We recently had the opportunity to play the new version of SimCity, a city-building game series that has been popular for over 20 years. It’s a fun approximation of urban planning, but despite its intricate detail, SimCity can’t be used to make virtual approximations of real cities that have value to designers and planners. Betaville--a multiplayer simulation for real cities--can.
Designed by Carl Skelton, the founder of the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center, Betaville is actually inspired by SimCity. He tells the BBC in an interview: "One of the ways that SimCity was an inspiration was to see the number of human lifetimes that people paid for the privilege to be able to do this. … That told me something about the potential and the pent-up competence in these matters."
The open-source simulation lets users walk or fly around the streets of New York City (other cities will be available in the future), looking at real-life buildings, their energy usage, and whether it would be possible to heat them with alternative energy. The heart of the simulation, though, is a feature that lets users build up entirely new structures in the virtual representation of NYC. Betaville can accept 3-D models from a variety of tools, including Google Sketchup and Autodesk Maya.
Levis Reyes, a designer who uses Betaville, built Aqua Pods, a mixed-use development that sits between New York and New Jersey. Another designer with the username gary38 came up with the Verde Tower, an egg-shaped building with an external wall that doubles as a place to grow vegetation. Gary also proposed the Jan Bridge, a highline promenade in Brooklyn.
So what’s the point? Betaville’s website explains: "In essence, we set out to create an effective platform for the parts of the design and planning process where it has become practical for broad participation and engagement to be most effective: as a matter of course and in a spirit of creative collaboration in the times between and before the formal/professional/really expensive design development process kicks in."
Betaville isn’t the only city-building simulation that goes beyond gameplay. UrbanSim, a simulation system used by cities around the world, lets players see how infrastructure and policy changes impact everything from greenhouse gas emissions to housing prices.