Video Game #Urbanism

Video games have gotten really good.

Feel like walking the streets of London?

Like, if you haven’t play them in the last half decade, new games will blow your mind. They are detailed, and more times than not, very urban. This is important because, as a character, you’re usually on your feet walking through them.

Released in 2001, Grand Theft Auto 3 changed the way designers look at games. Instead of controlled, linear storytelling environments, it was free roaming. You could do whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted and to whomever to wanted, much to the dismay of parents. But, as a gamer, it was liberating.

A detailed pixelized rendition of New York City

This new demand for free roaming games meant that worlds needed to be fully designed. Urban environments needed to be complete. Grand Theft Auto programmers went into painstaking detailed work to replicate New York City, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles. The idea, at first, was to steal cars (hence, grand theft auto). But now, that’s the branding, not the objective (hijacking cars is still an important though). The role is you interacting with your urban environment.

Take Assassin’s Creed 3 for example. Set in historic Boston, it is according to Slate, “the most accessible reconstruction of the Revolutionary War era that’s ever been made”. It’s so good that you feel like you’re back in the Revolutionary era, or as Slate writes:

Walking the cobblestone streets of Boston means maneuvering around pigs, dogs, and street urchins, down lanes and alleys that are unrecognizable even to a longtime Boston resident like me. Town criers belt out news of shots fired in anger in other cities and of troop movements, first by the French and later, as the revolution sets in, by the British. There are bonnets and britches and tricorn hats, and most of the small talk and bickering you overhear doesn’t come with Boston’s infamous accent but in slang and jabs imported from England, Germany, and the rest of the Old World.


Meander through the mean streets of Boston circa 1756

Believe it or not, but video games are an excellent way to engage people with an urban environment. What better way to understand historic Boston than to virtually navigate it yourself?


Watch out for soldiers. Those guys are jerks.

The care that went into making both of these games’ urban environments is something we need to start translating intoour real built environment. There was more care placed into the setting of each digital brick in Assassin’s Creed than there was in building your local Wal-Mart, and that’s why it looks like crap. And that’s a big problem.

Can you imagine if Assassin’s Creed 4 took place in Minneapolis circa 2013?


Assassin’s Creed 4: Battle of the One-Way

Ending on a serious note: a realistic, detailed urban video game realm can help people understand the complexities of the urban environment, especially in historic settings. It’s only going to be as accurate as the programmers make it, but what if something was created (for educational purposes) and immersed people into urban environments (similar to Dreamcast’s Shenmue)?

I think we could actually learn a lot from it. I know I’m learning a lot about British Colonization from Assassin’s Creed. And, why not create a game that educates people on, for example, civil strife in the deep south circa 1960, urban decay in St. Louis circa 1970 or modern day London?