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Turning video gamers into urban planners

USC partners design a game in which players build a city based on real data

video game BLOCK
Two different modes of the video game BLOCK, which was created at USC (Photo/courtesy of USC School of Architecture)

The lure of building fictional cities draws tens of millions to play video games such as SimCity and Minecraft. But what if a game could be created where an actual city is redesigned? And what if the game was free and open source, allowing anyone to take a stab at urban planning?

That’s the logic behind BLOCK, a game designed in collaboration between the USC School of Architecture and the USC Game Innovation Lab, part of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Featured in Fast Company magazine, the game is in the running for a $100,000 grant to further its development from the LA2050 challenge. A video below on the project includes a link to the voting site.

Optimum livability

Using actual data on population, energy costs, transportation options and other variables from the city of Los Angeles, players build and rearrange neighborhoods for optimum livability and environmental efficiency.

Commercial property, housing, parks and infrastructure can be combined in interesting configurations to create a more interconnected and healthy city. For example, waste from one sector might provide energy for another.

After completion, the designs are added to a database, where they can be studied by professional urban planners for ideas and trends. Think of it as an “interactive recipe book for a healthy Los Angeles,” said its developers.

Jose Sanchez, an assistant professor at USC Architecture, created the game with fellow designers Satoru Sugihara and Sergio Irigoyen. The trio developed a prototype of the game two months before the Smart Geometry Conference in Hong Kong in mid-July, and they hope to have a final version released in about a year. BLOCK is being designed for Los Angeles, but it has the potential to be used with local data to re-design cities all over the world.

Intertwined ideas

Sanchez, who works with graduate students on research connecting architecture with video games, said the game focuses on how various parts of a city relate to each other, rather than architectural design

“The objective is to collect data from people’s creations to discover the configurations and resource management strategies that make sense to the people in LA,” he said. “The game also works as an educational tool, allowing anyone to develop systems thinking and ecological awareness.”

Systems thinking is one of the fundamental challenges of the 21st century, according to Sanchez.

“If we have engaging video games that can simulate the quality of the air, the health of the city and the interdependences of businesses,” he said, “we can allow individuals and organizations to see how their own ideas are intertwined.”

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Turning video gamers into urban planners

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