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."