Play the City Buiksloterham (II) On the use of play to discuss the future of Buiksloterham

On Thursday November 26, around thirty stakeholders involved in the (re)development of Buiksloterham – a brownfield transformation and regeneration project in the northern part of Amsterdam – assembled in Pakhuis de Zwijger, to play the City Innovation Game Buiksloterham.

In March 2014 many of these stakeholders signed the Manifesto for a Circular Buiksloterham, stating their commitment to developing Buiksloterham according to the principles of a ‘circular economy’. The City Innovation Game was developed by Play the City in cooperation with The Hackable City, Pakhuis de Zwijger, and Stadslab Buiksloterham.

The game was designed to help illustrate the ambitions of different parties involved in the development of Buiksloterham, including self-builders, commercial property developers, energy corporations, and the municipality. By making their plans tangible on the game board during different rounds of play, participants are encouraged to collaboratively brainstorm, network, exchange knowledge and form new alliances to realize these ambitions.

As Frank Alsema, the initiator of Stadslab Buiksloterham, said in the introduction of the game-session, ‘there is no circularity without cooperation’. The game invited stakeholders to get to know each other better, learn about opportunities for collaboration, and address the complex challenges toward realizing their common goal: establishing a circular living- and working neighborhood.

The Hackable City-team was present during the game and wrote two analyses. In this report we focus on the medium of gaming, analyzing how the City Innovation Game allows players to collaboratively discuss opportunities and challenges for developing Buiksloterham into a circular city.

The Hackable City project claims that digital media technologies and culture increasingly come to shape the ways in which cities are made. This influence is not limited to the technologies only (machines or objects) but includes online social practices and institutional arrangements. The analog board game City Innovation Game Buiksloterham does not use digital technologies, at least not yet (that might come later). Nonetheless, it is related to the principles of digital game culture, and connects these with city making. Board games of course have existed for ages. However, using games in non-entertainment settings among professionals has only recently become a common and acceptable practice. Arguably this is because an increasing number of people have been brought up playing games and understand what games can do. Game culture today thus percolates into non-gaming situations without raising many eyebrows. Serious or applied games are seen as productive new ways to engage people with a variety of issues, from healthcare to education to city making. As we shall see, there are various reasons why games are apt to bring together various stakeholders and makes complex urban futures debatable in a collective and political way.

This report is structured as follows: first we outline how games can be understood in terms of their mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics (MDA). After reporting about the game mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics, the report evaluates the event and ends with some reflections on the potential of games for hackable city making.

Play the City Gameplay

Approach: using the MDA model to understand games and city making

The model used in this report is the so-called MDA model.[1] This is a common way to understand (video) games in terms of their formal rules and game-play (Mechanics), the (social) interactions these systems afford (Dynamics), and the play experience players have of the game (Aesthetics). The model is helpful to break games down into separate elements that can be studied in more detail.

  1. Mechanics can be analyzed by understanding the formal rules and aims structuring the game.
  2. Dynamics can be analyzed by focusing on the execution phase of the game as a system that affords certain player interactions, e.g. who can take turns and how can players react on each other.
  3. Aesthetics can be analyzed by looking at experiential game components, observing player behavior during the game and people’s responses, e.g. is it fun to play?

The advantage of using this model is that it can serve as a way to evaluate and inform further prototyping. By highlighting designer and player agency the model helps to better understand how game development and play are connected. A game designer usually enters from the side of the game mechanics. This is the part of the game (s)he has the most influence on. Players enter the game from the side of aesthetics. To some degree players shape their own experiences by bringing in a playful attitude, expectations, and a measure of literacy what it takes to collectively create an experience of “the well-played game”.[2] Game dynamics lie somewhere between what designers can do and what players can do, and is to a considerable degree an emergent phenomenon.

[1] Hunicke, Robin, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek. 2004. MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Paper read at Proceedings of the Challenges in Game AI Workshop, Nineteenth National Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AAAI ‘04), at San Jose, California. http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.
[2] De Koven, Bernie. 1978. The well-played game : A player’s philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Game mechanics: material setting and structuring elements

The game is played around a huge table with a 1:300 scale model of the Buiksloterham. The game board consists of a 3D realistic map of the area that during the game is to be build up with all kinds of small physical models (houses, offices, solar panels, wind turbines, parks, roads, waterways). In this instance of the game, all participants played their own role. In this first public try-out there are no explicit rules and no true gameplay (no way to win or otherwise end the game). This does not mean that the game is totally without rules. For one, the game was heavily moderated and therefore lead to structured conversation rather than emergent gameplay. We call this sequential play rule. The implicit rule also was that everyone behaves in a civil way and waits to take turns to “play” their stakes. In their introduction Frank Alsema (Stadslab Buiksloterham), Khashayar Ghiabi (Pakhuis De Zwijger) and Ekim Tan (Play the City) explained that one of the aims is to decide on the rules together with the players. The game furthermore consists of the following structuring elements:

A. The physical setting: a large table with 1:300 model Buiksloterham

B. Sets of game objects that were used to populate the game table with things to talk about:

  1. Resources such as buildings, infra, public green, renewable energy;
  2. Innovation cards to build business case models for categories like energy, water, materials and waste;
  3. Money that people can invest (not used during this edition).

C. The timeframe: after the introduction there were three more rounds planned of about 45 minutes each. . These rounds consisted of two sub-rounds: free interaction and collective and sequential reporting. Altogether, the following rounds were announced:

  1. “Position and Vision” – participants briefly introduce themselves and state their ideas for Buiksloterham.
  2. “Buiksloterham Now” – what are current plans and what is already present at the Buiksloterham? During this phase people individually and together set out to populate the game board with their stakes.
  3. “Buiksloterham Now or Never” – what is needed for Buiksloterham to develop into a Circular Economy? During this public round people spoke about their stakes and ambitions.
  4. “Buiksloterham Soon” – what steps can we take to get there? In this final round people discussed what was needed to achieve their roles, and what coalitions they saw as potentially productive.

Game dynamics: playing and interactions

In the first round participants explained what they are currently doing in the Buiksloterham, and what they envision for its future. The group turned out to be fairly large with over 30 initial participants. Participants were also varied: from housing corporations, investors, water and energy companies, architecture offices, Amsterdam municipality, pressure groups, local entrepreneurs, social workers, inhabitants and people from adjacent neighborhoods. Notably, some heavyweight stakeholders in the Buiksloterham were not present or under-represented.

Already during the introduction, some informal playful interactions could be observed between participants, many of whom knew each other from previous events and negotiations. Little jokes were cracked and fun was poked of each other as a way to break the ice and release some tension built up in advance. Yet at the same time there seemed to also be some apprehension during the round of introductions. Some people were not yet ready to openly put their cards on the table.

In the next round participants were asked to put cards and resources on the table to reflect their current investments. The game masters played a very important role. They were Ekim Tan, Khashayar Ghiabi, and Frank Alsema. They welcomed new players to the board, explained the game and aim, and took turns in inviting players to speak. Their role as game masters was not limited to moderating the three rounds. During the informal breaks they actively helped and spurred players to invest and stake claims on the board.

The second and third rounds started with free interaction between players. During these non-plenary and more informal rounds people started to chat with each other. These informal moments seemed to stimulate informal interactions and getting to know one another.

During the second and third rounds plenary dialogues emerged about ambitions, plans and obstacles. During these discussions, players together signaled and attempted to formulate obstacles in more precise terms. Moreover, players were thinking about potential solutions together. Another observable dynamic was that players shared actual knowledge about the neighborhood, like who owns what plot, what is already there, what is the most current state of affairs. An example of this information-sharing dynamic was how several players talked about the former incinerator plot, which has polluted soil, and a large housing corporation having developing rights.

Much of the information sharing, analyzing and ideation was done in a complementary and affirmative way. However tensions arose too, during the informal in-between moments and during plenary discussions. During round one I spoke with several smaller stakeholders. A local developer who owns a plot and building feels that smaller initiators and innovators are not consulted in developing the Buiksloterham area. In his view it would be easy for the municipality to consult people and invite them to the table. Another person from a green initiative feels that the government may have high ambitions with circularity and sustainability, but that their rules do not match and often conflict with these aims. During the plenary discussion other tensions emerged, like those between CPO (“collective private commissioning”, i.e. self-building collectives) initiators and investors, or between smaller and larger parties in the area. Stakeholders did not always agree about the investment pledged for a truly sustainable circular agenda. Some smaller stakeholders felt that the larger parties spent too little on these aims. Another tension was a difference in knowledge levels between more advanced collectives and starting collectives, which can be a hindrance to equal investment of time and resources in new coalitions. Finally, an interesting tension that emerged was between local inhabitants and institutional stakeholders like Waternet. Self-builders are putting their energy in managing the scarce green public spaces in the Buiksloterham, but they need actions from institutional partners like Waternet. In short, the game elicited a fairly detailed quick overview of the main questions, issues, and tensions in the area. It should be noted that not every stakeholder seemed totally candid about aims and ambitions, and kept their cards close to their chest.

Game Aesthetics: experiencing the game

In terms of the experience of the game, a number of elements can be identified.
First, the game board acted as a “focal thing” for group conversations.[3] This term is derived from philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann, who considered the fireplace as a social setting to convene around in the house without necessarily having very intense face-to-face discussions with a lot of eye contact. Similarly, the game board provides shared view of the Buiksloterham area. It makes abstract discussions and launching ideas far more concrete by allowing players to point out specific locations and shuffle around cards. In addition, the game boards acts as a co-creation tool that enables people to create new things on the board and collectively make the game boards “theirs” by doing things together on the board. Speaking and thinking out loud around the visually evolving board creates an energetic feeling of “we can make a change”. Participants were engaging with each other’s plans, were showing interest, and making connections. The more concrete the ideas the better. Abstract ideas without a physical anchor cannot be easily visualized on the game board. Where would one put more abstract issues like air quality or social equality? How can you resolve conflicting ideas about urban futures on the board?

The play experience was, to a large degree, mediated by the game masters. The moderation was done in an informal and personal way, making the gathering light-spirited and constructive. Participants were addressed by their first names, and the moderators had a good background overview of who is who, and how to forge connections.

The relative equality between players in terms of who are allowed to speak, and who may develop initiative, creates a level playing field and contributes to the play experience. In fact it seemed as if the smaller initiators were more proactive had more to say than the larger institutional players, who sometimes remained more subdued and reactive in their contributions.

[3] See Verbeek, Peter-Paul. 2007. Devices of Engagement: On Borgmann’s Philosophy of Information and Technology. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 11 (1), http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v6n1/verbeek.html.

Play the City Gameplay

Evaluation

In this section I attempt to combine a provisional evaluation of the game along the MDA model, with some possible ways to think about development of the game for further prototyping and testing. It should be noted that different games may be deployed for different ends. For example, strategy games are more conducive to investigate potential futures and build coalitions between players; simulations can be ways to test out scenarios and receive instant feedback on actions; social games can be ways to convene a group of stakeholders around an issue, and allow trust to be built; educational games might be used to learn new facts and strategies. Further research needs to be done in order to find a proper match between the game type, an urban issue, the main agents, and the setting.

In the project hackable city we attempt to understand and influence new ways of making the city by learning from hacker culture. To this end, we have identified from literature three elements of hackable city making that together help to understand how city making could be made more open to others with the help of digital media technologies:

  1. Hackability is an affordance of systems at the institutional level, referring to openness, flexibility, modifiability, and resilience. For example, the current system of energy provisioning is made hackable by allowing people to feed energy obtained through solar or otherwise back to the grid, and by self-organizing in energy cooperations.
  2. Hacking is a social practice and mode of organization, referring to sharing practices, networked peer-based production, meritocratic reputation management, and learning by doing. For example, sharing knowledge in an open way enables people to quickly learn and innovate, and share alike, and create communities.
  3. The hacker ethic is an attitude, a mode of addressing problems in playful, inquisitive ways through tinkering, while alternating between problem-solving and problem-seeking. For example, many self-builders in the Buiksloterham have a “can do” mentality and are experimenting with a variety of solutions for circular cities.

 

We will see how these three elements of hacking the city are supported by a game like City Innovation Game Buiksloterham.

Mechanics
The mechanics of City Innovation Game Buiksloterham are modeled on reality. They attempt to simulate this reality to a certain degree, albeit necessarily with some simplifications, otherwise it would become too complicated. It is important to realize what is simplified and what is left more or less in its “as is” state. This is what allows games to act as tools to enable hackable cities: cities people feel they can shape and make. Oftentimes the sheer complexity of cities seems to stifle people from becoming actors. Through deliberate simplification, games open up a horizon for understanding and action. People can become active players with agency instead of mere consumers, users or subjects. A game makes the city hackable.

In City Innovation Game Buiksloterham these simplifications involved the spatial bracketing of the setting. In “real” cities, a neighborhood never exists in isolation but on the game board it does. Further, abstract issues were not afforded by the material setting (and thus functionally left out of the gameplay) as they could not easily be placed anywhere. A number of complicating issues in the area like soil pollution were not made playable. The range of agents on the other hand was a fairly adequate representation of the actual stakeholders, and their sometimes diverging interests.

Dynamics
A setting like City Innovation Game Buiksloterham allows complex dynamics between people to emerge. People can form bonds of trust, new coalitions, and exchange knowledge about the area and opportunities that enable the self-organization of collective practices of hacking the city. At the level of the dynamics, the game allows social practices of hacking the city to emerge.

Aesthetics
At the level of aesthetics, City Innovation Game Buiksloterham stimulates people to develop a playful hacker ethic, envisioning themselves as change agents and fostering a “can do” mentality and sense of agency. The game demonstrates that putting together a group of people around a board always triggers interactions and playfulness. How do you nudge players into a playful mood, and stimulate creative tinkering? Crucial in designing games is how to make people take the plunge into the proverbial “rabbit hole”.

Hackable City Strategies

In our research we found that projects that we have labeled as ‘hackable’ use of a number of strategies, that often take the form of media platforms or events. In the City Innovation Game a number of these strategies are operative at the same time. The table below gives a brief overview of these.

hackable city strategies

Final thoughts

It may seem strange to address a serious urban problem via a game. Playing games seems to have little to do with urban developments. There are at least two reasons why games are excellent media to bring together various stakeholders and makes complex urban futures debatable in a collective and political way.

Dealing with complexity
It is frequently stated that society has become more complex and risky. Many people and organizations acutely feel the pressure to become adaptive and resilient to cope with the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world, in which everything seems connected to everything else. Business as usual will no longer do, it is said. Games are ways to learn how to cope with complexity and uncertainty. Games are systems with unpredictable outcomes that allow players to experiment in a safe space without their actions having grave consequences. Games have become an acceptable legitimate way to try out alternatives for the future.

Making decisions collectively
Another reason is that games are great ways to discuss the future of cities in a collective way. Games are a means to make urban design “political”, in the sense of being about real visions and decision-making rather than a mere technical matter of making optimal choices. A game like City Innovation Game Buiksloterham actually makes people aware of potential new interactions and relationships in their city by playing. Shifting relationships between actors are part of the lived experience of the game. Especially in an urban setting this seems particularly urgent. City Innovation Game Buiksloterham moreover is a tool to explore paths that people need to walk to achieve their goals. Not only does the game ask “what if..?”, it is also a tool to ask “how to..?” To shape and make the future of Buiksloterham we might need to play much more often.

A final note was made about using the game as a continuous tool for the development of Buiksloterham. A variety of actors said that it would be really helpful to use the game also within stakeholder-organizations – such as the City of Amsterdam or Waternet – to get a better understanding of the developments in BSH as well as to synch the approaches of various departments within an organization. And whereas this session had a very open format that mainly was meant to introduce parties and their plans to each other, it was also envisioned that it could be very useful to develop a number of more specific scenario’s within separate game sessions, by for instance focusing on the bio refinery or energy production and exchange within the area.

A full report of the City Innovation Game Session can be downloaded here

Play the City Gameplay