University of Southern California Builds Better Architecture with Video Game


Microsoft might have acquired MinecraftEdu to help school children learn science, but the University of Southern California has upped the ante of learning through their very own video game “Block’hood”.

Block’hood was designed by Jose Sanchez, an assistant professor at USC, with help from Gentaro Makinoda, a graduate student from the same university. The game, released for Mac and Windows this April, won Best Gameplay at the 2016 Games for Change Awards.

As “a neighborhood-building sandbox game that presents an ecological take on city planning”, Block’hood will certainly remind some players of Minecraft and Sim City, only with some vital differences.

The game allows users to use 96 building blocks to create a community or infrastructure.

Each block or piece has different purposes, costs, and effects: apartment, solar panels, and shops. These pieces play a part in making your building or area “healthy”.

It’s not as simple as stacking blocks over each other like Lego pieces. Players must understand how each piece works with one another. If the pieces don’t fit well together, the building could suffer decay or ruin.

Ecology is a large concern in the game, forcing players to think about how each factor affects their architectural design.

Inspired by Sim City and Minecraft, which allow users to build their own designs, Sanchez wanted to use an open sandbox game that would allow students to explore the concerns architects have about urban planning like prevention of decay and a balance of resources like food, electricity, water, and jobs for a constantly growing population.

Sanchez said,

“I think the architects of tomorrow will grow up playing Minecraft or games like this, where the ideas of systems are more pressing. The game can simulate and model notions of gentrification, social change and segregation. These are problems that architects have to deal with at all times — and it’s doing it in a creative way.”

The USC game designer had both studied programming and architecture. Having a lot of experience with more complicated software that allow users to design and plan communities and infrastructure, Sanchez wanted to explore the idea of using such programs.

“If you use software designed for more people and people who aren’t highly technical, that software needs to teach you how to play.”

He also pursued a master’s degree that allowed him to simulate biological systems. He incorporated this in the game he developed so that the experience would feel more authentic, with users needing to be more careful with how they design or place blocks together in order to make a more sustainable community.

The creators are adding more blocks for use every day. Each block has an Input and Output. For example,

“A tree might need water to create oxygen, and a shop might need consumers to create money. By understanding how each block is dependent on other blocks, you can create a productive network.”

Like a collectable card game, new blocks can affect the relationships of existing blocks.

This means that incorporating new resources will affect the community, whether for better or for worse.

Game developers also warn users:

“Be careful… seeking an utopian neighborhood carelessly, can lead to dystopia.”

Block’hood is ideal for those who want to play games like Sim City, while at the same time learn how to make their community thrive and how to simulate solutions to address urban architecture design concerns.

Rob Clark admin staff managing editor

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