Using games to re-imagine Khayelitsha’s central business district

 “How can Khayelitsha develop its city centre?”

 Play Khayelitsha, a game developed to bring stakeholders together to re-imagine and re-think the central business district of Cape Town’s largest township, held test sessions during July 2014, to provide further clarity for the relevancy of the method in the Cape Town context.


The subject of focus for the Play the City workshop was the central business district of Khayelitsha (KBD), South Africa’s second largest township. Khayelitsha represents a unique case due to its virtual lack of urban planning, public amenities or a city centre.

Despite over 400,000 people living within its borders, the district faces resource shortages, a lack of formal businesses and a severe dearth of public transportation to Cape Town’s central business district 25kms away. Therefore the question posed to gamers today was: How can Khayelitsha develop its city centre?

The purpose of Play Khayelitsha is:

  1. exploring shared visions with real stakeholders of KBD
  2. unlocking conversations though seeking shared visions for KBD
  3. reaching a large group of stakeholders to revive the community around KBD
  4. introducing a new collaborative method for Cape Town; potentially a future working method for CoCT

How it works: Each play session can host 40 players; 20 active and 20 indirect players who influence the game through voting. For October 2014, 4 Play Khayelitsha episodes, thus reaching up to 160 participants.

A series of players gathered around a large, circular board in the middle of the table, which depicted an aerial view of Khayletisha’s central district. Each player was assigned one unique role from the choices of: designer, land owner, NGO, street vendor, investor, developer, facilitator, planning department, local resident, small business and council member.

Each actor was assigned a specific amount of currency that they could use to buy ‘resources’ ranging from a skills training centre to a parasol container to a shebeen.

It was intended for each player to debate and negotiate with other actors around the table by putting forth personal interests and visions for how Khayelitsha could develop. After every 15 minutes, players came together to pitch their ideas to the rest of the gamers, and a period of negotiation would follow.


Proposals for development initiatives ranged widely. Local residents and small business owners worked together to lobby for the informal traders; whereas the developer and city planning department pushed for more industry development and formal housing blocks. Issues relevant to Khayelitsha often emerged during discussions; a range of actors across the board pointed to the severe lack of skills training, a lack of adequate housing, the district’s inability to attract industry and the lack of the private sector.

It appeared that overall, every actor had the same end goals in mind. Yet, how exactly to arrive at these goals through urban planning and development varied widely.

Interestingly, there were many times actors who were playing individual roles went out of character to represent their personal interests in real-life. For instance, one man whose role in the game was that of a landowner in Khayelitsha, acted out of his assigned character. He almost instantly offered his land away for low-profit development (including providing space for an urban farm and building a technical college), rather than holding out for highly profitable development opportunities, such as for industrial offices. These breaks in character were perhaps indicative of the types of people who were attracted to the engagement offered by the game, rather than the stakeholders that would be represented in real-life.

Once the game concluded, players reflected that conceptualising urban planning becomes much more fun and creative when transferred into a gaming scenario.  They said that it created a safe space for idea creation and innovation that is often lacking within actual governmental planning offices and investment firms. The reception overall was very positive and optimistic, suggesting that a game such as this could be used collaboration between sectors.

The game will return to South Africa in October when Play the City engages real-life, high-level stakeholders in play in Khayelitsha. The outcomes of this second session will be highly anticipated.

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