Dolls’ houses and demo modes

20.48, Tuesday 13 Jul 2021

In a roundabout way, because of dolls’ houses, I’ve been thinking about special modes in software to let you learn by playing and teach by showing.

The 17th century dolls’ houses are found in the Riksmuseum in Amsterdam just around the corner from the Vermeers and the Rembrandts (including his Night Watch, freshly extended by 2 feet using AI).

Here they are: They’re beautiful. I stay so long to look whenever I’ve been. They’re models of real houses, and not toys; they were a hobby, the equivalent for women of the collection cabinets kept by men.

One particular dolls’ house, collected by Petronella Oortman, has furniture made using the same materials as the regular sized versions: Her dolls’ house cost as much as an actual house on a canal!

So these are objects of art, meant to convey taste and wealth.

I heard somewhere (I can’t remember where) that the models were meant to be closed up and carried with you when you travelled. An effective way to show off your domestic style to your friends in the days before photographs.

A dollhouse nowadays is often a toy. Often exquisite, yes, but primarily a canvas for the imagination, mostly for kids, a place for fantasies and stories and play. The dollhouse-as-art still exists, but it’s not what I think of first.

There is a third type of dollhouse, historically, as this article in The Atlantic says: simulation.

Beginning in the 17th century, “Nuremberg kitchens” might contain a hearth, cooking pots, a straw broom. These all-metal houses were designed without ornament, for purely utilitarian purposes. Used as teaching tools for girls, Nuremberg kitchens allowed mothers to show daughters how to set up and control a house. All about learning rules, a Nuremberg kitchen was the opposite of a dollhouse as a dream world of fantasy. It was a place where girls learned to manage not only the objects of the house but also its servants, where girls would learn to become the lady of the house.

Homes are complex organisms! I can imagine seeing the flows of goods into the kitchen, where the butler sleeps, what happens below stairs when you ring the service bell; how the clockwork hangs together.

What a wonder to have a demo version to play with before running your own for real.

The original SimCity game (1989) hit these same three notes:

  • Score. A place to create detailed cities to show your skill.
  • Storytelling. A backdrop for fantasy and play – what else was the “monster” option in the Disaster menu for? (And of course The Sims later went hard on this.)
  • Simulation. A sandbox for learning about complex systems – I vaguely remember that the game was used by people in local government to get a grounding in the intricacies of urban planning.


  • You can play a port of the original SimCity in the browser. It’s super low-fi but no less addictive for that. Here: MicropolisJS.
  • It’s possible to max out your score. SimCity 3000 (1999) was beaten with a totalitarian hellscape called Magnasanti. It’s quite the effort: The Totalitarian Buddhist Who Beat Sim City (Vice, 2010).

Imagine if Twitter had a simulation mode.

Social media is already a place to socialise and tell stories. The sites are mere backdrops.

MySpace showed that these social spaces should also allow for customisation, construction, and skill. It’s a crying shame that Twitter and Facebook don’t do likewise. I would love to decorate my profile with images, FAQs, links to my favourite communities and so on (others would share music and creations). This is a common lament when you get a bunch of old school social software nerds together.

But training?

What would a “Nuremberg kitchen” version of Twitter look like?

What if every social network also had a single-player “learn how this works” mode. All the accounts would be deepfakes with machine-made faces, all the posts procedurally generated. When you posted, you would get realistic responses. It could teach you, by use and example, how to identify fake news or pile-ons or toxic content. You could experiment yourself in a safe sandbox where everything is thrown away at the end of the session and invisible to the outside world.

By letting you act out and take things to extremes, would you develop a better intuition about what’s worth taking seriously on Twitter… and what’s not?

Back when I was building Job Garden (which is sadly no longer), one of the first features I built was DEMO MODE.

Here’s the write-up: All products should have a demo mode (Week 9).

It was an admin-only feature in the top nav that let me quickly construct job boards and navigate them in different ways. I found it invaluable to

  • quickly give anybody I was talking to an interactive, guided tour of the site. Because it functioned just like the real site, I could take whatever route I wanted around it, adjusted my narrative to the flow of the conversation. But because it was in a sandbox, I could delete and edit to customise without fear.
  • on my own, experiment with how the site looked in different scenarios, rapidly assembling a job board and seeing how it felt with live data.

My favourite Demo Mode feature was “share.” It worked like this:

If at any point in the demo I created a configuration that the person I was talking to liked the look of, I could hit the Share button and it would generate a code I could email to them, or even write down on a bit of paper. Using that code would lead them through the account setup process and then transfer the configuration they had seen into their new account. It was the most effective onboarding technique I found.

I’d like a button on Google Sheets that put my work into a mode where I could experiment wildly and without fear that any of my saves might be overwritten.

I’d like a button, when I get a new hire car, that lets me play with the steering wheel and all the buttons and sticks, and lets me get a feel of the weight of the pedals and the heft of the gears, but without it ever moving anywhere.

I’d like an iPhone mode where I can show somebody how to change settings and sort photos and send messages, and let them play around with all the switches to see what they do, reassured that when the mode closes, no changes will be retained, and nothing actually sent.

I’d like a model of my home to try out solar on the roof, or Airbnb over the summer, or a different kind of budget. A house is a machine for living in and I’d like to better learn the levers.

So I wonder about single-player sandboxes, simulations, demo modes, and teaching tools. They all feel of a kind.

And they all feel like something that dolls’ houses got right and modern technology, so far, has not.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.