Is planning really just a game?

I had two favorite PC games growing up (and yes, I am a PC, sorry Steve Jobs and Apple): SimCity and RollerCoaster Tycoon. My heroes had names like Sid Meier, Will Wright, and Chris Sawyer—they were the ultimate creators, developing worlds that were so customizable that they engulfed millions of players, young and old, worldwide for endless hours. Gamers have created true-to-life replicas of famous cities or popular theme parks, fantastical worlds where innovative transit systems and gravity-defying rides dot the landscape, and innovative plans and designs that introduce new concepts into the real world of planning or theme park design.

It is this latter possibility that is leading many people to consider games more seriously, as potential tools for the professional world to explore possibilities, to test ideas, and to innovate outside the bounds of life as we know it. About a month ago, Foldit players solved a decade-long mystery in protein structure and introduced an innovation that could have a major impact in the research to find a cure for AIDS. This is no small achievement—while the game is designed simply to allow creativity in protein folding, the creative process and the game’s ease of testing results allows for greater achievement. And in other sectors of the news, some have suggested Herman Cain’s misguided 999 Plan might have originated with the flat-tax default in Sim City 4. Although clearly in the case the game falls short of the complexity of real-world tax codes—but is a game once-again inspiring real world policy proposals?

Game dynamics and game mechanisms offer a lot of potential for policymakers, planners, and anyone who works regularly with proposals that may have implications long into the future. Planning is a field that is, by nature, forward-looking, and the challenge many planners face is to come up with plan that are both concrete enough to meet budgetary needs, political demands, and population and economic growth projections while allowing enough openness to allow for adaptability should the projections or local needs prove wrong (as they often do ten or twenty years down the line). What games allow, and what many software programs familiar to planners are increasingly incorporating, is a sort of trial-and-error style of problem solving. When in SimCity your city founded in 1950 finds itself bankrupt and quickly emptying out in 1990, you can easily sick an alien invasion or a giant Godzilla-esque monster on the place, then wipe the slate clean and start anew. If you could do this in real life, well, I’m pretty sure an international court would find you guilty of Crimes Against Humanity.

But one thing that my planning education taught me, one thing that the real world of planning rarely allows, is that as creative individuals we are all trial-and-error types. The most creative and original works of urban design (or of any creative product) are always the result of a second, third, fourth…or five hundredth attempt. Never on the first try do we get it right. And so planners today work through an exhaustive public reviews process; plans often have numerous iterations before they are presented to a city council or planning authority; and even when they are entered into law, plans are always open to modification and updates as needs change.

So I would argue that all planners, if they are not already, should be gamers. I certainly became a planner because I love the challenges that scenario modeling and strategy building comprise. But at some point, games fall short—Sim City’s tax system is notoriously oversimplified, but in the context of a game it works. We can build in more variables, make the game ever more complex, but like a butterfly flapping its wings into the wind, at some point a small move away from the model will lead to big changes and require an entirely different model. Ultimately planning is much more than a game. But does the game concept allow us to still make better, more enduring plans?

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