With the Pokemon Go phenomenon still going strong, urbanites the world over have been interacting and engaging with their hometowns in an unprecedented manner. The augmented reality game not only revived nostalgia for the original Gameboy version, but forced them, by virtue of the rules of the game, to get out of their houses and cars and scour the streets for the elusive Pokemon to add to their collection. As urban life continues to creep its way into becoming the norm, we expect that this is just the first of many games that leverage real life urban infrastructure – fully virtual, augmented or otherwise – to immerse gamers. However, Pokemon Go isn’t the only software gamifying city life…
Pokemon Go’s predecessor, Ingress in fact provided the mapping and data needed by publishers Niantic to build the newest edition of Nintendo game. A location based game, Ingress relies on the same principles as its cuter, more popular spawn – the aim of the game is to ‘capture’ real life landmarks, buildings of note, public art installations and popular cultural venues to win control of that area.
Instead of individual gameplay, users play for one of two tribe-like teams and collaborate across the world to take over more venues than the other in a massively multiplayer online game. Like Pokemon Go, this requires gamers to physically visit places in cities to win them over. Meanwhile, players are also required to nominate places of cultural significance to be part of the game and an increasing number are choosing street art sites, leading to many urban professionals heralding the game for its ability to allow citizens to curate a sense of place in their cities.
In July 2016, players from both teams in South Africa even collaborating in strategically placing a series of ‘portals’ to create a work of art – a rhino, designed to bring awareness to poaching in their country.
The cult video game phenomenon has transfixed players since its release in 2011, winning multiple awards and garnering 40 million unique players monthly, despite its simplified, stripped down graphics, standing apart from most high-tech games from the same era. The premise is simple: using basic blocks, gamers are to build their own cities and even worlds, while explore terrains, gathering resources, crafting and combating.
While it wasn’t perhaps the makers’ intention, Minecraft has received critical and academic acclaim for imparting urban design and economic principles on its players through the very nature of the game. In 2012, a member of the Human Dynamics group at the MIT Media Lab, Cody Sumter, said that “Markus Notch [the game’s developer] hasn’t just built a game. He’s tricked 40 million people into learning to use a CAD program.”
Meanwhile, Mojang, the game publisher, has since worked with UN Habitat to create Block by Block to create real life cities in Minecraft, encouraging young people to modify, change and hack their cities to simulate positive change. In 2014, the British Museum announced it would create a virtual version of its facilities in Minecraft and in 2015, the Scottish Civic Trust ‘minecrafted’ historic buildings in an attempt to engage younger Scots with Glasgow’s built heritage.
First published in 1989, SimCity is perhaps the first software that gamified city-building. Since, then a handful of versions across multiple consoles have been released, all based on the same premise: users must build an ideal city from scratch while keeping citizens happy and maintaining a stable budget.
Developed in California, the game mirrors the U.S. state’s real urban development – you start with greenfields, cars are the default mode of transport, your city is prone to earthquakes and zoning separates residential, commercial and industrial land. While the game itself hasn’t been used in professional urban design, it has taught millions about the basic principles of zoning, budgeting and urban mobility.
Meanwhile, the term ‘simcity’ itself has entered urban planning lexicon to mean digitally simulated, editable cities, used as testing grounds for proposed plans and innovation in the built environment.
Brand New Subway
Recently released, Brand New Subway is exactly what it sounds like – an opportunity for New Yorkers to redesign the city’s iconic subterranean train system. A web-based game, this one was designed especially for those with an interest in urban planning and transport, and draws on real subway and census data, and grades your final design based on efficiency and single-ticket cost. As a reference, the current, real NYC subway is graded a B. The game was created as part of a competition to gamify New York City urban planning, and is designed as a simple drag-n-drop system.
“We put you into the shoes of a structural analyst. Nothing more than a quiet desk jockey assigned to survey some routine structural damage,” begins the description for Infra, released in early 2016. Though it’s based on a fictional city, the role-playing game poses very real infrastructural issues to the player – crumbling buildings, sewage overflows and subway delays. Dubbed ‘the civil engineering game we’ve been waiting for’ by Engineering.com, it combines many urban professional’s day jobs, with the adrenaline rush of action-packed gaming.
Described as the antithesis of SimCity, Block’Hood puts players in the shoes of a community leader or neighbourhood organization rather than an omnipotent city-builder. Instead of amassing money to build a utopian city, Block’Hood urges players to think of creative ways to progress the cities they design by using or saving resources – electricity, water, labor, fresh air, wildlife and food, as well as cash – smartly, efficiently and fairly.
Unlike SimCity, which arguably simplifies city-building, Block’Hood makes the player think of the urban space as a complex eco-system; if you plant trees but don’t water them, they die. If pollution is high, health levels are low. The game was released in early 2016, designed and published by an architecture professor at the University.
This article was edited for clarity on 17 May, 2018.