Smart Cities, Citizen Participation & Gamification. A Starcraftian model.

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A research on urban creativity and innovation and the potential uses of gamification to facilitate public participation processes. Playable concepts such as Playable Cities and Smart Cities, in addition to artistic and recreational initiatives that can provide relevant conclusions are reviewed.

Author Dr. Flavio Escribano > @ludictador

Reviewer: Jordi Moretón Galí >> @jordimgali

Spanish version here

Magnasanti looks like Madrid, a 6 million population metropolis, however the crime rate is about 0%, its property speculation remains at acceptable levels, the unemployment rate is below 10%, 100% of its citizens have a high educational level and, in order to be both productive and effective, its citizenship’s life expectancy stopped at 60 years old.

Magnasanti is not a city of atoms, but a bits’ one. Magnasanti is a three years work-in-progress experiment by the philipino young man Vincent Ocasla in the Sim City 3000 game. What this very intrepid player achieved, doing some mathematical and structural research inside the game, was to create the biggest and most efficient city according to the very constrained rules of Sim City.

For those who have spent time on any of this saga’s game it’s easy to imagine how difficult is to set the factors needed to deal with pollution, water management, transportation, health services, education, security, etc.  in order to get similar results as Vincent’s.

Mr. Ocasla’s feat speaks us about the rules, about developers imposing their own laws and limits to the game (renowed Luc Barthelet, Will Wright and Lucy Bradshaw as producer) and how –maybe on purpose, maybe on an emergent way- software development encourages a urban capitalism model in which green areas, population density, educational and health services quality are measured in advance from a dystopic Situation Room driven by technocrats. In these artificial cities the citizens become just like Sim City numbers, they (we) have no faces or eyes, neither options for participation and are condemned to live up to 60 years old in order to be more productive and a lesser burden to the system when they are not anymore (Maybe a new “Grexit” DLC is soon to be released on future SimCity Editions).

Magnasanti was a hot topic, especially after its author was interviewed by Vice Magazine in 2010, a year before “From intelligent to smart cities” (Deakin, Mark, and Husam Al Waer, 2012) was published at Intelligent Buildings International magazine, in which four of the main characteristics of Smart Cities are defined:

  1. The application of a wide range of electronic and digital technologies to communities and cities.
  2. The use of ICTs to transform life and working environments within the region.
  3. The embedding of such ICTs in government systems.
  4. The territorialisation of practices that brings ICTs and people together to enhance the innovation and knowledge that they offer.

Up to point 3 Cities, Government and Technologies are mentioned but not until point 4 people and ITCs appear together in the same sentence contributing with knowledge and improving innovation. Here my first critic: Knowledge emerges only from people not from the technology used by them. That is why a couple of questions arise: How to use technology to share and to generate new knowledge in favour of our cities?  Could gamification provide some benefits in this regard?

The City as a Conflict Zone

Without going into details, the titanic efforts of urbanizing -fruit of the Industrial Age- were entirely appalling. John Savage in Teenage (2007) emphasized the high impact on young emigrant people from rural areas within the same country or from foreign ones.

To summarize a lot, the urban reorganization done by liberal policies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries caused deep conflicts in many countries, eg. USA, UK, France, Brazil or Mexico. The voracious demand for labor and premature States-democracies generated cities and suburbs, in many cases, frightening ones.

Thanks to trade unions’ triumphs and middle classes presence on public life some opportunity windows appeared on which talents like Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier demanded natural spaces –3rd spaces- within the city in order to let working class recover the communitarian interaction places and time they had lost because the rigid working hours of early industrialization. All those new places for interaction were available to citizenship following unwritten ‘terms of use’, this is, according to the purpose they had been built to.

However, how are those ‘terms of use’ written? And… What happens with all those spaces when they are merely abandoned by government?

Kars Alfrink’s The Gameful City (2014) properly cites Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary (Peralta, 2001), a very clever case of “Concrete War”, on which we can see the social tension that underlines the act of using public spaces in ways not designed to and doing so without permits and under legal threats.

The documentary also shows how Z-Boys –L.A. Santa Monica skateboarding pioneers- took advantage of an extreme drought in California to use the vast amount of empty swimming pools at richest neighborhoods to have fun on a very intuitively playful way. These boys (and a girl) begun to practice some acrobatic movements that now are the standards of a 4,8 billion dollars discipline (in USA 2008 numbers). Of course, empty swimming pools’ skateboarding was absolutely forbidden, that is why Z-Boys were watching over and had to flee from the police constantly.

Speaking about Vasopressin in Burning Chrome (1986), William Gibson wrote down: “Clinically it’s used to counter senile amnesia, but the street finds its own uses for things” despite police prosecution or governments’ creativity lack “the street” will keep finding “its own uses for things”, the not-imagined uses, the intimates ones, the shared ones. The street is that minimum unit which spreads out the new uses of things. The street… The trench of ideas.

Meritocracy & Minecraft

Olafur Eliasson project
Foto del proyecto de Olafur Eliasson. Fuente: Brisbane Times

In 2004 three tons of Lego pieces were dropped off by Olafur Eliasson into the AroS Aarhus Kunstmuseum of Denmark to encourage visitors to cooperate in order to create the city of the future. Playfulness and imagination helped to set a space of discussion to transform chaos into cooperatively well thought and well executed shapes.

Of course, building up cities is not just putting together some plastic pieces and reversing miniaturization machine to grow it up, but to consider some structural schemes mentioned above while speaking on Sim City game: transportation, education, sustainability, pollution, services, coexistence, social justice, etc. Which today are competencies of governments and their executive arms: urban planning.

Governance systems have been set in some virtual spaces as in MMORPGs’ in more or less emergent ways. The players of these games have set unwritten rules over the algorithmic pre-programmed rules of the game in a sort of meta-game dynamic. Some researchers have payed attention to these virtual (eco)systems and have claimed to incorporate their conclusion to real governance.

Several studies highlight the meritocracy’s rise in these massive worlds in which expertise level within the game is more valued by the players than others skills.  On the other hand, architects become more interested on making experiences inspired by environments like Minecraft. In this line USC architecture assistant professor José Sánchez is developing Block’Hood  (to be released in late 2015), a game that will allow us to play to build up our own neighbourhood taking into account some aspects such as sustainability among others.

To some extend is easy to understand all that kind of meritocracies from Multi-player Massive Games and minecraft-style creative planning are enviable and adaptable to our atomic reality, nevertheless any of those reality of bits includes the possibility of the Ludic Falacy, in which the MMORPG Meritocracy could be interrupted by string-pulling or corruption, or the inexhaustible resources of minecraft could be replaced by the scarcity resulted from war, natural disasters or multinational corporation voracity.

Skateboarding Zerg

Starcraft has been one of the most played Real-Strategy-Games in History, and also one of the most moddable. It is one of the both most-visited multiplayer virtual spaces and most intervened by the players, so to speak. Because it’s not a persistent space, Starcraft looks more like an Oldenburg’s “third place”.

Starcraft was designed to be a space with a lot of plasticity and modification possibilities, hence, the game itself offers the proper tools (editors) to configure new spaces and even new kinds of gameplay. Thanks to this the user community has created new ways of playing and some of them even have come to be new and profitable game sub-genders.

Going back to Z-Boys example and comparing with Starcarft community of modders we can observe a confluence of creativity and innovation thanks to ludic and spontaneous experiences carried out in unexpected spaces sometimes.

The difference between both examples is that, while innovation in Z-Boys occurs even with legal obstacles, while in Starcraft when facilitators are put in place. This thought allows us to emphasize a third role: in the case of Z-Boys, the City Council of LA appears itself as a repressive and controller government represented by police forces even when skaters were using empty and abandoned spaces; on the contrary, to the modders of Starcraft, Blizzard’s government stands as a friendly government, not only because it providad them with a ludic space but for having facilitated intervention tools for the space in which they can freely contribute with their own creativity, generating new experiences to share generously with others (which obviously also benefits Blizzard).

Speaking about both innovation and relationship between citizenship and institutions, the architect Teddy Cruz in his TED speech “How Architectural innovations migrate across borders” also mentions a case involving a skaters initiative, the San Diego’s Whashington Street Skatepark. The history of this skatepark tells us about space hacking, community organization and relatedness and civil confrontation against institutional and corporate bellicosity.

In this case is not about the Community wanting to distort or modify the uses of pre-existent spaces (that was the circumstance on Z-Boys’ swimming pools) but to generate new uses in a place where there was just an urban black hole, that’s when a Property (private or public) versus Urban Planning (citizenship) conflict appears on the scene.

To Teddy Cruz this reveals not  an economic crisis but an institutions’ one, which usually suffer from a lack of will, of creative intermediation, where institutions should rethink urban organization concepts and abandon the “City to Consume” model to embrace the “Participative/Productive Cities” one.

Playable Cities

The game sets up open spaces, spaces for participation. The Game and the City cannot exist without their citizens/players’ energy. However the game is an accepted space accepted by everybody, that is, built with rules voluntarily accepted by almost every participant and, in some cases, even adapted, regenerated and reformulated by them.

The mental image of Smart Cities usually is a kind of Hipertechnicized Magnasanti (check Dholera City video) where technologies (and the corporation which supply that technology) propose dreams of efficiency, transportation, surveillance, etc. For local policy management teams, sometimes with a lot of good intentions, sometimes like Techno-fashion victims or techno-political advantage addicts. Technology is usually implemented one-way-only, that is to say, technology is used to save money and resources thanks to new ways of efficiency but afterwards the same technology is not implemented in order to show transparency in those same processes on how the savings affects the improvement of citizens’ services.

We incorporate new bulbs to save more than 50% of electricity, but the electricity bill is always rising up, we use more efficient cars but to fill the tank is much more expensive every day, we save water but we pay more month by month, councils save in energy, transportation and waste processing but municipal tariffs go up also… ¿What is wrong? Technologies are not but vertical policies are.

To Alfrink (2014, pp. 528) a gameful city [1] is a more human and more habitable one, a changing city, an inspirational city… more horizontal, so to speak.

I don’t want to create a polarization between the extreme concepts of “Smart” or “Playable”, it’s not black or white, but to offer the possibility to remix, the possibility for all those involved to redefine the rules of the game constantly by using the technology as a facilitator. I am speaking about a City where their inhabitants are living sensors in a system open to changes, a reprogrammable space to challenge the body and the mind, mixed spaces of meaningful interactions and knowledge (not just about big-data at the service of big-organizations), a re-appropriated city by the citizenship, a city of pleasures (not just of efficiency) in constant development.

Artistic-Ludic Questions.

Using a similar methodology to Olafur Eliasson, James Rojas invites to imagine the future development of your city through a game of modelling with household objects and with the help of facilitators who ask questions to players. As city designers we have to deal with these questions. In a second step the best answers are collected and something completely new and inclusive is built. How useful is the final result? A lot, not just the whole process but the creative contributions by the citizens who participate in the experience and, on one hand, because the intrinsic value of every answer, and on the other hand because stimulating the participation on the design of solutions to the city problems is a very healthy act for the community.

Rojas gives us a key from his process of imagining and building the city, pivoting the process on to the questions to be answered in order to solve the real problems of the city. Asking questions is one of the key elements in almost every creative process, questions to be answered trying to figure out how to change, improve, modify or eliminate something that should allow us to find  also the best possible answers. It is true that there are many efforts to include citizens in programs to find answers to their city problems, we have seen initiatives as iCity or Code for America to design and create software developments to give some answers to problems related to health, justice or transportation, however most of the time the questions are pre-set. The paradigm shift would be to include the citizenship into the process of thinking the right questions to ask, the more sophisticated and complex ones, questions that can only be asked  when deeply exploring our own habitat to contrast it with our deepest impulses and necessities. All these questions are not just operative or logistic ones, but also about our spiritual and emotional needs, unfortunately these are not questions of interest to Cisco Systems or Control4.

Ludic attitude might be a facilitator tool to find these new questions, a certain ludic attitude allows us to explore our environment generating new rules or challenging the current ones by new questions about how we inhabit and interact with the city.


There are some interesting artistic-ludic approaches like the urban hacktivist Florian Rivière, which  mixes jokes, improvisation, unexpected situations and a bit of playfulness to speak about the hidden uses of things, about the territory modification in order to develop emotions or even to produce new urban symbols like socialization and protest acts. Are there hidden and emotional uses in urban spaces? Can we take out of this context to create new ones?

Duncan Speakman
SHORT FILMS FOR YOU de Duncan Speakman. Fuente: Intermediae

Duncan Speakman proposes cinematic games guided by voices and objects that invite to live the city in very different and alternative ways than we are used to. His artwork is a kind of transcendental situationist drift. Could I meet the rest of citizenships of my city in new and unexpected ways? Can the city generate other socialization spaces and protocols?

Jeroen Koolhans and Dre Urhahn projects of painting both Río de Janeiro’s favelas and disadvantaged neighborhoods of North Philadelphia has been denominated “communitarian art”. It is very relevant for me how they conclude their TED talk pointing out how planning projects in a vertical way usually paralyzes initiatives but horizontal planning used to be more productive and operative. Is it possible to make Bottom-up models of civic participation work? Are horizontal models of decision making and acting from the citizenship useful and agile enough even when these impact the urban planning?

Gamification for Change

Are Gamification techniques up to the task of providing tools to help us ask the proper questions in order to find the more plausible answers in a citizen participation context? Despite games have been used in countless purposes in human history, gamification must mature to accompany the process –immature too- of citizenship participation. Why? Because games have demonstrated are a very suitable and powerful artefact to educate, to stimulate socialization, to boost and organize participation while engaging players through flow and commitment states.

In 2014 we faced the possibility of real uses of Gamification in projects to encourage citizenship participation. After some research on papers and projects we concluded there are some very important points to highlight about how gamification can be significant to this topic:

  1. Horizontality. Challenges, ideas and questions launched by the participants not only by administrations or institutions will encourage the initiative. Thanks to some gamification’s components is possible to embed participation flows in a horizontal way and evaluate them according to community support (crowdsourcing)
  2. Real time visualization or feedback after each users inputs. This is relevant because after user’s inputs it may take time (maybe months or years) to see these ideas implemented. However the gamified participation platforms can give real time feedback in the form of comments, evaluation, level or karma of the people who participate.
  3. Status and Recognition of participants. Related with the previous point, evaluation and recognition from others is one of the most powerful motivators as Maslow pointed.
  4. Sense of belonging to Communities or Groups. The recognition received from others and the sense of being supporting similar initiatives as others helps to create communities of reciprocal interest which are essential to fight the Kafkaesque sensation of facing a rigid system which outrivals us. Storytelling can push this sense of belonging to communities.
  5. Identity Construction. The participant should be able to develop and construct his/her identity through both the groups of interest he/she belongs and the quality and typology of the inputs and implication on her/his topic of interest. This participation encourages new types of socialization with new people and groups of interest and stimulates personal growth and improves self-knowledge.
  6. Results and real impact of inputs. The fact that existing platforms allow initiatives to be recorded and tracked let us to know when those finally get into reality thanks to notifications that provide tangible feedback to supporters. Pushing in the way of reminders and triggers are very important in gamification to engage the users and specially when some events may take time to be developed.
  7. Simplicity, usability and intuitive interfaces. Games and their interfaces are usually designed to produce a state of flow, this is achieved distributing players’ efforts and rewarding them with fluid mechanics of interaction and fun while at the same time difficulty, challenge and rewards are exquisitely balanced. Gamified participation platforms should not overwhelm users with too many initiatives and non-intuitive technology but being selective in terms of interests and offering patterned and rhythmic forms of participation.

Conclusions (triggers for):

This article doesn’t pretend to close the arguments but to highlight that many possibilities are opened to explore, to experiment ludic elements in collective processes like these of citizenship participation.

The Space-City is a space not just to inhabit but to communicate where initiatives emerge even when there are some deterrents on the way… “the street  always ends up finding its own uses for things”. The Space-Bit of videogames, thanks its simulation environments and plasticity, lets us start very dynamic experiments of participation, especially when editing tools are included.

Artists, whom with a ludic spirit have explored and challenged the limits of physic spaces and city coexistence, have shown us that they are a lot of questions to ask about our ways of inhabit and interact with the city, its places and its “others”.

Maybe we should realize that we can distort, re-harmonize the basic rules of this ludic-urban space by taking advantage of the ludic attitude / gamification. It would be something similar to give Magnasanti’s citizens a level editor, giving them the opportunity of stop being a number to become a living tissue of the city.


[1] In my case I prefer to use the term “playable” instead of gameful, that is, full of games.


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