City Expansion Game Oosterwold by Play the City, 2012, Almere, Netherlands,

Games for Cities

A collective approach to cities is urgent and city games already help. What next?

For over half a century, debates have explored alternatives to a single-handed, static city planning by discussing a flexible form of shaping cities from multiple stakeholders. Today, cities witness a high pace of social change and technical advancement, and we are still searching for a truly dynamic planning. Perhaps the best concrete example of this is the so-called Dutch ‘Omgevingswet’: a new building law that is being developed to achieve more flexibility, collaborative development and digital integration for planning.

Not only is the search for a more participatory city planning coming from the government, but organized citizen groups and entrepreneurs are also trying: makers/co-creation/do-it-yourself movements. Digital-driven trends like open access and mass customization provide support to such activities. Despite increasing interest from bottom-up and top-down parties, participation often merely remains an empty buzzword on paper. Or a symbolic performance of a discussion forum, where no real input from the ‘other’ is internalized. Often, despite ‘multi-stakeholder’ dialogues, citizens, government and private sector stubbornly hold on to their positions. Their context, space, language, and pre-assigned power in which they exchange don’t allow them to truly engage in the position of the ‘other’, to combine their knowledge and explore new solutions.

What is city gaming?
City gaming provides a systemic approach to city-making. It is an open, multiplayer learning environment. Participants gather to strategize ideas and plans for the city. In reaching inclusive city developments, city games have a critical role to play: they are effective in integrating the intelligence of individuals and larger groups, both expert and non-expert. They can make data, interests and conflicts tangible for participating groups of actors. Through the simple and playful language of games, conversations are freed from jargon. Informed decisions can come from across disciplines, through stakeholders ranging from communities to local governments. In this way, city games provide a space for top-down and bottom-up planning to meet. Stronger even, if implemented systematically, city game-like methods carry the potential to work as the anti-thesis of populism which we are witnessing, where facts become vague, inaccessible and easy to manipulate crowds.

City gaming is becoming an applied discipline in the 21st century, deriving its knowledge from research developed in the 20th century. We find main ideas in works of well-known architects, designers and scholars:

Buckminster Fuller, through the ‘World Peace Game’ introduced this innovative game approach in 1967. The game simulated an alternative world order through a game without national borders and free trading rules. The game’s powerful communicative power caused a wide-spread response under Cold War conditions, leading to US Information Agency (USIA) banning the game, because it was deemed ‘too revolutionary’.

In the Dutch context, Constant Nieuwenhuys had a valuable contribution with his ‘New Babylon’ (1956–74) project. This multi-media collection aspired to create a vision of a utopian city and inspire ‘a design for a new culture’ by continuously re-creating a giant game where communal psychodramas were generated through open-ended lived processes.

In their book ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ (1977), Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown made a revolutionary breakthrough in architecture and urban planning history when they recognized the logic and beauty in the ordinary and unconscious design choices by people.

Christopher Alexander’s book ‘A New Theory of Urban Design’ (1987) was ground-breaking in developing an alternative approach to static master plans. It describes a meaningful holistic city design experiment created by organic improvisations without any top-down interference.

Finally, Yuval Portugali’s book ‘Self-organization and the City’ (2000), is another relevant contribution in which he proposes a systemic understanding of cities, whereby both bottom-up and top-down agents alternately gain influence in shaping cities.

Nurturing a true city innovation
Within the Dutch urban planning tradition, we find ‘scenario testing’ as a critical strategy development method. It is not by accident that the city gaming, as a young field of knowledge, finds a welcoming environment to flourish in the Netherlands — the ‘Play the City Method’, Tygron’s ‘Next Generation Planner’, ‘Redesire’, ‘Scenarios’, ‘Metropoly’, ‘Ministry of Food’, ‘EgoCity,’ ‘In the Loop’, and ‘Energy Safari’ are only a few of many promising city gaming methods developed in the Netherlands.

Growing international interest in city gaming can be tracked through projects such as Modelling the Future (Sydney), ‘Community Planit’ online platform (US), Participatory Chinatown (Boston), and Betaville (New York). Recently, we have observed established knowledge institutions adjusting their curriculum to make room for games — the University of Cambridge is hiring a Professor of Lego for Urban Design, MIT Medialab’s recently developed ‘Cityscope’, and ETH Zurich created a brand new education track ‘Action! On the Real City’. Exciting practices also include the mayor of Hamburg’s use of the city game ‘Finding.Places’ for settling refugees in local neighborhoods. Hamburg is not the only one to start applying this approach: Helsinki’s entire planning crew plays games for an inclusive city agenda, while Bristol has made long-term investments in playable city policies.

Future of City Gaming: An Ecology of Interconnected Games

What would happen if city gaming grows into a platform running city development processes? What if interconnected city games of the future would envision, design, legalize, fund and construct cities?

Each city game is a place where focused datasets (i.e. information such as public space, food, waste, mobility) are collected, organized, and utilized during play. When linked to one another, games could provide a multidimensional perspective to stakeholders. They could support collaborative decide-making for future city visions, for financing projects, finding partners and for realizing them. In this way, an ecology of games could create the knowledge infrastructure for integrated decision-making.

As games enter the realm of city-making, creating an ecology of city games will provide a fresh perspective to the construction, the play, and the impact of a new generation of city games. In other words, the conflation of specific city games into a more accurate reflection of reality will offer a broader understanding of the city. In doing so it will further empower decision-makers, while also helping communities make conscious choices for themselves and their environments.

Ekim Tan

Dr. Ekim Tan is the founder of Play the City. Play the City’s practice is one of the forerunners in innovating and applying city gaming to urban challenges worldwide. Fascinated by unexplored possibilities, Play the City has created the initiative Games for Cities, a platform takes on the challenge of building on a new field of knowledge. It creates space for experiments and new research in close collaboration with city game designers worldwide. Games for Cities also reaches out to include the collective work of city game designers, local governments and communities who believe in potentials of city games and its futures for reinventing the city planning discipline.



architect, urbanist, game designer, writer, founder of Play the City and Games for Cities

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Ekim Tan

architect, urbanist, game designer, writer, founder of Play the City and Games for Cities