Urban Planning as Computer Game in Boston’s Chinatown

Game Image

Computer games like Sim City and Grand Theft Auto feature expansive, photorealistic urban environments and compelling storylines that engross players for hours. In contrast, public meetings about planning issues feature dry, technical information presented through static presentations and reports. It’s little wonder these meetings generally attract the “usual suspects,” with the skills and patience to digest complex data and follow the arcane legalize of local planning.

A new interactive game about Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood seeks to merge the interactivity of games with the real problems of planning. Why shouldn’t games reflect realistic challenges, such as finding housing, jobs, and places to hang out in the city? Can a game both solicit community input and provoke inter-generational dialog? The game, called Participatory Chinatown, is an exciting example of how new technology can do just this. Developed by the Asian Community Development Corporation, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (my former employer, although I was not involved in this project), and Professor Eric Gordon and collaborators at Emerson College, the game as unveiled at two community meetings this week.

Participatory Chinatown has two iterations: an online single-player version, and a collaborative version that groups can play in real-time through networked computers. In each, the game’s 15 characters explore a 3D version of Chinatown, collecting information about opportunities and interacting with other players they find. At the end of the game, players must decide which choices best fill their quest for housing, jobs, or social spaces. Whether they succeed depends on how much information they are able to collect and how much competition exists. In a second phase, players can walk through one of three hypothetical redevelopment proposals for a part of the neighborhood, earning points for leaving comments about their opinions and concerns it provokes.

Community Image

Integrating a community-created 3D environment, player profiles, and redevelopment scenarios, the project is notable for the close collaboration between community members, governments, and game creators it required. The quests illustrate the choices available in the neighborhood, and the obstacles — such as language barriers and limited income — residents face. At the demonstration exercise I attended on Wednesday, generational gaps were quickly apparent as the younger players most easily navigated the exercise while older players struggled with the game interface. The local youth who helped create the game were on hand to guide players through the exercise. Although not feasible for every neighborhood (it was partially funded by a $170,000 MacArthur Foundation grant), the game represents a tremendous resource for the neighborhood, especially when deployed strategically to stimulate conversation. In fact, much more than replacing the public meeting, the game meetings this week were successful partly because of the careful preparation and facilitation used to present the game and draw out comments after.

From a technical point of view, the game could become a flexible platform for other uses, such as more free-form exercises like exploring the visual effects of proposed developments. Already, some of the game’s 3D models are available for download through the Google 3D Warehouse. Although excellent at buildings, realistic traffic and street conditions were clearly missing. This makes it best suited for physical planning around buildings and public amenities, not discussing parking reform or “complete streets” philosophy.

Most importantly, the game presents planning decisions from the street-level view of community members, not the God’s eye view adopted by systems-optimization games like Sim City or Chevron’s Energyville. Although, like all games, Participatory Chinatown must contain simplifications and assumptions, it succeeds because it portrays planning in a realistic light: as complex trade-offs that can only be evaluated from the perspectives of specific urban residents. After all, there is no perfect urban form, and planning is the ongoing process of considering the future in the light of how well the current city serves our needs and reflects our values. If the game can help encourage this perspective in the community, it will be a success.

> Participatory Chinatown
> Globe: “Chinatown Planners Hope Game Draws Crowd” and editorial “Chinatown, the Video Game.

Author: Rob Goodspeed