In the last few years video games have developed in unexpected ways: elevated to genuine works of art, they are even celebrated with dedicated museum exhibitions all over the world. It is hard to disagree with the opinion that video games are a form of art considering the visually intriguing graphics, cinematic angles and fluid movements, not to mention the details featured in some of them. Yet not all video games are re-creative tools: there are games that can help improving memory and neural connectivity or can be used as therapy to relieve stress.
But could they actually have an impact on our living conditions and the architectural environment surrounding us? "Gaming the Real World", a documentary by Anders Eklund looks at three video gaming stories with design and architecture connections.
Thanks to the location data offered by Google Maps, with unlimited and free access to buildings, roads and famous landmarks from all over the world, game developers can design complex models of cities to present players with rich and engaging landscapes. But the documentary looks at the possibility of creating a digital urban landscape that could then become real.
The video game Minecraft has been used by the Block by Block initiative launched by the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) in collaboration with Mojang, the video game makers; "City Skylines" is instead a city building video game and "Block'Hood", a design game created by architect José Sanches.
There are interesting aspects in all the stories presented: Block by Block offers even to people with basic computer skills the possibility of improving their cities by easily creating three-dimensional sketches with digital Lego-like blocks. This process allows to make suggestions for example about how a neighbourhood can change and immediately visualise them on the screen.
The possibilities offered by Block by Block have changed the UN Habitat approach: in the past a professional would maybe stand in a room and ask people questions, showing them an aerial map of a city. Yet this undemocratic strategy was not successful as people struggled to understand architectural drawings. Using the tools offered by the video game guaranteed instead higher levels of engagement with enthusiastic groups of locals of different ages, who easily built models of areas lined up for redevelopment. Block by Block has so far reached different countries all over the world, with dedicated projects in Kosovo, India, Haiti, Nigeria, Somalia, Palestine and Mexico.
The film then follows the presentation to the Stockholm city council of the regeneration of an industrial area done using "City: Skylines" and the inspirations and work behind "Block'Hood". The latter invites players to understand how environmental challenges can have an impact on designing a project, such as pollution and energy consumption, and could also be interpreted as a diagram of how the city functions.
It is exciting to see that any of us can try and plan the regeneration of densely crowded areas and make suburbs less boring while suggesting how to make streets safer and possibly adding fun recreational spaces for kids. In the case of the Block by Block project the best thing is seeing how it really managed to get entire communities involved.
There is obviously the danger - highlighted in the documentary - that digitally planned cities or simulated urban environments may not work in real life (consider how cities have complex problems going from traffic to the management of sewage systems that can't surely be tackled by simplified games), so the best approach is to use these platforms as experimental problem-solving or educational tools, while maintaining a strong link with reality.
That said, it is intriguing to think that game engines may become more used in future (bear in mind that the same video game-based approach could be used to educate people about other issues, disciplines and industries, fashion included...): will the future of cities pass through a video game and could civic gamification take the place of gentrification, maybe introducing a more democratic planning to fix our cities and create sustainable urban environments? Time will tell.
Released in 2016, "Gaming with Real Life", doesn't indeed hold all the answers, but it poses some questions and suggestions about these issues. The documentary will be screened during the Architecture & Design Film Festival (ADFF; through 21st October) in New York (check out the film schedule here).