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.