Like most of Generation Y (known as so called “Millennials”) I grew up playing computer games on the family’s first home computer. The top three most played games were Microsoft Flight Simulator, Theme Hospital and SimCity. Days of my life would be spent trying to land a 737 in a storm, trying to build a working hospital that catered for make believe diseases such as “King Complex” (when a patient thought they were Elvis) or trying to meet the needs of a growing city by building more parks, more roads or more police stations.
It’s perhaps the latter that still resonates most, because of working for Lichfields. Cities are fast becoming our new natural habitat, with over 54% of the world population now living in urban areas. In June this year, the BBC reported that UK cities are in the middle of an urban renaissance, with a shift towards people returning to city living.
SimCity as I knew it lives on various forms, but a new game has risen to replace it.
Cities: Skylines is the spiritual successor to SimCity in that, at its heart, it’s a game for those who find the notation of cities as systems. Like any system, each component must be properly maintained and understood in order to create stability, and a very enjoyable and hugely interesting experience. The game then inevitably tests the player’s ability to maintain order, by creating disorder and forces to react to, to solve a problem and maintain the system’s stability.
While obviously first and foremost a computer game (with goals, missions, tasks etc), the real power of the game lies with the worldbuilding toolkit the game’s development team has created. The developers’ goal was to create a games engine that had the ability to simulate various components of a city with a high degree of accuracy. This starts with the detail.
Users can customise everything from trees, road markings, the location of utilities and what style the buildings are, their materials etc. The game’s simulation engine can not only generate realistic traffic on roads, but also simulate the effects of congestion on the road network depending on how a player lays the roads out, what signs they use / don’t use and how a crash can have a knock-on effect across the whole road network. The engine can also simulate close to 1 million unique individuals’ daily routines. So out of that generated traffic, at any one time a certain percentage of cars will be on the school run, another percentage of trucks will be delivering items or returning to the depot etc. Other game aspects include water treatment facilities, zoning, parks, services, education, tourism and transport infrastructure.
I am willing to bet that of the 54% of the world’s population who live in large urban areas, many would love to have the tools and ability to change the areas they live in and how they would interact daily.
In 2016, the local government of the Finnish city of Hämeenlinna used the game’s worldbuilding toolkit to give people the chance to shape their city and at the same time, help to crowd source their urban planning and policy making. While drafting their new inner-city master plan, the local government held a design competition (with the prize being a couple of Iron Maiden tickets, who would be playing in the same area as the proposed development) to generate crowd sourced input into emerging transport, trade and service network structure issues.
One of the unique tools that the game offers is the ability to use real world geographic data as a starting point, so contestants in Finland could download the actual topography of the area to use in the development of their design. The final designs were judged on the novelty value and originality of the design, as well as the feasibility of the plan. In what could be a first for local government, the unique way they considered using the game’s tools in their urban planning could not only signal a change in how other local governments could become more open and seek public participation in the development of their towns and cities, but it could also become a new way to conduct public consultation. For example, a council might want to build a new road. Not only could members of the public see the proposal for a new road and how it would look within the proposed local area, they could also see how it would work and look, with realistic traffic flows.
In another example, the video below shows how one user has taken it upon himself to re-create London as accurately as possible. This can be accomplished not only including the real world geographic data to accurately re-create the topography of the area, but also by overlay mapping allowing them to accurately plot roads, rivers, building locations etc. Then it’s just a matter of adding a few bells and whistles such as trees, fences, traffic lights, road markings and the odd post and phone box for good measure. Various forums have also started to pop up that are tied to the game, in which game users seek the advice from urban planning and development professionals in order to create better cities.
The toolkit that the game provides could allow planning consultants, architects or even the public to quickly visualise how a scheme could look, using real world geographic data as a starting point. It is by no means as accurate as architectural software but what makes the game’s worldbuilding capability special is that it can give users / viewers the ability to create and experience realistic locations, by crafting out a little bit of realism. The game’s developers have also noted that they are seeing more real world uses for the game, with some urban planners themselves using it as a sketching tool.However no-one needs a degree or years of experience to achieve this because at the end of the day the toolkit is part of a computer game, and so has all the intuitive features native to gaming that people who have been brought up using for decades. It’s not a big leap to imagine public consultations having a PlayStation or PC set up with a large TV showing a pre-programmed “virtual tour” around a site, or allowing users to navigate around a scheme via a game controller.
The bigger picture to this blog is that as the percentage of us living in large urban areas continues to grow, we will need to come up with more creative solutions for how to accommodate the growing urban population. In some respects, those same people could become masters of their own fates by being able to have a hand in how their urban environment should develop and evolve. Technology will inevitably always bring new and more creative solutions for addressing urban problems. So perhaps something that began life as a computer game may one day help us build better places to live.