The Intersection of GIS and Gaming

Video games have moved beyond the stereotype of simple entertainment and are now a serious technological and cultural force to be reckoned with.  Millions of people spend many hours each week immersed in the rich virtual environments of today’s sophisticated games.  And the multibillion dollar market for games has moved beyond teen males, with adults and women now more engaged than ever.

Most games today have a spatial component, and these virtual worlds are becoming more complex and sophisticated.  There is no doubt that video games have a high potential for effective education, with individuals often learning valuable skills and gaining experience from within a simulated environment.  But beyond education, where else do GIS and gaming intersect?

Ola Ahlqvist discusses how massive multiplayer online gaming is finding its way into education and training environments.

As the virtual worlds in video games become increasingly difficult to design and manage, it’s easy to see the benefits of using proven geospatial tools to manage, model, and design this virtual geography.  And making virtual worlds more realistic is key to leveraging them for geospatial research and analysis.  In fact, some game designers and even players are already exporting rich spatial datasets from GIS to create new realistic levels or worlds within video games.  But can we do more?  How can the geospatial community leverage the talent and infrastructure of the gaming community? Can we use these virtual worlds as testing or prototype environments to help improve conditions in the real world?

Online, cooperative citizen science platforms such as and eBird are becoming increasingly popular and successful.  The next logical step would be to leverage existing online environments—specifically, online gaming environments—as platforms for research, analysis, and design.  By testing alternative designs in the virtual world of a video game, people simply “playing games” could actually be playing a valuable role in designing future buildings, roads, cities, and parks.  If this was done to be both representative of the real world and entertaining at the level expected in a video game, participants could make potentially important societal contributions while still having fun playing their games.

Leveraging online gaming environments as a resource could add a whole new dimension to geospatial research and analysis.  But merging elements of “work” and “play” is a delicate balance and needs to be done without disrupting the gaming experience.  Because once you remove the entertainment from a game, it’s just work.

Matt Artz

About Matt Artz

Matt Artz joined Esri in 1989. In his current role as GIS and Science Manager, he helps communicate the value of GIS as a tool for scientific research and understanding. He writes extensively about geospatial technologies and manages the GIS and Science blog. Prior to joining Esri he worked as an Environmental Scientist at a large science and engineering consulting company, on such diverse projects as highway noise modeling, archaeological impact assessment, and chemical weapons disposal. His educational background includes an M.S. degree in Environmental Policy and Planning and a B.S. degree in Anthropology and Geography.
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  1. DuaneMarble says:

    “Making virtual worlds more realistic” is indeed a good application of GIS and geographic science. I have wondered for some time why geographers have paid so little attention to the increasing complexity of game “worlds.”

    In addition to realistic environments, we must also deal with realistic responses to these environments by the agents operating within these environments. These responses involve two basic elements. The first is physical and involves energy expenditure by the individual – for example, how is this influenced by encountering widely varying elements of the environment such as terrain and allied conditions: soils, streams, vegetation, etc.

    The second is perceptual, that is, how do we perceive the environment around us and how do we make decisions about it. The work of the late Reg Golledge certainly comes to mind.

    My examination of the geographic literature leads me to conclude that the first of the two elements has been largely ignored and that the second deserves far more attention than it has been given so far.

    Duane Marble

  2. dgadsden says:

    Thanks Matt! I wanted to let everyone know about the Youth Capacity and Empowerment project, a serious gaming initiative through NetHope, a consortia of 33 of the largest global nonprofits, in partnership with the US Agency of International Development (USAID). Through this program the role of gaming is being explored as a means to empower youth with important social skills and knowledge. As NetHope CEO Bill Brindley points out in the following blog post, “The youth experience is similar to the entertainment-based games, however, the difference is that serious games have built-in learning outcomes and drive behavioral change.”

    David Gadsden