Co-creative Experiences – Serious Games for Spatial Planning

Planning a fast serious game
Figure 7: Planning a fast serious game during a conference by Marinha Grande: Stephens Theater

I´ve worked some years as an urban planning advisor for the Municipality of Leiria. In the beginning, it was very exciting because I believed we could deliver better results if citizens could participate in the ongoing decision-making processes. But, as time went by, this was not possible to achieve in practice. Some gatherings were not attended at all, while others ended in violent discussions with no concrete outcomes whatsoever. These results were very disturbing and demotivating for all.

Workshop playing session during UrbanWins
Figure 1: Workshop playing session during UrbanWins final meeting Brussels

Inspiration from Commercial Games

After leaving the job as an urban planning advisor, I went back to the university (University of Coimbra) to do a PhD in spatial planning. My thesis is about serious games. Since 2017 games are my work, either in analogue game design or serious game approaches. I came to think that games are the tools to deliver collaborative planning experiences. I believed it could be done because planning experiences are what many entertainment games provide. It should be possible to apply it to spatial planning. Pandemic, Magic Maze, The Mind and many other modern board games have inspired me. My mind was blown away after meeting Ekim Tan, Juval Portugali, and experiencing a game from the colleagues of Nova University in 2019. Games could implement the communicative rationality principles from Jürgen Habermas. We could engage participants, allowing them to express their claims and negotiate solutions while learning during the process. Would games like Suburbia and Between Two Cities be useful?  

Playing Between Two Cities board game
Figure 2: Playing Between Two Cities board game during a workshop about games and planning Lisbon: Nova University

Analogue games (board, card, dice and so on) are special. These games lack automatization, which in turn leads to higher player agency. The game systems are more transparent, being more adaptable. Learning from modern board game designs is useful to understand how to build games that simulate complex realities while being engaging. Eurogames build strong game economies, and American games (known as “Ameritrash”) explore narratives in meaningful ways. Learning from these two design trends help develop serious games, adapting to the necessary goals and targetting players.

The Outcomes the Games must Achieve

But developing games is not easy, and serious games are no exception. Serious games must be engaging and achieve objectives beyond fun. In the case of collaborative planning, the games should incentivize participation while delivering meaningful collective decisions. Players should freely participate, express themselves, learn, negotiate, and assume the game results as their own. If well done, plans can emerge and represent tangible decisions about what to do in a territory. The uncertainty and agency games generate fits in the urban complexity approach. Multiple agents plan and interact, having different power, resources, and knowledge. They can plan and shape a territory, individual or collectively. I tested my first game in 2019. Play happened during a class about regional and urban planning at Polytechnic of Leiria. The experience generated a paper about how to combine game components and mechanisms to deliver a playable experience over a Google map. This experience also explored design thinking processes. The game incentivized students to explore the territory and define solutions for the issues at stake. In this case, the goal was to support traditional commerce in the city centre. Decision-making was collaborative, emerging from the game rules and mechanisms.

Collaborative planning game over a Google map
Figure 3: Collaborative planning game over a Google map Leiria: Polytechnic of Leiria
Design thinking session after playing games
Figure 4: Design thinking session after playing games Leiria: Engineer School from Polytechnic of Leiria

Collaborative Planning in Games

Collaborative planning demands many skills from participants. Games require many of the same skills. This skills approach was tested in another experience at the city of Coimbra. This time the process was different, following game modding. It departed from two similar previous tests. In the first, transport games helped engineering students dealing with transport networks. In the second, MBA students played a modified version of Steam to define optimal shortest paths. At Coimbra, players participated in a meeting to define a common goal agenda for the academic culture and sports activities. I challenged them to play a sequence of games, aiming to identify the requisites that would help them collaborate more in the future. Games like Team3, Magic Maze, Telestrations engaged participants in identifying key concepts, such as communication, trust, shared power and knowledge to ideate collective projects.

Unexpected Consequences of Using Games for Learning

But simply using games is not a magic solution. During the experiences, it was evident that teaching the games and supporting doubts during gameplay is mandatory. Modern board games are not known to the masses. The questionnaires for each session showed that 10% or less of the participants knew any of these games. Sometimes more than 90% of the participants had never heard of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Azul, Codenames, or other popular modern games. Even when players understood how to play the games, the results were often not what the game facilitator expected. During a game about network planning, the players deliberately created their network not to be efficient but to block other players, just for fun. This unexpected result is a problem. Without debriefing that clarifies the purposes of the games and how players approached the games, playing can have opposite effects from what was desired. This need to deal with uncertainty and establish an interactive and collective learning flow is why debriefing and complementing the game activities is essential to build serious games. Behaviour analysis and addressing other topics related to the issues at stake is necessary.

The Challenges of Serious Games Design and Facilitation

Using games is challenging. Adopting and building a framework to use games beyond entertainment successfully is not easy. We can transform entertainment games into serious games or create them from scratch. In each case, mastering game design is necessary. Although this might seem obvious, in practice, this might not occur. There are examples of serious games and gamification developed without this game design expertise background. Who’s to blame? Despite games being as old as civilization itself, learning about serious game design is not easily accessible. Some books exist, but they are not enough, considering the challenge at stake. And most of the available literature aims directly at digital games. All games share some design traits, independently of the platform. Therefore, authors like Tracy Fullerton, Brenda Brathwaite, Lewis Pulsipher, Ethan Ham, and others recommend going analogue. Even for videogame development, learning how to prototype with tabletop games is useful. Of course, there are differences, and each platform fits better in some contexts than others. In my case, analogue games are perfect for fostering collaboration experiences. When participants agree to play a face-to-face game together, collaboration happens naturally.

Analogue serious game prototyping early stage
Figure 5: Analogue serious game prototyping early stage
Analogue serious game prototyping ongoing process
Figure 6: Analogue serious game prototyping ongoing process

Getting Inputs from Non-players

There are many forms of collaboration happening in games. But can the game foster collaboration even when people are not playing it? Inviting stakeholders to a collaborative planning game does not lead to effective participation. No one can guarantee that participants will attend and be engaged. Prejudices about games are real. And some individuals require seeing an activity and understanding it fully before participating. So, we cannot force people to play serious games. But we should not waste valuable inputs from those not playing either. This balance is not easy in practice. However, analogue games provide some solutions. Playing physical games with pieces and components, where we can see people interacting, is like a performance. If the dynamic is watchable, it can be engaging, depending on the game played. A recently published paper addressed this phenomenon. During a conference about transport sustainability, I invited the audience to play a fast game (less than 30 minutes).

Real Play must be Voluntary

Attendants could come to the stage to play the game. The game challenged them to define the local transport system by laying coloured strings over a map. The available strings represented different modes of transport . This dynamic and game set-up did not force the attendants to participate. Those more timid or suspicious were incentivized to watch first before participating. They could comment and suggest what to do, influencing the actual players. Planning experts and elected officials were the most engaged in participating in the game without playing directly. By doing this, attendants participated in the game. Collaboration happened without requiring all attendants to play directly. The analogue nature of this game allowed to adapt the game in real-time to the number of players available to play. Currently, I am working on another fascinating serious game to address urban security. In Urbsecurity (Urbact), I have been developing a methodology where the participants, through a gamified process, helped me in co-creating a game that is a decision-making tool. Although not yet finished, some positive results were achieved for this method when applied in cities like Leiria, Coimbra, and Viana do Castelo (Portugal).

Councilors from the Municipality of Leiria playing the UrbSecurity serious game
Figure 8: Councilors from the Municipality of Leiria playing the UrbSecurity serious game Leiria: City Council

Games are a Surprising Experience to New Players

What surprised me the most in these last few years was the game’s potential to be applicable for almost everything, even online. And modern board games have this potential also. Consumers are still massively unaware of these games. This one is the reason why they can be so impactful. People are not expecting the kind of experiences new games provide. When we invite casual players to play a cooperative game like Pandemic, they are usually astonished. Adults are used to considering games as childish activities, especially board games. They ignore that there are many different games. Most people never consider that their personality and personal preferences define what type of games they enjoy. Games are not all the same. Understanding player profiles is a key factor for the success of games.

It might seem surprising, but I also deal with game-based learning and serious games for health. In projects like Gym2beKind, health students learn how to use and develop serious games to develop soft skills and specific therapeutics and healthcare. Along my journey, games helped me support brainstorming sessions also.

health students developing serious games during Gym2bekind project
Figure 9: Health students developing serious games during Gym2bekind project Leiria: Health School from Polytechnic of Leiria

Games provide us means to enter the magic circle, and we can do it collectively, having fun and achieving serious goals simultaneously. I could not be happier when dealing with games and sharing game-based approaches. It feels like magic come true!

This article summarises a study carried out by Micael Sousa et al. You can read the full paper Fast Serious Analogue Games in Planning: The Role of Non-Player Participants in Simulation & Gaming, Sage Journals

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PhD Candidate at University of Coimbra
Micael Sousa is a PhD candidate (CITTA, Department of Civil Engineering) working on serious games for spatial planning at the University of Coimbra (Portugal). He has been researching analogue games and the systems that define tabletop games. He is also a game design teacher, serious game developer and creates content about board games.

Read his publications on Researchgate and see links to other content on Linktree
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