The Sim City mindset: a prompt for thinking about impact

I want to write in favour of a viewpoint I call the Sim City mindset.

For any big question you are evaluating, imagine you are playing a variant of a Sim City game, and that, except for the one intervention you are considering, everything else remains unchanged — how do the character’s XP points, or whichever metric you are interested in, change as a result of that intervention?

A little while ago, I wrote an article that went semi-viral about how a basketball statistic changed my view of the world—embracing the concept behind a stat called RAPM, which measures a player’s impact on the score of a basketball game, adjusting for the quality of all other players on the court, opposed to evaluating direct contributions, like the number of points scored or assists, helped me focus more on the collective impact of my actions, rather than the direct observable contribution. I can enhance a party by speaking less and laughing more. Or, I can contribute more to my mom’s holiday meal by preparing a small dish that complements her efforts, rather than bringing a large mediocre dish that conflicts with hers. Or I could help two strong movers by getting out of the way, rather than trying to add another hand lifting the desk.

One of the differences between thinking about this basketball statistic and life is that basketball is a repeated game, under identical conditions, with a clear scoring mechanism to evaluate results. Life is filled with huge variations and cannot be scored by some simple, legible criteria. Even so, I think that thinking about actions through this lens is enormously valuable.

For instance, I’m helping lead an initiative for an organization I help run, coming up with a list of policy prescriptions and recommendations on how our city/province/country can increase our housing supply. People come up with all sorts of proposed plans and suggestions, but all I really want to know is: if we do X and nothing else, and imagine ourselves in Sim City, ten years in the future, how many more housing units are built? If we do Y instead of X, or if we do X, Y, and Z, how many units are built? Or the most extreme version, if thousands of people were to play a competition of Sim City housing edition, which strategy would be revealed as leading to the highest score?

I work for a tech company, and we often have internal discussions on questions like: How good is our product? How should we sell our product? What should we build?

For me, I just imagine we are playing Sim City Tech CEO Edition. Is our product worthwhile? Well, how many more XP points does a company end up with if they buy our software, or not, or ours versus our competitor’s? When it comes to thinking about what to build or how to pitch something, it’s all about understanding what leads to more XP points, and what the causal mechanism for that is.

One of the helpful things about thinking through this is that there are many important things in life where working directly on some task, i.e., rent control, adding another highway lane, mandating paper straws, lengthy jail sentences, doesn’t actually make the thing itself better.

The other dimension to thinking through this lens is that sometimes, the thing we want is not actually the thing we want. For instance, if one wants to preserve trees from being cut down where a subway line is being developed, maybe the trees are saved as a result of a hypothetical intervention, but due to increased car reliance, the future timeline is actually worse by the individual’s own environmental focussed subjective criteria. 

This framework also applies to personal life decisions too—should I try the new thing, ask her out, sign up for the personal trainer, move to the new city, etc. Just imagine if you were playing Sim City – You Edition.

(I am not in favour of only thinking through this lens. Life is much more complicated, and it’s really hard to understand the impact of our actions, and most of what is great in life is illegible, but still… I think this is a very helpful framework for people to include in their broader considerations)