UBC Reports
November 14, 1996

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.