Computer game links planning conundrums

by Charles Ker
Staff writer

QUEST is the acronym for a computer game aimed at making complex urban planning
issues accessible to the average citizen. It stands for Quasi-Understandable
Ecosystem Scenario Tool. Huh?

“The name is meant to be somewhat self-deprecating,” says master’s student
David Biggs. “We’re hoping to change it to `Quite Useful.’”

Biggs has been developing QUEST since 1993 with colleagues at UBC’s Sustainable
Development Research Institute (SDRI). The game gives players decision-making
power over all areas of planning in the Lower Fraser Basin. During the course
of a game–which can take anywhere from an hour to days to complete–players
watch the consequences of their ideas and policies unfold over four decades
from 1990 to 2030.

The game highlights the trade-offs inherent in choosing one lifestyle or policy
direction over another by incorporating key social, environmental and economic
components of regional growth.

“Working through a game players see things changing slowly but by the time they
get to 2030, they suddenly realize that significant aspects of their plan have
been lost,” says Biggs. “Players have to be sensitive to slight changes that
are occurring and this is what decision-makers do all the time.”

The idea for QUEST originated in 1991 while Biggs was working in Ontario with
SDRI director John Robinson.

The two researchers were using a large mainframe computer to explore modeling
applications in the field of environment and resource studies. The problem was
that, like most models, only computer experts could understand and use them.

“The real value of modeling comes from the experience of using the model, not
simply viewing the results,” says Biggs. “QUEST attempts to put this experience
in the hands of decision-makers and that means everybody.”

Perhaps the best validation for the game came recently when Robinson gave a
brief 20-minute run-through to his three sons. Two days later, the
seven-year-old was overheard explaining to an adult the relationship between
high-density housing and the loss of farmland in the Lower Fraser Basin.

This doesn’t mean the game is not highly complex. Biggs and his colleagues
spent close to two years contacting urban planners, government policy makers
and environmental experts to get feedback about what features and issues QUEST
should include.

The game has four stages. The first stage, called Inventing a Future, asks the
player about his or her beliefs, values and overall understanding of how the
world operates or should operate. This provides a broad framework for a 40-year
scenario QUEST asks players to formulate in stage two.

Players in the scenario generation stage make decisions a decade at a time
about lifestyle and technology in such sectors as transportation, industry,
labor, public spending and housing. Working through a series of sequential
decisions, players have to cope with changing population, economic conditions
and land use patterns. They also have to keep in mind their original goals and
values.

Biggs says the effectiveness of QUEST is best illustrated in a workshop setting
where policy debates rage among players.

“The game gets very interesting when you sit down with a group of people and
QUEST starts bringing out their differences or similarities,” says Biggs. “The
ensuing discussions are the rich part of what goes on behind QUEST.”

The consequences of players’ actions and policies are shown at the end of each
decade in the form of a mock newspaper.

The game ends with a final 2030 newspaper edition filled with headlines about
what went wrong or right with players’ best-laid plans. A toolbar stretching
across the top of the newspaper gives players a choice of 17 sections to
explore, complete with articles and accompanying graphs, charts and satellite
images.

Players can compare their work with a library of other scenarios created
previously by them or celebrity planners.

Biggs and associates at the SDRI have been swamped with requests for
information about QUEST from as far away as Africa and Europe. The flood of
interest comes in the wake of several television, radio and newspaper reports
about the game.

Biggs believes it is the legwork which went into the game’s design and format
which will be of interest to potential users who want to adapt it to their own
situations. Already, regional planning officials in Portland, Oregon are
talking about building Portland Quest. Next month, Biggs and SDRI senior
associate Mike Harcourt go to China to demonstrate QUEST.

On campus, QUEST is demonstrated weekly at the Institute.

By the end of this academic year, the QUEST team hopes to have a CD-ROM version
of the game available, complete with tutorials and detailed documentation.

QUEST was funded by the federal government as part of a multi-million dollar
UBC project looking at sustainability issues in the Lower Fraser Basin.