Gaming meets BIM

First person simulation, gesture control and virtual environments – for the future of engineering tools, look no further than the video games in your front room.

From modest beginnings in the 1970s, the video game industry has become a major money- spinner. The Entertainment Software Association reports that, in 2013, the computer and video games industry in the US alone generated revenues of US$21.5bn.

The UN,has earmarked 30 projects for consultation under the global Block by Block programme, a partnership between the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and Minecraft’s developer, Mojang, to increase participation in the design of public space refurbishments.

With lucrative business opportunities at stake, the gaming industry is pushing boundaries with innovations such as touchscreens, motion sensors, voice control, ever-improving graphics capabilities and design quality, and increasingly sophisticated hardware and software. It’s the sort of stuff that other sectors are just waking up to.


Civil engineering is one of the industries best placed to soak up the benefits of the gaming world’s technological innovations. The possibilities are tantalising: for example, gesture control devices like those seen in the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect consoles offer a more hands-on way for designers to work with 3D models. They can enable construction workers to navigate and update BIM models more accurately and safely in field conditions where lack of space and cumbersome PPE can make it difficult to use a mouse or keyboard.

Microsoft is researching ways to incorporate gesture control sensors into PCs, and spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX has reportedly begun experimenting with gesture control on its 3D design models.

BIM can be combined with game software engines such as Unity to make project models accessible in a similar style to that used in first person shooter games. Designers, clients and stakeholders can explore these models from a human perspective by ‘walking’ through them in real time, which can be particularly useful for testing sightlines and access routes.

“We have implemented this technique on a number of projects, including Severn Trent’s Droitwich sewage treatment works,” says Mott MacDonald senior civil engineer Peter Davies. “We started with a paper design review, then moved toward this interactive format. The opportunity to autonomously explore the model meant Severn Trent was able to give much better informed, and therefore more meaningful, design feedback.”

BIM software packages are also increasingly borrowing from the graphic interface styles of simulation games such as Sim City. As BIM product libraries become more ubiquitous, the industry is progressing toward a situation where designers will be able to ‘drag and drop’ design components and see project costs rise and fall in accordance with the adjustments they make – as they make them.

One of the best examples of crossover between gaming and BIM lies in the relatively simplistic game Minecraft. Often described as ‘digital Lego’, it allows users to build structures from a variety of cubic blocks representing different materials. Clay, sandstone, wood and iron are among the many materials options, as well as products such as doors, stairs and rail tracks.

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Players can co-operate via the internet to design and build together. Despite its stylised, boxy appearance, Minecraft’s emphasis on collaborative built environment design makes it something of a ‘layman’s BIM’. This was spotted by the UN, which has earmarked 30 projects for consultation under the global Block by Block programme, a partnership between the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and Minecraft’s developer, Mojang, to increase participation in the design of public space refurbishments. 

In countries including Haiti, Nepal, India and Kenya, young people have been invited to group workshops where they are presented with a Minecraft model of an underperforming local public space and invited to remodel it to their satisfaction. These designs are then interpreted by architects.

“Community participation is key, but it can be very difficult to engage younger people,” says UN-Habitat digital projects officer Pontus Westerberg. “By using Minecraft, we can draw in people who may otherwise have been excluded.”

Children as young as 12 have participated in Block by Block and, despite Minecraft’s limitless design potential, many of the young participants’ proposals are eminently realistic. “I’ve been surprised by how sensible the designs are,” Pontus says. “In Mexico we worked with over 1000 kids, and the vast majority of their suggestions were things you could take away and actually implement.”

“Engineering has found it difficult in recent years to attract young people,” says Richard Shennan, BIM champion at Mott MacDonald. “Progressing these sorts of exciting technologies and interfaces will help the sector seem more relevant to the modern world, and prevent youngsters thinking that they’re entering an industry stuck in the middle of the last century. Connections with gaming technology can move us forward while attracting new faces, new skills and new ways of thinking.”

With gaming platforms and technologies developing at pace, further crossovers between the worlds of gaming and the built environment are likely to emerge in the coming years.

Richard Shennan is Mott MacDonald's group practice leader for BIM Infrastructure Intelligence


My 14 year old son built a working coin operated vending machine in Minecraft from scratch.