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What is a playable city?

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Artist gamemaker Troy Innocent introduces Playable City, a global network that engages citizens with public spaces through urban play.


Cities are contested zones. They are cultural melting pots, life-support systems, networks of surveillance and control. Since the rise of urbanisation we have shaped our cities through planning and design most recently through embedded and networked technologies. Making cities ‘smarter’ can make them more sustainable as systems, but what about daily life on the street? The lived experience of cities?

Playable City is an international project that puts people and play at the heart of the future city. It asks how technology can reconnect us to our cities and bring urban play to everyday life. Playable cities can strengthen our connections to where we live and work by drawing on an eclectic mix of play, creative technologies, public art and urban design. Just as game designers often start their creative process with the experience they imagine for the player – the ‘play experience’ – this project asks, ‘what is the city to a player?’ and ‘what does it mean to make a city “playable”?’

People playing in a spotlight in a city alley

Pokémon Go is a recent example of creative technology that brought play into cities across the globe. However, while players can achieve their steps-per-day goals playing Pokémon Go, it doesn’t make the city itself playable. Instead, the game rebrands the city.  Unfolding mostly on screen, it misses an opportunity to connect people and place.

Playable City is not about play simply as public spectacle. This runs the risk of ‘playwashing’ – deploying play as a means to obscure or distract from other issues.

It’s not ‘playbour’ either. Once play becomes work and instrumental to a specific purpose – such as data collection – it loses its meaning to the player.

Smart phone camera pointed at a tree

Inviting adults to play is a tricky business. Currently, our main cultural reference points for play are videogames, predominately situated as entertainment; a diversion, a bit of fun but not to be taken seriously. Play can be fun, but it can also be challenging, critical, evocative and emotive – especially when it recontextualises and appropriates places. 

Play is a way of being, a frame for the reimagination of the world, and an opening up of potential and possibility. It's a way of seeing things differently. Playable cities from around the world demonstrate that this approach to civic engagement can improve public spaces and infrastructure and connect people to their cities and each other.

people playing hopscotch

Play is not the same in every city. Localism and context are everything. Melbourne is already a playful city, a ludic city, a city of cultural, linguistic and urban diversity, but how can it also be playable? Led by artists and gamemakers curious about situating play in public space, a multidisciplinary team of experts is meeting to start this conversation. Playable City Melbourne engages with our multi-layered civic identity as a creative city, technological city, a diverse and multicultural city, knowledge city and a rapidly growing liveable city.

View of Melbourne CBD

Imagine if Melbourne were a place where play was central to daily life and where citizens were in an ongoing conversation with their city. It could reconnect us to place and the lived experience of the city. It could also present a radical intervention into the democratic use of data and reshape our relationship to digital sovereignty.

Person wearing headphones and holding a device exploring Melbourne alley

Making a playable city needs collaborative research and development across academia, startups and small business, creatives, industry, game developers, cultural institutions and local government.

Most of all, a playable city needs people. Play an art tram, Join an urban playtest,  or lend your expertise to the urban play community. Come along to the first town meeting of Playable City Melbourne and have your say.

By Troy Innocent, Playable City Melbourne