Playing a game is ultimately about decision-making. Those decisions rely on many things: personality, experiences, political leanings, speculation. And while we can make a rational decision based on our intuition and knowledge of a scenario, each decision has a future knock-on effect that no-one can predict. It’s a game of chance—and that adrenaline-inducing feeling is why we keep on playing. In this interview, Dr. Ekim Tan brings the exhilarating experience of gaming to urban planning through Play The City, a consultancy that provides collaborative services to cities and communities seeking to design and shape neighbourhoods and policy.
City gaming session in Cape Town. Credits: Play the City.
HARRIET THORPE What led you to explore gaming and urban design in your doctoral degree at the Delft University of Technology?
EKIM TAN My background is architecture and urban planning. My PhD looked at chaos theory and how its principles can help us explain the complexity of cities. I was researching Christopher Alexander, an English mathematician and architect who conducted experiments in the 1980s to understand how to simulate decision-making processes in design. In particular, situations where there is more than one decision maker—such as in planning and urban design—and how these decisions can be made in a holistic way to reach a meaningful result. He explores all this in his book, A New Theory of Urban Design (1979). His experiments placed multiple designers around the table, encouraging an incremental and improvisational process—a designer comes forward to make a choice, others discuss it, then they decide to veto or keep it on the table.
Chaos theory suggests that the order of complex systems is mostly based on random decisions that remain consistent.
Alexander never called them “games”, but from a theoretical perspective, it was helpful to see how decisions are made in a complex system. You see how often a few decisions made early on in the process can be of extreme influence later on. Chaos theory suggests that the order of complex systems is mostly based on random decisions that remain consistent. I started to see how “game dynamics” were emerging through these experiments, and I knew something was there to explore further. My interest in gaming did not emerge from entertainment but from design, collective decision-making and how game dynamics can help us.
How can we encourage greater participation in decision-making rather than relying solely on a single designer?
As cities are becoming more and more complex, collective design is critical. For example, Istanbul, where I am from, is a big city that is very difficult to manage and is heading towards 20 million people. Beyond architecture, the social sciences come in. You have to understand the city on many levels from economy to ecology. Above all, I’m interested in the people for whom we are designing. How can we evoke collective storytelling in design-making processes? How can we encourage greater participation in decision-making rather than relying solely on a single designer?
When I moved to the Netherlands to study urbanism in Delft in 2004, I started understanding and comparing the “bottom up” vs. “top down” styles of planning. Cities that are bottom up are more informally organised, like Istanbul. There is no formal planning involved, but there are certain simple rules that make the city work at an infrastructure level, albeit not all the time. On the other hand, the very controlled “top down” cities that we have here in the West are more sterile, they follow formal rules, and yet sometimes have other problems, like underuse. I started exploring these mechanisms alongside the idea of complexity theory, and how we explain and describe the motion of cities.
HT The ambition of Play the City is to work with public and private groups to tackle complex urban planning challenges in new and existing communities. Could you tell us more about “City Gaming”, a method that you developed during your PhD and then launched as a commercial research enterprise? What types of design, skills and technology do you use?
ET The postgraduate test environment at Delft jumped quickly to a city scale when society started seeing the relevance of participatory processes. We started using cities as laboratories to develop our method. The first few projects we had were based in a university setting or cultural institution, but very soon, cities started actually buying our method. So the PhD became the gaming method that we—a group of urban planners, architects and programmers including Muge Yorganci, Ulas Akin, Adrian Co and Txell Blanco—started implementing for our first city-scale projects including "Play Oosterworld" in Almere, The Netherlands and “If I were the Mayor” in Istanbul.
Players enter the game as individuals, then they are grouped based on visuals and then they start lobbying.
The game itself is a tabletop game, where people physically meet and can be supported by digital tools. Sometimes it’s a website, sometimes an app, sometimes an algorithm that gives feedback to people playing, telling them how much a plan would cost. Lately, we are doing more physical and digital hybrids. Players enter the game as individuals, then they are grouped based on visuals and then they start lobbying. As plans start developing, experts provide feedback. Part of the game is generic, including data cards and game blocks—which we designed 10 to 15 years ago—while the other half is very localised, based on GPS data. The game keeps learning; it’s basically made up of sets of data—on housing, mobility or water, for example. Each time we apply a new locality, it becomes a better database. Then we see which parts are relevant to new localities and we can quickly tailor it.
The game keeps learning; it’s basically made up of sets of data—on housing, mobility or water.
There are so many different processes and disciplines involved. You have to be able to visualise the game and make it feel concrete, for which we use data visualisation and graphic design. But it’s also communication science—how do you communicate the game to different groups of people—experts, politicians, policymakers or illiterate community members in small townships.
City gaming session. Credits: Play the City.
HT Why is it important to bring games and gamification to the design industry?
ET I think it removes a lot of the jargon from the discussion, which enables us to reach a lot of people. When you play the game Monopoly, you might not understand what capitalism is, but soon you start calculating and monopolising a block and making money—you understand the dynamics more easily when you remove the jargon.
One thing that is important is the idea of losing a game, so you better understand the risks. Then you can restart and elaborate on different scenarios and then play it again. It gives you the opportunity to learn before you make mistakes in reality. That’s why it is used a lot in the early stages of the design process—reports can be made on the advantages and disadvantages of a certain scenario.
We say we need 900,000 homes by 2030, but who are we designing them for?
Most of the time in the policymaking world, we forget for whom we are designing. We say we need 900,000 homes by 2030, but who are we designing them for? Policymakers are looking at the social demographics of who they are designing for, but they are separated from them— the game brings siloed groups with the city together so they can talk.
HT You’ve applied your "City Gaming" method at an urban scale in Almere in The Netherlands to make big decisions such as the future placement of homes and road layout. How did that happen and what have been the results?
ET We first started working with Almere in 2009. At that time, we were too radical for them. Then, in 2012, a “rule-based” master plan—meaning a plan that does not have a frozen final blueprint but varies by simple values or principles and can be understood and adapted by many stakeholders—by MVRDV was launched for the urban expansion of Almere by 40,000 new homes. They hired us to test it out. They hired the game for two years. Over that time period, we set up around 50 sessions in a gaming room inside a former bookstore in the old centre of Almere, so that people could join in and play.
We trained “game masters” to run the games and then invited the landowners, the municipality, adjacent municipalities who also have ownership of land in that particular plan, students, farmers and future residents. All these sessions gave very useful feedback to the city and customised the rules set by MVRDV. From rainwater storage, infrastructure and mobility, many rules assumed that individuals would solve some of the problems, but if they were to be solved collectively, people working in similar areas with similar goals can then form an intersection model. It’s much smarter if they start working together. Lawyers could then assess the risk and logistics behind the models and then make a contract.
Imagine a scenario where the government takes a backseat and allows citizens to become the makers of the city.
Imagine a scenario where the government takes a backseat and allows citizens to become the makers of the city. There are certain things that really work collectively, for example gardening, opening a kindergarten and even education. But it also goes both ways. In Almere, citizens were initially collecting their own garbage, but they concluded in the end that garbage collection was not their job. Sometimes it’s good to remember why we ever invented the city council.
HT You were commissioned by the London Design Biennale curator, the Nieuwe Instituut, to design a collaborative game for the international participants of the Biennale. Can you explain how you designed this game and how it works?
ET The Nieuwe Instituut gave us a brief to make a game for Biennale participants to find common ground; a platform on which they could discover each other’s works before the Biennale. The game takes the form of a website. The landing page is a map of the world. It’s based on the map Buckminster Fuller developed for his World Peace Game, set within the context of the Cold War.
In our very first meeting with the Nieuwe Instituut, we both referred to it. During my research I discovered that the US Information Agency had banned the game, which Fuller had been planning to play inside his geodesic dome pavilion built for Montreal 67 International Expo. World War Two had divided the world into great camps of communism and capitalism, to which the game essentially countered by assuming that the borders didn’t exist and everyone could collaborate with each other. Fuller was able to present it on a TV show 10 years later, and now high school children in America play it, so it has really evolved.
It’s based on the map Buckminster Fuller developed for his World Peace Game, set within the context of the Cold War.
On the landing page of our game for the London Design Biennale, you can see all of its participants and there’s a filter that shows the themes of what they’re working on, such as identity, colonisation or climate change, and you can enter individual profile pages. What is exciting is that there is a function that allows all the players to earn points as they start collaborating with each other. It’s like a meeting place and there is a scoreboard. The collaborative actions are being recorded by the game.
HT What were the challenges of the process of designing this ‘curatorial’ game and what did you learn from it? Was it a success?
ET In part it worked the way we were expecting—but we also wanted to explore public participation. I think it could have been pushed further to experiment with a wider audience, but that’s something we can do better next time. It’s an experiment and it’s also an experiment for the curators and Biennale itself, so it was an unknown territory. Can we actually make a game in which people “compete” to collaborate and make meaningful connections with each other? That’s a very good question we should ask ourselves. So far we have seen collaborations where countries share research, materials and exhibition space. This is only the start.
Can we actually make a game in which people “compete” to collaborate and make meaningful connections with each other?
HT Do you think the City Gaming method can work in all global cities cross-culturally and politically?
ET Yes. After launching the game in 2010 in Istanbul, we have played it in China, South Africa, The Netherlands. Of course, the game’s implementation, interpretation and integration changes. For example, in 2019, we organised a regional game in Marmara, Istanbul, where the local mayors meet every two years to synchronise their priorities and agendas so they can work together. The first edition looked at the development of the economy in the region and the second edition in 2012 examined the impact on the economic development on pollution of the Marmara Sea. The next edition explored local food production. In Shenzhen, we are currently working with a local politician who really believes in the inclusion of the young factory workers in new plans for the community. In all places across the world there are people who understand that collectively made choices are more durable and sustainable for the planet.
Born in Istanbul, Ekim Tan relocated to the Netherlands after having worked and studied in the United States, Syria and Egypt. She trained as an architect at the Middle East Technical University Ankara, Turkey, then pursued a doctoral degree at the Delft University of Technology, titled “Negotiation and Design for the Self-organizing City: Gaming as a Method for Urban Design”. In 2008, she founded Play the City, an Amsterdam and Istanbul based city consultancy firm that helps governments and market parties effectively collaborate with stakeholders. Tan has lectured about cities and games at institutions including Technical University of Delft, Aleppo University for Arts and Sciences, Rotterdam Architecture Academy, Amsterdam Architecture Academy, Copenhagen Business School, and Middle East Technical University.
Harriet Thorpe is a journalist, author and editor based in London, covering architecture, urbanism, design and culture, with particular interest in sustainability, 20th century architecture and community. After studying History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Journalism at City University in London, she developed her interest in architecture working at Wallpaper* magazine and contributes to further titles such as The World of Interiors and Icon magazine. She is author of The Sustainable City (2022, Hoxton Mini Press), a book about sustainable architecture in London, and the Modern Cambridge Map (2023, Blue Crow Media), a map of 20th century architecture in Cambridge, the city where she grew up.