Just a Game, Is It?

As Play the City team, we are thrilled at having discovered a world with many new avenues to explore. But we do know we had entered a risky territory. Conservative decision-makers preoccupied with securing predictable results in the field of urban planning pose a particular threat. I won’t forget the first meeting we managed to schedule — a meeting with the alderman in Amsterdam’s Noord borough. Looking back, I realize that he was doing his best: spending time with young urbanists arguing that they will help him reactivate a masterplan on hold through a city-game. Listening to our city-gaming pitch left him pretty puzzled, but still he decided to finance and join the game. Yet, convincing his project office, thus or designer colleagues, was even more difficult. Responsible for creating the plan, the office’s technical advisors refused to join the game and to discuss alternatives outside the walls of project office. At the time, it was not uncommon for planners to think: ‘It is just a game, and we do not comprehend the real motivation of a game for such serious matters.’ Was it purposeful enough to spend their time on a game, when no one knew what the outcome would be? The confrontation with our colleagues at the city hall proved to be a real challenge over the years. Was it really a good idea to call our method a game? While diving into the world of games had been enriching and eye-opening, we were facing an image barrier. While ‘playing games with someone’ is considered as being manipulative, ‘playing the game’ refers to someone who acts the part. Not only in English, but in most languages, you can find similar, suspicious phrasing about games. As we are introducing our method to world cities such as Istanbul, Cape Town, Brussels, Dublin, Mersin, Shenzhen, Amsterdam we are surprised to see how comparable the jokes cracked about gaming are, every time.

Modeled from real urban challenges, Play the City games are played by their very stakeholders

Games in Reality, Reality in Games
The roots of the matter expose the tension between reality and gaming. How close and distant are the ‘game world’ and the ‘real world’? Could they influence each other’s progress? I believe the key to explaining how games can perform as real-world problem solvers lies in the particular ways that games and reality connect. There are several ways the two relate:

The most common form is when games run their fictional narrative in an environment the player recognizes from real life; for example, when the popular video game Grand Theft Auto III and IV visualize New York City. Thanks to its realistic rendering, a New Yorker notices particular details about their city, while a teenager from Amsterdam would be able orient himself upon first arrival in New York. Today, gaining familiarity with complex subjects without even being conscious of it is effectively used as an entertaining learning mechanism.

A more direct form of linking to reality is using gaming to fix a real problem, while exploiting its very escapism. Games can remain fictional, but the very act of playing the game will change aspects of reality. A telling example for this form comes from the old Greek era, where, in order to survive a severe famine that lasted 18 years the king of Lydia ordered everyone to indulge in games on one day and eat and work on the next.

Game dynamics can be introduced to real life, as Nike’s running app does: a digital interface encouraging users to exercise regularly to improve their health, and then congratulating them for it. Thus, the game is introduced through feedback loops into individual’s lives. It can also connect these players with each other to make the daily workout more fun and engaging, and less tiring and boring.

Games can be constructed on alternate realities to help initiate real life challenges. This can be done by taking real-life quests like global warming, migration, inequality, and so on, and changing some of their conditions to generate what-if scenarios. Recalling Buckminster Fuller’s World Peace Game, where all nation-state borders disappear, players can trade world resources and move freely. By altering the condition of country borders, the game is able to show that the deadlock is not scarcity but rather unfair distribution of resources; hence a more equal and peaceful world becomes not only visible but also possible through testing alternatives.

Last but not least, a real-life challenge can be introduced into a game (the reverse of number three). This way, in safe game environments, testing and mastering collaborative solutions becomes possible. Real actors can play through out-of-the-box solutions, while mistakes can be made and learned from to eventually reduce risks.

Games can be placed in reality and reality in games. Whether games are built from an aspiration to resemble the real world, or to escape from it or fix it, they are a reality for those who play them and influence lives in the various ways elaborated above. New theories of play, such as that in the pervasive and ambient gaming literature, bring games right into the heart of the real world, blurring the boundaries of Johan Huizinga’s ‘magic circle’. In her ground-breaking book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal invited everyone to design games to repair reality. Almost every day, a new game emerges for education, the health sector, the defense industry, entertainment business, personal development, and also for making more open and collaborative cities.

Among the five mechanisms relating games to reality, Play the City’s gaming method stands closest to the last category. All city-games are modeled from real urban challenges and are played by their very stakeholders. In this model, by playing, responsible actors train for reality by considering and testing various options, or by making mistakes in the game environment so they can avoid these and articulate wiser decisions for widely negotiated urban processes in the real world. The game helps generate collaborative solutions to collectively defined questions. During this process, the understanding of games as escapism is slowly shifting towards a playful confrontation with reality.



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