GIS and Gaming

Elizabeth Borneman


Video games have become an incredibly technologically advanced piece of equipment to have casually laying around your living room. Children now are raised with video games and, if they don’t have a console themselves, are used to the feel of controllers and screens through contact with them in other places.

Graphics have moved from blocky, pixelated characters to incredibly high-definition and realistic pictures that immerse the player in the game. Simple quests have given way to complex story lines, backstories for the myriad of players’ characters, and entire virtual worlds to explore from the comfort of your home.

Move to a science lab at a university where students are gathered around computer screens, mapping an undersea geological feature on the computer with the help of their professor.

GIS is used for cartography, mapping watershed patterns, tracking wildlife across a corridor, virtual city planning and much more. Complex algorithms and data are used to create a virtual and very detailed map of the systems being viewed, and the real-life applications are ever expanding.

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The intersection of GIS and video games

What do these two pieces of advanced technology have to do with each other?

For starters, many video games are set in virtual worlds that require some knowledge of real-world geography from the designers. Rivers, mountains, valleys, and more pepper video games and players would be disappointed if their characters merely walked through them as opposed to over, up, or around.

Games like World of Craft and SimCity are fantasy worlds (or allow you to build your own world) while games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto emulate real world places like Iraq and California.

Keeping these places geographically correct in the game gives players the ability to immerse themselves in the scenario, making it more realistic.

Sivan Design’s Civil Simulate provides a 3D environment.
Sivan Design’s Civil Simulate provides a 3D environment.

While GIS remains relatively unknown to much of the non-scientific population it is becoming increasingly popular for game designers, governments, and those who wish to improve the world as we currently know it.

Online GIS systems are already up and running and could be used to perform research and analysis by the common users who frequent them. By playing virtual games, data could be collected and used to improve the conditions in our cities and more.

Using GIS and gaming to treat PTSD in veterans

GIS and video games are already being merged by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Research has produced a few virtual war games there which are used to simulate a real war environment (in this case, Iraq) and is used as immersion therapy for returning veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The game explores a war environment in which IEDs, enemy fire, and interpersonal interactions all work towards giving players a better insight into the complexities of war and cultural interactions.

Sections of the simulation also allow for practicing negotiation skills and securing a city while dealing with potential problems like tribal interactions, remerging resurgence groups, low supplies, and language barriers.

Veterans with PTSD have been treated with the simulation, starting with something as simple as sitting in a Humvee with a partner to returning to the war environment and solving problems. By being successful in this way, veterans’ brains can be changed to overcome the effects of PTSD and other war-related issues that have followed them home.

The future is bright for both GIS and video games. By working together these industries could not only continue to produce better graphics and storylines but put everyday people to use by playing games that could solve the problems we are increasingly facing in the world. From geographical anomalies to weather patterns, animal habitats to urban planning, war games to fantasy worlds, the possibilities are endless.


The Intersection of GIS and Gaming. Matt Artz. October 7, 2011.

Stack Exchange. Geographical Information Systems. May 19, 2011.

Today’s G.I.s train with video games. NBC News. Patrick Miller. October 10, 2009.


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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.