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.

 
 
 
 

Park Life: On the repeated incineration of Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace from the air. Image: John Bointon/Wikimedia Commons.

Head directly north in a straight line from the official centre point of London at Charing Cross, and the first park of any real size you’ll hit is Alexandra Park. You’ll know you’re headed in the right direction when you spot the whacking great palace sat on the hill in the middle of it.

But Alexandra Palace and Park aren’t the former home of some forgotten bit of the nobility: they were actually purpose built for more or less their current use, as a venue for North Londoners to get up to a wide variety of things that may or may not be considered fun.

Various Victorians, including Owen Jones (presumably not him), one of the architects responsible for the Crystal Palace in the south, thought an equivalent in the north might be worthwhile, and used the same cost-saving manoeuvre: while the Crystal Palace had been built from the construction materials of the Great Exhibition, it’s northern counterpart used parts from the 1862 International Exhibition in Kensington.

Proving some kind of point, I guess.

Initially known as “the palace of the People”, it took on a marginal air of aristocracy when the park opened in 1863, the same year that the future King Edward VII married Alexandra of Denmark. The building opened in 1873, and copied Crystal Palace again, by almost immediately burning to the ground.


But two years later they’d nailed the bits back together and finally the people of North London had something to do other than complaining how long it’s going to take them to get to this birthday party in Peckham.

One of the more notable features of the next century or so of the park’s existence was its racecourse, known as The Frying Pan, because it looked a bit like a frying pan on whatever the Victorian equivalent of satellite photography is (balloon rides or imagining things, I guess). Popular for much of its life, attendances dwindled in the 1970s. Who wants to look at horses when television’s in colour now?

It was the favourite course of famous sexist and horse describer John McCririck – he’s been linked to efforts to get it rebuilt, and has instructed his wife to scatter his ashes on the site. Hopefully local residents will be warned so they can shut their windows first. Though the outline of the course is visible from above – the cricket pitch sits in the middle of it – It otherwise only survives in the names of a couple of now trendified gastro-pubs, the Victoria Stakes and the Starting Posts.

Early non-horse based physical activities available included going up in a balloon (mainly to draw pictures of what the race course looked like, presumably) and then jumping off the balloon while wearing a parachute if you were, for example, waitress turned daredevil Dolly Shepherd, commemorated in a mural on the side of the palace. There was also a lido, which legend states was used to wash visiting circus Elephants. It is unclear whether this is connected to the dubious cleanliness that to its demise by the early part of the last century.

Winter sports have been an unlikely intermittent features of the park: you prod the some of the undergrowth on one side of the hill, you might be able to uncover the remains of what was once London’s most popular dry ski slope, ideal for if you didn’t want to have to lie to all your friends about how much fun your first skiing holiday had been. Though long since defunct, in 1990 it gained a spiritual successor in the palace’s ice rink, which among other things has been home to various ice hockey teams, most recently the ‘Haringey Huskies’, it says here.

Less glamorous from this angle. Image: Ed Jefferson.

But back in the 1980s the palace and park were briefly threatened with being entirely sport-based. After the palace decided to have a belated centenary celebration and burn down again, there was a proposal to redevelop the whole thing into a massive sports complex, including – good news, snow haters – a brand new dry ski slope. In the end nothing came of it – the existing building was retained and most of the sport associated with the park now is of the indoor variety: among many other things, the palace hosts darts and table tennis tournaments.

The park does see a bit of the action. Aside from the football and cricket pitches, a popular brand of energising drink sponsors an annual soapbox race, and there’s a miniature golf course that makes up for being golf by a) being miniature and b) allowing you to drink while playing (well, if you book the whole thing for an office party circa 2011).

Sadly the park’s best sport of all has been retired: watching puce-faced CityMetric writers attempt to run to the top of the hill the palace sits on, while placing bets on whether they will reach the top before keeling over and dying (2015-2018).