Building a City with an iPad

Digital games can be addictive time wasters, but many consider them the most influential cultural invention of our time. The average game player is thirty years old, and the most frequent game purchaser is thirty-five. Since games are already a part of many people’s every day lives, it is no wonder that they are becoming a tool for education and business. Could games be used in urban planning and in envisioning the changes in our built environment?

I’m not a gamer, but sometimes I like to take a peek at what the industry has to offer. Recently, I tried Megapolis, an iPad game in which the object is to create and manage your very own city. You start off with an empty lot and gradually add buildings, roads, and the necessary energy and water resources for your city.

Running your Megapolis city requires people and virtual money. Adding residential buildings increases your city’s population. Building production facilities, shops, cafes, and so on provides you with sources of cash. It’s also a good idea to make your city a pleasant place to live by adding parks, trees, playgrounds, and statues.

As the city grows, so does the need for energy and water. You can choose between solar, wind, thermal, and nuclear energy. More people move in, and Megapolis urges you to build more infrastructure.

The makers of Megapolis have made the game social. You can help neighboring city builders by sending gifts and sharing news about your accomplishments. You may even feel tempted to start competing with others. The game does not require that you use real money, but if you want to speed things up and create really spectacular pieces of architecture, you’ll have to use your credit card.

Megapolis makes you aware of many aspects of developing the built environment. For example, you have a limited space to use for your city, so you need to consider carefully how to distribute your assets. Will your creation become a “garden city” or a densely populated megalopolis? Will you buy the nuclear power plant that will provide all the energy your town needs in one location, or will you cover a large area with less efficient wind turbines and solar panels? Will the nice park have to go when the game demands more resources to support the population?

The game requires a fair amount of ongoing attention. I built my city over the course of one week, during which I constantly received reminders from factories or stores that required refilling. I didn’t have time to keep up with my city’s progress, so I decided to end the experiment.

Though Megapolis eventually became quite irritating, it did a good job of demonstrating the potential of games in planning and education. Instead of an imaginative environment, why couldn’t a game simulate the real thing? Perhaps someone is already using games to involve people in urban design and decision-making.

What city-building games have you tried? Did you learn anything about urban planning from them? Please provide links to related sites in the comments.

Photo: A screenshot from Megapolis, a city by player “Alice”