For Jose Sanchez, the worlds of architecture and games are inseparable. The Chile-born, Detroit-based architect, urban planner, and educator is regarded for his games that emerge from generative design, Block’hood, and Common’hood. Both are housed under Jose’s studio Plethora Project. The former simulates a city builder focusing on interdependence and decay. The latter builds community through a cast of characters facing the aftermath of an economic crash.
We had the chance to chat with Jose about his games that nurture a culture of care, procedural worlds, and his ever-shifting definition of participation.
I’m curious about those first moments in your life where you thought you knew you wanted to go into art or architecture.
I was born in Santiago, Chile. I was someone that had computers and games from the beginning, and spent a lot of time with my brother. My family spent time in the attic and playing and developing relationships through these interfaces. I never thought that this would be my career. I was told that I should let it go, move on, grow up.
I grew up in quite a privileged position—I went to a private school. It wasn’t until I started attending the Universidad de Chile in Santiago where you feel this bubble, where you feel there is an important amount of facts that are presented to you in a particular way, specifically, concerning the Pinochet dictatorship in Santiago. The way I experienced the dictatorship was from a family that was supporting the dictator.
It wasn’t until I had a chance to go to Universidad de Chile and start seeing the different sides of the equation and taking my steps and my trajectory, where I felt conflicted. It was a long process of reinventing, re-understanding my reality through my sense of information gathering. Most of the social interest in my work today certainly had to do with this sense of awakening; a sense of rejection to the suburban landscape where I grew up. Leaving Chile was also a rejection of a lifestyle that I wasn’t happy with. I didn’t know how to articulate it, and I wanted to study more and get to know the world.
I became an architect. In Chile, you get this professional degree as a practicing architect. I started getting into programming and forms of generative design; using Processing. I started doing video tutorials for people that we’re also learning, so participating in an open-sourced community. That’s why I started the Plethora Project. Through the skills that I had acquired and also some of this childhood interest, I started connecting the dots and going back to the medium of games.
I come from a far more participatory way of engaging with computation of thinking of technology as something that was a two-way street—presenting an open-ended system rather than a final product. I wanted to create something that was certainly messier, something that people could touch, manipulate, consider the intuition I’d gained as a designer. I wanted not to code systems as complete systems, but incomplete systems that I could break and move and tinker with. That’s what got me interested in architecture—in how to reject a sense of computation that was antiquated and as a medium and want to have a conversation. It was a return to childhood passions, a sense of nostalgia for the experiences, and the communication that I could establish with others in the medium of games.
You studied architecture as an undergrad. Were you seeing a connection between architecture and games—or for that matter, seeing the Pinochet regime through the lens of architecture and urban planning—then?
My university was socially-driven. I still feel a lot of my interest was starting to grow back then. I connected with many people and had a strong sense of social justice and issues that were perhaps not important before. It became real for me how people were deeply engaged with social housing.
I was thinking about how to deal with social housing as a critical project for the discipline of architecture, that was perhaps less formalist and was trying not to perhaps engage with some artistic expression of architecture so much, but rather it was a necessity for the country. I also wanted things to scale, so I got into computation early on. I started aiming not to have to do everything by hand, literally by drawing everything by hand every time but thinking of systems. I wanted to think about how you plant the seed of a system that could do many things.
That has become a trajectory of what I do between architecture and games—systems that could be combined in different ways. When I did my first video game, Block’hood, I started thinking, “I don’t want to just do a building. I want to do a video game where millions of buildings could emerge. What are the combinations, and how do people give different values to different arrangements of data?”
In Block’hood, you had a series of blocks together, and those would be particularly more meaningful than others for a particular community. I didn’t want to impose a metric that would say, This is the right building that you should be building or this is the right design, but different people playing, different places would gravitate to find value in different ways to whatever they do.
That brought many shortcomings for the game—I didn’t want to have progression mechanics. I didn’t want to have any of the traditional things you have in a video game that would take a player from not knowing anything about the game to something they would become a master. I wanted to be an open canvas for combining pieces of a city.
I was happy with the game, but it didn’t have the other games’ reach. Already, the recipes that the gaming industry offers that the idea of architecture could scale, as a system, what are the ingredients that would allow a participatory system—something an audience would engage with. If you think about the name Plethora Project, it is the first hint to something. With the simple ingredients, we could encapsulate knowledge or construct a system that could grow on ourselves or others. It transitions from education to work and learning about gaming.
Technology and simulators have this history of this infinite promise, but the natural decay process is important to Block’hood.
I grew up being a huge fan of Will Wright and SimCity. When you do a city-building game, you have to think, “Well, what has been done and how have they achieved some of the systems that they’re doing?” I always thought of SimCity as an economic simulator, one where you had to spend cash or virtual cash to purchase a city and then see how it runs.
I wanted to focus more on the ecological aspect of a game. I thought, “What would it be like to completely remove the initial cost of building something? If things were free, what would be the challenge of building anything? The answer for that had to do with decay, entropy, with a sense of maintaining something alive or nurturing.
It’s almost the idea of taking care of a plant. You have to keep it alive through a series of care actions. Building something became very easy—you could do anything for free, but the upkeep of things is what matters. You have a limited amount of time to ensure that whatever you build will need water, electricity, and a series of requirements. If you’re very ambitious or knowledgeable, perhaps you can do something very complex and take care of that very quickly. In most cases, players would realize, “I need to start slow. I need to make sure that whatever I’m doing is balanced or it has enough resources to be taken care of.”
The lifecycle idea became more important than “Do I have the money to purchase or make a decision?” The game was trying to also say, “We cannot do just anything. We need to see the consequences of what we do.” Often, finding the funds for a project, one might think is the most important or most challenging thing to do. But that having a sense of purpose, or a sense of how does whatever we create connect already to the existing systems or how it would be maintained over time so that that investment or that action wouldn’t just go in vain.
One of the incentives that I work on and some of the implicit ideas in the game. That was central to making a city-building simulator in the line of SimCity that was focused on ecology, not economy.
What was the design process like for Block’hood?
As architects, we have a subset of always shifting tools, but they seem to be quite different from other disciplines. For instance, in architecture, people work a lot with Rhino. If they do programming nowadays, they use Grasshopper, a visual programming interface and even within that, Python. When I learned to program in England, I went through a generative design community. I gravitated towards Processing; understanding what a much more expanded range of programming could be in generative design. I was interested in the generative design community because it was not entirely architectural.
Still, the moment I started my first research studio in London. I was invited by the chair at the time, Frédéric Migayrou, who is also the curator of Centre Pompidou. He said to me, “You need to bring something to the table.” Around 2013, I took all my code on all the work that I had into Unity. The foundation that I had was Processing, and I was working in ecology simulations, and working with students on the systems. Processing was doing many things, but it wouldn’t allow me to release a game in a much more public way and connect to audiences I was hoping for, so I transitioned to Unity.
I was happy with the transition to Unity. I left behind the generative design community to some degree, and I started dipping my toes into the gaming community. I was able to port everything smoothly, and it was a fun process. Both communities have overlapping interests, but many areas are quite different, and there are many crossovers. Ideas that come from generative design become beautiful ideas of games.
Unity became central mainly through the capacity to talk to other people. The fact that I could publish a game, the exhibitions that we were doing in architecture in my work was not about steel, or an image or the result of a script, but rather a live demo or a prototype. There were never games that you could publicly play coming from architecture. I felt like there was more room to innovate and certainly have something to say with the medium within this intersection between architecture and games. That became the central identity of my work.
What excites you about procedural design?
Games like No Man’s Sky have procedural worlds, meaning that you didn’t model a planet or hundreds of planets. You write code that would define every biome, every creature, every piece of geometry in the landscape. I find that world fascinating because it goes back to the notion that you could scale. You have a small piece of code that can be deployed in so many different ways.
Games like Dwarf Fortress are fantastic examples of a mixture of systems thinking and procedurally generated content. Dwarf Fortress is one of those games that has a profound reflection on architecture—the architecture of a fortress; in this case, it’s coupled with almost the psychology of labor of the dwarves. It was also being influenced to think about projects, such as Common’hood later down the line.
How do we think about architecture through the scope of labor? How do we think of a game that isn’t a tycoon game, as some of the generosity in gaming would describe it but rather, how do you create a socially driven factory or a community that needs to have some economic output, but also has to take care of each other? There’s a sense of humanity at the intersection of the economy of autonomous practices.
Games like Dwarf Fortress show a path of how games can combine ideas of theology, labor, and psychology. Common’hood is starting to bring ingredients from different places to intersect or enquire issues like labor or architecture through lenses that we traditionally don’t do in the traditional practice of architecture, and then also open that up for the conversations that would come from players.
Do you see Common’hood as a follow-up to Block’hood?
They’re similar inquiries to what I consider global issues. Block’hood had to take more on an idea of systems psychology, which certainly had a more global context, but it was difficult within Block’hood to address issues such as labor or care.
Common’hood receives a foundation of resource management or ecological interdependence, and some of the foundation of Block’hood. It expands on that. An economy of material resources needs to be exchanged and transformed, akin to what Block’hood was doing. That’s almost the operating system of Common’hood, and then on top of that, now you have the life of characters, and those characters have stories. They’re going through some forms of dispossession and precarity. They have their struggles with addiction and other forms of narratives that we often see in the real world.
The game wanted to put those two layers or two systems in coalition with each other. It assumes the resource management and balancing of ecologies that you were doing in Block’hood. Players are ready to engage with their existence. I find it moving, where you have to make decisions driven by a series of factors. Some of the material, some of the more emotional. That it questions whether all our economic decisions ought to be thought purely mathematically, or are there moments where some of those systems or what we would consider strict rules are broken by a sense of humanity that’s expressed through the lives of characters?
We’re trying to develop that experience. We’re trying to create narratives that live within systems—and they’re both feeding back on each other.
What was the narrative design process for Common’hood? There’s the narrative of the game, but also for the individual characters in the game. How much from real life were you taking, if anything?
It’s still in the making. The script didn’t come before the game. The script has been in the works while we develop the game. We tweak it constantly based on research and research in architecture, research on stories that we see out there, and evictions. That led to the main character, someone who has gone through an eviction process.
In the game, you encounter a series of characters at the age of homelessness. They’re navigating their way into the economy as much as they live within this abandoned factory. Research comes from architecture, social studies in architecture. We’re looking at cities like Detroit, there are enough resources to understand a social condition instrumental to portraying characters that feel real.
At some point, we were four writers defining narratives and moments of things to bring in and make part of the story. It is difficult to put myself in the shoes of certain situations or to have a larger group of people that could bounce back and forth, different perspectives. I’m open to continuing doing that, especially with players having narratives that resonate with certain identities. I don’t have a clear methodology, but it’s an iterative process.
For your book, Architecture of the Commons, you’re thinking about participation in this theoretical context in terms of letting communities, perhaps, determine and co-create their spaces as well. I’m curious about that line of thinking of participation and then participation through the lens of games.
The word ‘participation’—it’s strategically moving. One of the first projects that I did as an architect was called Bloom, and it was this giant toy that people could participate in and build like a giant Lego.
In architecture, the term participation has a strong legacy on community involvement. How do you reach a certain consensus of urban interventions and taking input from communities? I wanted to connect the practice of architecture, its DIY culture, and the ability of self-provisioning with what piece of infrastructure could be a video game. I always gravitated to the different vibrant communities that exist within gaming culture, to tinker more and transform software to become the tools for potentially, in this case, building something in the real world.
The primary objective of the Common’hood is to become a repository of building tools and designs that people could use to build a tiny house. We want to make that happen, where people would share and team care on designs and take things from the game into the real world.
For the book, it was also for me to create a trajectory or a series of guidelines that put forward some ideas I felt I was not able to capture completely through the work of my studio, in terms of games and architecture—but rather, your brain can move so much quicker than your hands sometimes. By laying down this framework, I was suggesting that parts are important, both digitally and physically, to combine and create designs that could be participatory digital platforms, such as video games and others are the facilitators for such recombination to happen.
If those tools, structures, or patterns are owned by those who participate in that organization, we are talking about a form of self-provision that could lead to a social structure called the commons, which comes into the game world Common’hood well. It’s trying to talk about the stewardship that players or communities might have for their production.
Architecture and gaming are intertwined in how to further advance self-provisioning towards production, which is a political position. It’s certainly a position that tries to create a third leg between a public sphere and a private sphere and a sense of what activities could help their autonomy. Even if it starts small, the work that cooperatives or common-managed resources and communities are certainly an avenue that I pursue should be supported more. I dedicate my work to contribute to that.