planning games: “in praise of the urban sandbox”

Game from ferozco article Games may soon be the best way to build understanding of city planning and transport.  So argues an excellent article in Planning magazine by Jeff Ferzoco of New York's Regional Plan Association (my links):

At a recent talk at the American Museum of Natural History, Jane McGonigal, the Institute for the Future's director of Game Research and Design, noted that research from universities and the U.S. Army Mental Health Assessment Team show that the benefits of gaming lessen at about 21 hours in a week. … Her point is that gaming has major benefits — stress relief, strategic thinking, goal attainment — if kept within the 21-hour limit.

She isn't the only one to see the implications. The Serious Games Initiative, founded in 2002 at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., aims to "help usher in a new series of policy education, exploration, and management tools utilizing state of the artcomputer game designs, technologies, and development skills." One of its initiatives, Games for Change, runs an annual festival highlighting games — both electronic and physical — that encourage social change. Throughout the year, the initiative provides support for and development of new titles and helps potential developers navigate game making from concept to distribution. 

There is already a lot of interest in how we can use games for teaching. Those who design virtualworlds put a lot of emphasis on crafting the experience — and allowing others to change it…

In my work as a graphic designer for Regional Plan Association in New York City, I constantly think through concepts, illustrations, and designs. Ideas don't just come from thin air, and everything I experience influences what I make. Looking back, I can clearly identify instances when city-building games influenced my design work.  For instance, axonometric views: giant human hands placing houses on a row. These can be directly traced to a weekend I spent redesigning the suburbs of one of my virtual towns.  And I'm not alone. Many of the people around me have taken their design problems to these samearenas and come out with a slightly wider and more empathetic perspective.

Playing a simulation game is a bit like gardening. Just as air, soil, and water interact with seeds to bring a plant to life, simulated … cities can blossom and wilt, depending on your actions. You have to tend to the needs of the citizens, joining job centers and adding transit and roads to bring circulation to a dying center.  It's instant, satisfying, and educational. In fact, it's why I work where I do in planning. I could say that my career began the moment I opened up SimCity for the first time.

Or if that's too many words, see Jane McGonigal's enjoyable video.  Her basic thesis: "If we want to save the world, we need to spend more time playing computer games."

10 Responses to planning games: “in praise of the urban sandbox”

  1. Bossi May 24, 2011 at 6:27 am #

    I owe quite a lot to games… I point the finger at the classic SimCity for being one of the foremost reasons why I went into transportation engineering & planning; and a mixture of SimCity 4 and Transport Tycoon helped solidify a love of traffic operations & how land use interrelates with transportation. Both of those games still fare among my most-played games, though regrettably Civilization III has not yet morphed into a practical real-world dictatorial role.

  2. dejv May 24, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    A bit of a side note – it makes a lot of sense to develop such educational games as open source. If done well, it allows:
    a) share a game if player likes it
    b) build a developer community around it that can keep project going on much longer than when run by individual or e.g. group of students

  3. Cap'n Transit May 24, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    Let me put in a word of caution. Games are based on models, and the wrong models can lead us to inappropriate conclusions. See this post from two years ago.

  4. Bossi May 24, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    Agreed, Cap’N Transit… but personally I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more engineers & planners with a passion for their work. In my area I can count them with several fingers to spare! Games (even with their fallacies) can certainly be a great aid.

  5. Jarrett at May 24, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    Cap'n.  I agree that games are only models.  But models have such a massive impact in real world planning, that it's almost a kind of realism to work within them! 

  6. Zingbot May 25, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    I agree with Cap’n that there are real risks in making simulations/games to model planning ideas, and with Jarrett on the impact. Bias creeps in without even knowing it, so it has to be managed and navigated well.
    SimCity oversimplified planning (no mixed use?!) and that made sprawl part of the end result. Apparently it wasn’t interesting the be realistic – according to Will Wright. I disagree, and think it’s almost a responsibility to move into realism to create a teaching moment.
    So I think there’s a huge opportunity to do it right, which is what I was addressing in that article. There is so much activity in the gaming world and at the same time, planning is going through huge shifts in the tools it uses. Games like Cities in Motion are already working with the same ideals pro-transit folks. It’s also Europe-based team, meaning they live and breathe the benefits of transit daily.
    And as a side, I don’t think games/models need to be exact models of cities, but need to be real enough to express specific concepts and allow exploration. There’s always going to be something left out because exact modeling is impossible. We already live in the 1:1 model of the world.

  7. Mac May 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Where can one access these city planning games?

  8. Jarrett at May 25, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    Mac.  Google them.

  9. Wad May 25, 2011 at 11:16 pm #

    There’s a term for older games that aren’t published anymore or not available for modern-generation computer OSs: abandonware.
    I was looking through an abandonware site and it had copies of the late 1980s and early 1990s simulation classics.

  10. G-Man (Type E) June 4, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    Check out Community Transit’s Transit Values Exercise at
    It’s not perfect but a pretty interesting game and results in people walking away better informed about how hard this is.