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Jose Sanchez: The Architect-Turned-Video Game Creator

Block'hood, a new video game by Jose Sanchez, is part Sim City, part urban planning tutorial

Jose Sanchez is designing a city block. He adds trees, apartments, and a shop. But these elements need power, water, and food, so he adds wind turbines and a field of wheat. For a brief time, an equilibrium is struck, and the lights in his buildings turn on and off, and a resident appears, walking between the apartments and the shop. But soon, a wheat field dies, the turbines break, and the neighborhood begins to decay. Sanchez must find a way to bring his neighborhood back to life in a sustainable and ecologically sound way.

Luckily, he has tools, knowledge, and time at his disposal. For this is not a real city block, but a simulated one, which he is designing using his interactive game Block’hood. Released on March 10th by the Plethora Project, Block’hood is part Sim City, part beautifully rendered tutorial in city planning and peaceful coexistence.

"Some people tell us it seems to be a wolf dressed as a sheep," Sanchez says, smiling mischievously. "Kids are playing this thing and suddenly they’re being educated, and they don’t realize this is an education game!"

Courtesy of Plethora Project

Sanchez grew up in Chile, and, like so many other children, was a video game enthusiast. Favorites included both Sim City and Tetris. At school, he leaned heavily towards two particular subjects.

"I did a lot of art electives in school, and that started being in a way the direction that I had. I started doing pretty well in art. And I also liked math; math and art, that seems to be architecture, right?"

After attending undergraduate school in Chile and practicing architecture there for several years, he went to London where he continued his studies. In London, he mastered "how to write programs, how to write code, how to write architecture as nature," he explains.

"So you imagine a plant growing and you start thinking, well, what if we could write an algorithm, a series of commands to simulate this growth?" he says. "But instead of doing a tree, we actually do a house." In 2009, Sanchez founded the Plethora Project, an initiative to "accelerate computational literacy in the frame of architecture and design."

"Architecture is a really beautiful career," Sanchez continues. "You can build a career to your own interests—there are so many directions you could take."

"In Block'hood, you can build anything you want as long as you maintain an ecological balance between the things you create."

Today, he splits his time between his duties as an Associate Professor at the University of Southern California School of Architecture and creating projects like Block’hood, which grew out of a workshop he attended in Hong Kong four years ago.

"Other games use this narrative of 'I have this money and I am going to spend this money to build what I can, and then I need to get more money to continue,'" Sanchez explains. "But in Block'hood you can build anything you want as long as you maintain an ecological balance between the things you create."

Courtesy of Plethora Project
Courtesy of Plethora Project

The game features both an open-ended "sandbox" mode and a challenge mode, which encourages players to think about issues related to power, ecology, life cycles, food production, and residential and commercial development. Players have enormous freedom to create whatever kind of environment they like.

"The game is a very open-ended simulator, so you could decide to have a tower with a lot of people, or you can decide to have a forest and have a lot of wildlife," Sanchez says. "The game is allowing you to understand how everything is interconnected. That the habitats you create require resources and produce waste, and that that waste could be productive for something else. That is a big kind of 'aha' moment for a player. It’s like, ‘'This doesn’t have to be waste!’"

Sanchez’s main goal is to use his work to help people of all ages start thinking about how humanity is inter-connected, and what kinds of communities we want to create. He sees Block’hood as an ever-changing project, which will grow and mature along with the gaming, architectural, and environmental communities to which he belongs.

He hopes to eventually release a free, educational version of the game, which could be used to collect data for research purposes. He also looks to subsequent versions where players can build their own personal block in the future, and the past.

But no matter the time period, the simple lesson of Block'hood—so easy to grasp, so hard to master—will remain the same. "There’s one rule," he says succinctly. "You have input and outputs. If you provide water for the tree, it's going to survive. If you don’t, it’s going to die."

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