SimCity & Scenario Planning

The internet has been bubbling for the last month or so about the latest release of SimCity. FastCoExist asked a number of urban planners and other designers (including some Open Planning Tools Consortium participants like OpenPlans) to face off to design the best city. Slate had its own take on what the game means for urbanism and open data. And then there’s the usual twitter traffic.

I should preface this by saying I’m not a SimCity devotee. In fact, I might be one of the relatively few technology-focused planners of my generation who was never into SimCity as a kid (it certainly got some incredulous looks around the office). But games like SimCity pose some interesting questions for scenario planning:

Engagement and Analysis: Many of the tools developed for scenario planning look and feel as though they were built for analysis by professionals, and then “backed in” to use as engagement tools. Games like SimCity tend to be set up the opposite direction: first as tools for engagement (in this case, recreational engagement) with analysis as a means to that end. What can we learn about structuring the engagement components of scenario planning tools from games like SimCity?

Making Data Compelling: As the Slate piece points out, the volume of data available in planning presents a challenge to decision-makers (whether planners or game players). At PlaceMatters, we spend a lot of time figuring out how to select and present data in a useful way in our own scenario planning work. I’m really interested in how SimCity uses alerts, dashboards, or other mechanisms for showing the right data in the right way at the right time.

3D Visualization: From the screenshots I’ve seen of the new SimCity, it carries forward an aesthetic common in video games, which differs from the “SketchUp in Google Earth”-esque graphics common in planning. Given how quickly 3D visualizations in planning tools have been evolving, it’s worth thinking about the cityscapes and other representational decisions made within SimCity.

Short-Term vs Long-Term thinking: One of the pillars of scenario planning is working through the implications of choosing between short-term vs long-term outcomes. As the FastCoExist article pointed out, one of the main comments from the planners playing the game was that the value system embedded within it tended towards short term rewards. Are there lessons in the way SimCity structures those short-term vs long-term tradeoffs that could help scenario planners frame such issues?

Process: One thing games like SimCity rarely deal with is the process of making decisions in complex socio-political environments. Yet, it’s often those decision-making pieces that shape how scenarios on paper (or pixel) are actualized. Games and scenario planning tools that allow players to interact in richer, more collaborative ways is a direction in which many games are moving (see Minecraft or the nascent multiplayer features in SimCity).

I’m hoping to dig into the new SimCity soon and flesh out some of these thoughts, and I’d love to hear from those that have already started playing around with it.



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