Let's play a game of Chennai planning

Video games about cities are loaded with details on land use, energy and carbon footprints — all issues faced by the global community.While popular simulation games allow you to build large virtual cities, some low-key online games, help people understand micro-level decisions

Published: 23rd June 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd June 2016 04:03 AM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: Opposition to new developments based on environment concerns has led to severe shortage of places for people to live in. Problems like long commutes, unaffordable houses, and gentrification have cropped up. Higher density housing is needed, but the city needs to remain environment friendly and livable as well.’

Sounds familiar? The description is not an introduction to a research paper but to the game Perma Cities, which is based on reality the city of Berkeley is facing. Urban problems that cities face are not too dissimilar; be it Chennai or London, problems like long commutes, housing shortage, and unaffordable neighbourhoods are common to all. This game has been created to ‘inspire reverence for the land and show the player how they can change the world to be a better place’.

Games about cities, development and urban issues are no longer just about plant-a-tree-and-get-a-point; they are complex. They are loaded with details about land-use planning, energy and carbon footprints, problems of human consumption and urban planning which have lead to chaotic cities.

While popular simulation games like SimCity or CitiesXL allow you to build large virtual cities and interact with other communities, some low-key online games help people understand urban interventions and micro-level decisions. These games have also explored problems faced by farmers and factory workers. One such game has gone a step ahead to be a digital parody of the global burger chain McDonalds, where one has to raze farmlands and run faulty ad campaigns to be successful!

Not many games are being designed on concepts like fantasy escapes into an ideal world; rather they are highlighting issues that everyone needs to know. And they make it engaging and entertaining.

The game creators and the gamers are moving from the characters of tech geek and college students to people who are urban planners, members of NGOs and academicians. Playing games and sitting at home does not usually create solutions, but the interactive handling of subjects like how to cut down water consumption or understanding why a bicycle lane may be a great idea, could be a step towards inclusive participation.


Here are a few games that look at serious issues faced by cities:

Perma Cities: City planning and permaculture

Browse through the map of Berkeley, San Francisco and four other cities, read what the present problems are and introduce city-specific interventions. In this game, you can lay bike lanes, convert ‘boring old roads’ into pedestrian plazas, plan safer pedestrian crossings by introducing bollards and also build urban farms. As you build a food-cooperative, the game takes you through videos and websites that promote sustainable farming.

Blocks and Lots: Politics of land-use

The complexities of land-use in urban development planning are explored in this game. It’s about a city, ‘Solano’, where you have to strike a balance between different stakeholders like a developer looking to make money, an environmental activist, a low-income renter and a house owner. The game uses six kinds of land-use concepts which include open spaces, areas for manufacturing sector, commercial and residential dwellings.

Through zoning the city, you meet objectives like making each stakeholder happy. You can, for instance, resolve a conflict between a developer and a renter by imposing  rent control with marginal increase, or allow the manufacturer to build his factory but with controlled emissions.

You can watch the expressions on the six stakeholders change to frowns or smiles to see how your moves affect their lives. The game also comes with an option to download and print a board game version.

Clim Way: Reduce your carbon emissions and understand renewable energy

It’s 2008 and you are trying to reduce greenhouse gases, and meet specific targets where you need to bring down energy consumption to a certain number with a 60% of renewable energy. Each action you undertake affects emission — you can convert a car parking lot into a shared car system, introduce congestion charges and watch how many carbon points you gain while doing this. You can install an incinerator to recycle ashes or give the employees energy awareness training. You can even introduce a ban on cars – but only after you have introduced a bus or a tram system; after all it is not all just a game, it needs to work in real life!

Sim Sweatshop: You don’t meet your targets, you don’t get paid!

How does it feel to work in a sweatshop? In Sim Sweatshop, you have to make shoe after shoe within a time limit failing which you do not get paid for the day. The game may not be ‘entertaining’, but who said working in a sweatshop is? Meanwhile, you also learn about the actual wages of a child labourer in China, read about why child labour and other labour-related problems exist and understand the problems of garment worker unions.

Ayiti: A family caught in a cycle of poverty

This game is about saving the city of Haiti from poverty and survival. You start off with choosing your game — playing strategy. Unlike selecting your powers or armours, you choose between four strategies: health, happiness, education and money. A tough choice in life?

A family faces some challenges resulting from poverty and severe weather; you have four years to help the family, as they confront the ‘cost of life’, by making them work, sending them to school, getting their health checked. You watch the family run out of money, unable to go to school or the hospital, or you watch them get better.

Maybe the family you are trying to help gets a better life or they don’t; maybe you end up building an ideal city or you don’t — that’s the reality that these game don’t gloss over, leaving you wondering whether games are child’s play anymore.

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