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 **


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.


* Monobanda is working together with Rajiv Krijnen.

** Fourcelabs is working together with Adriaan Wormgoor

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