Brian Brenner, P.E., F.ASCE, is a professor of the practice at Tufts University and a principal engineer with Tighe & Bond, in Westwood, Massachusetts. His collections of essays, Don’t Throw This Away!, Bridginess, and Too Much Information, were published by ASCE Press and are available in the ASCE Library.

In his new Civil Engineering Source series, More Water Under the Bridge, Brenner shares some thoughts each month about life as a civil engineer, considering bridge engineering from a unique, often comical point of view.


When they are not busy designing their bridges, some engineers play video games.  Recently (within the last 15 years or so), video games have migrated from desktop computers to cell phones. So, the engineers not only play video games, but they can carry them around all the time and play all day and night.

Many video games seem to focus on cruel episodes of virtual violence, where characters are shot at, burned, blown up, or otherwise abused. There are also zombies. A game called Grand Theft Auto involves stealing cars, driving recklessly, and engaging in virtual misogyny. But the game is beautifully rendered with bridges, so that part is good.

image from Grand Theft Auto
Virtual Landscape rendered in “Grand Theft Auto.”

It is fortunate that I don’t waste my time playing useless video games. Except for the game “Wordscapes,” which both my wife and I waste a lot of time playing. Wordscapes starts with a simple premise. You are shown a small crossword board with a selection of potential letters. To succeed, you must fill in the crossword puzzle with the available letters to spell words. That’s all there is to it, and in this game, no one is shot at or groped.

But after that simple start, the game becomes complex. The Creators have contrived all sorts of scenarios and subplots. The game has its own internal monetary system consisting of coins, in which you can earn in various ways. Coins may be spent at the bank to purchase special features that unlock letters and make your puzzle-solving a lot easier. For example, if you have enough coins, you can purchase a rocket that uncovers five letters on the board. Once you solve all the crossword words, the game provides a pleasing, encouraging sound and allows you to move on to the next puzzle.

There are an infinite number of puzzles. The game never ends.

Like many human creations, Wordscapes has grown increasing convoluted over time. Because one coinage was not enough, the Creators added additional currency that interact with coins. Thus, you can also earn “cocoons” that allow you to purchase butterflies and “gemstones” for the purchase of your own dancing animals. This personal zoo performs for you and helps in winning additional fabulous prizes. Apparently, the game also has a caste system, and some animals are better than others, a 2023 approach to Animal Farm. The absolute best animal you can purchase – your highest fauna aspiration, the creature that works hardest for you and wins the most astonishing prizes – is a bird called a “Quetzal.”

photo of a Quetzal

As a side note, I point out that I am not competitive in the game, and I wish my wife the best. But I was the one who figured out how to deal with the gems and menagerie first.  So if I was competitive, I would say that it is perhaps not fair that she won a Quetzal while I have not. Thanks to her Quetzal, she is now reeling in fabulous prizes and racing ahead of me at the bank. The best I can do is play my Hornbill. My Hornbill is sturdy and reliable and does good work. But he/she is not a Quetzal.

The Creators have lopped on other features that make Wordscapes not just a word puzzle game, but a way of life. Each day of the week has special subcontests where you can win additional subprizes. On Monday, you go on a pirate adventure to ultimately win an incredibly valuable rocket. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, you are challenged to unlock new totems like galaxies or puppies. These totems may be used as your personal identifier in the greater Wordscapes world. Most significantly, during the weekend, you and a hundred of your closest friends (whom you have never met) participate in a fierce showdown to see who can solve the most word puzzles. A clock reminds you that you only have 48 hours or so to make it to the top tier, where coins are awarded at the end of the contest. 

So Wordscapes is both a complicated game and a way of life. It can be stressful. Fortunately, there is a place you can retreat to. It is calming and pleasant, and it appears every Tuesday. On Tuesdays, you get to visit your butterfly garden.

graphic from Wordscapes

The story with the butterflies is complicated, of course. But briefly, here is how it works.  You earn “cocoons” to allow you to hatch new butterflies. The newly hatched butterflies live in different gardens, which the game alternates every few weeks. At the moment, my butterflies live in the Zen Garden. The environments are all soothingly rendered and feature a calming electro-pop music background. On a stressful day, it is nice to retreat to your butterfly garden and watch them fly. 

Each garden starts off sparse, but special infrastructure is added when you earn enough cocoons to purchase enough butterflies. My Zen Garden does not have much, only a flowing water pipe and a few butterflies. I guess that is in keeping with the theme of a Zen Garden. My wife has her own Zen Garden, and it is a bit different from mine. I am not competitive, but I note that her garden is full of flocking butterflies and all sorts of places for them to roost, even a gazebo! Her butterflies have gotten so big that the Creators have allowed her to name them. In her garden, butterflies are named after our children, grandchildren, and friends, and they are all are happily swooping around, living their best butterfly lives. I have only one sad butterfly in my garden that is big enough to be named, and she has only a few places to roost in this barren place.

Clearly, I had a lot of work to do to get even a little close to matching my wife’s butterfly paradise. One day I was furiously playing the game, ignoring household chores and personal grooming habits. I got to a point where I had grown enough cocoons and hatched enough new butterflies. The Creators were pleased. They awarded me with a new place for my butterflies to roost. It was a bridge!

photo of a pedestrian bridge

The structural type was a short-span masonry arch, the type of bridge that would fit in a Zen Garden. When the bridge appeared, I was happy. Now my butterflies had a new place to roost, and they could do some field bridge inspection, almost like drones. I liked that now I had a cadre of young butterfly bridge engineers assisting me.

As I was taking a break and watching my butterflies’ flap, I thought about the bigger virtual picture. Virtual worlds are not just in cell phone games, but virtual reality is creeping into engineering, construction, and probably all of existence – take the blue pill for an imaginary world and the red pill for reality.

photo of red pill blue pill W.carter

Bridges can now be modeled and rendered with “
digital twins.” These are virtual bridges that are born during conceptual design and live with the bridge until it is no longer. The digital twin provides a unified model for all aspects of design, construction, and maintenance. The twin can be rendered to show what the bridge will look like long before it is built. It can help generate structural models and develop a set of construction documents. Drawings are sliced from 3D models, and ultimately the old 2D views and methods will fade. After opening day, the digital twin can act as a database, storing all inspection and rehabilitation information. Instrumentation readings can be coordinated with the twin to provide real-time data on how the structure is performing. 

But what if the digital twin is more than a virtual world? What if the virtual bridge is the real bridge, and the real bridge isn’t real? 

Fortunately, now we also have artificial intelligence to assist us with philosophical questions like this. Concerned at the way things were trending, I decided to consult with ChatGPT, the new AI search engine that can answer all your questions. ChatGPT is available online and you can ask it anything, just like Google. Unlike Google, ChatGPT will provide a more detailed response instead of a list of sources. The response is somehow assembled by AI routines that scour the web to piece together coherent thoughts, all in a few moments.

I asked ChatGPT, “Can a Quetzal design a bridge”?

It responded:

“No, a Quetzal, which is a bird, cannot design a bridge as it does not possess the necessary knowledge or skills required to do so. Bridge design requires a combination of engineering knowledge, mathematics, physics, and material science, among other technical fields.

“While some animals are capable of remarkable feats of engineering, such as beavers building dams or termites constructing intricate mounds, their structures are the result of instinctual behaviors and not intentional design. In contrast, bridge design requires a deliberate and intentional approach that involves the use of advanced knowledge and technology.

“Therefore, designing a bridge is a task that requires specialized expertise, typically in the form of a civil or structural engineer with specific training and experience in the field.”

This response is good news. Maybe in a virtual world, a Quetzal can design a bridge. But in the real world, real knowledge and decision-making are required. So my human expertise is still needed. 

For now.

photo from 2001: A Space Odyssey