Top Ten Video Games to Build Civil Engineering Skills

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Infra

Developed in Finland by Loiste Interactive, Infra is a first-person game that puts you in the shoes of a civil engineer specializing in structural analysis. Armed with nothing more than a camera, you’re tasked with investigating a city ravaged by corruption. You’ll explore the city’s infrastructure—its metro systems, office buildings, and dams—solving mechanical, electrical, and structural puzzles. And, just like life as a civil engineer, your actions will affect the outcome of the game.

The developers of Infra were inspired by The Crumbling of America—a 2009 documentary about dangerously unsafe infrastructure—and by news of spoiled tap water and poor road conditions.

As one of the highest-profile games to star a civil engineer, Infra has the potential to open up the public’s thinking about the things it often takes for granted. To succeed at the game requires internalizing a valuable lesson for all civil engineers: the construction of the built environment requires one to think in lifetimes, not deadlines.

Minecraft

Even if you haven’t played it, you’ve probably heard of Minecraft, the best-selling video game of all time, with over 200 million copies sold, and over 125 million active monthly users. A sandbox game developed by Mojang Studios, it allows users to extract raw materials, develop tools, and build structures. For all its blocky graphics, the game is startlingly complex: users can even wire together electrical systems within the buildings they create. A member of the MIT Media Lab once remarked that Minecraft wasn’t a game, but instead a trick to get millions of people to learn how to use a CAD program.

Minecraft is of particular interest to civil engineers: as early as 2011, developers began discussing using Minecraft to redesign public buildings and parks. And, in 2012, Mojang Studios partnered with UN-Habitat to create real-world environments within the Minecraft game, and then allow residents of those environments to contribute in designing the changes they’d like to see.

Minecraft even has its own educational organization, MinecraftEDU. But for all its cognitive nutritional value, it’s still a fun game. Over its lifetime, Minecraft has won the BAFTA Award for “Best Family and Social Game,” the Kids’ Choice Award for “Favorite Video Game,” and the VGX Award for “Best Independent Game.”

SimCity 4

Developed by Maxis Studios, the SimCity franchise is an institution in both the gaming and civil engineering worlds. The first SimCity game dates back to 1989, and the basic concept hasn’t changed much since then: users are put in charge of what will become a city and tasked with its expansion and development. Players must balance their resources between residential, industrial, and commercial zones. The distribution of basic utilities such as water, electricity, and waste management must be considered in the context of the needs of the population. And, just like civil engineering, you don’t necessarily win outright; you just get better at your task.

SimCity 4 isn’t the latest iteration of SimCity, but it’s one of the best for civil engineers. Users have to grapple with urban decay and gentrification, and factor in issues like population wealth, public transportation, and terraforming. Cities can grow up to 16 square kilometers, roughly a quarter of the size of Manhattan. GameSpy noted that the hyper-realistic nature of SimCity 4 might turn off casual players, but that level of difficulty might be more representative of the challenges a civil engineer will face in their line of work.

Cities: Skylines (Green Cities)

Cities: Skylines is a city-building game published by Paradox Interactive, and it’s well-positioned to take over SimCity’s throne. Paradox Interactive isn’t new to civil engineering in games, as it partnered in designing Cities in Motion, a game based on transportation management. Cities: Skylines deals with not just transportation but also zoning, road placement, and public services, with attention required in regards to pollution and budget. This is no small task: with Steam Workshop modifications, players can open up a 324-square-kilometer map.

Cities: Skylines has been teaching civil engineering since before the game was even released, when developers learned through in-game modeling that some modern roadway intersections were inherently inefficient.

Even more valuable lessons exist in Green Cities, an expansion pack that allows players to implement sustainable development principles into their cities and measure the outcome of introducing solar panels and electric cars. Those lessons have already had an impact in the real world: the City of Stockholm used Cities: Skylines to plan a new transportation system.

Fallout 4

Fallout 4 is an open-world action role-playing game from Bethesda Game Studios. Set in the year 2287, in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, users explore a dilapidated world while searching for their character’s missing child.

Aside from the gunplay and mystery, the game has a serious civil engineer bend to it: users can build realistic settlements, towns, and factories from collecting raw materials. If that sounds like a brief detour, it isn’t, and many players have focused an incredible amount of time on just the building feature of Fallout 4. Bethesda’s even offering virtual workshops where would-be civil engineers can stretch the limitations of the game.

Civil engineering games, it turns out, can be quite the hit: after generating $750 million in sales within 24 hours of its release, Fallout 4 went on to win “Game of the Year” from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences and “Best Game” at the British Academy Games Awards.

Roller Coaster Tycoon

Initially developed by Chris Sawyer Productions, Roller Coaster Tycoon is one of the most popular simulation franchises. Players are put in charge of the open-ended development and management of an amusement park. Consideration must be paid to infrastructure deterioration, overall planning, and operational flow. Throughout the course of the game, players are given a snowglobe look at civil engineering, where the ecosystem depends upon multiple shifting factors such as research, cost, and efficiency. Analytical thinking and big-picture logic are key skills to succeeding in the game, just as they are in civil engineering.

With ten installments that stretch from mobile to desktop and console, Roller Coaster Tycoon is one of the most ubiquitous civil engineering games. Critics have praised its nearly unlimited replay value. To quote a popular in-game reference, with Roller Coaster Tycoon, “the ride never ends.”

Factorio

Drawing influence from Minecraft, Wube Software’s Factorio is a construction and management simulation game. Players begin the game by taking control of an engineer who’s crash-landed on an alien planet and must cultivate industries in order to build a rocket that will allow them to leave. This requires resource collection, which can be combined into more complex materials, and lead to the development of sophisticated structures and technology.

While the game is technically won by successfully launching a rocket, the open-world nature of Factorio allows players to focus, instead, on building more and more advanced structures, including factories.

Factorio has been in development since 2012, and relied upon a crowdsourced funding campaign in its initial stages. After nearly half a decade of informal release, the game will get its official debut on September 25, 2020. Even in its informal state, it’s already been named by critics as one of the best games of the last decade.

Portal

Developed by the revolutionary Valve game studio, the Portal series is a first-person puzzle game that’s absolutely maddening in its simplicity. Available in both one- and two-player modes, players need to utilize a form of portal technology, undergirded by concrete physics, to move from point A to point B. There’s no brute force here, just elegant solutions. And, while it isn’t a civil engineering simulator, the skills it reinforces are essential to thinking like an engineer: physics, logic, momentum, and abstract relation.

Playing the game has even been made mandatory coursework in a university class and praised for the design of its instruction. Play it long enough and you, too, will be thinking in portals.

Civilization VI

It’s all right there in the name. Since 1991, the Civilization series has been giving informal lessons on the way civilizations form and grow over time. Players are put in charge of developing a civilization from nothing more than a small settlement into a sprawling world power.

Even if your average civil engineer isn’t aspiring to world domination, there’s plenty for them to connect with in Civilization VI, from building cities, making improvements, and managing the flow of resources. Victory takes many forms—cultural, technological, and military superiority. And while the interlocking layers of Civilization VI can make it overwhelming to new players, aspiring engineers will feel right at home.

Just try not to get addicted: as a turn-based game, Civilization VI can be compulsive to the point of obsession, creating what critics and developers have called One More Turn Syndrome.

The Incredible Machine

The basic principles of good engineering haven’t changed much in the last few decades, and The Incredible Machine, first released in 1993, still holds true to them. It’s old enough that the original version is available as abandonware, but don’t let that category fool you. The game is centered around the construction of an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine from simple objects in service of meeting a simple task. The game does more than simulate the interaction between physical objects, however, and players must account for factors such as ambient gravity and air pressure.

While it lacks the sprawling God-view of a city simulator, the attention to detail and physics reinforces the foundational skills of civil engineering. And, in some cases, it’s proven to be dangerously fun: in 1994, a writer for Computer Gaming World reported that introducing the game to his engineering friend resulted in a chain reaction that nearly halted all productive work at a major naval yard.

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