Why Video Games and Architecture?

I’ve always said that there are three things in this world that I know above all other subjects: football, video games, and architecture. So when the topic of “computer games” came up in one of my graduate seminars I jumped on the topic. As one of the youngest and least experienced members of my gradate program I rarely dominate the discussion table. It is rare that I know more than my classmates on any one topic, let alone the professor, but here I was discussing video games in a graduate architecture seminar and I was the expert in the room. It slowly occurred to me that the two fields are not entirely different, and that, framed in the correct manner it would be entirely possible to research video games at a school of architecture. For those who don’t know, at the time of the creation of this site I am entering into the third and final year of my Masters of Arts in Architecture at UCLA.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic at the chance to conflate two of my favorite topics. I was constantly thinking to myself “why wasn’t I doing this the entire time?” Suddenly 20 page papers that were a struggle to get through became 40 pages papers that practically wrote themselves.

When I tell people I am interested in architecture and video games I am often greeted with the obvious response, “Oh like Assassin’s Creed?” While the Assassin’s Creed example is often a useful jumping off point, it is far from the only connection the two have. The AC franchise is the proverbial elephant in the room, it is too obvious of a connection to make. The similarities between the video games and architecture are much deeper.

Beginning in the 1980’s technology began to develop to the point where video games were able to convey their worlds spatially, meaning, they were designed to be navigated, moved through, and experienced. Suddenly, game worlds needed the same design considerations as the real world. How does one circulate through this area? Is this building too much of a maze? Does the visitor/player have a sense of place in the environment? These are all questions that architects and game designers must ask themselves.

Design considerations are not the only similarity between the video games and architecture. The manner in which these environments are designed also resemble one another. Gone are the days of drafting tables, pencils, and straight edges, architecture takes place in the digital realm. Design softwares for architecture and video games are not all that different, some softwares like Autodesk’s Maya even straddles the line between the two mediums. Software advances have even led to innovative new methodologies of design that both fields have begun to embrace and utilize. While not entirely the same, procedural generation and parametric modeling are design methodologies that utilize more of an hands off approach to world building (I go much more in depth on this topic here).

Video games are an incredibly diverse medium. While they often draw comparisons to film and television for their storytelling they occupy a dimension that film and television never can. When I say video games exist in the third dimension I’m not talking about the 3DS, what I mean is that they are an interactive medium that requires one to move through a three dimensional space. Sure movies and TV shows depict real world spaces but those spaces shown to the viewer only as the director wishes, they are superficial. Game spaces demand that a player interact with them, explore them, inhabit them. This is where video games again begin to resemble architecture. There is a difference between architecture and a building, architecture is art that is habitable, explorable, and interactive, all qualities that are applicable to video games (If you don’t think architecture is interactive reconsider how you move through a building, how the layout is forcing you to behave, that is interactivity).

I could continue to spout off the similarities between architecture and video games for pages at a time (in fact I’m staking my thesis on it) but that will come as I look more in depth at specific examples like I did with No Man’s Sky. In the meantime I hope you’ve come to understand how the two are related, at least tangentially, and understand my desire to conflate the two topics. Welcome to ArchiGamer.

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