Here’s how gaming can help plan the cities of the future

A screenshot from Cities: Skylines. Image: Paradox Interactive.

Games are often looked down upon by people desperately trying to appear grown-up – so any value they have beyond entertainment has historically been widely ignored.

But this attitude is, gradually, changing – and one can see why. The technology behind games has now developed to a point of almost visual realism, and the once simple models that your old, coal-powered PC could barely handle now look positively stone age in comparison to some modern games.

So various industries have been using gaming technology to educate and inspire since as long ago as the 1960s. The simplified model of reality that a game offers can be used to make impenetrable and technical subjects accessible to a wider audience.

Take city planning. For a quarter of a century now, games like the SimCity series have challenged players to design their own city with real life urban problems in mind. In an entertaining way, players are thus introduced to issues like housing density, infrastructure, zoning and disaster prevention – topics which would send most people to sleep if encountered in a classroom. The next generation of city planners have thus encountered the creative aspect of the job from an early age, without being scared away by the mire of technospeak.

Having inspired the little ones, now we need to educate them – and games can help on this front, too. The levels of complexity involved can be ramped up to something more appropriate for those actually learning city planning professionally.

In Cilvia, a game designed by Royal College of Art graduate Johnny Lui, budding architects take on a virtual London city council and try to get their proposed buildings passed the various planning constraints put in their way. SimCityEDU twists the SimCity games to add a more educational slant, allowing teachers to plan lessons and assign students specific simulated urban problems to overcome.

The potential of gaming doesn’t just extend to educating the city planners of tomorrow: it can be used to engage locals in developing the space around them, too. I can’t imagine many people who haven’t thought about how their surrounding environment could be improved – the question is how these ideas can be harnessed.

The Amsterdam-based Play the City attempts to answer this question, by using games to support collaborative decision making on urban design projects. For example, the centre of Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township, was in dire need of a makeover. The market was a jumble of shipping containers, housing the area’s businesses.


Play the City came up with an interactive way of bringing local traders and developers together, to help remodel the market. That way, the communities, who will ultimately use the space, could contribute to its final design; and the developers could be sure they were building something that would actually work.

Khayelitsha was redesigned through the collaboration of around 100 participants – so just imagine what you could do with 3.5m. That’s the number of people playing Cities:Skylines, the 2015 heir to the SimCity crown.

Like its predecessors, the game opens the questions faced by city planners up to the public, and the simulation provided by the game is so accurate it can produce results applicable to the real world.. As designer Karoliina Korppoo explained in her TED talk, if something works in the game, it is highly likely to work in real life, too. In other words, the cities of the future could rely on ideas provided not by the dusty office elites, but crowd sourced through games, to engage the millions of active minds out among the public.

The slightly oxymoronic-sounding ‘serious games’ are those intended for a purpose other than entertainment. It’s perhaps in an attempt to gain un-required legitimacy in the eyes of those who otherwise dismiss gaming that modelling and other educational games are often categorised as such.

But this attempt to distance games from the fun aspect risks undermining the very benefit that city planning games can bring. Such games can engage people otherwise uninterested in the complexity of the city in the possibilities of city planning itself. You can’t do that without fun.

 
 
 
 

This interactive map of the Swiss rail network is just really, really cool

The first train crossing the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world's longest rail tunnel during the opening ceremony near the town of Erstfeld, Switzerland, on 1 June 2016. Image: Getty.

After 500 years of democracy all Switzerland has produced is the cuckoo clock: so said Harry Lime, Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man.

This is terribly unfair – so I’m going to leap to the defence of the proud Swiss people, and disprove Lime’s claim right now, by showing you a mind-boggling map of the country’s rail system.

Made by self-described hacker, trainspotter and map addict Vasile Coțovanu, it uses data from the federal railways organisation SSB to show the movement of trains across the country in real time. If you’re too impatient to watch the trains crawl across the map, you can speed the whole thing up. If you feel the need to follow a particular train, you can do that, too.

The map is not actually live, as such: it uses timetable data to show where trains are meant to be, so doesn’t show delays and so forth. But Swiss trains have such a reputation for punctuality that the joke is the locals set their watches to the trains – so we can be fairly sure what we’re seeing is spot on.

The map also, indirectly, shows both the physical and human geography of the country. You’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic duo than Switzerland and mountains: the country’s topography has allowed the small republic to keep out of Europe’s wars for centuries.

But as well as providing a natural barrier that would make Donald Trump go green with envy (what colour does green and orange make?), the mountains have been a huge obstacle for the engineers tasked with building the country’s rail system.

This map shows the rail network in its entirety: note the concentration of red to the north, representing the Swiss Plateau. Hemmed in to the north by the Jura Mountains and to the south by the mighty Alps, this stretch of relatively flat land was an obvious choice for settlers, and although it only covers 30 per cent of the country, two thirds of the total population lives there.

In the rest of the country, though, rail coverage really thins out. Tunnels and difficult spiral climbs are necessary for trains taking on the mountainous south.
Despite its difficulty, the route through the Alps along the Gotthard Pass has been an important trade route for centuries. It is the shortest route between the Po and Rhine Rivers, and control of it has been a key objective for the Swiss state.

Two years ago a new rail line opened along this north-south route, known as the Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT). The tunnel can be seen in the more faded red, running from Erstfeld to Biasca:

This tunnel was built quite a bit after Harry Lime’s time: he had seen it, I doubt he would have been quite so rude about Switzerland. It’s the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world running for 57km under the Alps. At its deepest point, the GBT is 2,450m deep. This incredible feat of engineering allows faster and more frequent journies through the mountains and onto Italy.

Here you can see the 19:09 for Como go through the tunnel:

The Alps aren’t just an obstruction, though: where railway lines have managed to wind their way through you can find some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.

The Bernina Express is the sort of old school Alpine train where you imagine you could find James Bond in the bar carriage. It travels along two World Heritage railways, the Albula and the Bernina, which are among only a handful of rail lines whose importance has been recognised by UNESCO. Sweeping past glaciers and lakes, the train goes through 55 tunnels and across a mindboggling 196 viaducts and bridges.

Here’s the 13.48 to Tirano going through the eponymous Bernina Pass:

I was thinking of asking Vasile Coțovanu, the man behind the map, to try mapping out the UK rail system in a similar way. The problem is the difference between actual running times and those timetabled is so great that any map would be less of a practical tool than a work of utopian fiction.

Let’s leave these interactive maps to a country that can build a world class rail system in the middle of a mountain range. Harry Lime, eat your heart out. 


Images: Vasile Coțovanu.