All Play and No Work for Jack Makes Jill a Better Planner

Ken Snyder's picture
Several years ago I was with a group of people who decided to approach the makers of SimCity to see if we could convince them to develop a similar but more credible tool for planners, enabling towns and their residents to look at real planning challenges and experiment with different scenarios in their own community. The response was a solid "no, we're not interested, we're interested in making games.”

Can't blame them, considering the market for gamers is easily a thousand-fold greater than that for serious minded planners (not to mention realistic planning tools need real data to run credible analysis; imaginary cities don't).

Nonetheless, it is fascinating to follow what Will Wright, the creator of SimCity and the Sims, is doing these days. He has taken SimCity and Sims and is working on the next level of dynamic gaming where the user can create and evolve whole universes with critters, buildings, road networks, etc. and even interact with other planets that other people have created. A year ago, at the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, Wright wowed the audience with a product in development code-named Spore, which demonstrated new ways of giving the user powerful tools to generate their own dynamic content without armies of content creators.

Wright's creatures wander through a thriving city
Wright's creatures wander through a thriving city.
(image and caption directly from http://www.gamespy.com/articles/595/595975p3.html)

Having all that said, let's not forget that tools like Index, PLACE3S, MetroQuest, Facet, CommunityViz, and others already exist which, while perhaps not as user friendly and entertaining as SimCity, do help communities envision the consequences of their land use policy decisions. These impact analysis tools quantify the trade-offs of different development choices before new buildings and roads are built. Some include policy simulator tools that also show where growth is likely to occur as a result of different land use/tax policies. Integrated with other tools like GoogleEarth, ArcScene, SiteBuilder, and/or SketchUp, one can add eye catching visuals. A version of CUBE combines transportation modeling outputs with 3D StudioMax to display SimCity-like pedestrians and cars walking and driving through the streetscape, visually depicting areas of congestion, bottlenecks, and satisfactory flow.

The cool thing is that everyone is learning from each other and more and more these tools/games are becoming interoperable. So while the makers of SimCity may never invest in creating professional planning tools, there is a trickle down effect benefiting us all. Whether it's technologies that find their way into professional planning tools or the thousands of kids inspired to become planners as a result of city building games like SimCity, Zoo Tycoon, and future offshoots of gaming concepts like Spore, the planning world has much to gain from these money making geniuses.
Ken Snyder is Executive Director of PlaceMatters

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