_TECHNOLOGY Digital Media

_If You Ran the City…

A new SimCity-style game uses public data to inform residents about the impact that real estate development can have on urban neighborhoods.

_Frank Lee

Lee is director of Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio.

Pretend you’re the city manager, and a real estate developer wants to build a supermarket on a parcel in your neighborhood. It would improve food access and bring jobs into the community, but it would also mean razing affordable housing. What do you do?

This is one of the game scenarios players will face in Simulated Interactive Management of the City of Philadelphia (SIM-PHL), a new SimCity-style game created by designers from the Westphal College of Arts & Sciences with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Open Data initiative. The game is set in the city’s Mantua neighborhood, an area that is part of a national initiative to support and restore marginalized communities.

Project leader Frank Lee is working with Philadelphia-based Gossamer Games, a game design company run by alumni of Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio, to release SIM-PHL for Android and iOS devices.

The city-simulator game uses public data from the city to inform residents about the impact that real estate development can have on rental rates, food distribution, crime, population flight, political struggle, gentrification and other forces that shape urban neighborhoods.

“Despite the significance of real estate data in the lives of the average Philadelphian, these data remain inaccessible, either by design, or because little effort has been made to present it in a format that engages the public,” says project leader Frank Lee, who is director of Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio.

In the game, players face complicated decisions about zoning, housing and the preservation of open spaces and historical sites. They must try to work for the good of the community while contending with challenges — all drawn from real-life incident reports in Philadelphia’s database — such as contested zoning requests, damage from natural disasters and political pressure.

“These are all difficult decisions and they all have serious ramifications for citizens,” Lee says. “If by playing this game people gain a better understanding of the real effect of policies, they can become even more effective advocates for their communities.”