Using a B.U.G. to Promote Urban Design

Is city life just a big game? From Sept. 3-7, it was for Minneapolis and St. Paul’s residents and visitors, who found themselves following three 25-foot-tall game pieces through the streets of the Twin Cities. The event, called the Big Urban Game (B.U.G.), urged participants to use their familiarity with the area to choose the fastest course through the streets. B.U.G. was held as part of the summer-long Twin Cities Design Celebration, organized by the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota; for the celebration, the institute also has published nine Knowledge Maps marking unique points of local cultural interest and commissioned Dutch typographers LettError to create a typeface, Twin, that changes in response to urban conditions such as weather, traffic, and the ebb and flow of the Mississippi River.

A day before B.U.G. started, Metropolis associate editor Kristi Cameron spoke to Design Institute director Janet Abrams about the Institute’s activities and how B.U.G. might make Twin Cities denizens more aware of the design around them.

Why turn the Twin Cities into a game?
We wanted to develop a project that would engage a mass audience in a conversation about the designed environment. The idea of a game as a designed social experience emerged in the course of our discussions.

You hired some folks from gameLab [Katie Salen, Frank Lantz, and Nicholas Fortugno, who worked under the banner Playground] to help put B.U.G. together. What did these designers, with their computer-game backgrounds, bring to a project involving the urban environment?
Let’s turn the question around slightly. The [Playground trio] have skills in developing games for the online environment, but also for “nonline,” public-realm environments-people physically exchanging things with each other as part of the game play.

We asked them to come up with three scenarios that would achieve the general goal of setting up a playful, social, mass-participation experience. They drafted a mission statement for themselves of what these games could be in order to achieve that goal. The document was a sort of general theory of games for the public realm. We then chose one idea and took it into full-scale development.

They know what it takes to make a game, the elements of game design: Establishing a set of rules, units of activity, game pieces, and a space of play. In this case, the game board is the readymade surface of the city. The game pieces are much enlarged to suggest the proportions of a [traditional] game board to its playing pieces. The pieces look like pawns from a chess game. There are also mats that they sit on that say, “The B.U.G. stops here,” which represent the squares on a [traditional] game board.

For me, the difference is an imagined space that the designers create vs. an existing space. How did they go about tackling that existing space?
I like your analogy very much, a sort of grafting of imaginative space onto real space. This is not a Design Theory 405 class, nor should it be. The goal is to be as accessible to someone who doesn’t even know what design is, as to a professor of design. It’s an open exercise.

The [actual] point of a game is that it’s a learning experience in an unconventional setting-not a classroom, not a lecture, not a book. It’s a way of getting people out to appreciate the sort of museum that the city already is.

Can we go through how the game is played?
The essence of the game is a race. There are three inflatable playing pieces that are carried by people walking from three different starting points through five checkpoints daily to a single common destination.They are basically racing each other for the shortest cumulative time to that finish. The routes have been mapped out.

Are the checkpoints predetermined?
You don’t choose the checkpoints, you choose the routes that are being offered between them, A or B, and those have been designed as equal in length but different in difficulty. You have to use your knowledge of what the actual terrain is: Is it going to take longer, even if it looks like it’s going to be shorter, because it may involve hills or traffic lights or ducks crossing the road?

It’s very clear how the game teaches residents and visitors more about the Twin Cities, but how does it help them to appreciate design?
We’ll find out. As soon as you’ve logged your vote [online] you’ll be asked to respond to some questions we’ve framed to set people off on an imaginative plane. We want to get people thinking about their daily life and the way in which the material landscape enables or impinges on that[and] we want to find out how aware people are of their designed environment.

What have you learned about Minneapolis and St. Paul that you didn’t already know?
I really feel that the kind of projects we are able to do at the Design Institute would probably not happen in a place without the generosity and the willingness of, first, the university, [which] recognizes design as something worth doing and second, Target Corporation whose gift to the DI has made the Twin Cities Design Celebration possible. In a bigger city, or one with more of a sense of itself as a design-sophisticated environment, ideas have already been laid out. Here [in the Twin Cities] there’s an openness and willingness to try things.

Have you planned or participated in similar urban games in your city? If so, tell us about them and how they went.

Categories: Cities

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