Reviewed April 2015
Kathy Edwards, Research & Collection Development Librarian
Emery A. Gunnin Architecture Library, Clemson University
The game Urbanology Online is an artifact of the BMW Guggenheim Lab—an ambitious collaboration between BMW Group and the Solomon Guggenheim Museum that lasted from 2011 to 2013 and had a surprisingly activist agenda: To engage city dwellers around the world in imagining ways to make urban environments healthier and more sustainable, equitable, and participatory. Proposed as a six-year, nine-city project, the mobile Lab existed for only two years, visiting New York, Berlin, and Mumbai before BMW Group withdrew sponsorship. The project culminated in the exhibition “Participatory City: 100 Urban Trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab,” staged at the Guggenheim in New York from October 2013 to January 2014. The Lab has an ongoing online presence at www.bmwguggenheimlab.org.
The Urbanology game launched on the Lab website in August 2011 as a companion to the New York Lab's multiple-player 'live action' version, which was one of over 100 on-site activities that included film screenings, talks, design projects, workshops, live performances, roundtable discussions, and city explorations. The 'live' game was played on an outdoor screen, with a host moderating debate among players as each question appeared. The goal of the online version was to extend the game's provocations to a wider audience.
Urbanology Online's structure and content are identical to the 'live' version: ten nuanced and deliberately ambiguous questions posed sequentially, with only a 'yes' or 'no' response allowed. Each question presents a dilemma that requires players to engage their personal politics and values in answering. Each response is compared to responses for the same question from all past players, before the next question can display. At the end, a hidden algorithm calculates a match between the player's choices and characteristics of a real-world city, based on scores assigned across eight categories: innovation, transportation, health, affordability, wealth, lifestyle, sustainability, and livability. A typical outcome might be “Toronto - Highest priority: livability, Lowest priority: affordability,” but because the Urbanology engine creates each game on the fly from a pool of over 120 questions—including some suggested by past players—the game and its outcome are different each time. The outcome 'Toronto' may appear several times over the course of many played games, in each instance displaying different priorities that may completely contradict an earlier outcome. The site offers no explanation of how cities are matched or priorities assigned.
The game's simple online instructions suggest that the outcome will be a personalized 'Future City' one can compare to other world cities, without specifying how this city might be represented or the terms for comparison. Throughout the BMW Guggenheim Lab site, visitors are invited to 'build,' 'plan,' 'picture,' or 'describe' a city by playing the game, with the inference that a city with the attributes they select will 'be created' from their responses.
The reality of Urbanology Online is considerably more mundane; this is no SimCity. In fact, this isn't a game at all, given that it lacks coherent opportunities for challenge, engagement, strategizing, risk, escalation, or reward that define the game form. Playing Urbanology Online does, however, serve up a critical mass of provocative questions with significant discussion value. Collected, these questions could be exploited to foster lively and fruitful debates on how to make cities better, whether the forum is an undergraduate classroom or a moderated public meeting.
The Urbanology Online site is free, requires no login, and collects no personal information. The game's operation is clear and intuitive, with a linear structure and an interface that displays consistently in all standard browsers across a range of devices. There are no customizable features. A linked discussion board shows seven comments contributed in the last two years.