Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
“Block’hood” invites players to build a complex urban ecosystem, where dystopia sometimes rules.
In “SimCity,” says Jose Sanchez, an assistant professor at the USC School of Architecture, the name of the game is megalomania. In that video game, a child of the late 1980s, the player is cast as the mayor, and it’s up to them to make unilateral decisions that are best for their people—or not, depending on their animus.
“Block’hood” is meant to be a bit different. The game, which Sanchez and a small team have worked on since 2014 and released in beta this week, envisions the player as more of a community-engaged city dweller or neighborhood association. Rather than just using piles of money to incentivize growth, players get different but vital resources to spend as they choose: money plus electricity, water, labor, beer, wheat, and vegetables, to name a few. They are urged to keep in mind that the city is a system, a complex and more-than-concrete living space, one that needs more than just the brute force of funds to exist.
“You can build whatever you want,” Sanchez says, “but what you do will actually die and decay unless you provide the right resources for it to exist. [For example,] if you have a tree, and don’t have water, it will die. It makes the pace of the game much more creative and a bit more flexible because you need to be considering what you have before you do whatever you want.”
Because each player’s neighborhood is made up of a series of blocks, the game emphasizes the interconnectedness of a urban place: how the pollution created by the industry on one block, for example, can sicken people on even the most recycling-friendly, tree-lined street nearby. The game is meant to demonstrate how cities balance on a knife’s edge. “From the very beginning, we described this as a game based on ecology and entropy, or decay,” Sanchez says.
Interested parties can start playing “Block’hood” on the computer entertainment platform STEAM today, but Sanchez says he and his team are still tinkering with the product—and soliciting feedback. Soon, he’s hoping to add inhabitants, or even animals, to emphasize the ecological aspects of the city and let players see how real organisms operate in the environments they’ve built.
Eventually, players may also be able to incorporate real data from their own surroundings, and manipulate their ‘hoods in ways that could have real-world implications. The U.N.’s “Block by Block” project, which takes its cues from the creators of the popular video game “Minecraft,” has done something similar: its gamefied virtual reality helps communities participate in planning in fun, low-pressure, and youth-friendly ways. So it also makes sense that Sanchez is hoping the game can be incorporated into schools, to help kids ages ten and up learn about what goes into making a city.
“Kids would have the chance to play with a viable block,” Sanchez says. “Creating all these challenges would be relevant for a STEM education. We don’t differentiate too much between the game and the education.” Because who doesn’t need to learn how to build a city?
Block’hood video game, $9.99, available on STEAM.