How 'Neighborhood Simulator' Block'Hood Turns a City Into an Organism

Block'hood's ideal is of harmony and cycles and flows—of inputs that feed into outputs, which feed back into the system again.

Most city-building games follow the SimCity formula. You paint an empty landmass with roads, rail, police stations, and three types of zoning—residential, commercial, industrial—all the while staving off natural disasters, collecting taxes, and trying to keep building without going bankrupt. But Block'hood, a game currently available through Steam Early Access that's slated for full release later this year, is different. It has none of those things.

Whereas SimCity and Cities: Skylines try to mimic the form and function of sprawling cities—their complexity emerging from the breadth of the simulation—Block'hood is content to hone in on the minutiae of a single city block.

In Block'hood, you build up, not out, and you don't use generic zones but rather a set of several dozen predefined modular pieces that you stack and cantilever like Lego blocks. You don't manage demand for different services, either; instead each piece has inputs and outputs that connect and feed back into a network of resources, and it's your job to balance this system. If you don't—if the input requirements for a building aren't met—your city decays. Buildings lie derelict.

Lead developer Jose Sanchez, a former architect and current associate professor at the University of Southern California School of Architecture, likens the game to "a diagram of the world." It simulates real systems and relationships at an abstract level. "The values don't have metrics like so many kilowatts of electricity or so many liters of water," he told me. "But there's ratios and proportions."

A sampling of the pieces players can use to build their virtual neighborhoods. Screengrab courtesy the author

The verticality of the game was a response to the way most existing city-building games work. Namely, that they privilege horizontality—the suburban sprawl that covers much of America—and that they oversimplify the process of building a city.

Cities are built by committees and planning commissions and property developers, not by omnipotent mayors.

Sanchez also wants to challenge the relationship between money and player progression. He notes that in SimCity money comes first and last in the process. It alone curbs city growth. But this isn't how it works in the real world. "You propose a project and if the project is viable and has a potential positive impact then money is raised and the project is funded," said Sanchez.

Money is a resource, then—an input for some things and an output for others. It is part of a larger system of interdependence. It's a piece in the puzzle, and the puzzle is always in flux. In this way, Block'hood becomes more of a living creature than other city-building games. It reframes the city as an organism, with its inputs and outputs pumped around from one place to another like a beating heart.

City-building games are exercises in utopianism. They model a vision of a perfect world, and ask you the player to constantly strive to meet that vision. (It's impossible to maintain this utopian ideal because the underlying systems always tend toward disorder and chaos.) SimCity models the sprawl of American utopianism, with its big houses and suburban oases, and the labyrinthine networks of roads that connect them. Block'hood's ideal is of harmony and cycles and flows—of inputs that feed into outputs, which feed back into the system again.

"What if everything is kind of part of this web and there's no moment in which that web stops?"

Block'hood is Sanchez's attempt to model the city as an artificial ecosystem. "It's all about finding the right resource that goes from one [element] to another," he said.

It may be an unusual way of handling city simulation, but this analogy of the city as a living organism resonates. Cities change. The buildings you see as a child grow old. They decay and die, replaced by new things, or they get rejuvenated by an injection of new energy from emerging businesses or changing community needs. "It's almost like we see [these changes] in very slow motion," said Sanchez, "but if you would be able to zoom or fast forward through many years we would see this kind of beating of the city."

That is essentially the function Block'hood serves. It shows these processes, sped up and abstracted. Its diagrammatic portrait of city life reflects real relationships. Businesses need labor, and labor requires housing and spaces for leisure. Likewise, trees need water, and industry needs raw material. Everything is interconnected, and Sanchez has designed Block'hood specifically to show this. As he puts it: "What if everything is kind of part of this web and there's no moment in which that web stops?"

"Today we are externalizing many of the things that we do," Sanchez said. "You flush the toilet and you don't know where your crap ends. You don't know the impact you're having on the world at a global scale."

Block'hood's Challenge mode asks players to construct sustainable communities around specific resources, like the alcohol district pictured here. Screengrab courtesy the author

But forcing you to work in a city block makes visual the fact that your energy and food production and your waste management—along with everything else—needs to be concentrated in the same place.

How these systems and resources fit together, in terms of space and aesthetics, is completely up to the player, however. Block'hood combines the freedom and modularity of games like Minecraft with the late 1960s Whole Earth Catalog—a product catalog full of DIY tips and lists of tools and technology that you could use to become completely self-sufficient in an ecologically-sustainable way. Block'hood is full of parts, in other words, and it's up to the player how to use and connect them effectively.

This was a conscious design decision—one that Sanchez hopes will inspire people to be more creative not just in the game but in the real world. "I do think that there's an avenue of design and architecture that is trying to avoid parts and trying to 3D print everything into one piece," he said. "While I'm much more on the side of let's make everything parts and parts that work with each other."

Sanchez wears his ideals about ecology and sustainability on his sleeve, but he's tried to keep the game's intrinsic biases to a minimum. "In Block'hood there's no ideal block," he said. It doesn't tell you what to do. Block'hood's appeal rests in the possibility space that this affords. And Sanchez is working to increase this possibility space.

As of this writing, the game provides no consequences for excess pollution or other resources that can cast a negative impact on cities. You can have infinite pollution and sickness and carbon dioxide with no ill effects. But Sanchez said the Block'hood team is prototyping subtle effects such as weather changes or crop plagues as well as resource storage constraints on buildings.

They're also working on more advanced pieces that introduce branches to the network for systems like slums. And they've almost finished developing a new mode that's partly about removing the game's bias for vertical buildings but mostly about pulling back to reveal the big picture. This World mode makes each block part of a larger procedurally-generated region with pre-populated biomes and allows you to connect the blocks and have them share resources—so one block may specialize in different kinds of industry while another focuses on housing and shopping and a third is just a big vertical forest.

Block'hood's small building area forces the player to consider design right from the beginning. Screengrab courtesy the author

Sanchez hopes this will contribute to the discussion about the future of cities. His vision of the future is of buildings that mix and combine uses, and of more industries that are interdependent. "Modernism was always thinking of how you would have this area for work, this area for leisure, but if you open up the problem of how to recombine different parts of the city I think people would be able to come up with all sorts of interesting ideas," he said.

Block'hood tries to shift the conversation away from master plans to what he calls an emerging urbanism. This is an urbanism rooted in data, crowdsourcing, and democratic planning policies, with video games on hand to help design better data diagrams of our cities or better data flows within them.

Cities are getting smarter—more data-aware and interconnected—and Block'hood makes the case that their planning processes should follow suit.