Urban Transition

Games are Political: Challenging Municipal Urban Planning Practices for Sustainable Development and Mutual Learning Through Game Co-Designing

Authored by: Mette Agger Eriksen , Maria Hellström Reimer , Majken Toftager Larsen

The Routledge Companion to Games in Architecture and Urban Planning

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138339026
eBook ISBN: 9780429441325
Adobe ISBN:




This chapter draws on experiences and lessons learned from a process of hands-on, reflective game co-design process. The case study was a part of the Urban Transition Öresund project (2012–14) which involved urban researchers, professional game designers, and civil servants working with complex, cross-sector urban planning tasks in four municipalities in Scandinavia. The process included framing, co-designing, testing, and playing the ‘Urban Transition’ game – explored in various real-world urban planning processes focusing on sustainable development. By analyzing four co-design and play-testing situations from the game co-designing process, the chapter aims to elaborate on games as formats for collaboration, negotiation, and mutual learning. The central claim is that games are political – in the sense that they can re-open taken-for-granted urban planning themes by drawing attention to value foundations and rules; can reveal assumptions about others by actualizing tensions and conflicts; and can challenge current and future municipal practices by highlighting situated, socio-material and collaborative interactions. Therefore, in urban planning processes aimed at sustainable development, games and game co-designing should not be seen as de-politicized quick fixes but rather as political platforms for challenging yet vital negotiation.

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Urban Transition

Introduction: Games and Urban Planning for Sustainable Development

An emphasis on ‘sustainability’ has become mainstream within many municipalities in Scandinavia. Yet, the understanding of the situated practice of sustainable development still ­varies greatly across different urban domains. During the last decades, urban planners and theorists have repeatedly pointed out that if sustainability is to be taken seriously, ‘urbanity’ in terms of time, place, responsibility, and relations must be radically rethought (Wheeler, 2013; Bulkeley, 2010). Seen through the prism of urban planning, sustainability – as a complex socio-­ecological issue – requires the development of new political and administrative processes (Wheeler, 2013; Isaksson and Storbjörk, 2005; Nielsen et al., 2010). This includes a comprehensive integration of multiple perspectives and policy areas through collaborative planning processes (Healey, 2010). What is needed is not a clear-cut definition of urban sustainable development, but the understanding of the fundamental dynamic that characterizes the concept of ‘sustainability.’ This includes the paradoxical tendency of sustainability to sometimes evoke conflicts related to prioritizing and leaving out context-relevant sustainability aspects in urban planning practice (Campbell, 2016). This calls for adjustment of the ways we engage with the ‘sustainability’ concept and puts an emphasis on continued learning by mobilizing different kinds of knowledge (Holden, 2012).

Our experience from collaboration with municipalities through the ‘Urban Transition Öresund’ project shows that negotiation and decision-making concerning urban planning for sustainable development happen largely in meeting rooms among civil servants, through consensus-driven procedural talking and some taken-for-granted working materials, such as scale drawings and meeting agendas. Limited time is spent on discussing the procedures for setting the new sustainability criteria. In reaction to this, our starting point in the game co-designing process (described later) was the situated ‘playing out’ of current and possible future planning practices intertwined with an emphasis on design, mutual learning, and new ways of participation and collaboration.

Design and Games in Urban Planning

Urban planning in the context of this chapter is considered as a composite of design processes. With an increasing emphasis on addressing complex societal challenges such as ‘sustainability,’ ‘design thinking’ (Margolin, 2015; Çalışkan, 2012) or ‘designerly ways of knowing’ (Cross, 2006; Kimbell, 2012) are re-entering urban planning research and practice. Broadly, design processes are understood to be dynamic including inherent twists and turns, as well as a high degree of contestation, iterations, and risk-taking. This led to the reframing of planning practice in terms of ‘wicked games’ (Lundström et al., 2016), ‘scenarios games’ (Taylor et al., 2011), ‘playful civic learning and participation’ (Gordon and Baldwin-Philippi, 2014), or ‘serious games’ (Abt, 1970; Crawford, 2004; Light, 2008; Duffhues et al., 2014). As John Habraken and Mark Gross pointed out in the late 1980s, games in a planning context – as opposed to rationalized frameworks – may offer an environment where a mix of stakeholders or ‘players’ can act out their different interests ­interdependently (Habraken and Gross, 1988; Hellström Reimer, 2016).

Similarly, for several decades within the research field of Participatory Design – in short, ‘co-design’ – a wide array of participatory and collaborative tools and techniques have been developed based on democratic premises – amongst them ‘design games’ (Brandt et al., 2013). According to Vaajakallio and Mattelmäki (2014), there is no clear definition of design games due to their context specificity, diverse purposes, and application areas. Most participatory design games are exploratory activities for staging horizontal or equal participation, where interaction among players is guided by a critically reflecting or a clearly articulated set of game rules, and implemented with tangible game pieces (Brandt, 2006).

The turn toward the ‘playful’ has sometimes led to a simplified view of design thinking as an off-the-shelf procedural game for scripted urban problem-solving 1 . Indeed, while games generally are process-oriented, situated, and complex they also frequently come as pre-designed flow-charts, narrowly programming the urban planning session in question, thereby further blackboxing 2 an already opaque decision-making process including many taken-for-granted concepts. For these reasons, we instead emphasize games and particularly game co-designing as mutual reflexive environments.

Mutual Learning for Changing Political Urban Planning Practices

A political, relational, reflexive and dynamic take on planning is not new. Within the Participatory Design field, since its emergence in the 1970s, design processes have been considered ­inherently political, aiming at ‘mutual learning’ and the ‘equalizing of power relations’ (Simonsen and Robertson, 2013: 33). This presents that participants – despite their diverse professions and ­interests – will develop through shared experimentation and reflection, a common ground for fruitful, yet critical collaborative design work (Simonsen and Robertson, 2013).

From the field of human ecology, and based on their engagement in urban planning processes for sustainable development, Polk and Knutsson (2008) emphasize the importance of mutual learning as an informal exchange of knowledge, experiences, and extensive participation. For example, they stress the importance of involvement of non-academic actors in order to deal with the complexities of sustainability and social change. Focusing on the impact of value rationalities and situated power relations, they remind us of Argyris and Schön’s work on ‘double-loop learning’ (1974). For them, such learning occurs in ‘a more critically reflexive process where accepted rules, strategies and norms are questioned and improved,’ and where ‘accepted institutional norms and structures are critically scrutinized for their efficacy and applicability to long-term goals’ (Polk and Knutsson, 2008: 646).

Lastly, related to our claim that games and game co-designing processes are political, much can be learned from Mouffe, who distinguished between the two terms: politics and political. ‘Politics,’ ‘refers to the ensemble of practices, discourses, and institutions which seek to establish a certain order’ (Mouffe, 2005: 9). ‘The political,’ according to Mouffe, ‘refers to the dimensions of antagonism which can take many forms and can emerge in diverse social relations, a dimension that can never be eradicated’ (Mouffe, 2005: 9). With the point of departure in Mouffe’s critique of deliberative democracy, Carl DiSalvo describes certain design artifacts as ‘adversarial,’ thus calling attention to ‘the contestational relations and experiences aroused through the designed thing and the way it expresses dissensus’ (DiSalvo, 2012: 7). Likewise, from an actor–network theory perspective, Yaneva (2017) claims that ‘there are as many frictions between objects enacted as there are between the practices in which their enactment takes place’; a fact which according to Yaneva ‘turns design practice into a political site’ (Yaneva, 2017: 75).

In our case described below, rather than relying on pre-designed design games as playful vehicles for efficient and consensual problem solving, we report on and reflect upon a game co-designing process which, consistent with the authors cited above, must be understood as inherently political. We wanted to explore with civil servants the often conflictual yet fruitful dimensions of the game format – fruitful, in terms of its inherent potentials for fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration, mutual learning, and contestation of the taken-for-granted concepts and procedures in socio-material urban planning practices. In addition, we wanted to critically explore, reconfigure, and reconceptualize urban planning practice. In the following section, we describe the stages of this process.

Case: Co-Designing the Game ‘Urban Transition’

The game co-designing process unfolded as part of the larger EU-funded Urban Transition Öresund project 3 (2011–14), focusing on new ways of collaboration and mutual learning through sharing of knowledge and competencies across administrational, municipal, national, and cultural borders. A group of researchers and municipal civil servants paid specific attention to the situated – and possible future – means of collaboration in urban planning practices for sustainable development and urban transition. Participatory Design – or co-design – research was introduced as a mutual learning and translational practice – an approach necessary for transitioning from compartmental planning regimes to a more explicitly collaborative mindset. Early in the process, games were introduced as material, procedural, and dynamic formats of collaboration (Eriksen, 2012).

The game co-designing process lasted for more than a year (from late 2012 to early spring 2014). The process was event-driven, with full to half-day, hands-on, reflective workshops and play-tests every one to two months. The participants were co-designing with urban planning researchers, professional game designers 4 , around 50 civil servants, and a few managers, from the planning and environmental departments of the participating municipalities (Malmö in Sweden; Copenhagen, Ballerup, and Roskilde in Denmark). Almost all participants were involved in the framing, co-designing, testing, and playing of the game activities. The game was then given the name of ‘Urban Transition’ game, aiming to stimulate learning and co-design processes. A core development team consisting of around ten people (civil servants, researchers, and game designers) organized the game development and testing workshops. The tests were either done in relation to fictive but relevant cases, or real-world ongoing urban planning processes in the municipalities. In this chapter, we focus on the redevelopment process of the SegePark 5 area in the City of Malmö (see Figures 3.1, 3.3, 3.5; for a description of the case study in Copenhagen see Eriksen, 2014).

Mapping core challenges in existing municipal planning practices to capture wishes and ambitions for the future game.

Figure 3.1   Mapping core challenges in existing municipal planning practices to capture wishes and ambitions for the future game.

Photos by Mette Agger Eriksen.

Below we analyze four workshops, which are selected to elucidate examples of mutual learning and reflection through the continuous playing out and negotiation of purposes, rules, game artifacts, and the emergence of desired game playing contexts – a way of exploring and reconfiguring urban planning processes more broadly.

Workshop 1: Framing the Game Situation

In December 2012, the game co-designing process was kick-started through a full-day workshop with approximately 20 participants. Based on specific examples and experiences from ongoing municipal urban planning projects, the workshop prompted inspirational talks about recognizing relationships between stakeholders, places, activities, and things/non-human actors.

Civil servants from different municipalities were assigned to different groups. The mapping of core challenges was based on civil servants’ in-depth knowledge of the municipal area. Initial mapping generated various ‘blue star insights’ and specified needs regarding ‘collaboration between municipal actors’ or ‘collaboration about developing the detailed plan.’ Workshop participants collected challenges/wishes for the coming game, framed in the game as for example ‘Ambition / It would make a real difference if … the game can help prioritize initiatives’ or ‘Ambition / It would make a real difference if … the game develops learning and knowledge.’

The central insight from the workshop was that: 1) discussions, negotiations, and mutual learning happened as a part of the game development; and 2) game playing should be considered as relevant as any game outcome. Alongside other insights, the game’s outcome was translated into an extensive design brief that guided the work of the professional game designers and provided the basis for further game development.

Workshop 2: Clarifying the Game Structure

Based on the game design brief, two workshops were dedicated to exploring three different quick-and-dirty game mock-ups, after which the co-designing process continued with a half-day workshop. Eleven participants, collaboratively played the game using the first triangular paper-prototype, prepared by the game designers in collaboration with the co-design researchers. This prototype included an array of tangible game pieces and materials. The layout of the game board was designed to reinforce an equal focus on ecological, economic, and social sustainability, a core principle commonly recognized in most sustainability literature (e.g., since the UN Brundtland Report, 1987). The intention was to emphasize the complex, interdependent, and potentially contested relationships between these ‘bottom lines’ (Campbell, 1996, 2016). This was captured in the ‘Arrow boards,’ each containing one sustainability aspect and a BAD–GOOD judgment scale (Figure 3.2).

Play-testing the first prototype, raising awareness of diverse criteria of sustainability judgment and inherent competitiveness in current urban planning practices.

Figure 3.2   Play-testing the first prototype, raising awareness of diverse criteria of sustainability judgment and inherent competitiveness in current urban planning practices.

Photos by Mette Agger Eriksen and Maria Hellström-Reimer.

When put together, the whole modular gameboard formed a triangle, including three ‘Corner boards,’ conceived with a two-fold purpose: one, the placing of individual bets about expected outputs of coming negotiations; and the other calling for shifts, or design-oriented ‘development’ based on prior insights during playing. The game started by placing bets, annotated on individual ‘Betting notes,’ in one corner of the board and then moving in the direction of the arrow.

This first prototype was play-tested in two groups around a fictive, but quite realistic case of neighborhood renewal. Here, five diverging – yet in Scandinavia frequently discussed –ideas/concepts or themes were at play: ‘Luxury flats,’ a ‘Youth club,’ a ‘Market hall,’ ‘Smaller green areas,’ and the more open concept ‘Temporary uses.’ In this game prototype, these ideas/concepts were written on separate folded papers (Figure 3.2, top-middle). While playing, these ideas/concepts were prioritized within one ‘Arrow board’ (5 minutes per board). Priorities were based on the open dialogue and negotiations of each idea/concept’s expected capability to meet the sustainability aspect described on the board, in the context of the concrete (here fictive) urban planning process in question.

The aim of this play-testing was to reflect upon the game mechanics, the underlying game playing principles, and the content in relation to supporting urban planning practices toward ­sustainable development. Participants were asked to answer two of the following questions:

  • ‘What is still needed for the game to make a real difference in your daily work?’
  • ‘What are the two to three most important game materials? Other proposals?’
  • ‘What is still needed for you to feel comfortable as a facilitator of this game?’ and lastly,
  • ‘How could the game be used within the municipalities? (Examples and why).’

They expressed their opinion orally and on individually written feedback sheets. The experience sparked discussions and reflections. To summarize: based on Workshop 1, the design brief stated that the game ‘mainly is intended for being played by civil servants within the same or across different offices and departments in a municipality – but also possibly with other local stakeholders.’ The game-testing confirmed this and additionally predicted that citizens and external stakeholders, such as property owners, citizens, and municipal colleagues, could participate in order to support new collaborative practices. Lastly, the participants suggested that the game could be relevant for dialogue on neighborhood renewal projects, as well as for smaller projects, infrastructural renovation projects, open-ended kick-offs, and vision meetings.

Generally, participants appreciated the mix of the three sustainability aspects and the modularity of the triangular gameboard. The differentiated BAD–GOOD judgment scales pre-printed at the bottom of the different ‘Arrow boards’ were found not to be very useful. The participants found that the ‘Corner boards’ supported turn-taking and reflection. The value and need for the individual betting were also subject to lively discussion. Some found it interesting to silently hypothesize on the outcome, while others argued against it, considering it to be an element encouraging competition rather than dialogue. As a contrast, the part of the ‘Corner boards’ pushing for ‘concept development’ of the ideas/concepts at play was valued as highly relevant in relation to a real-world development process, but the ways for annotating changes to an idea/concept on the materials were primarily experienced as being unclear.

Workshop 3: Testing the Game Content

Building on previous experiences and with a modified paper game-prototype, a real-world play-test was set up and used in planning the sustainable development of the SegePark neighborhood in Malmö (see note 5). Five of the ten participants were civil servants involved in a municipal, cross-department project group with a focus on this neighborhood.

For this occasion, some tangible materials were added, and others were modified. A new triangle-shaped ‘Re-negotiation board’ was added enabling re-negotiation and prioritizing of ideas/concepts. The orange ‘tokens’ now embody two different roles: 1) participants can use them to select ‘Arrow boards’ and set up the modular game board; and 2) during playing, tokens are used on the new ‘Re-negotiation board’ to renegotiate positions of ideas/concepts on the BAD-GOOD scale of one ‘Arrow board’ at a time.

In using the modular game-board, a core game principle was that participants – each with five orange ‘Tokens’ – should start the session by selecting which ‘Arrow boards’ to include in the gameboard of the day (three, six, or nine, i.e., depending on the time available). First participants placed independently selected orange ‘Tokens’ on the boards, and the ‘Arrow boards’ with most tokens were selected (Figure 3.3 top). In contrast to the previous workshop set up, the BAD–GOOD judgment scales at the bottom of each ‘Arrow board’ were no longer pre-printed and pre-decided, but were now negotiated amongst the municipal participants in relation to the real-world site (Figure 3.3, large image). In the process of discussing and agreeing upon the judgment scales, then later by prioritizing five project-specific ideas/concepts (this time on large plastic signage with space to annotate), it became clear that the participants found the discussions challenging but very fruitful. While playing (Figure 3.4), one of the participants commented that ‘It actually is among us civil servants that the development of the area has stalled for ten years.’

Play-test around actual SegePark site – Conflictual yet, fruitful insights arising.

Figure 3.3   Play-test around actual SegePark site – Conflictual yet, fruitful insights arising.

Photos by Mette Agger Eriksen and Maria Hellström Reimer.
A moment of negotiation during the first real-world playtest with an early prototype of the Urban Transition game – Around SegePark in Malmö, Sweden.

Figure 3.4   A moment of negotiation during the first real-world playtest with an early prototype of the Urban Transition game – Around SegePark in Malmö, Sweden.

Photo by Mette Agger Eriksen.

After the game playing, the follow-up discussion was equally challenging but rewarding. In relation to the actual real-world project and SegePark neighborhood, it became clear that civil servants from the different departments had different views of what a sustainable development of the area actually meant and should entail, i.e., What was needed for this to become the new sustainability area of the city – should it continue to be an experimental site for technical solutions to meet sustainability challenges or focus more also on social sustainability?

With reference to the game materials, the participants again highlighted the importance of the tangible orange ‘Tokens,’ valuing in particular its two above-mentioned roles. For the game playing procedure, the first 5 minutes was allocated for arguing and prioritizing the ideas/concepts placed at the top of the board, then judging them according to the BAD–GOOD judgment scale. Through turn-taking, one participant per ‘Arrow board’ had the mandate to determine the final priority of these ideas/concepts. However, now with the new ‘Re-negotiation board,’ this priority could be re-opened. Any player with a good argument, plus two tokens and support by at least one other person, could place tokens at three corners of the ‘Re-negotiation board’ and in this way change priorities. If three tokens were placed, the associated argument for re-prioritizing was made, and the status of the different ideas/concepts were rearranged. When no one had any more tokens or a wish to change the priorities the BAD–GOOD scores were counted. This session taught us that ‘democratic’ decision-making was highly valued, even though it revealed and challenged power structures in the municipal urban planning practices.

Workshop 4: Negotiating the Game Sustainability Aspects

As a result of the process to date, it had become clear that a core part of the game was the content of the ‘Arrow boards’ – this is because they determined the sustainability aspects directing the dialogues during the actual game playing. Yet questions remained: How many boards? What social, economic, and ecological sustainability aspects? And what associated content should be included? The answers were not entirely clear. Additional questions arose, such as: Should the headings be framed as provoking statements or questions? Should the detailed descriptions be factual and include references? Or be examples and ideas to spark imagination? So while game designers refined the game mechanisms, related to insights from our real-world game-tests, the researchers and civil servants were devoting their attention to writing and re-writing these formulations.

One workshop among some researchers and civil servants was focused on sitting around computers collaboratively reformulating texts. Still, for months, one researcher circulated files via email encouraging others to also continually add comments and propose changes to the formulations on the ‘Arrow boards’ so they would match state-of-the-art research and fit the municipal contexts in terms of phrasing.

The ‘Arrow-boards’ ended up being a collection of 12 in total (four each on social, ecological, and economic sustainability). As an example, the ones about social sustainability changed character during the process of real-world game-tests and re-formulations. Initial aspects were mostly around ‘User involvement’ (Figure 3.5, top middle) and ‘Long-term engaged stakeholders’ – with an annotation about ‘Ownership/Commitment’ (Figure 3.5, low middle). Yet, experiences from the play-tests suggested fewer boards around process-involvement, since other sustainability oriented topics also were found important amongst different civil servants and researchers. Therefore, these diverse socially oriented aspects were added: ‘Social diversity’ (Figure 3.5, top left), ‘Positive development of the area’s cultural heritage and identity?’ (Figure 3.5, low right) and a board about ‘Which concept best supports exercise and a healthy lifestyle?’

Iterations of ‘arrow-boards’ from throughout the process of co-designing, choosing and formulating their sustainability-related content and titles.

Figure 3.5   Iterations of ‘arrow-boards’ from throughout the process of co-designing, choosing and formulating their sustainability-related content and titles.

Photo by Mette Agger Eriksen.

Through further real-world game-tests, the formulations of the ecological and economic ­sustainability aspects were also sharpened, and the game mechanics were further refined. Individual betting was left out, while the materials for documenting the development of idea/concept during play were further refined. All in all, the mechanisms and game materials were redeveloped to support – often conflicting but fruitful – dialogue about urban planning for sustainable development. One civil servant involved throughout the game co-designing process summarized it this way:

In relation to dissolving power structures and supporting a holistic view […] the game can contribute to dissolving disciplinary boundaries between different departments by looking at the problem in a new way, from new perspectives. It becomes a shared project through the shared game-board.

Games and Game Co-Designing is Open-Ended and Political

Re-Opening Taken-For-Granted Concepts and Practices

In January 2014 several researchers, the project team and steering group members of the SegePark sustainable neighborhood development project played the game in two mixed groups. The aim was to stimulate dialogue, explore and collaboratively prioritize pre-selected ideas/concepts from two of their ongoing investigations on detailing a local plan. After two and a half hours of playing, a rich and reflective discussion took place, offering many take-away lessons. As during other play-tests, current urban planning practices were re-opened; and as one of the managers in the steering group, who – playing for the first time – observed: ‘A couple of new angles came up – and a new way of thinking, which I think can make it sharper in the next stage. What do we actually mean by a square? – we got quite far in that discussion.’ Most participants appreciated the way the game encouraged a more inclusive dialogue across their diverse professions and roles, demonstrating the political aspect of co-designing processes and the importance of opening up and explicitly addressing inherent power dynamics.

Similarly, in reflecting on a play-test in Copenhagen about a new large ‘sustainable’ waterfront neighborhood, a civil servant participant likewise reflected on how political aspects of the process were used in a new way:

While nature often gets a low priority in urban planning and development, the game rules ensure that all themes – density, economy, accessibility, and many other needs – get equal treatment and that everyone must relate to the arguments and proposals by others. It was an eye-opener that the game rules moved one’s viewpoint from narrow-sight and ego-interests to holistic views and shared interests.

Thus, this case shows how an initial goal of the co-design process – that of fostering holistic views on sustainability – was actually achieved in testing the final version.

Furthermore, the previously cited quotes bare evidence that the game did, in fact, expose: taken-for-granted concepts in urban planning; and, its capability to advance the disconcerting practice of collaboration and talking. The game co-design process led participants to recognize the extent of underlying conflicts of interest, as noted by yet another of the civil servants: ‘I realized how much it takes to really engage in the situation of another person — and this, in turn, made me aware of my own prejudices […] It has been difficult but a valuable learning experience.’ Similarly, another municipal project leader expressed his view of engagement and development: ‘In many citizen-involvement sessions, we do not get very many new ideas out of it. Yet, in some sessions with kids and teenagers, surprisingly, what we got was a commitment.’

Socio-Material Practices Foster Mutual Learning Through Conflict

The game participants’ reflections about the procedures and forms of negotiation were intermingled with both personal insights and underlying assumptions about their roles in urban planning processes for sustainable development, and especially with regard to the challenges of collaborating across municipal departments. While opening up new channels for communication, the process of game co-designing and playing also sharpened the dialogue, and made complex priorities more concrete. Rather than simply dissolving power structures or obscuring conflicts through consensual compromise, the game enabled participants to listen, sharpen arguments, and see friction as a desired quality. Again, as one civil servant participant commented: ‘It becomes a shared project through the shared game-board.’

Based on the reflections expressed by various participants, the game co-design process enabled the game mechanisms to function as ‘democratic’ scaffolding in the socio-material, situated actions (Suchman, 2007) of urban planning practices. The game facilitated turn-taking within time limits, distributing the conversation, enabling the renegotiation of priorities, and the opening up of a reset of judgment scales, etc. Overall, it recognizes once again how games – and other similar working materials – are framing and formatting dialogues (Eriksen, 2012).

What became increasingly clear through this process – both to the participants and to us as researchers – was the extent to which game and game-playing was inherently political. Not only did it not gloss over conflicts, but instead provided an insight into the material and spatial complexity of distributed intentions and ambiguous relationships. It also made all of us sensitive to the need for articulating and rearticulating ‘rules’ in urban planning processes – both regarding their continuous unfolding and final outcome. The game format allowed for prototyping potentially new collaborative practices with a particular focus on diverse and divergent competencies and underlying frictions arising between diverse fields of expertise. The Urban Transition game not only questioned the use of off-the-shelf game-like ‘design thinking’ methods, typically employed as short-cuts in managing participant involvement in urban planning processes, but more broadly challenged existing hegemonies and normative practice.

Although sometimes appropriately criticized as unscientific nonsense, a time-consuming spectacle, or market-related quackery, games can nevertheless provide rich, situated, and power-sensitive forms for interaction – an essentially ‘ludic’ (playful) but also confrontational way for humankind as a species to reflect upon existing and potential social conditions (Huizinga, 1938).

Challenging Hegemonic Discourses Through Co-Designing Games

Game co-designing offers one format for active, conflictual, yet collaborative reflection, which political theorist Chantal Mouffe conceptualized in terms of agonistics (Mouffe, 2013). Game co-designing acts as a gearbox, opening-up hegemonic discourses, that all too often tend to gloss over antagonisms and animosity. It acknowledges a plurality of individual positions and continuous struggles between adversaries, who instead accept each other’s right to exist and to speak within the pre-set rules of the game. Building on the definition provided by Mouffe at the beginning of the chapter, games demonstrate an explicitly political form rather than a form of politics. Game co-designing as envisioned here offered a radical and heterogeneous democratic space, where relations were no longer understood as the antagonism between enemies, but rather as ‘agonism’ between adversaries (Jones, 2014: 21). Moreover, the game co-designing process was, in the words of Yaneva (2017), a ‘political site’ enabling participants to reach ‘conflictive consensus’ (DiSalvo, 2012).

One of the advantages of design games is in this respect that they are explicitly artifactual, related to but yet separate from any given reality. As expressed already by Roger Callois in Man, Play and Games, ‘play, and ordinary life are constantly and universally antagonistic to each other’ (Callois, 1961: 63). There is a real tension in the playing of games, and even more so in their unfolding – a tension that both reflects and challenges the institutions, habits, and patterns of the ‘real’ (Hellström Reimer, 2016). Again, games mobilize and open the kind of frictional space that political theorist Chantal Mouffe would characterize as agonistic (Mouffe, 2005, 2013); a shared space forcing us to ‘acknowledge the existence of relations of power and the need to transform them, while renouncing the illusion that we could free ourselves completely from power’ (Mouffe, 2005: 44). This is what is essential to the game co-designing process described here, and to the radical and plural democracy that it is advocating.

In the end, the participating game company produced a final commercial version of the Urban Transition game (see note 3). This was used in our partner municipalities in some of the ongoing real-world urban planning processes for sustainable development (i.e., in Figure 3.6). Yet, as an end product, aimed to be used stand-alone without engaged facilitation, the Urban Transition game was less enthusiastically embraced. As an experience of mutual learning and situated action, however, it had strong reverberation in the participating organizations: 1) in opening up a space for re-designing other local municipal dialogue and sustainability-oriented tools, and 2) in enabling political playfulness or playful political interaction, with the potential for bringing attention to the intrinsic societal value of game-playing beyond strict efficiency in urban planning processes.

The final version of the Urban Transition game with all the game materials. Project team and steering group members of the SegePark project are playing the game.

Figure 3.6   The final version of the Urban Transition game with all the game materials. Project team and steering group members of the SegePark project are playing the game.

Photo by Mette Agger Eriksen.

To conclude, our experience demonstrates that games are political in that they can re-open taken-for-granted urban planning concepts and themes by emphasizing both details and holistic views. Likewise, games can reveal assumptions about others by actualizing conflicts and can challenge current and possible future municipal and situated socio-material collaborative practices. Therefore, games and game co-designing should not be seen as a de-politicized quick fix in urban planning processes for sustainable development, but rather as highly political engagements that facilitate agonistic yet crucial negotiations.


We would like to thank European Interreg (Urban Transition Öresund-project, 2011–14) and the Swedish Delegation of Sustainable Cities (GröntSpel, 2012–13) for funding this research. We are also grateful to the Danish game-design company GameTools, all the engaged municipal and other civil servants, citizens, and local stakeholders participating in the game co-designing process.


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IDEO and Stanford D-School are world-leading drivers of spreading ‘design thinking’ e.g., by providing simplified off-the-shelf process instructions such as this: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57c6b79629687fde090a0fdd/t/5899326a86e6c0878c6e63f1/1486434929824/crashcourseplaybookfinal3-1-120302015105-phpapp02.pdf That is, however, not what we refer to when using this phrase – we rather align with authors such as Kimbell, Cross, and Magnolin.

Our understanding of ‘blackboxing’ overlaps with Bruno Latour`s definition of how ‘the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become’ (Latour, 1999: 304).

Links about the Urban Transition Öresund project: https://interreg-oks.eu/webdav/files/gamla-projektbanken/se/Menu/Projektbank+2007-2013/Projektlista-oresund/Urban+Transition+xresund.html (retrieved September 3, 2018) / The official project web: www.urban-transition.org (closed in 2017).

The involved game designers were from the Danish game development company, GameTools – owned by Serious Games Interactive. They distribute the final version of the game and other games, building upon the same game mechanics: http://gametools.dk/portfolios/urban-transition/ http://gametools.dk/en/portfolios/concept-captain/ (checked September 1, 2018).

SegePark is a former mental hospital area in Malmö, Sweden which in 2013 was the focus for a municipal cross-department project team and steering group responsible for the early stages of developing it into a new sustainable, affordable-living, mixed-use neighborhood. This process was intertwining with the game co-designing process at different stages of development. The development of the area is still in progress at the time of publication of this chapter.

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