Playing against vacancy: architects and game developers create games for urban change

[this post also appears on The Mobile City blog]

About the project

How can temporary playful interventions be used to engage people with the issue of vacancy? The Mobile City is a partner in the new project Rezone Playful Interventions. In this project three teams, each composed of an architect and a game designer, collaborate to create a temporary playful urban intervention for the soon to be vacant factory De Heus Koudijs at the edge of the city center of Den Bosch. The aim is to involve visitors and stakeholders through play with both the particular location and the general issue of abandoned postindustrial heritage, and strengthen their sense of ‘ownership’. The project leads up to a public festival for urban play, opening on Saturday Sept. 14 2013 in the factory De Heus in Den Bosch.

The project is an initiative by the Bosch Architecture Initiative (BAI) and Digital Workplace (DW), two cultural organizations from the city of Den Bosch in the Netherlands. BAI and DW already teamed up for the development of Rezone 2012, a working game prototype for the Playful Arts Festival that addresses vacancy and abandoned buildings (see the essay about Rezone 2012). The Mobile City’s role in this project is to investigate both process and outcomes of the cross-disciplinary collaboration between architects and game developers, and provide inspiration, feedback, and conceptual underpinnings for the uses of play and games for ownership in urban settings.

 

Participating teams

The three teams participating in Rezone Playful Interventions are:

Maurer United x Marieke Verbiesen

DUS Architects x Monobanda *

ZUS Architects x Fourcelabs **

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These are interesting architects and game studios to work with. Each architecture office has a history of designing and eliciting playful interactions. They also have an attitude of metaplay: i.e. playing with the rules of the game through experimentation, stretching clear cut boundaries, and thereby redefining their profession. Since the very start Maurer United explores the edges of the architectural profession in playful ways. According to Marc Maurer this has led them to use game environments for modeling, and to create objects and situations that elicit playful behavior. DUS Architects have a track record in creating playful temporary interventions and exploring creative play and makership with new tools like 3D printing. ZUS Architects too have ventured beyond, and in the process redefined, the traditional boundaries of their profession through self-initiated crowdfunding and temporary spatial programming projects.

The three game studios in turn create games that often take place in urban settings and deal with spatiality and location-specificity. Their work thus ventures deep into the terrain of what formerly was the privileged domain of urban design professionals. Marieke Verbiesen is interested in creating interactive installations that have spatial and sculptural qualities and at the same time have an event-specific character. Monobanda makes embodied games that involve the senses and address specific (‘serious’) issues like dealing with conflict or energy questions. And Fourcelabs too creates games that move between learning through play and event-specific games.

 

Playful interventions to combat vacancy and strengthen citizen ownership

This exchange between disciplines is an experiment in different ways of city making. Rezone Playful Interventions engages with, and reflects on a number of present developments. The first of these developments involves the tremendous scope of vacancy in the Netherlands (over 8 million square meters of office space alone are currently unused) and the closely related issue of ‘shrinking cities’. The second is the shift in traditional top-down urban design and the dwindling legitimacy of expert knowledge and institutional strongholds in city development, and the perceived need to engage citizens in co-creating livable and lively cities through a sense of ownership. Third, the rise of ‘applied games’ and gameful/ playful design for more serious purposes and societal issues. (See this first post in a series of three on the Rezone blog – in Dutch – for a more detailed discussion of these points).

Oftentimes vacancy is approached in utilitarian terms as suboptimal use of urban space and loss of economic value. Social and cultural aspects are often forgotten. What is the impact of vacancy on the identity, morals and level of involvement of neighborhood dwellers? How can you prevent the disappearance of knowledge, craftsmanship, and innovation force, as a result of better skilled people seeking their fortune elsewhere and leaving a residue of those incapable of moving? This way, cities can rapidly spiral downward into diminished livability and participation, and increasing vacancy and accelerated decline. The assumption in Rezone Playful Interventions is that changing circumstances necessitate a different model for urban redevelopment than yet another economically driven long term strategy. The challenge now seems to target vacancy through quick and temporary interventions with a strong cultural character in order to attract and keep those people tied to a specific site. For Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (who wrote the famous book Homo Ludens) play was not just an element in culture, it was at the origin of culture itself. Therefore, by sparking interest in a particular issue and location and involving new stakeholders these playful interventions may be a way to create a new culture of city making.

 

Games for urban change: similar projects

Rezone Playful Interactions is a concrete attempt to contribute to emergent crossovers between architecture and game makers. Some of our sources of inspiration are:

  •  An edited volume called “Space Time Play: Computer Games, Architecture and Urbanism: The Next Level” (2007) by Friedrich Von Borries, Steffen P. Walz and Matthias Boettger.
  •  The Shared Space event organized by Virtueel Platform about the parallels between architecture and game development.
  •  The project Play the City by Ekim Tan and team, that has developed a method to and has been tested in (among others) Amsterdam and Istanbul.
  •  The professional practice (and publication) of architect Hans Venhuizen on what he calls ‘game urbanism’, which is about the practice of using games for cultural planning.
  •  A variety of applied games, civic games, serious games, games for change, gamification, and so on, that take place in urban settings (see these two posts for some examples).

 

The project follows up on the notion of ‘ownership’ that we have explored in collaboration with Virtueel Platform (e.g. researchpublicationstalkseventsand multiple workshops). This project also builds on Michiel de Lange’s ongoing research on games and play in urban settings, and the playful identities of city dwellers (e.g. articlechapterdissertationtalks). Lastly, the project is thematically tied to another activity The Mobile City is currently working on, namely to develop a program around digital media and post-industrial heritage for the Beijing Design Week in September 2013 and the Shenzhen Architecture Biennale in December 2013 (more about this project in a separate post soon).

 

See the Rezone Playful Interventions weblog for more about the project, in addition to the project website.

Also check out this short teaser video of the DUS Architects x Monobanda concept 3RD on Vimeo.

Note

* Monobanda is working together with Rajiv Krijnen.

** Fourcelabs is working together with Adriaan Wormgoor

Rezone the game: playing for urban transformation

[I posted this a few days ago on The Mobile City blog]

This is an essay I recently wrote for The Bosch Architecture Initiative (BAI) and Digital Workplace (DW) about Rezone, an applied urban game they developed to address the issue of vacancy in the city of Den Bosch.

In the near future we start a collaboration with them in a project about urban gaming and vacant buildings. More about this project soon here on this blog.

Dutch version of the article (pdf 95 kb)
English version (pdf 90 kb)

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Rezone the game: playing for urban transformation

Introduction

How do you tackle a pressing and complex urban issue like vacancy of buildings and underused land? Especially in times of economic decline it is hard to reach solutions through conventional means. Traditional parties involved in urban development are not inclined to invest and instead wait for others to make the first step. The Bosch Architecture Initiative (BAI) and Digital Workplace (DW), two cultural organizations from the city of Den Bosch in the Netherlands, came up with an innovative intervention: Rezone, an urban game that challenges players to ‘fight blight’. At first it may seem strange to tackle a serious and actual problem by means of a game. After all, playing games appears to have little to do with the work of urban professionals. How then can a game like Rezone contribute to involve stakeholders in developing their city? We shall see below how Rezone offers unsuspected potential to address urban issues.

About Rezone the Game

In the game Rezone (rezonethegame.wordpress.com ) players must keep the city safe from deterioration and vacancy by salvaging real estate from decline. Participants adopt one out of four possible stakeholder roles. In the case of vacancy these roles include proprietor (owner of real estate), mayor (representing the municipality), engineer (urban designer) and citizen (neighbors). The challenge is for players to not just pursue individual self-interest but to strategically collaborate in order to defeat the system, which is programmed to let the city descend into decay.

Rezone is composed of a physical board game with a number of 3D printed iconic buildings that represent the neighborhood, an augmented reality layer of real-time information about these buildings projected on a screen, and a computer algorithm programmed to induce vacancy. When the game begins all buildings are fully occupied. Then at alarming speed they spiral down towards total abandonment. A vacancy meter on the screen indicates the level of occupation from 4 (completely occupied) down to 0 (abandoned). Empty buildings act like a contagious virus that infects neighboring buildings too.

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To turn the tide each player has two pawns that they can move to a building where the problem starts to run out of control. Players need not wait for their turn: acting swiftly is key as the tempo is high. However, pawns must be placed in the right order, like in the ‘real world’. An engineer cannot just upgrade a building before getting permission from the proprietor and a permit from the mayor. In the end the citizen will have to start using the building to turn the tide for good. The proprietor takes the initiative by being the first to put a pawn near a particular building where vacancy looms, thereby upgrading the score from 0 to 1. A mayor can reinforce this upgrade by adding a pawn and bring the score to 2. The designer can keep a building out of the danger zone for a long period of time, whereas the citizen can intervene for a shorter stretch. When all buildings are out of the danger zone the players have defeated the abandoned city.

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A camera above the game board monitors QR codes on the pawns in real-time and registers the players’ moves. The game engine continually adapts to changes in the game. It is possible to program the game with scenarios for specific neighborhoods and buildings. In the case of Den Bosch, for example, the policy of stimulating creative industry facilities in the periphery has resulted in an increase of vacant buildings in the inner city. This substitution or waterbed effect can be programmed into the game.

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Initiators

Rezone is a collaboration between Rolf van Boxmeer of the Bosch Architecture Initiative (BAI, www.bai-denbosch.nl) and Tessa Peters of the Digital Workplace (DW, www.dws-hertogenbosch.nl). BAI aims to contribute to the spatial quality of the city of Den Bosch and organizes activities for both citizens and urban professionals. The Digital Workplace is an art and culture center that organizes artistic expositions and large-scale urban festivals.

Development of Rezone

The idea for Rezone emerged from the question how cultural organizations like BAI and DW can contribute to developing their city, despite the fact they cannot build themselves. Their intuition was to use digital media technologies and engage new audiences in designing the city. The initiators observed that the use of play and games in professional domains like healthcare and education advanced but lagged in the world of architecture and urbanism. At BAI the 2012 program theme was “Reset the City”. This connected the concrete theme of repurposing the city to the use of digital media and play. Rezone, as the to-be-developed game was dubbed, was developed with a starting grant from the Netherlands Architecture Fund (now Creative Industries Fund). The initiators got in touch with the department Game Design and Development at the Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU, gi.hku.nl). Under the supervision of Lies van Roessel, six international students in their third year have designed the concept and developed Rezone in 3-4 months fulltime. Rezone was tailor-made for the neighborhood Spoorzone, just west of Den Bosch central railway station, an area suffering from blight. Additionally, the Expert Center Games and game-design (www.expertisecentrumgames.nl) helped to define target groups and formulate the question. A distinction was made between people who would play the game (local stakeholders between 18 and 50 years old) and people who would be interested in the outcomes of the game (urban policy makers and developers).

Launch of prototype and future

In less than a year the prototype of Rezone was realized. This period included the distinct phases of ideation, concept design, developing a prototype, and public launch. On December 14 2012 Rezone went public during the Playful Arts Festival (www.playfulartsfestival.com), a festival for play and games in urban space. This three-day festival took place in the Spoorzone area in Den Bosch. The intention was to test the prototype during the festival in order to make improvements. Several lessons were garnered from players’ feedback. Players thought the game was particularly relevant to people who have an interest in particular areas that suffer from, or risk abandonment. Another lesson was that the game has a learning curve and therefore needs to be played with a fair degree of attention instead of casually. The software too needs further improvement. At the moment Rezone is fully under construction. The ambition for 2013 and beyond is to improve Rezone based on these lessons and stakeholder feedback, and to play the game on locations together with stakeholders.

Context: connecting to three trends

Now that we have a better view of Rezone we can address the question how this applied game can help to solve complex urban issues. To do so we shall look at three interconnected trends.

First, Rezone fits in the trend that digital media technologies increasingly intersect with urban space. Ten years ago the computer was a rather clunky device on or under the desk at the office or at home. Now it has become portable and blends together with mobile communication in the form of the smartphone. Digital media technologies no longer constitute a separate virtual realm but are increasingly woven into everyday life. Today’s city has become a media city. Media technologies shape urban relationships: how people relate to physical space, how they initiate and maintain social ties, and how they experience the city on cognitive and affective levels. Until now most digital applications attempt to make life in the city easier and more efficient for individuals. Rezone by contrast is a project in which digital technologies help to engage citizens with each other and their living environment.

The second trend Rezone connects to consists of a broad range of societal changes in, among others, the relationship between professional and layman, between politics and citizen, and between producer and consumer. Professional expertise is no longer self-evident. Driven in part by digital media and online culture, networked citizens now want to do it themselves. This DIY mentality and open source ethics of collaborating and sharing can be seen for instance in online ‘community curated works’ like Wikipedia or the Linux kernel. Groups of people spark innovations based on a shared sense of ownership. In people’s own neighborhoods and communities too many of these networked bottom-up initiatives spring up: from the collective sharing of private resources like cars and tools to starting a cooperative energy enterprise. In a time in which architecture is under pressure – financially but also with regard to the legitimacy of professional expertise – it is important that new processes are developed that allow citizens to become shared owner of the processes and outcomes of urban interventions. Rezone is an attempt to establish this sense of ownership through intrinsically motivated play and contribute to livable and lively cities.

Third, Rezone fits in a number of recent developments in the game design world where game are not just made and played for their entertainment value but also for a more serious purpose. These developments are known under a range of labels: serious games, games for change, applied games, gamification. It takes too far to address differences in nuance. It appears very promising to use games and play principles for specific purposes in order to contribute to solving a problem. In designing such games, proper balances must be struck between tensions like the intrinsic pleasure of playing and reaching a goal outside of the game itself, between simulating ‘real world’ complexity and simplification.

Games for social innovation

According to Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, author of the seminal work Homo ludens (1938), play is not part of culture but at its origin. Play spawns culture because it offers safe spaces for experimentation, innovation and new cooperations without failure directly having serious consequences. The use of games like Rezone in urban creation processes thus contributes to the creation of culture. In play citizens are not merely passive users of their city but can become active makers. By playfully engaging in co-creation they become ‘owners’ over their environment. Citizens then generate their own urban culture instead of leaving it up to others like governments, corporations and design professionals. Playful creation processes shape existing and new relationships between people and space, among different people, and ultimately between people and their selves. Games thus may be fuel for new maker identities.

In play various stakeholders can meet each other in a playful atmosphere instead of a serious negotiation table. By playing together without direct consequences, trust between stakeholders can be forged. The game itself is pleasurable to play and acts as a catalyst for potential follow-up actions on complex issues like vacancy. What makes a game like Rezone so interesting is that it is a simplified artificial setting in which real emotions can emerge that seep through the game boundaries into the ‘real world’. While playing something is at stake. Players feel emotionally attached with both the activity of playing and with the outcomes of the game. Moreover, Rezone invites people to assume temporary roles, to stand in their adversaries’ shoes. This may lead to better understanding of mutual standpoints through embodied experience instead of mere rational arguments and deliberation.

Concluding

Rezone is not a game for everyone (although everybody can play). It is an applied game for specific areas in development and particular stakeholders who have a real interest in a neighborhood. A process that is stuck can be approached from another angle through a game and be put back on the rails. Like almost any game Rezone is a radical simplification of a complex issue. Rezone itself does not provide solutions. What it can do is to put an issue on the agenda, convene various stakeholders around an issue, and allow them to discover horizons for action for themselves. And when people craft their own solutions, they will have a much stronger sense of ownership over complex questions like urban vacancy.

Presentation “Playfully taking ownership over your media city” (in Dutch)

As announced in the last post, on 6 March 2013 I gave a talk for the urban game project Rezone in Den Bosch about (digital) play and citizen engagement with the media city. The evening was a kick-off for a – hopefully – new project I am participating in. The crowd was a n interesting mix of architects/planners, media and game developers, (semi-)government and the cultural sector.

After my talk a lively discussion arose about the potential of play and games for citizen engagement.

Below the presentation that I gave that evening (in Dutch, pdf 1.2 MB).

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Radio show “Hoe?Zo!” about play, 12 December 2012 20:00 – 21:00 radio5

Next week on 12 December 2012 I’m one of the participants in the radio show Hoe?Zo!, about play, games and culture:

Hoe?Zo! legt spel op de snijtafel

Waarom spelen we? Hoe belangrijk is spel voor de ontwikkeling van een kind? Worden volwassenen tegenwoordig steeds speelser? Hoe belangrijk is spel voor onze cultuur? Welke invloed hebben games op ons gedrag? En wat doet spelen met je brein?

Hoe?Zo! zendt op woensdagavond 12 december van 20.00 tot 21.00 live uit vanuit het anatomische theater van Museum Boerhaave. De opname is te beluisteren op Radio 5.

Onder leiding van presentator Jeroen Dirks ontleden vier experts het fenomeen spel:
Louise Berkhout, gepromoveerd op spelgedrag bij jonge kinderen en docente aan de Hogeschool Leiden
Michiel de Lange, nieuwe media-onderzoeker aan de Universiteit Utrecht
David Nieborg, gamedeskundige en onderzoeker, Universiteit van Amsterdam
Louk Vanderschuren, hoogleraar neurobiologie van gedrag, UMC Utrecht

Wetenschappers met uiteenlopende achtergronden leggen elke twee maanden in Hoe?Zo! een onderwerp ‘Op de snijtafel’ van Museum Boerhaave. In het Anatomisch Theater werden vroeger openbare anatomische lessen gegeven: voor de ogen van een lekenpubliek werden lichamen uit elkaar gehaald. In die geest wordt telkens één thema zorgvuldig ontleed en van alle kanten bekeken.

Op de Snijtafel
Datum: Woensdag 12 december, live vanuit Museum Boerhaave, te beluisteren op Radio 5.
Tijd: Deuren open om 19.30 uur, uitzending start om 20.00 uur. Kom op tijd, het is live!
Toegang: Gratis
Locatie: Museum Boerhaave, Lange St. Agnietenstraat 10, 2312 WC Leiden, www.museumboerhaave.nl

Some future events…

September 25 2012
Will give a talk at “Stad, Spel en Digitale Media” at CAST in Tilburg. More >>


September 26 2012
Will give a talk and host a small workshop at the Urbanism Week 2012 in Delft. More >>

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October 4 2012
Will participate in the event “Hands-on Urban Place-making: Cultural Interventions As Planning Tools Green City Dialogue” at the Floriade in Venlo. More >>


 

October 8 2012
Will give a talk at the City Think Lab evening themed “Playing the City” at Pakhuis De Zwijger in Amsterdam. More >>

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Some past events…

May
Participated in a round table discussion with policy makers and humanities scholars. More >>

June
Presented at the event ‘Remediating Urban Space: Exploring Design Responses’ on 6 June 2012 at Plymouth University. More >>

Co-organized the Citizen Science conference at Utrecht University on 25 − 27 June 2012 in collaboration with Waag Society and 7Scenes . More >>

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July
Developed and gave a six-day workshop at the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moskow. More >>

Gave a talk at the Dutch E-culture Days during the Design Week in Helsinki for Virtueel Platform. More >>

Recent publications about digital media and the city

Below are scans of some of my recent (non-academic) publications about digital media and ownership in the city:

samenslimmer.PNG De Lange, M. (2012). Eigenaarschap: stedelingen betrekken bij hun stad met digitale media. In M. Kreijveld (Ed.), Samen Slimmer. Hoe de wisdom of crowds onze samenleving verandert. (pp. 152-153). Den Haag: STT (jpg 1 MB Dutch).


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De Lange, M. (2012). Digitale media en de stad: omarm de complexiteit. Architectenweb Magazine (nummer 48, mei/juni 2012), 60-63 (pdf 5.8 MB Dutch).


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De Lange, M., & De Waal, M. (2011). What Is Ownership and Why Does It Matter? Volume, #30 Privatize!, 40-43. (pdf 7.2 MB English). This is actually the introduction to the English version of our publication Ownership in the Hybrid City.