Who does not like playing games? They help us to remove ourselves from the daily problems. They quelch our thirst for gratification or, in case of losing, give us motivation for improvement. Playing a game can be a relaxing way of distancing one’s self from the hubbub of the surrounding world (think of solitaire, where even the name suggests a peaceful moment of solitude). More often, though, it equals meeting with friends and engaging in a bonding experience over a round of Monopoly, Dungeons and Dragons, or poker. In our digital age, this division is very well pronounced in computer games – we can play them alone and fully immerse in the scenario, or we can find an online community and move to a distant fantasyland with a couple of strangers who are equally fascinated with this activity as we are. Even in the past, games and gamified performances formed a backbone of societies. The carnivals, wedding traditions, or sport events, are all characterized by a strong presence of ludic elements. Following Johan Huizinga and the central argument of his 1938 book titled Homo ludens, our playful side is necessary to create culture and thus, to strengthen our societies’ internal coherence.
Yet games do not have to refer solely to relaxation or bonding experiences. They have many more, chiefly educational features that are currently employed in a growing number of domains, from linguistics to organization studies, their main task being to stimulate the participants and improve their practical or theoretical skills. The following article will showcase a small selection of examples proving that games can be successfully implemented in urban heritage and planning. In these cases games’ main purpose is not only to educate and stimulate specific activities, but also to inform the professionals on how the participants perceive the issues at stake. This feature can be described as a two-way transfer of knowledge. Before I delve into that, it seems important to define what I understand as urban heritage and how it relates to the question of planning.
By passing from a rather rigid framework of criteria based on which a certain building/landscape/custom can be called valuable to stretching out these criteria to include more modern and less obvious areas, the discipline of heritage is becoming more and more democratic. This broadening has also a significant meaning for those regions of the world in which traditional views on heritage were difficult to apply. Coming from Eastern Europe and more specifically from a city that was almost entirely destroyed during the last world war, this evolution is very important to me on a personal level. Finally, the ambiguous relicts of the socialist period and of the traumatic post-1989 transition to market economy can be discussed as valuable for the local communities to the same extent as the picturesque canals of Amsterdam. Furthermore, the ongoing shifts in heritage studies also grant a more holistic approach, looking at entire landscapes rather than simply collecting lovely buildings as I had been collecting Pokémon cards back in my childhood. It is precisely these landscapes that form the backbone of my understanding of urban heritage – they are not just representative of the past, but are also inseparable witnesses to the evolution of local communities. In this respect, urban heritage (landscape) is a still uncharted territory which escapes easy definitions and remains to be thoroughly researched to uncover its real value.
Existing game designs
When it comes to the games that can be useful for uncovering the importance of mundane urban landscapes, they can be divided into two strands: analogue approach and digital approach. The former is usually a highly narrative type of treasure hunt in which the player has to follow specific tasks to learn about a place’s history; the latter enables the player to immerse themselves in a virtual rendition of the real world and see how any changes to the built environment influence the landscape in question. It can be said that analogue games are more fun whereas digital ones follow more technical scenarios. The following list of examples will take these two types of urban heritage and planning games under a microscope.
As the first example I would like to use a project that comes, quite literally, from my own backyard. In mid-2014, together with a small group of fellow beginner-level urban scholars, we prepared a project aiming at teaching the community of Sielce neighborhood in Warsaw about their surroundings (heritage) and, subsequently, invite them to a series of walks during which we would make a diagnosis of what could be improved in the area (planning). The first stage of the project consisted of a number of walks during which everyone was invited to play short games – quizzes or treasure hunts. This activity was educational for both, the participants and the organizers as it elicited some more personal reactions to the histories discussed by our guides. Unfortunately, this rather strong base for the project started crumbling when we asked the participants to talk about the neighborhood’s spatial problems. This phrasing introduced a negative undertone right at the beginning of the second stage – in such a context, any game-based activity, even if introducing a playful mood, is seen by the participants as yet another way to voice their grievances. For our project it was a truly lethal tic-tac-toe as we ended up with a small group of angry locals who demanded our immediate help with issues ranging from installing a streetlight to deter drunkards from standing right under one lady’s window, to designing a 3m2 lawn in the middle of a parking to provide an “oasis of fresh air amidst a concrete wasteland.”
More professional and advanced heritage/planning-focused games are rarely prone to such design failures as most often they follow three principles – positive thinking, adventure, and clear reward system. The second example comes from Ostrów Mazowiecka, a small city in Eastern Poland that could hardly be described as oozing a sense of aesthetic beauty (as, unfortunately, is the case of most small cities in Poland). The game is a simple treasure hunt combined with a set of narrative-based clues serving to discover “the answer” to the entire endeavor. Designed by Miastopracownia cultural center as part of the ongoing project of the Polish National Institute of Architecture and Urban Plannning (NIAiU), the activity is focused on the modernization of the city that took place in the 1920s – it brings the participant on a journey through time and shares with them some interesting facts about the architecture of the pre-war period and its later fate. The participant can learn a lot about the process of electrification of the city, about some of the most emblematic structures that ceased to exist, or about how the local community perceived these buildings through time. At a first glance, the game looks like its targeted towards younger audiences, given its slightly infantile tone, but ever since its creation in 2020, it attracted all kinds of participants, ranging from locals wanting to reminisce to tourists completely unaware of this city’s vibrant architectural past.
Yet another example comes from Vienna – a city that is definitely not complaining about the lack of tourists coming from all sides of the world to experience its rich culture and buy magnets representing the city’s numerous architectural marvels. A local urban game design studio called City Games Vienna, launched their first game inspired by Austrian capital’s past – called “Wunderkammer Wien” – already a couple of years ago. Even though similar to the game from Ostrów Mazowiecka, it is far more advanced when it comes to the scenario. All three installments of the game follow a semi-fictitious past of the city, inhabited by various monsters who need to be chased away by the participants. The players are given a map and a set of clues with an aim to “playfully discover the history of Vienna, chase away the monsters [of the past] and free the Viennese from their grumpiness.” It is precisely the last part of the description that discloses the real intentions of the game – look deep into the grumpy souls of the Viennese – which are quite far from the well-known tourist paths following the life of Sissi or the graces of imperial Lipizzaner horses. Since the publication of Wunderkammer, City Games Vienna has broadened its arsenal of playfulness by creating games amplified with modern technology – UV light-sensitive prints, AR assistants, or advanced geolocation technologies.
These newer, technology-induced designs bring us to the second, digital strand of games that are useful for heritage and urban planning. Given that I am very keen on dividing everything I see and do into categories, let me do the same with this digital strand. The first subcategory will consist of bottom-up designs based on geocaching and most advanced in North America and Great Britain. Although they often lack the educational element and focus solely on the experience of playing a game, they can still prove very inspirational for heritage and urban planning. A basic scenario involves a GPS receiver (usually a smartphone) and aims at discovering hidden boxes – or caches – scattered around the world. The games are accessible via a number of websites informing of the starting point where a player can find the first box with a set of clues leading to the next one. In order to highlight the element of competition, each player has to write their (nick)name in a logbook found in the cache. The clues may be dispersed anywhere within the playfield and may include inscriptions left on the trees, symbols carved into stones, or other types of orientational features. A more organized, but still bottom-up example of geocaching is a game called “Munzee” in which the users have to hide and seek QR codes in order to receive points which are subsequently stored on the game’s official website. Other, much more regulated popular games such as Nintento’s “Pokémon GO” or Russian “Encounter” follow very similar principles. Albeit not explicitly connected neither to heritage nor to urban planning, geocaching games are easily transferable to these contexts.
The other subcategory of the digital strand of urban gaming is much more formal as it is organized by specialists and aims at reaching predefined goals relating to planning or planning education. A stellar example of such strategy can be found in “Geocraft” exercise designed by SPINlab research center at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. This project, conducted in 2017, provided the third graders from the secondary school in the Dutch city of Lelystad with a Minecraft-based simplified image of a real-world urban area and asked them to “inventory suitable locations for a second location of islands in the Markermeer lake in The Netherlands.” Here, although the gamified element is missing, the sheer aesthetic of Minecraft used in such a formal context makes it highly enjoyable for most of the participants. Most importantly, it follows the three principles of urban gaming mentioned before – positive thinking (as a user I have a novel way of voicing my ideas), adventure (I am actually playing a nice computer game), and clear rewards (I contributed to the planning process, hence I helped improving the area where I live).
Possible future implementations
As indicated by an ever-growing popularity of geocaching and the newer games designed by City Games Vienna, it seems that typically analogue scenarios are on a path to digitalization. Different types of technologies are being utilized in order to improve the gaming experience and make it more fitting to a broader audience. Furthermore, such digitalization is crucial given the state of possibly permanent uncertainty created by the pandemic. Questions arise – how to make a gamified process attractive without leaving one’s house? Or else, how to make it enjoyable for single players? Is there a way in which such heritage/planning games could preserve and improve community bonds in such difficult times?
My short answer would be a definite “yes.” Focusing on less obvious forms of urban landscape and looking at them from a heritage perspective (according to which all places are in a perpetual state of flux and evolving with their spatial, social, or political contexts), helps the players to analyze their surroundings in a different way. All of a sudden, a mundane bus stop can become a significant spot triggering memories for ones and quirky anecdotes for others. If incorporated well into a game scenario, such personal content could be translated into notes, stories, or comments, all giving heritage experts (and locals alike!) a unique opportunity to discover the intimate relationship people have with the surroundings of their daily life. Furthermore, given that all games should include elements of competition and rewards, the sheer design of a gamified activity can serve as an incentive in itself, stimulating the users to interact with its interface as often as possible. To sum up, even an entirely online heritage-oriented game can:
- transform any, even seemingly most “boring” landscape into a fascinating patchwork of associations;
- strengthen the sense of community if the users are allowed to discuss their memories among each other;
- engage the local community with the evolution of their neighborhood, and
- diversify the lockdown routines
When it comes to the urban planning community, a heritage-based game discussed above can serve as a gateway to more serious deliberations on more technical aspects of the area’s evolution. Apart from being informed by a heritage-oriented game, municipalities or local authorities can engage their communities in online participatory processes requiring more mental effort. Using a gamified approach to an exercise that seems more difficult can be beneficial for both sides, in which case locals/users are more eager to participate, whereas the planners/authorities may find more approachable phrasing, fitting the playful context. Would that actually work? Since there has hardly been any research in this area, at the intersection of heritage and planning, it may be that these are merely some utopian musings on the topic. In order to find at least a partial answer, I am now in the process of conducting a similar experiment – hopefully it will yield some promising results!
As an end note, I would like to get back to Huizinga and his Homo ludens – since games are so important in the creation of culture, why not use them to improve the (re-)creation and quality of the places we inhabit?
City Games Vienna. https://citygames.wien/en/
Conlan, L. (2017). “How might geocaching teach map skills?” Teaching Geography, Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 100-102.
Geocraft 2017. https://spinlab.vu.nl/1911-2/
Huizinga, J. (1938/1949). Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Narodowy Instutut Architektury i Urbanistyki (NIAiU). https://niaiu.pl/en/strona-glowna-2/
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