Faculty Experiences - Adrian Favell
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Test & critique theories
The Sim-Sociologist: Using Computer Games to Teach Sociological Theory
I teach a required upper-division course for sociology majors, about 120 students, and it's typically a course that students are not looking forward to: contemporary sociological theory, from mid-century to the present day. I wanted to break with the typical textbook approach, which tends to focus on the theorists themselves and their texts. I'd rather get students thinking about the notion of theorizing about society, about the kinds of theories that they themselves have about how society works, and how they theorize their own plans as individuals.
Getting students to think theoretically, however, is difficult. Most of the time, people think descriptively or factually about things. To build and examine theories you need to think hypothetically and to some degree analytically and logically. The simulation games encourage them to do that, because they provide very good visualizations of theoretical thinking.
The course is built around the task of designing a hypothetical game called "Sim Society," a simulation of American society, moving from the year 2000 to the year 2050. The students are hypothetical players in the game, going through the same time span. Our discussion concerns itself with two aspects of the game: the macro-level, which simulates how society might develop over time, and the micro-level, simulating how individuals develop personally. Since this isn't a computer class, we never actually create the game--it's more of a thought experiment.
We examine the game scenario in various stages, looking to the computer games for inspiration. We look at the dynamics of long-term historical development, considering how modern societies have developed out of pre-modern societies. I associate this perspective with the game Civilization. We also look at societal development at the mid-level, the cities, and try to theorize what it would mean to build a city from scratch, which is, in effect, to build a theoretical model. We apply the issues at play in Sim City--which is a game about urban development--to the idea of a Californian city starting from scratch, and how you'd actually go about building it.
The games provide good models for constructing sociological theories, because to play them successfully you need to work out what the designers' theories of societal progress were in constructing them. A game like Civilization is fairly crude: you have various possibilities and ways of succeeding, but it's essentially a linear series of game moves. Sim City and The Sims, however, offer the possibility of a much higher degree of complexity. Success in Sim City depends on the land values associated with each part of the city, and each land value is affected by 15 or 20 different parameters. As mayor, you try to change the economics or infrastructure or various social or environmental elements of the game in order to affect land prices. This makes for a game of much more open-ended development. There's no real clear sense of where it goes, so it corresponds much better to our sense of theorizing that society.
All these games represent fairly conventional, mainstream views of American society, both historically and in terms of contemporary dynamics. They're mainstream partly because they're pitched to sell to a mass public. We think about these things in the context of talking about how we measure the success of a society, and we do classroom exercises such as voting on the top five indicators of the success of a society. The class tends to come up with the obvious conventional types of measurements, like GDP or cultural success or military power.
We do the same with individual notions of success, and talk about how national and individual success mesh together. Toward the middle of the course we start discussing these micro-level issues, in the context of the model provided by The Sims. The Sims is driven by functional ideas about how you create successful, happy individuals within a nice neighborhood. Playing the game well involves working out how to make individuals happy, socializing them for success.
One of the objects for our hypothetical game design is to connect societal functions at the micro and macro levels, and the models provided by the games are all limited in this respect. Individual and demographic characteristics have no function in Sim City, for example. There's absolutely nothing simulating any kind of social inequality--everything's more or less economy-driven. For our Sim Society game, we would want to include some sort of artificial social barrier that would affect the economic dynamic. One example I give them is the effect of neighborhood barriers on gas prices. If the market is completely free, one would expect that drivers in Los Angeles would seek out the cheapest gas station, causing the price to fall to the lowest level possible across the city. But the outcome changes totally if you build social divisions into the cities, so that people on the West Side would never go down to South Central to check out prices.
The games are equally unrealistic on the micro level. When you create your character for The Sims, for example, you get a choice of gender and race; you can have a black, white, or brown character. But giving the character black or brown skin won't make any difference with regard to what they do or the choices they have. The game is strictly color-blind and therefore not a very satisfactory sociological simulation of the actual dynamics of society. To really simulate American society, we might want there to be different consequences for characters of different races, so we could build factors like workplace discrimination into our scenario.
Inadequacies in the games' theoretical models help the students critique sociological theories. Theory is all about trying to come up with simplified models, which you then test empirically; they are the most useful, in fact, when they're wrong. I stress this over and over again to emphasize the fact that the theories we think about in building the Sim Society game are all provisional; we start with the simplest possible theories and move towards more complicated ones.
So far, I just present the games in the classroom--I've not yet found a way of giving them hands-on access, given the numbers of students involved. I'm also bit wary because I don't want them to go off and play the games and neglect the theory. It would be good if they could really play around with the games and then move into the more practical, imaginative exercises that are the substance of the course. It would be wonderful to create simple visualizations of certain social scenarios, perhaps using some of these basic simulation programs and tools such as StarLogo, which we look at towards the end of the course. It's a basic computer simulation program that allows you to program various sorts of social or biological scenarios using very simple tools.
Students have responded very positively to the games. Since the course is a major requirement, there's a proportion of students who are not very interested in the material initially, and not very motivated. Because I allow scope for people's imagination, I think this course is good for certain students who don't necessarily achieve top grades in difficult academic courses. I get some very nice class papers that run with the ideas a bit.