2014 Grants Challenge

Block LA

BLOCK is a video game, which allows users to design and study the health of the city and ecological interdependencies of urban actors.


Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

Gamescapes research, within USC Architecture, seeks to democratize the design of the built environment through the use of video games.

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

Central LA

East LA

South LA

San Gabriel Valley

San Fernando Valley

South Bay


The game BLOCK could be adapted to any environment, it would constitute a framework for the study of urban health.

What is your idea/project in more detail?

BLOCK is a video game for city planning and speculation. The game is founded on ideas of ecology, establishing the interdependencies of city entities such as housing, shops, parks and infrastructure. By allowing the player to understand how to use resources (money, waste, social capital), we can encourage entrepreneurship through the design of an ecological urbanism, allowing for new opportunities to be conceived in the city. The objective of the game is to both educate people and to generate user data for design patterns for the LA of 2050, producing the first database of a future city. The project will be open-source and free to access. The first prototype of the game has already been developed within USC School of Architecture.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

We have already developed an initial prototype, as can be seen in the accompanying video. The prototype allows us to already start working with players and communities as we develop and add real data and features to the game. Local communities within LA have already approached us to use the game in the teaching of architecture and urban development.

To implement this project, we need to build a team that will support the current development team, primarily by going into the community, and connecting with people in education, design, and urban planning, and also to source real data to create accurate simulations.

The game prototype that we have already developed works as a proof of concept; Players can easily simulate urban environments and come to understand the interdependencies of different elements. The game encourages the player to improve the quality of urban space and learn the needs of other actors in the city.

Games such as Simcity and Minecraft allow players to engage with city simulations or digital design, but we currently do not have an accessible game that can connect players with the real implications of products, of architecture and the city. BLOCK will breach the digital with the physical and allow anyone to become an active participant in the LA of 2050. The current Gamescapes research led by Jose Sanchez at USC School of Architecture, has been developed over the past 2 years, to create the tools and the framework to make this game possible.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to LIVE today? In 2050?

LA is a city that has been built by its inhabitants. Is in in their power to make a significant new change. The LA of 2050 will be shaped by a generation that is currently very young. It requires a ‘massive design medium’ to expand the imagination of the current generation. Video games have the reach to affect a larger community. They also offer the possibility to simulate systems; Systems thinking is one of the fundamental challenges of the 21st century. If we have engaging video games that can simulate the quality of the air, the health of the city and the interdependences of businesses, we can allow individuals and organizations to see how their own ideas are intertwined.

BLOCK aims to be a medium for 21st century city participation where we could crowd-source the models for the LA of 2050.

However, BLOCK can also have a direct impact very quickly. One of the stages of the project is to model a series of case studies of cities and neighbourhoods that work with ideas of ecology, generating patterns of sustainability. These patterns will be included in the game as examples, and would enable anyone to learn how to implement already working solutions. Think of it as an interactive recipe book for a healthy Los Angeles.

Whom will your project benefit?

Change takes time, and the beneficiaries of this project will truly be near future generations. In it’s initial phase, the game’s primary educational purpose, will be to support educational institutions to find and model urban problems, and build simulations that could provide alternative patterns for the urban conditions of today.

In it’s second phase, the game will build a catalogue of case studies of established urban problems and possible solutions. The game will show that it can model existing and envisioned city configurations, and also demonstrate how they could operate. This will connect a gamer community with architects and city planners.

Whilst the internet can provide a forum to enable hundreds of people to play and suggest great ideas to a particular problem, is can be difficult to know if the ideas are feasible or if they are missing other information that render them irrelevant. By developing BLOCK, citizens will be armed with the tools to create city simulations themselves, and ideas will be in a format that any authority could implement. The challenge of the project is to go ‘from Gaming to Making’.

In a similar way in which the game FOLD-IT ( works with a community of players to advance the science of protein folding and cure diseases, BLOCK will bring the problem of urban health and ecological urbanism to a massive community of players that can collectively be smarter than a state of the art algorithm.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

USC School of Architecture has already secured two partners:

USC Game Innovation Lab

5D Institute

The project is also trying to collaborate with:

Unity3D (TBC)

The Plant Chicago (TBC)

The experience in developing video games at the USC Game Innovation Lab led by Tracy Fullerton, will be a critical assessment to the work developed. They posses a fundamental expertise in all areas of game development and will certainly push the game to be meaningful and accomplish its goals.

The 5D Institute, led by Alex McDowell, is recognised for innovation in narrative structures. They will be a key collaborator to define the rhetoric of the project to generate player engagement. The ecological narrative of the game needs to be strong and accessible and the 5D Institute will support us to achieve this goal.

The two other collaborations currently being pursued will add a deeper expertise to the game:

Unity3D is the company that develops Unity, the game engine used so far for the development of BLOCK. We are in conversation with them for technical support for this project.

The Plant Chicago is an Urban Farming initiative that has pioneered an ecological urban farm concept that eliminates the idea of waste by establishing the interdependence of productive units. They posses a unique expertise and have been a great inspiration to the project. In collaborating with The Plant Chicago, we hope to use them as a case study and implement several other concepts similar to theirs within the game.

How will your project impact the LA2050 LIVE metrics?

Access to healthy food

Exposure to air toxins

Number of households below the self-sufficiency standard

Percent of imported water

Walk/bike/transit score

Acres and miles of polluted waterways

Percentage of LA communities that are resilient (Dream Metric)

Percentage of tree canopy cover (Dream Metric)

see below.

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Some of the additional metrics to consider are the following:

-Reduction of waste [OWN]

-Ecological Awareness [OWN]

-Local energy Collection [OWN]

-Local Food production [OWN]

-Interdependence coefficients. [OWN]

-Walk/transit/bike score [CONNECT]

-Median travel time to work [CONNECT]

-Residential segregation [CONNECT]

-Number of public transit riders [CONNECT]

-Access to open space and park facilities [PLAY]

-Percentage of residents that feel safe in their neighborhood [PLAY]

-Employment in the creative industries [CREATE]

-Concentration of manufacturing activity in LA [CREATE]

-Number of high growth startups [CREATE]

By modelling the scenario in which these conditions emerge, we can design alternative patterns or implement local solutions. Often, many of the metrics can be improved by broadening the scope of the problem. BLOCK is based on an idea of ‘Systems Thinking’ that would encourage different actors to take action and get involved. An informed community is the best way to promote local innovation.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

The data of player’s creations will be saved to a server in an anonymous format. This will allow us to generate several indicators and statistics.

The main indicators for the GAME are:

Reach – The amount of engagement that the game has in a particular community.

Patterns – How advanced and efficient are the patterns created by the community.

Innovation – How new patterns emerge from the community and how they perform with different evaluation criteria.

Persistence – How does the implementation of the game continue to involve new members.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

The project is primarily influenced by the rich gaming community, which is incredibly passionate and engaged with new games. The example, as described earlier, of the video game ‘FOLD-IT’ constitutes a vital precedent to the use of videogames for research and development.

Secondly, there are two videogames that have greatly influenced the development of BLOCK: SimCity( and Minecraft ( Both video games allow players to design at different scales. Both video games have been used for educational purposes. What both games lack is the ability to connect the game to the real world. Most videogames do not need to do that as they are framed as entertainment. In our case, BLOCK is intended as a research project that could enable us to connect virtual simulations with the physical word.

Finally, an important lesson has been learnt by one of our potential collaborators. ‘The Plant’ in Chicago has shown the way to generate urban farming by eliminating the idea of waste. The key implementation in ‘The Plant’ is how one system feeds into another. The waste of one productive agent becomes the resource for another. This is what we identify as ecological urbanism and those relationships can be found in many situations. By crowdsourcing the design of meaningful combinations of services and urban entities, we can redefine the way we think about the city.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

We understood that the key way to communicate this project was to first develop a prototype. We have done this over the past several months and we had the opportunity to publicly test it at the ‘Smart Geometry’ Conference in Hong Kong. The first prototype has allowed us to engage in great conversations and speculation on the possibilities of the project. The feedback has been extremely positive, inspiring others to suggest ideas and wanting to get more involved in the development of the project.

The hard work of designing the framework for the game is over. The next stage is to develop the content and collect real world data to bring accuracy and meaning to the game. Based on the four months of past development, we are confident that 12 months will be enough time to finish the second stage, and open the project up to the community of LA.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

Firstly, one of the major challenges is to be able to describe real world problems within the game. Often games follow a certain logic for entertainment value and they do not need to have real world accuracy. Will Wright, the creator of SimCity, explains this very well. He argues that a game needs to be engaging, as without that engagement people will not play it. This forces game designers to compromise on the accuracy of the models in order to make them more fun. Whilst we want to create engagement, we also want to connect the game to the real world by incorporating the actual energy consumption of a certain service, for example. We believe this will be a crucial challenge that the project will need to address.

Secondly, is the challenge of the development of a community. Without the community, we will have no data, no metrics, no innovation. It would be easy to underestimate the importance of marketing and taking the game out to different locations in the community of LA where people can engage with it. The aspect of community engagement will be included from day one, as it is player feedback which will allow the game to grow and become successful.

What resources does your project need?

Network/relationship support

Money (financial capital)

Volunteers/staff (human capital)

Publicity/awareness (social capital)

Community outreach

Quality improvement research