Cities usually plan massive infrastructure in a top-down process: a handful of committed neighbors might show up at community meetings to plan a new subway line, but most people don’t participate. Maybe that would change if urban planning was more like Sim City or Mini Metro.
A new game called Brand New Subway lets anyone redesign the New York City subway–either starting from scratch or looking at a recent map and reimagining where future lines should go.
“I grew up playing Sim City, so that was a big inspiration,” says designer Jason Wright, who lives in Brooklyn. Wright created the game as part of The Power Broker competition, which called for games that take ideas from the Robert Moses biography and make them playable.
In the game, a click on the map adds a new station. Wright gave the current subway system an arbitrary “B” grade; for any new system you design, the game calculates a new grade on a curve, using factors like how many riders you’re serving and how much construction of a new station might cost.
Some people play for entertainment, but others are carefully trying to create better systems. “I’ve seen a lot of people design it for what they want to see, including bringing an express from their house to their job, or kind of mess around drawing maps for fun,” Wright says. “On the other side, I’ve seen some real hardcore transit nerds using it to completely rethink subways in the Bronx.”
Wright plans to add more sources of data so the game–which is still a work in progress now–could eventually be used as a planning tool. At a recent community meeting about a proposed new connection between Brooklyn and Queens, he watched planners pull out large maps of the waterfront and invite people to draw where they thought the route should go. The game could fill the same function, and make input accessible to everyone who doesn’t have time to attend planning meetings in person.
“I’m kind of hoping that this might facilitate that kind of thinking,” he says. The game could also serve as an educational tool. “I also heard from some people who hadn’t been following the plan for the 2nd Avenue subway, and then it gets them thinking well, is that right? Is that where it should go?”
Ironically, Robert Moses, the inspiration for the game, was known for his top-down design, not seeking public input. But games like this have the potential to help make urban planning more democratic–and help give people an easier way to contribute suggestions before infrastructure is built.