How playing games can help us plan our cities.

In a nutshell Cities: Skylines is a game about building cities, it fits squarely into the genre of city-building games which began some thirty years ago with the original SimCity in 1993. The player takes on the role of an omnipresent city planner who is tasked with taking an empty map, a tabula rasa, and turning it into an efficient, healthy, and happy settlement. ‘Growth’ is the only real objective of the game; population must grow, more residents mean more tax revenue, surplus revenue can then be spent on infrastructure to enable more development which encourages more people to take up residence. This simple goal is tempered by more mundane necessities like traffic management, water systems and power grids. If a player lays down residential zones but neglects to incorporate the same kind of amenities we expect in the real world like public parks or schools, they are punished by the game through digital citizens electing to leave the city and take their tax with them. The ‘Sim’ part of SimCity emphasises this core aspect of the genre, the game simulates pressures on urban environments in a pseudo-realistic way to keep players thinking about the multitude of interrelated systems that are required to keep modern society with all its comforts functioning. These kinds of games are really a double-edged sword, they present a world through the lens of game developers who carry the baggage of their own biases and assumptions about how the world works[1]. It is important to be aware of why and how a game is rewarding certain types of behaviour as these actions can reflect and perpetuate real inequalities or gloss over contentious issues for the sake of playability. Pure realism is only a secondary concern for Cities: Skylines, ‘fun’ is the primary goal, the literal the aim of the game. Thus while it may not be an ideal planning tool, Cities: Skylines has the tremendous potential to engage people with how planners go about designing places and facilitate a new kind of dialogue in that process.

Local governments have successfully used the game as a tool to inspire people to participate in the planning process. The city of Hämeenlinna in Finland gave its citizens the opportunity to propose designs for part of the city using Cities: Skylines and a bespoke in-game map of the city created in partnership with Colossal Order, the developer behind the game. Ignoring the very Finnish first prize of tickets to an Iron Maiden concert (Finland currently enjoys the status of having more than 53 metal bands for every 100,000 inhabitants), the incentive was for people to directly engage with designing their locality in a novel way, using the same resources and design brief as the city planners. Mariina Hallikainen, CEO of Colossal Order, spoke about Hämeenlinna along with another project in Stockholm and the use of the game in urban planning. It seems the most natural impulse for most players is to create something familiar that they intuitively understand. For many that is creating something that resembles their hometown or their capital city. But in doing this, players often create an idealised version of these places. Maybe instead of relying on just a bus network to keep citizens moving, a player wants to build a metro system or encourage the use of bikes through cross-city bike lanes, an easy decision to make in the simplified world of the game but a far more fraught and expensive process when implemented by planners in the real world.


As researchers we are interested in finding ways to foster an optimistic approach to urban design in the face of environmental challenges. Cities: Skylines was not necessarily created to do this, but it is possible to modify or ‘mod’ games like Cities: Skylines through producing custom scripts which interact with the baseline coding of the game to change its behaviour or appearance. Cities: Skylines in particular has a large community of ‘modders’ who create and release assets for free on digital platforms like Steam. At the time of writing in January 2021 there are 244,166 mods listed on Steam, some as simple as street signs or species of trees not available in the base game while others are far more complex additions that alter how the game simulates fundamental things such as road traffic. Using one such mod, OverLayer v2, it is possible to import high resolution images into the game for use as base maps that can sit on top of the simulated 3D terrain. It is also possible to use the game’s Map Editor feature to create realistic maps using real world topographic data. There is a detailed guide on how to import real world topography and maps into the game.

Simple map overlay

But we want to move a step beyond just recreating the real world in the game, just like in Hämeenlinna we are interested in finding ways to get people involved in planning for the future. Below are some screenshots from a custom map of the Burrow in Portrane along with some GIS data created by Fingal County Council. The coloured lines are the policies and local area objectives laid out in the Fingal Development Plan.

Sheet from the Fingal Development Plan showing details for Donabate/Portrane
Donabate, Portrane and Malahide bike and road routes

These examples take the process a step further by using spatial data which require GIS software like ArcMAP or QGIS to convert everything into a format the game can understand (in this case converting shapefiles into high resolution images). All of a sudden spatial data that essentially lived on specialist 2D mapping software is now in a 3D world for anyone to work with. In the above examples, players could choose between prioritising bikes lanes, bus routes and preserving views. Enabling people to engage with change is one of the main goals of the CCAT project. Even if a game like Cities: Skylines cannot simulate the intricacy and variety of nebulous repercussions that can arise from urban design, it has the potential to give people an opportunity to think and work like real town planners in a way they couldn’t before.

[1] Bereitschaft, Bradley. “Gods of The City? Reflecting on City Building Games As An Early Introduction To Urban Systems”. Journal of Geography, vol 115, no. 2, 2015, pp. 51-60. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/00221341.2015.1070366.

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