15 May 2012

Meaningful Space - Game Design and Architecture

“Design is the process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant, from which meaning emerges.” (Salen & Zimmermann, 2004) Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman break down what design is in “Rules of Play”, a book that teaches the fundamentals of game design. It has recently been called out by architecture students and practitioners as a definition that does not only straddle game design but architecture (Toten, 2010). “Architecture is the process by which an architect creates an environment to be encountered by a user, from which meaning emerges.” The key bit of this definition is the ending: “from which meaning emerges”. The book goes on to explain how to create meaning in games but how do you create meaning in architecture?

Videogames is a field that concentrates heavily on the creation of user experience (Salen & Zimmermaan, 2004).While it is true that not all schools of architecture believe that the experience of environments is necessary to create successful architecture, throughout history, the experience of architecture has been center to many designs. Ecclesiastical buildings used experience as a method of spiritual immersion (de Botton, 2012) and marketing (Addis, 2007). In labyrinths it was used as a method of entertainment (Vellenga, 2001) and in the world of housing, user experience was detrimental in the designing of comfort and improving living standards (Corbusier,  1927). As architects it is necessary to understand how we experience space so that we can design in a way that creates meaning (Pallasmaa, 1996). The videogame industry has done various in depth research in this field and as it is a fairly new field of study, it is not bound by traditional concepts of design.

This essay aims to explore how the architects of the virtual world design space and how traditional architects have implemented these techniques into their own field. Each section in this essay will first explain a game design fundamental, cite examples of how it is used in videogames and then show how it has or can be used in architecture.


The first step in designing a game is identifying two things: the end goal of the game and the core mechanic. (Rogers, 2010) The goal is the aim, for example in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) the goal is to rescue the princes from the castle. The core mechanic is the main action taken to achieve this goal. In the Super Mario Bros. world it is jumping. In Braid (Blow, 2009) it is manipulating time.

Christopher W. Totten suggests in his thesis that we should design architecture by defining these concepts and implementing them in physical space (2008). He cites Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building as an example. The core mechanic in this building is voting and the goal is democracy. The architecture therefore uses misaligned layers to give the user a sense of freedom of choice. They can choose to explore all of the layers of democracy or they can choose not to (Totten, 2008).


In architecture, users are often described as observers. We are the spectators of a visual narrative.  Videogames take a different approach to space. In games, space exists to interact with the environment and through interaction space becomes a vessel for memorable experience (Huizinga, 1955). The world of videogames and simulation call on the user to experiment rather than observe (Aarseth, 2001). Through this experimentation we create meaning. A good example would be Portal 2 (Valve Cooperation, 2011) where experimentation with the space and portals creates understanding and that ‘Aha!’ moment (Newell, 2011) or Megaman X (Capcom, 1993) where strategic placing of gaps and walls mixed with user experimentation creates learning (Hanson, 2011). 

The interaction between player and environment occurs in two ways. In the first one the environment exists to aid game mechanics (Casali, 2008). Take for example platformers like Castlevania I (Konami, 1986) or Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010). Positioning yourself on a certain wall or staircase can mean life or death. All of a sudden, the existence of a wall becomes important in the game world. In the second one the environment exists to create a mood or motif (Chandler, 2007). This often overlaps with the first in games like Assassin’s Creed II (Ubisoft, 2009) where the buildings become a systems piece in the game mechanic of climbing but the buildings also exist to make the recreation of Tuscany immersive. In games like Bioshock (2K Boston, 2007) and Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores, 2008) the architecture is used as a cinematic tool to create horror and tension. 

In buildings too we sense and do so much more in space than just observe. (Pallasmaa, 1996) In “Eyes of the Skin” Juhani Pallasmaa adresses the suppression of the senses and the domination of the visual and calls for architecture to touch our sense of “dream, imagination and desire” by projecting meaning (1996). Immersion is caused by responding to all the senses. (Pallasmaa, 1996) If this is so, architecture stands at a great advantage from videogames in creating memorable space. As an example Pallasmaa illustrates Peter Zumthor’s Thermal Baths in Vals who’s use of light, temperature, water, smell and sound create a relaxing and memorable experience.

Ratti and his team, SENSEable City Lab, describe interactivity as an object that senses and responds, a process that occurs in the machine (2011). However when the sensors in his Beijing Digital Water Pavillion stopped, the process started occurring in the user. The architecture became a game; users understood from the rhythmic fall of the water that the goal was to get to the other side of the “water wall” without getting wet. Experimentation with timing and their position in space created a more memorable experience of the space than when the sensing and adapting process was restricted to the architecture only (Ratti, 2011).


A game, according to Salen and Zimmerman is split into three parts of design: the rules (“the organization of the designed system”), the play (“the human experience of that system”) and the culture (“the larger contexts engaged with and inhabited by the system”).  The relationships between these are such that “Play is free movement within a more rigid structure”. (2004) This area in between is called the possibility space, a term that reminiscences Lebbeus Woods’ freespace. The building is the structure or the ‘rules’ of the game. Everything that occurs inside it, the movements and actions of the users, is the play and this architecture or game sits among a wider environment: culture, which it influences.

A user/player is free to move around this space however it has been argued that a certain attitude is prevalent in gamers that changes the way we perceive space. Johan Huizinga calls a game space the Magic Circle (1955). In the Magic Circle the Lusory Attitude kicks in (Suits, 1990). This is “the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end” which Suits states in anything but games, where such actions are essential, it is a “decidedly irrational thing to do”. If we played Team Fortress 2 (Valve Cooperation, 2008) without the Lusory Attitude we would just program cheats that automatically capture all control points. The end goal would be completed but the experience would lack meaning.

In architecture if we take the achievement of an end to be an efficient flow of people or zero carbon emission, then the Lusory Attitude is indeed counterintuitive, unsustainable and in some cases might even be considered immoral. However if we take the end achievement to be a certain view or highly anticipated space, the Lusory Attitude becomes the prime tool in making the experience memorable. An example of this would be the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier. The end achievement is the view at the very top of the building (Samuel, 2007). By strategically placing in intermediate spaces and ramps, the build up to this view becomes greater and our movement in these spaces a significant experience (Corbusier, 1927). The  Centre Pompidou in Paris has a similar end goal and it makes sure we are aware of this by showcasing a rising staircase at the façade, similar to the way Journey (That Game Company, 2012) starts by showing us the end mountain. We see the stairs and understand there to be a view of the top which we might or might not be compelled to view.


There is no one way to design a game, just like there is no one way to design a building. Here we have discussed accepted terminology inside the realm of game design and its goals but there are different takes on how to start creating an effective environment. Game developers like Scott Rogers call on level creators to design like an architect: from the top down. (2010) But level designers such as Dario Casali from Valve Corporation describe designing from a core mechanic to be the real way to create effective space (2008). Either way all techniques agree on one very important tool of design: playtesting. (Salen and Zimmermann, 2004)

Playtesting is an examination technique in which a prototype of a game is given to a third party group of testers. These testers play the game and give feedback to the developers who base design decisions on these evaluations. The technique is based on the thought that because good play is an emergent system (Salen and Zimmermann, 2004), there is no way of knowing how different people will behave or react in this space unless it is tested. The more a game is tested, the better the end design.

Erik Champion and Andrew Dekker call on the use of biofeedback to assess designs in a virtual environment (2012). In their experiments they tracked a user’s “understandment and engagement” using a device that measured the ECG HVR (Electrodiagram Heartrate Variability) and the GSR (Galvanic Skin Response). The experiment was conducted with the users playing Half-Life 2 (Valve Cooporation, 2004) and at the end of the experiment, 9 out of the 14 players had design suggestions on how to improve their experience. This data was then related to architecture, citing their techniques could be used by architects to help design more intuitive environments that respond to the desired user experience. They did warn however that these tools needed a better adaptation in the field of architecture as designs then risked being gamified and adrenalized (Champion and Dekker, 2012).

In both game design and architecture we can manipulate the shapes but we cannot directly manipulate the experience (Salen and Zimmermann, 2001). Through a deeper understanding of how shape creates experience can we improve the design. The videogame industry goes further into this topic in essays and playtesting experiments that show:

·         How we navigate space through semiotics (Chandler, 2001)
·         The paradox of “you” in the virtual world (Dyson, 1998)
·         Perception of the laws of time and space (Beckmann, 1998)
·         How we make choice (Crawford, 2002)
·         How to create realism and immersion in virtual spaces (Darley, 2000)
among further research.

As a step into deeper ground, it would be interesting to see:
·         Architecture as a complex system: the perfect balance between uncertainty, flexibility and information.
·         The body and the senses in virtual experience:  Is the computer really suppressing our senses or is it improving our experience of space?
·         The future of architecture: Are we shifting towards living in the virtual and if so what does it mean to create architecture?
·         Playtesting architecture: How do we create a program that lets us playtest and evaluate architecture during the designing stage?


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