Play the City: A Game That Lets Everyone Plan the Future of a Town

Charlotte Scott
Future Cape Town, via Sustainable Cities Collective
July 10, 2015

‘The participants move around small blocks that look like mini-buildings’

A group of local stakeholders in Cape Town, aim for collaborative solutions by engaging with design of the Khayelitsha Business District, using a game called Play Khayelitsha.

Inside Khayelitsha’s well-used Harare Library people can be seen standing around playing on a large circular table, interacting, debating and explaining. The participants move around small blocks that look like mini-buildings around the map which covers the entire table surface. Upon moving closer, the table and its map appear to be a plan of the KBD with participants engaging like a game of monopoly, exchanging property and negotiating investments and business models. Around 50 local stakeholders have gathered to negotiate a collaborative vision for the Western Forecourt of the Khayelitsha Business District, using a game called Play Khayelitsha.

Play the City is the Amsterdam and Istanbul-based City Gaming company which designed and developed Play Khayelitsha. A team of members from the organisation spent some time in Cape Town designing the game and facilitated the Harare Library sessions. Play the City have used the ‘City Gaming’ method around the world in response to the traditional method of engagement city government often resorts to. Much like a facebook post, residents are often only afforded the opportunity to like or dislike a development proposal in their city and cannot directly engage with its formation or design or the other stakeholders it will affect. That’s if they can overcome the barriers to do so or find the obscure newspaper development in which the development advertisement is hidden.

Play the City designed Play Khayelitsha as a negotiation and design game to simulate complex real life development decisions for the KBD (Business District). The organisation believes that games have the potential to accelerate consensus amongst multiple stakeholders, support informed decision-making and resolve conflicts.

“The City Gaming method, we at Play the City have been experimenting with since 2008, has proven to perform most effective in complex urban processes where various interests are at stake from market [entities] to governing bodies and civic organisations,” says Ekim Tan. Tan, who is the founder of Play The City and in an interview says that when the City of Cape Town expressed interest in a city gaming pilot, “Khayelitsha was one of the first urban challenges that came to the table”.

Born in Istanbul, Tan graduated as an architect from the Middle East Technical University with the Archiprix Award in 1999, and received a second degree in urbanism in 2005. In 2014 she finalized her PhD in Urban Planning and Design at Delft University of Technology focusing on city gaming.

The Play the City gaming method has been implemented for large-scale projects in Amsterdam,Istanbul, Brussels, Tirana and, in Khayelitsha’s business district in Cape Town. For Play Khayelitsha, the approach includes an extensive mapping of stakeholders and power relations in the area prior to the game. This helps identify which powers need to be simulated be at the table and what dynamics to anticipate. In the case of the KBD, this took the form of infographics and maps of existing public utilities and access to social institutions.

The Play the City team then set about creating a game prototype to be tested during the Department of Design events in July 2014. Around 60 players, including members from the City of Cape Town municipality, Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), local businesses and residents of Khayelitsha joined the first demo round of the game. Then in November 2014, the game ran again for three structured sessions in Harare Library.

The use of games to facilitate collective learning and innovation is not unique to cities. Anticipatory, inclusive, and participatory approaches for designing and implementing disaster risk management operations have become a popular method to transform traditional thinking across all scales.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and its partners have designed at least 45 games on a wide range of humanitarian issues such as disaster preparedness, gender, food security, climate information, health, road safety and the management of urban waste. Participatory games and simulations can be decision-making tools that can reflect complex systems and promote learning and dialogue on risk management among a range of stakeholders.

The game comprises a three dimensional representation of the KBD and players have access to a library of over 600 game pieces which represent physical components of potential urban projects, for example; housing or office blocks as well as organisational components such as social networks or public support. Much like in an online game of Sims, players can create buildings and partnerships, moving them around the board and test out different ways to configure new developments.

“People understand 3-D far better than plans,” says Olwethu Jack from UGM consultants. Jack has worked with the Community Organisation Research Centre (CORC) and South African Slum Dwellers International (SDI) Alliance to support communities as a technical advisor. Currently he is the founder and Managing director of UGM Consultants, a group of experienced professionals who are designers and community development facilitators in South Africa.

“The informal traders really lead the process and stood their grounds in the discussions. This was very good and really influenced the functionality and incremental upgrading process which accommodates the end users). They voiced their concerns, problems and came up with a plans and solutions,” says Jack.

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