New Horizons for City-gaming

A design experiment, conducted by post-graduate students of Dr. Ekim Tan, at the TU Delft in 2009, evolved into a mature and authentic city-making method, practiced daily at the Play the City office. Since then, city-games are increasingly prevalent in the daily work of policy-makers, regulators, urban designers, smart city experts and architects. A decade ago, many local governments in the Netherlands would have been puzzled when they were advised to work with games. Using applied city-games as a tool for resolving complex urban development processes was simply too unfamiliar.

Today, while still not a mainstream practice, cities are inviting game designers through their doors and coming up with their own urban challenges for city-gaming to tackle. Since 2010, various cities in the Netherlands, Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague, Almere, Eindhoven, and others, have increasingly been applying this city-gaming method to their own contextual challenges. Apart from Play the City’s work, talented young designers are working on developing new city-gaming techniques and championing the method with clients unfamiliar to gaming, such as encouraging large conservative construction companies to guide early design processes with city-games. Another striking exemplar of this is that city-game designers are now hired full-time by strategic planning departments of governments at the local, provincial and national levels. Besides Dutch government attention, well-respected Dutch academic institutions have also been integrating gaming into their curricula and their architectural design methods.

Academic institutions worldwide have been exploring the potential of game-based research and design in their educational curricula, such as ETH Zurich, and MIT Media Lab, developing their own city-game methods and interfaces. Beyond the more well-known objectives of learning and education, cities now implement games for tackling complex and pressing urban challenges, channeling solutions that are highly emergent. In November 2016, the Mayor of Hamburg hired a game called ‘finding.places’ to respond to a large and rapid influx of refugees in the city, engaging residents via a hybrid game interface towards developing a strategic settlement plan proposal for approval by the City’s planning department. City-gaming methods are emerging and evolving with increasing frequency, often alongside technological advances, employing the collective intelligence of experts and non-experts towards more informed and sustainable city-making solutions. A comprehensive world-overview of implemented city-games are mapped on the ‘Games for Cities’ platform. From Boston to Bangalore, Moscow to Istanbul, Shenzhen to Sydney, and Cape Town to Nairobi, city-games are tackling complex urban issues through active engagement people.

The challenges that these games cover overlap greatly with the questions of urban planning departments in government. This includes delivering affordable housing, providing quality public spaces, preventing water scarcities and floods, developing ports sustainably, maintaining urban safeties, adapting to a circular economy, mitigating climate change, and accommodating increased migration flows. Across the spectrum of city-game subject matters, they share two common properties: all require a combination of multiple expert and tacit knowledge to tackle them, and all concern a highly diverse set of stakeholders with their effective communication and cooperation needed for successful outcomes to emerge. While capable of distilling and interpreting knowledge from all involved players, the expertise involved will be able to carry proposals forward, transforming collective ideas into tailored solutions.

We need to adapt our methods to fit a new generation of policymakers that are born into a world that not only contains, but is re-shaped by, the likes of Minecraft, Pokemon Go and Foursquare on a daily basis.

An interesting future step would be linking games of distinct topics to one another as an interoperable platform of games with each tackling their own citymaking elements in a system and plugging into one another. Imagine if the circular economy game could feedback into the affordable housing game and could receive input from the urban transformation game, and so on. A number of players active in the flood game will be be relevant in the circular economy game, and stakeholders that focus on urban development in the circular economy game could provide input to game sessions ensuing in the affordable housing arena. A connected and layered set of city-games could drive exponential increases to creativity and collective solution-making. I believe there is high potential in future attempts that try build a circular system of games where players and their decisions in one game can serve as inputs to another game, increasing the complexity of each game (and its topic of inquiry) as inputs become more nuanced.

Just as the challenges tackled by city-gaming diversify, the technologies that support game interfaces vary greatly and evolve rapidly. City-games running on digital game engines provide 2D and 3D geographic visualizations and allow real-time data-driven software simulations to be run. This property is superior to conventional analog games in terms of the quantity of data able to be processed before and during game sessions. However, fully digital game environments come under scrutiny for their individualist nature of play and their limited capacity for building trust, due to a lack of interaction between players and the consequent emergent qualities of such interactions. Individual players are alone in analyzing and interpreting the large sum of data they are interacting with, unable to remold their own perspectives based on others, or to contribute towards shared narratives. This divide need not be so black and white. Hybrid games employ both analog and digital components, formulating an optimal mix of attributes from either format, as appropriate to the specific challenge and context. While analog 3D environments, modeled with game blocks on real urban geographies, help players to interact face-to-face and negotiate on solutions, 3D scanners and software tailored to urban simulations read the color and height information from physical model units that carry information about land use, square meter price, density, parking, and so on. This technology fosters increased and accelerated opportunities for making sense of complex datasets and for responsive real-time feedback on player moves.

Technology is also transforming the pervasiveness of city-games, accessing players in public spaces, or even in their own homes. For example, in a playful public space experiment in Istanbul [If I were the Mayor of Istanbul], RFID scanners transformed local public transport cards into digital voting devices in a public poll. When used correctly, technology can increase the social, economic and political inclusiveness of active engagement strategies. On top of this, digitally integrated game-play decisions can be embedded within social media platforms to engage a wider community, as well as to support the systematic recording of game outcomes. Engaging online communities not physically present during the game, can generate valuable external commentary and discussion regarding a game’s outcomes, and potentially even trigger face-to-face meetings between interested parties. Hybrid systems that link digital and analog game elements have the potential to achieve a better integration between game interfaces and real-world planning and city-making.

The ‘Games for Cities’ database provides the necessary evidence for city-games as an effective working method for collaborative city-making. While city-gaming is becoming more a widely accepted method of engagement, we expect its instruments to spread, variate and mature. While it would not be wise to claim any guaranteed solutions, city-gaming goes beyond traditional planning methods when intense and effective communication is called for, where complexity is high due to the involved parties, or where there is a conflict that needs to be taken into account while planning and designing. For technically complicated cases — such as urban development according to circular economy logics — or for integrating different disciplines, games prove to be effective as a common language that all disciplines can relate to and appropriate to their own ends. Inaccessible jargons are removed from the debate, and relayed to players as tangible and tractable logics to be played with. Knowing the strengths of games, as well as appropriate combinations of digital and analog components, and using them accordingly, is key to successful applications of the method. Empirical research on implementing games as tools for addressing citymaking challenges is rather sparse, as it is a relatively new field of inquiry. Simply put, more research is required here, with careful and continuous observations of game implementations and analyses of their outcomes, in order to become more accurate and assertive regarding the benefits that games hold for urban development processes.

New horizons for city-gaming as a method will continue to expand as long as the need remains for involving urbanites in conversations about their city. But the expansion also relies on more young and innovative design agencies joining in this movement, doing their part to convince more open-minded cities globally to implement the method towards tackling their own urban challenges, and applying the right combinations of analog and digital elements, suitable to the cases they are working with and the objectives hoped for. This is also an imperative step towards challenging preconceived notions of gaming as not serious enough a method for intervening in serious urban issues. While there is some progress in this regard, with city officers today being increasingly likely to embrace gaming as a relevant, interactive, fun but serious, and effective planning tool. While it may be too early to declare city-gaming as an established method for urban development inquiry, there is no doubt that the method is gaining ground. We need to adapt our methods to fit a new generation of regulators and policymakers that are born into a world that not only contains, but is re-shaped by, the likes of Minecraft, Pokemon Go and Foursquare on a daily basis. Interactive digital maps, 3D virtual environments, and multiplayer settings are simply the new mediums and technologies through which an entire generation perceives the urban world. Imagine a future where cities are modeled, tested, designed, and reshaped through interactive, collaborative games. At Play the City, we are working towards creating this future. This generation’s City officers will not need convincing: they will speak the language of games and they will play to plan their cities.



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