The week of March 1, 2015
An illustration of the homeless in SimCity

Everything I know about homelessness I learned from SimCity

By Aaron Sankin

In October 2012, a gamer posted a provocative comment to a forum run by Electronic Arts about its beloved, long-running SimCity franchise.

“There is one area I’d like to see as future expansion … the homeless,” gamer IanLoganson wrote. “Most cities have homeless … Some of the world’s biggest cities now are in the rapidly developing countries and one big problem [they] seem to have is slums. Let’s say you have a thriving commercial city full of landmarks, high-end jobs and high-end housing. Such city lights draw the dispossessed in search for hope and if there aren’t enough low-end jobs, low-end housing, or a social safety net, they end up on the street.

“A small homeless problem is no big deal, but as it gets bigger it brings down property value and discourages tourists,” IanLoganson continued. “You need to think of helping them with aid, providing more jobs/housing for them, or getting the police to kick them out of the centre. Unchecked, and especially with the latter option, slums would build up on any undeveloped land around your city.”

The suggestion immediately proved popular. Intrigued by the idea, some appeared to take the opportunity to seriously wrestle with the idea of homelessness at the level of city planning and management, the altitude at which the game operates, possibly for the first time. “I actually have no idea what governments do with homeless people,” one poster wrote. “[If they were] given a house, stuck on a benefit, and get put in a job would be the peaceful/ethical way. But in reality the police kick them out and say, ‘go be homeless somewhere else.'”

The concept of incorporating homelessness into the game clearly intrigued Guillaume Pierre, a lead designer for the franchise. “Fascinating idea. So how would you get rid of homeless people?” Pierre wrote in a comment on the post. “You sound like you’d want to criminalize homelessness (with the police kicking them out) but what would be the peaceful/ethical way of getting rid of that problem?”

A few other commenters threw some ideas around before the thread petered out. However, the suggestion undeniably struck a chord. When the next iteration of the game was released the following year, as gamers served as virtual mayors for their virtual cities, they now had to contend with people living on the street.

That’s when things got really interesting.

Overcoming the algorithms

On its own, SimCity including homelessness as just another gameplay feature isn’t that big of a deal. Over the years, SimCity has forced players to deal with everything from setting tax rates to building public transit systems to fending off attacks from giant, fire-breathing monsters. But there’s something about the way that SimCity forced players deal with homelessness that made Matteo Bittanti profoundly uncomfortable.

Homeless people are created in SimCity when a residential property becomes abandoned.

Bittanti—who had previously written a book about SimCity’s smaller-scale cousin, The Sims, and also created a collection of still images of homeless people in San Francisco originally captured by Google Street View—started reading online forums where users discussed their strategies for dealing with the homeless problem. He realized that the conversations gamers were having about ridding their city of homeless people—nothing more than globs of pixels on screen—seemed uncomfortably close to the way that people in the real world talked about living, breathing homeless people.

“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,” Bittanti, a professor at IULM University in Milan, told Motherboard.

Bittanti collected thousands of forum posts, stripped them of much of their video game-centric context and republished them in a 600-page, limited-run book titled How to Get Rid of Homelessness.

A passage from the book’s introduction reads:

From surprise to despair, from shock to resignation, these posts highlight the pitfalls of simulation, the not-so-subtle effects of ideology on game design, and the interplay between play and society, politics and entertainment. Decontextualized from their original source and reproduced on paper sans the majority of online communication hallmarks (e.g. author’s signatures, side banners, avatar pictures etc), these textual exchanges create a peculiar narrative. Some of the dialogues’ absurdist tones evoke [absurdist Romanian playwright Eugène] Inoesco’s plays. Others reveal racist and classist biases, and forcefully introduce—or, rather, reintroduce a highly political vision that the alleged “neutral” algorithms we’re supposed to overcome.

While the causes of homelessness in real life are myriad and complex, in SimCity they’re relatively simple. Homeless people are created in SimCity when a residential property becomes abandoned. Unlike other denizens of a virtual city, homeless people in the game lose their identity when they lose their domiciles and spend their days wandering the streets as genderless, two-dimensional figures pulling their belongings behind them.

Once a homeless person is created, they’ll remain in the city as long as they have the two things they need to survive: trash, which they use for food, and abandoned buildings or parks, where they sleep. If they have those they essentials, they’ll stay. If players do things like clear all abandoned buildings or demolish public parks, they’ll gradually abandon the city—and they’ll do it much faster if there’s a bus terminal they can use to get out of town.

The game reflects a lot of ways that many people think about homelessness—and not all are positive.

Despite being a relatively straightforward issue in the game, posts on online forums like Simtropolis show a lot of players struggling with the problem. In a thread about getting rid of homeless people, one post reads:

So far I have not found a way to remove or reduce the number of homeless in a few of my cities…I have elementary and high schools all maxed out including busses and bus stops, I have [a] community college and a university, plenty of police coverage, yet I still have a city with homeless ALL OVER….. So what [is] the fix for this or do I just not worry about it?

Another responded:

Actually what I found to help was a few more low wealth parks, a little MORE low wealth high density residential, and removing some plazas to force some commercial to drop down to low and med wealth and now…[I have] almost no homeless left over.

In another Simtropolis thread, a player suggested:

Demolish all abandoned and rubble, ensure your entire population has jobs and are in fact making it to said job. Even without a bus depo, they will eventually leave the city. I believe the bus terminal only speeds up the process…Unsure on this but you might need to also keep shoppers happy, since they add happiness when arriving home.

In essence, you need to prevent more people becoming homeless, while making sure the current ones have nowhere to hide

Bittanti argues that the game imposes a logic on players, encouraging them to run cities that ignore the needs of the poor. “To me video games are the so-called ‘real America,'” he told Motherboard. “The real America operates according to a video game logic, and that game logic is neo-liberalism, and that absolutely manifests in [the tech hub of the] San Francisco [Bay Area, where Electronic Arts is based], 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.”

According to Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, one of the nation’s foremost homeless rights advocacy organizations, the game reflects a lot of ways that many people think about homelessness—and not all are positive.

Just over one-third of American cities have imposed bans on camping outside, making it illegal for homeless people to simply sleep on the street.

“Some of the problems with the way that many people approach the homeless is that they are dehumanized; they aren’t seen as equal and deserving members of society,” Tars noted. “As soon as someone becomes homeless, they seem to lose their citizenship. The city no longer becomes one that’s made for them; they become a problem to be solved like traffic or potholes.”

It’s difficult to blame the gamers who posted on the forums for not considering the ethical implications of how they deal with homelessness in their cities. To them, homelessness is just another gameplay feature. It would be like asking someone looking up how to kill a particularly tough dragon in Skyrim to view their actions in light of animal cruelty or someone playing Madden on Xbox Live to lead a discussion about the role the NFL plays in concussions in high school sports.

Homeless people inside of SimCity aren’t human, and asking players to treat them as such is borderline ridiculous. However, when the way people talk about and deal with homelessness in the real world starts to resemble how it’s done in the game, it reveals how a lot of people can view actual human beings dealing with extremely difficult situations as essentially no different from video game obstacles to be overcome.

A mirror to the real world

Some of the tactics used by SimCity players to get rid of their homeless populations are mirrored in the real world. Just like homeless people in SimCity leave if they are deprived of a food source and places to sleep, cities across the country have imposed laws aimed at thinning their own homeless populations in very similar ways.

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., for example, passed an ordinance last year making distributing food in public places a crime punishable by 90 days in jail, effectively stripping nonprofit and church groups of their ability to feed homeless, hungry people. The city claimed that the intent of the law was to promote food safety, but when a 90-year-old man was arrested for giving out food, it drew widespread criticism for targeting a food source for Ft. Lauderdale’s most vulnerable citizens. Similar laws have been passed in places like Raleigh, N.C. and Daytona Beach, Fla.

Cities have also targeted the places where homeless people sleep. According to a National Law Center report, just over one-third of American cities have imposed bans on camping outside, making it illegal for homeless people to simply sleep on the street. The prevalence of these camping bans has increased dramatically in recent years, growing 60 percent since 2011.

“As soon as someone becomes homeless, they seem to lose their citizenship. The city no longer becomes one that’s made for them; they become a problem to be solved like traffic or potholes.”

City governments have passed laws banning car camping, meaning that even if someone owns their own vehicle, they can’t park it on the street and sleep in it overnight if they have nowhere else to go. While an appeals court knocked down Los Angeles’s car-camping ban last year, Tars notes that the number of cities with similar prohibitions has spiked over 100 percent in the last three years alone.

These types of laws aren’t just aimed at making the lives of homeless people more difficult when they’re trying to sleep at night. There are also city ordinances targeting homeless people’s conduct during the day. Cities like San Francisco and Honolulu have imposed “sit-lie” ordinances, making it a crime for people to sit or lie down on public sidewalks.

Rules about camping on city streets aren’t likely to affect too many non-homeless people. As the saying oft attributed to Anatole France goes: “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.”  However, sit-lie laws have the potential to have widespread effects.

In San Francisco, what would happen if every tourist who briefly sat down on a street corner after a long day of sightseeing or people who spent countless hours waiting in line for the newest iPhone were slapped with fines or even tossed into jail? That’s why the political and business groups that promote these laws need to specifically ask for selective enforcement. Sit-lie laws are only meant to apply to homeless people, and they’re put in place because the presence of those homeless people often makes other citizens uncomfortable.

At least in San Francisco, the sit-law ordinance has been rarely enforced and largely ineffective, primarily serving as a warning to the city’s homeless to stay out of areas where they’re not wanted rather than an actual cudgel to physically force them from those zones. The Seattle suburb of Burian, Wash., by contrast, passed a law last year that simultaneously barred people with unpleasant “body odor” from accessing public facilities like parks and prohibited people from bathing themselves in public restrooms.

“It’s a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation,” Tars said with a sigh. “Either way, we’re going to get you out of this town.”

Ensuring a SimCity metropolis has a bus terminal allows homeless people to leave town once their sources of food and shelter are gone, and in many American cities, policies have been enacted to encourage homeless people to move away. Last year, the City Commission of Sarasota, Fla. voted to create a “Homeward Bound fund,” paying for one-way bus tickets for homeless people.

In the game and in the real world, the best ways to stop people from becoming homeless are preventive.

That the video game solutions or homelessness happen to dovetail with those of many actual municipalities is no coincidence. While representatives from the game’s publisher Electronic Arts didn’t respond to multiple interview requests, there are aspects of the way that homelessness is handled in the game that strongly resonate with how homelessness occurs in real life.

In a thread on the issue in a forum operated by Electronic Arts, one user advised:

Try to remember to lay out roads “sensibly” and make sure that you alternate your zone types as frequently as possible so that as few people need to drive as is possible … Sims have a time limit between leaving their home and getting fired or quitting their job before they get to it.

I don’t know how long this is, but they can get caught up in traffic and get fired or stop looking for a job. They then go home without money until the next shift and if the same thing happens too often, you get homeless.

That logic checked out to Tars.

“One in four renters [in America] is paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing, so just one missed paycheck or one medical emergency can put them into homelessness,” he explained. “If it takes them too long to go to work, then they’ll miss a shift and they won’t have any money, and that person will become homeless.

“In that way it is reflecting something that happens in the real world, and it emphasizes that the best solutions are preventative solutions,” he continued. “It does require zoning the city and making it accessible for all income segments of the population, not just paying attention to the wealthier segments.”

Gamifying a way forward

In the game and in the real world, the best ways to stop people from becoming homeless are preventive. Sure, a player in SimCity can’t do what the Tars’s organization did and lobby for federal legislation aimed at preventing the victims of domestic violence from becoming homeless after fleeing abusive relationships, which is an all-too-common occurrence. But taking preventative steps are possible in both realms. “It is honestly better however to try and keep ahead of the curve,” wrote one user on a Stack Exchange post about the issue.

In the past nine years, for example, Utah has decreased the number of homeless people in the state by 72 percent—largely by finding and building apartments where they can live, permanently, with no strings attached. It’s a program, or more accurately a philosophy, called Housing First. Not only do these sorts of direct housing programs do a great job of keeping people off the streets, but they’re also generally cheaper for governments than the alternative of paying for law enforcement and health support services for people whose needs are much greater with no roof over their heads.

“In general, almost nobody actually wants to be homeless,” said Tars, bringing the conversation back to the real world. “The path out of homelessness isn’t to criminalize it and hope that it will go away. The path out of homelessness is providing people with homes.”

Illustration by J. Longo