantic touches on the idea of what constitutes a "smart" city and how that does not contend to these cities being any more affordable or resilient. Urban cities such as London and Rome are mentioned as being considered "smart" cities, but at the same time are common and still remain as "sluggish beasts" with city elements such as horrid lights, sewers, empty buildings, etc. Sterling argues that the future of smart cities won't be cities at all, but the cloud, the internet, and other technological "paste-on gadgetry." 

Cities and Technology Union in Gaming Narratives

Bioshock Infinite  (2013) the city of Columbia

Bioshock Infinite (2013) the city of Columbia

When looking at how cities and technology are depicted together within video games, the contrasting elements are telling to the context of the story. As place is pertinent, understanding the location, landscape, history, purpose, visual aesthetic, and how technology is interwoven with the environment and cities are important to the narrative. A few brief examples are the post-nuclear cities of Fallout, the aftermath of The Last of Us, the technological space hub city of Mass Effect, the underwater city of Bioshock, and the religiously "pure" city in the sky of Bioshock Infinite

Broken Cities

When broken cities are depicted, and by broken I mean destroyed physically by war, outbreak, or some other force, there is typically some sort of technological innovation or application that almost substitutes itself for the lack of a standing city. Specifically looking at Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas, and Fallout 4, we see this happen and are able to explore decrepit cities, broken buildings, but with technological advancement of our own. In communities being rebuilt, technology is being implemented, energy weapons are being used, and innovation is large. Whereas the actual urban city is gone and replaced with ruins, trash, and the aftermath of a bomb, the large hub cities of the games especially display common elements of what we would consider "smart" cities. More importantly is it to realize that Fallout games base their environment off real towns, cities, and locations. Although they are not "smart" they do depict cities and even copy them such as Las Vegas, Washington DC, theme parks, and create new ones such as cities in skies (blimps), cities out of a baseball field (Fallout 4), cities out of rafts and boats, and cities underground (specifically looking at the Institute in Fallout 4 for this one).

The Institute main area via  Escapist Magazine

The Institute main area via Escapist Magazine

In the wake of nothing, synthetic technology becomes a large component of cities. In Fallout 4, synths are human robots that can be made to copy a real human, can have feelings and emotions, experiences, and imitate a real human existence and life. Often in the game there are disputes over if someone is a synth or not, as it is difficult to discern newer models from humans. Whereas older models are apparently different from humans, new models are created in near pure resemblance to humans and cause fear, paranoia, and uncertainty among individuals of the commonwealth. 

Anti-Synth Propaganda via @hiphopmummy Society6

Anti-Synth Propaganda via @hiphopmummy Society6

However, interestingly synths would ideally be perceived within the idea of a Utopian society, many groups of people that you meet are against the idea. Thus, the Institute would be the ideal "smart" city, and yet the very chance of a "smart" city where synths are created can be chosen to be destroyed by the player in the game because of the question of whether or not synths are or are not people. 

SYstematic oppression

No Gods or Kings. Only Man.  Bioshock  (2007)

No Gods or Kings. Only Man. Bioshock (2007)

Creating a "smart" city allows for government and officials to gather data and have further control in systematic oppression. Everything is connected to everything else. Everyone's information is available for anything. Free for all. In the Bioshock games, specifically looking at Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, the idea of controlled technologies, controlled substance abuse that gave powers to individuals, was regulated to regulate the individuals. In Bioshock, it became a drug substance commodity that could be controlled by higher powers. In Bioshock Infinite, it was regulated as per the religious quota and military. 

Another implementation of surveillance is in the Big Daddy and Songbird characters. Both serve the purpose of watching and protecting the one(s) they are drugged/programmed to protect. But in protecting them, they are secluding them as well. For example, Songbird is made to protect Elizabeth, who is cut off from the rest of the world and isolated. Her movements, choices, and behavior are watched, collected, studied. The only way she can escape is via her ability to rip open dimensions, essentially creating her own immersive VR. 

Furthermore, the creation of the cities around these ideas and concepts are controlled. The environment is literally enclosed, either in the air or underwater, and controlled via a specific religion, substance, or other ideology. Lives are controlled in these "smart" cities through systematic oppression on a gaming level. 

Perception of narrative: cities and stories

How cities within games, specifically narrative based games, are constructed tells the player a lot about the background, context, history, and placement of the game itself. We are made aware of how technologically advanced, any level of corruption, religious context, political implications, wealth, power structure, discrimination, etc. We are confined or liberated by environments; the way we view characters is changed by environment; how cities are run make us consider how to interact within the gaming narrative. We can learn what happened within that city, why it is the way it is, why the people that live there or don't live there are the way they are. It gives important context, smart or dumb, to the gaming narrative. 

It displays culture. 

Diamond city  Fallout 4  (2015)

Diamond city Fallout 4 (2015)