Do you think gaming is a waste of time? You may be surprised to learn that some games can teach us about urban design and help solve real world problems. Photo by Wolfgang Staudt/Flickr.

Do you think gaming is a waste of time? You may be surprised to learn that some games can teach us about urban design and help solve real world problems. Photo by Wolfgang Staudt/Flickr.

Three billion hours per week are spent playing online games worldwide. Though the prevalence of online games has drawbacks, what if some of this time spent gaming could improve the way our cities are designed? The prevalence of games in our culture provides an opportunity to increase the understanding of urban challenges and help solve real world problems. Few people have a chance to run a city, design roads, or budget a city’s energy. But even a 12-year-old can achieve all of these tasks in the game SimCity.

According to a recent study, the average young person in countries with a “strong gamer culture” will spend 10,000 hours playing games by the time that they turn 21 years old. This is roughly equivalent to the time that children in the United States spend in school from fifth grade to high school graduation. This time presents a vast opportunity to educate gamers and engage them in real world challenges.

Many games already give users the opportunity to learn about the challenges and tradeoffs involved in urban planning. Games like SimCity and Tygron Serious Games, for example, allow users to try out different urban designs to envision their varying social and environmental impacts.

Game play revolves around the principle of trial and error. What looks like an impossible challenge today will be achievable after days or even months of practice down the road. Below are some examples of games that allow users to understand and help solve urban planning challenges. If you have mastered any of them, you might be better equipped to understand how cities can save trillions, curb climate change, and improve public health.

SimCity teaches players the challenges of urban design

The classic 25-year-old city-building game is “arguably the single most influential work of urban design theory ever created,” according to Will Wright, designer of the original SimCity. Players are expected to build a city from the ground up – placing buildings, building roads, supplying power and transport, and providing health and education. However, the budget is limited to what the player generates from taxation. As a result, it is up to the player to decide whether the city should build coal infrastructure to save money in the short term, or prioritize more expensive renewable energy that will benefit the city in the long run. SimCity creates a world so complex, even some prominent urban thinkers found it challenging to build a sustainable city in SimCity. The beauty of the game is its reflection of common challenges and mistakes that cities make today.

Tygron Serious Games allows planners to understand real world tradeoffs

Gamification – the use of game mechanics in non-game contexts – has been used in urban planning to engage decision-makers in solving problems. A Dutch company, Tygron, has applied gamification and designed the Serious Games for urban planners. The game creates a 3D spatial simulation and allows all competing stakeholders to experiment with different design options. The goal of the game is to offer a solution to urban issues and help meet a consensus that takes all interests into account.

My2050 allows users to craft energy priorities and protect the environment

Simplified from the 2050 Pathways Analysis, My2050 is an interactive tool to craft potential scenarios for the UK to reduce emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The game was developed by the United Kingdom Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to engage citizens in an open debate around the choices and trade-offs the country faces to reach the target. Users can adjust energy usage from a range of sectors, including transport and home electricity usage. Does the game ring a bell? The DECC, EMBARQ, and group of experts from multiple energy-emitting sectors also created the Global Calculator, a global tool based on similar ideas. The tool is currently under review, and will be launched at the COP 20 climate negotiations in Lima, Peru this December.

Other games that involve sustainable urban planning include Plan it Green and ElectroCity, both of which aim to educate people, especially children, about energy, sustainability and environmental management. The goal of these games is not to hash out all the controversies around energy debates, but to spark interest and lay a foundation of sustainability knowledge for future learning.

With the immense amount of time spent gaming worldwide, games have near limitless potential to educate players and engage them in real world problems. Games already have real world impacts in a variety of fields. The classic real time strategy game StarCraft was used to teach new US Air Force officers about crisis planning under stress and joint service teamwork. Players of the science game Foldit discovered the structure of an enzyme, advancing AIDS research. To create sustainable cities that are accessible, equitable and environmentally friendly, games may not be a bad place to start.