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  • Taking Games Seriously
  • Jennifer Light (bio)

Historians have expressed growing interest in the intellectual influences of systems thinking during the early decades of the cold war. Taken together, studies of the military, business, government, and academia between the late 1950s and the late 1970s portray the period as one when systems analysis, operations research, cybernetics, information theory, and related fields came to shape—and in many cases to dominate—myriad professional pursuits. 1 In these accounts of the development and diffusion of systems thinking, [End Page 347] computer technologies have been central, especially in their roles as simulation tools. First developed as calculating machines and quickly applied to forecasting an atomic blast, computers soon took on a new identity as modeling machines, helping communities of professionals to analyze complex structures and scenarios and to anticipate future events.

Yet at the same time that these professions worked to advance the cutting edge of systems thinking and computer technology, many of them set out to bring systems theories to lay audiences using another simulation tool. Operational games—games played for purposes of teaching and research—played a pivotal role in spreading the gospel of systems to diverse populations. Focusing on one effort to teach systems analysis to an apparently unlikely audience—the communities served by the Model Cities program—this article argues that to understand the full extent of the dominance of systems thinking during the cold war era, scholars must attend to the history of games. Returning these artifacts to a more prominent place in accounts of the period offers insight into the ways that individuals and institutions in the fields that made systems thinking central to their technical work simultaneously conceptualized lay knowledge about systems as fundamental to citizenship in a democracy. The story of the Model Cities games suggests new directions for the history and historiography of systems analysis and simulation.

The Model Cities Program: A "Systems Approach" to Urban Improvement

Scholars have devoted some attention already to describing the "systems" orientation of participants in the design and execution of U.S. social policies and programs during the 1960s and 1970s. From the Peace Corps to the Community Action Program to Model Cities, federally sponsored initiatives implemented overseas and at home provide evidence of the currency that systems analysis acquired for planning and management beyond its origins in military and space programs, and in turn the social status that this technique's practitioners gained.2 These accounts offer compelling evidence [End Page 348] of how the scientific and technical achievements of the military-industrial complex spawned traffic in systems thinking across a range of fields—and both political parties—and the circulation of expert practitioners from think tanks and universities to Washington, D.C., and back. Yet they have said little about these experts' hopes for exposing nonexpert populations to systems ideas. Model Cities, as an effort to build consensus about plans for city improvement among federal and local planners and city residents by bringing "the unique analytical capability of the cybernetics fraternity, the knowledge of control and communications and information systems to restore the options and the beauty to urban life," put these hopes on display.3

In its initial conceptualization, Model Cities, which ran from the mid 1960s to the late 1970s in about 150 cities, was envisioned as a "marriage between science and urban affairs."4 The program offered local governments federal funding to organize five years of intensive physical, economic, and social planning focused on a single neighborhood in need.5 Designed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during the Lyndon Johnson administration, when excitement about systems science and engineering reached its peak, Model Cities exemplified the confidence academics and public officials shared in the ability of a "systems approach" to remedy the complex problems in the nation's cities.6

The cold war context of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular the U.S. government's desire to win hearts and minds on the international stage, provided federal officials with strong incentives to pursue domestic reforms to improve the lives of racial minorities.7 Some of these early efforts faltered, however, and Model Cities explicitly sought to address the...