Planning Magazine

Test Concepts and Go Beyond the Screen with the Latest City-Building Video Games

From Spider-Man to Cities: Skylines, creating communities has never felt more real — and more relevant — for planners.

Article Hero Image

The famous webslinger glides across New York City in a scene from Marvel’s Spider-Man 2. The videogame’s creative team faced challenges trying to create an authentic version of Manhattan that also allowed the titular hero to move quickly from one spot to the next — issues that planners deal with often in the real world. Photo courtesy of Sony/Playstation.

Gaming technology has come a long way in a relatively short time. From the cubic, ripped-from-a-textbook landscape appearance of 1997's SimCity to the straight-from-the-silver-screen look of Marvel's Spider-Man 2 in 2023, we've gone from measuring the appearance of games in bits to harder-to-quantify levels of immersion capabilities that go far beyond what we once imagined.

But as that technology has gotten more realistic, it also has expanded the ways people interact with it. Andrew Buck, AICP, senior urban planner and technologist at VHB and treasurer for the American Planning Association's Technology Division, is excited about where gaming intersects with planning.

"There are just so many opportunities to look at the urban experience or anywhere [else] from a pedestrian perspective," Buck says. "That can be used as a powerful planning — but also design — tool when deployed in the right way."

Josue Benavidez, design director for Insomniac Games (which created Marvel's Spider-Man and its sequel), encountered that intersection from a different perspective. The design process started with establishing the scale, which was set by the game's Central Park and Times Square, with the early goal of making sure characters could swing through the city at a speed that made sense for gameplay. To that end, street widths in the game are narrower than those in real-life Manhattan, and the game's average building heights are taller than IRL — a distinct advantage.

"We benefit from building the whole city at one time, whereas the real-world city was developed over centuries, which just means we have more consistency in street layout across the city," Benavidez says.

But the team also faced some real-world problems, like traffic flow — something with which planners have long had to contend. In this case, Insomniac needed to move the Manhattan Bridge but found they couldn't because of its iconic location in relation to the Dumbo neighborhood, Benavidez says. Instead, they had to redirect traffic lanes around the bridge to retain the composition.

Your friendly neighborhood webhead swings around New York City in Marvel’s Spider-Man 2. The creative team did extensive research, including resident consultations, to create an authentic virtual version of Manhattan.

When the makers of Marvel's Spider-Man 2 wanted to move a bridge but couldn't, they had to solve a traffic problem, an IRL scenario familiar to planners. Photos courtesy of Sony/Playstation.

When the makers of the game wanted to move the Manhattan Bridge but couldn’t, they had to reflow traffic — an IRL scenario with which planners are all too familiar. Photos courtesy of Sony/Playstation.

Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man swings around New York City. The creative team did extensive research, including resident consultations, to create an authentic virtual version of Manhattan.

"Early on, we had issues where we would quickly get gridlocks and massive traffic jams," Benavidez says, but they worked up solutions to solve them. "The traffic system is laid out in a way that provides adequate flow for traffic into and out of an area."

While gamers are spared the experience of navigating Manhattan traffic from the perspective of a driver, the attention to real-world detail goes a long way in building a world where the city feels alive and vibrant below as Spider-Man swings from building to building above it. (It also can be fun to see how traffic reacts to a superhero landing or a chase through the streets.)

City-building games — such as Cities: Skylines II and others — also are capturing the imaginations of today's planners to test new designs, engage communities, and more. It's not a new concept: the genre itself dates back to 1964, and the mainstream success of SimCity reportedly helped inspire a generation of planners.

The evolution of those ideas is interesting to Buck, who grew up alongside games and became fluent in technology-driven tools as he moved into the professional world.

"If I could design a city in SimCity, why can't I have access to those software sets today in terms of being able to visualize what's happening in complex urban areas and do these types of simulations?" Buck asks. "Games like Cities: Skylines are a great opportunity to think about ... concept-level iterations of what you can do in terms of designing — at least at a macro level — what a city could be."

Games and their sets of tools, he says, can be used to show others what is possible, from transit to elements of land use planning and zoning. They also can explain concepts of urban planning to novices and get them to engage in ways they otherwise wouldn't.

"It's a great tool for learning and experimenting. You can try a lot of different things in a safe environment," Buck says. Plans, policies, and land use decisions, especially if they are not carefully designed, can negatively affect people. Gaming, he says, "gives you an opportunity to do a simulation to see the potential results," including unintended consequences.

Cities in Motion tasks players with the transportation needs of a city over the course several eras, spanning from the 1920s to the 2020s, to see how travel systems influence an area’s growth. Screenshot courtesy Cities in Motion.

Cities in Motion tasks players with the transportation needs of a city over the course of several eras, spanning from the 1920s to the 2020s, to see how travel systems influence an area's growth. Screenshot courtesy Cities in Motion.

The Cities in Motion series, for instance, allows players to build, manage, and operate a transportation network to connect and influence how communities and cities grow, Buck explains. There are also various vehicle simulator games (Truck Simulator, Flight Simulator, and Train Simulator) that give players an opportunity to experience the networks they build from the perspective of a driver or user. Meanwhile, Cities: Skylines II allows gamers to build from the ground up and can introduce the fundamentals of municipal management, with elements of urban planning such as zoning, transportation, public services, and even taxation.

"This provides the user the ability to see positive or negative impacts that the combination of different land uses could have on their communities," Buck says. However, he notes that there isn't a strong tool that gives planners an "out of the box," on-the-ground, city-builder experience. "For a more professional-grade experience, there are game engine-based tools like Twimmotion or even Unreal or Unity game engines that can also allow urban designers to build places."

From gaming to practical application

Michael Allen, AICP, does not use video games as a tool — or at least he doesn't do so consciously.

"Although, I think subconsciously I might be looking to test my own theories on how city planning should be laid out and utilize those games to [do that]," he says. "I generally do it just for fun, but there's a lot of upside, a lot of potential."

Allen has been a professional planner for more than two decades, now serving as community development director for El Segundo, California. He played SimCity growing up but had never done more than "tool around" with Cities: Skylines until BuzzFeed sat him down to play it for a video.

"Unfortunately, that gave me another fun tool to play with," Allen says, laughing.

Allen says Skylines gave more flexibility to design and build than what he had seen in games before it, getting into some of the "nuance of land use and spatial planning." But there are other programs and software available that take a more scientific approach to those issues, which Allen thinks may be why games aren't used more in a professional setting.

Skylines and SimCity, for example, provide an entry-level understanding of how land use decisions interrelate and the impact they have on things such as traffic and the environment. But Allen says they still don't stack up to traditional modeling programs.

Michael Allen, AICP, got to see if his planning expertise translated to building his "perfect city" in Cities: Skylines. As he played, he found that some of the suggestions the game identified as he built (some more critical than others) were not only logical but also helpful.

"It's unclear to me in the games what the methodology is behind these impacts, other than some general intuition or assumptions the game developers made given their lived experiences," Allen says. "Take traffic for example. The games don't allow you to play with the varying degrees or adjustments that land use planners and engineers make every day through traditional modeling software to best understand land use decision impacts."

Planners, conversely, often use travel demand modeling software such as TomTom or similar programs for real-time trip generation, speed, queuing, signal timing, and lane configuration to better understand the impacts of projects — and mitigate the negative ones. If games, however, can better marry their platforms with those issues, Allen thinks they can grow as a tool for community engagement.

"It would definitely help create a broader understanding of the impacts of development, the impacts of land use decision-making for a broader audience," Allen says.

There are ways to practically apply the concepts from games to planning. Jason Baker — now a consultant who has worked on transportation and housing — designed three rough cities in SimCity and let the computer simulate what would happen with each for the final assignment of an urban planning class in the early 1990s. He's since used the game for reference to guide his thinking about city planning. But he notes the real-world poses different challenges.

"There isn't a [California Environmental Quality Act] in SimCity," he says. "There aren't neighbors in SimCity who come out and get mad if you want to put something there."

The planning aspects of video games aren't limited to city building. Some games are all about what happens when things are literally falling apart. Among them is Cascadia 9.0, a game created for research being conducted by a group of professors at Lewis & Clark College that examines what motivates earthquake preparedness behavior, especially in young adults. It has already garnered attention from emergency managers and educators.

Cascadia 9.0 — designed to gauge earthquake preparedness — shows users how “there are multiple ways to solve a problem,” according to Liz Safran, PhD, a Lewis & Clark College professor who created the game. Screenshot courtesy of Cascadia.

Cascadia 9.0, designed to gauge earthquake preparedness, shows users how "there are multiple ways to solve a problem," according to Liz Safran, PhD, a Lewis & Clark College professor who created the game. Screenshot courtesy of Cascadia.

Peter Drake, PhD, associate professor of computer science at the college, says the team worked to make the game easy to play. They also were keenly aware of and worked to address one potential roadblock of their own.

"Educational games are notoriously not entertaining," Drake says, noting Cascadia 9.0 keeps things interesting through mechanics and story, while still presenting the right information. "In a game, you want to have excitement and daring heroics, but the disaster management people we talk to, all the advice they give people is how to make your life as boring as possible in a disaster environment."

Liz Safran, PhD, associate professor of geological science at the college, says games also offer an opportunity to show people that "there are multiple ways to solve a problem."

Acknowledging the knowledge gap

While games are ubiquitous nowadays, that doesn't mean they are a fit for every planner.

Artificial intelligence, however, is making technology more accessible to planners, with more user-friendly natural language programming and an ability to generate incredibly realistic videos. Additionally, gaming engines such as Unreal are available for free to develop software, reducing the financial barrier. Still, you need to find people who know how to use the tools.

"It's more of a knowledge gap, in terms of anything, to entry," Buck says.

But custom-made games that can guide stakeholder discussion are appreciated by planners. The only real pushback he has seen is when tech is used irresponsibly.

"If it's not really adding to the conversation or helping in a real way or is misleading, that's when there tends to be pushback on it," Buck says. "I think people are open to it when it can help get everyone on board with an idea through providing a compelling visual that makes things clear — clearer than what you'd get out of a site plan or a static rendering or any of the traditional means of providing information on a design."

Bill Jones is an award-winning journalist and communications professional who resides in the vicinity of Chicago.