7 May 2013

Creating Meaningful Architecture: Full Thesis

Creating Meaningful Architecture
How does game design and technology create meaningful spaces and what can architecture learn from it?

For the full pdf with illustrations click here.

Language is a limitation to the knowledge we can obtain (Whorf, 1956). People understand and organize the world according to the vocabulary given to them and thus McGonical (2011) turns towards the Italian language to describe the sensation of fiero, architects draw façades and the Situationists talk of derivés.

Architecture can be understood as a technical language that has been engraved in our DNA through millennia of evolution and social experience (Steven Pinker, 2003; Bruce Wexler, 2006); people are born in buildings, they live in cities and houses, gape at monuments. Though the full understanding of it has been often left, throughout history, for an elite of masons, academics, or RIBA graduates. It is an ancient language and even though it has gone through phases its methods of design still remain fundamentally rooted on the plan and the model.

Videogame design has built a relatively new language that has had to develop its own design methods. This lead a few game designers such as Scott Rogers (2010) looking towards architecture and the traditional ways of designing space. But the truly interesting emerged from those game designers that were uninterested in the Venturi's and the le Corbusier's. Over the years, the language of level design since the first Pac Man (Namco, 1980) has adapted and evolved. Systematic observations on human orientation have lead to the creation of new guidelines on the design of space.

This research thesis aims to understand what makes games so meaningful and how architecture can learn from its technologies. To achieve this the language of architecture and the language of game design will be merged, so broadening the knowledge of both fields. The emergence of conflict while combining incongruent concepts should and will not be disregarded, giving rise to more in-depth discussions later on. Game design and architecture are still two separate fields yet they share one common ground: our interaction with space and how to create it.

Through combining, a new definition of space will be encountered that will radically change the way architecture is seen and created. This is why the first part will be dedicated to the redefinition of space and its perception, concentrating on its navigation related to both virtual and real space. Neurology and psychology will play an important part in this understanding. The second section will view architecture through the production methods and vocabulary of videogame design. It must be noted that this research thesis is written to an audience of architects. Therefore care will be taken explaining videogames and theory of games before exploring its architectural applications.

I. Relationships with Space

I.1. Semiotics

Navigation through architecture is described by Kevin A. Lynch (1960) as being a process of painting a cognitive map; a collage of experiences and sensory inputs that function as landmarks. Exploring therefore creates mental representations that we can widen and tap into when we navigate, similar to the iconographic maps created from exploring in Age of Empires (Ensemble Studios, 1997).

The first experiments with psychogeography were formulated by the Situationists International and their derivé. The group emerged as a political movement in 1957, playing a large role in the protests of 1968 Paris. The heart of their argument lies in that our relationship with space is essentially playful and that emergent systems of play should shape space itself to make cities more human (Salen & Zimmermann, 2004; Debord, 1931). Various performances were conducted with our understanding of space to break down preconceptions, recording them through Situationist Maps like “The Naked City” by Guy Debord (1957), featuring snippets of plans and arrows that connect these instances (Fig. 1). Opposed to Kevin A. Lynch, Guy Debord mapped space as instances of spectacle imagery.
Both theories use semiotics as a basis of navigation; the notion that the perception of signifier and signified guides behavior through space. While explicit signs can indicate where the closest monument is, implicit signs can escort users to the city center or warn when they are in an unwelcome area. Behavior is thus influenced by the meanings constructed out of subjective interpretation of the environment. This notion is heavily used by Gabe Newell (2009) in the Left 4 Dead games (Valve Coorporation, 2008) where lighting and colour is used to guide the player without them consciously knowing they are being guided (Fig.2).

Design is referred to by game developers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmermann (2004) as “the process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant, from which meaning emerges”. “Meaning” signifies how this occurrence influences us in the greater framework of our lives. It can be as simple as not getting burnt by a boiling kettle or as complex as strategically moving a pawn in the grand scheme of a chess game. When the design (sign) is created with intense care, its meaning (signified) can be understood and acted upon with increasing efficiency.

An individually unique experience is created through the systematic process of context and meaning in games. In League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009), a multiplayer online battle, semiotics is the key mechanic in the constant play against the enemy. For example, a player can distort the enemy’s perception of conquest by using the environment. When having lower health one can lure the opponent into a inconvenient position and turn the tables. Through the handling of space, the game becomes a large play of signifier and signified. This modern play with semiotics is what Situationists would say could bring human playfulness back into the city (De Bord, 19231).

I.2. “I” in the virtual
Psychologist Ramachandran (2012) developed “acquired hyperempathy” after conducting various experiments on patients, concluding that identity is separated from others only on the basis of having skin. Much like a house, defining its space from neighbors through walls, fences and façades, the human skin creates a barrier between the individual use of a body and the external world. Videogames seem to however transcend that perception.

Max Payne games (Remedy Entertainment, 2001), set in virtual New York, allow the acquisition of a character with his own iconic personality, following his inner monologue to the storyline. However, interestingly, experiences reported by players is always in first person (I did this, I did that). The character becomes “me”, it is an extension of myself, a second skin we put on, independent of differences in personality and appearance between the virtual and the real self (Aeserth,2001; Dyson, 1997).

In the virtual we can be the best versions of ourselves (McGonigal, 2011). If people need others to be able to be a “person” (Zambrano, 1958), then the virtual can recognize them as the brilliant hero, independent of who they are in the real. When disconnecting from the virtual persona, some qualities of the second skin can be internalized and made part of themselves in the real world (Gentile, 2009; Anderson, 2009; Yukawa, 2009).

I.3. Perception of time and space
In the non-virtual world, time is defined by the speed of light and spatial relations between objects (Einstein, 1916). It can be described as the speed at which information is sent and observed. The perception of time and space is warped when driving a car at high velocities. The lost sense of speed is replaced by the feeling that we no longer are moving through space: space is moving through us (Beckmann, 1997).

The power of immersive virtual experiences is best recorded by the trio Davies, Harrison and Mauro in their virtual reality device OSMOSE (1994) (Fig. 3). Results show the tendency of "intense emotional feelings, including euphoria and/or an overwhelming sense of loss when the session was ending". Sensations of unity and being experienced in the 1994-1995 exhibition, are paralleled a decade later in living-rooms through That Game Company’s Flower (2009). Warped into a world created for the nature-loving city-dwellers, Space is transformed from concrete to grass and time from the ticking of the clock to the soaring of the wind. Players are given a new measurement of time: movement through 3D space (Manovich, 1998).

Michael Heim wrote in 1997 that “the way we move through information space […] affects our feelings about being in that space”. Weather manipulating an avatar on the screen on walking through the city, movement is what enables the human need for experience: the activity that architecture and videogames create best.

II. Creating Meaning

II.1. Designing from a Narrative
“Presence is a subtle interaction between the self and the environment” were the words of Peter Anders when describing avatars in a virtual world. In 1996 he lead a team of architecture undergraduates at the New Jersey Institute of Technology on a project to envision Multy-User Domains (text-based online worlds used for role-playing games) (Fig.4). Space (or the beloved word of the 90’s: cyberspace) is represented by a description and four directions: north, east, south, west that when acted upon would take a user to a new area with its description. Navigators of this architecture disregarded its qualities saying it is “about social interaction, not the setting”.

In role-playing games the environment is the set (Anders, 1996). It informs the player of what is expected to occur in this space and can provide the seeds of a narrative. In other words, the social interaction depends on the setting to provide a sense of presence but it is not the center of the scene. Matthew Schanuel (2012), blogger of The Ontological Geek, calls this architecture in his RPGs and You article: story-space. The virtual story-spaces are drawn from real life understandings of architecture and the experiences interpreted in these volumes.

The ancient Agora of Athens is composed of a multiplicity of functions that supported the interactions necessary for the running of the city (Fig. 5). The bema, the Stoa of Attalos, the Strategeion, the Bouleuterion, etc. are all structures that through their architecture dictated their use. The bema raised a speaker above the crowd, the Stoa of Attalos allowed shelter for merchant goods or banquets, the Strategeion enclosed the Strategoi in a circle for the debating of politics and finance and the Bouleuterion made 500 council members face a central speaker for the conferring of public affairs. The buildings themselves were not the center of the scene but instead were what allowed the Athenians to create their own stories.

Role-playing has evolved a lot since the Dungeon and Dragon’s of the 80’s and the MUDs of the 90’s. Text based role-playing still marks its presence in forums where the navigation of space has become even more abstract than the bearing-form of MUD’s. Space is subdivided into categories: the forum is the world, inside the world there is an area (castle, forest, lake, etc.); inside the area there is a room (dungeon, bedroom, courtyard, etc.); inside these rooms a strand text-based role-playing happens. Creating new rooms is as simple as creating a new topic and does not require special permission like in most MUD’s.

Space is at its most raw form in forum based role-playing games: it exists solely to support the interaction making interrelations of rooms and the physically possible irrelevant. If Peter Anders were to envision these, rational perception of space would be impossible, the end result resembling more of an Escher painting. Yet the sense of presence is at its strongest in forum based role-playing games: the whole world responds to every action you take.

Perhaps this step back from realistic rendering of space could be seen as a counter movement from role-playing’s siblings, the MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-play game) and the singe-player role-play games. These put on pedestals worlds that are already created for the player. Because of this, new MMORPG’s focus on worlds with a heavy fan base such as Star Wars in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2009) or DC superheroes in DC Universe Online (Sony Online Entertainment, 2011). Though ST:KOR and DCUO have often been called the new World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004), the one thing that sets them aside from their successful predecessor is the presence factor, understanding space the way role-players did: a backdrop for the adventure to occur in. The sense of presence comes from the recognition given by the world whether it be the players, the NPCs or the environment itself.

Action as a sense of presence is abundant in games due to a lack of full body immersion. When inhabiting space in the real world, presence does not need to be questioned as bodies alter the surroundings, not just in shape but in interaction. People have to move around the body, wind and drafts flow differently, shadows are cast and they warm up the temperature with body heat. Consequently, architects often refer to users as observers of a visual narrative (OZ, 1988). However, even in architecture, the observer effect of information technology commonly occurs: the act of observing a space alters the intended narrative, as shown by Pallasmaa in Eyes of the Skin (1997).
Ecclesiastical buildings are architectures extremely aware of the human body. The Canterbury Cathedral uses a vertical repetition of design to emphasize its height, drawing the eye upwards into sensations of magnificence and humbleness (Fig.6). As one walks or whispers, sounds are echoed, resonating up the stone, altering the ambiance of the space itself. Apart from its religious function, it also exists to provide a unique and altering experience to its visitors.

The mere presence of a body is essential in our relationship with space. In the first person version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) players are an eyeball with no body, peering out into the lands of Tamriel that have been recognized by critics as being one of the most beautifully created worlds upon release. The game revolves so much around a player’s interaction with characters that imagining Skyrim without them is nearly impossible yet there is that moment of emptiness between events where nothing occurs. The only thing that exists is the rendered snowy view on the computer screen (Fig. 7). That is when one realizes that the micro-interactions of the body are needed to feel immersion. If there are no actions there is no immersion.

In the real, too, a city or space must support life and its interactions. The Malkata palace is told to have been constructed in the 14th century BC for the pharaoh Amenhotep III. He wanted to construct utopia for himself yet after his death, the city lay abandoned. The same mistake was made 3,100 years later by Federic II, stating that Sanssouci would die with him (Berliner Zeitung, 2003). Summer palaces were and are marvelous but without life there is no meaning in its existence and instead become monuments or ghost towns (Johnson, 1998).

Virtual worlds are often criticized as being monosensory, composed of “cheap polygons” and “insulting bitrates” (Stenslie, 1997). Immersion in game space often has less to do with the perceived reality of the rendered image and more to do with the user. Benedikt calls it the Principle of Indifference: “the felt realness of any world depends on the degree of its indifference to the presence of a particular ‘user’ and on its resistance to his/her desire” (1992). Katie Salen and Eric Zimmermann refer to it as a submission of the player to the game because believing in its rules and constraints, as unbelievable as they may seem, rewards the player with intense pleasure (2004). Submitting to story-space is rewarded with satisfaction. What does architecture reward the user with?

II.2. Designing from a game mechanic
In traditional architecture visitors are often described as observers of a visual narrative (OZ, 1988). Architects talk about how the story pans out in front of the visitor (Lim, 2011) and students are given project requirements with narrative as a prerequisite. Experience is perhaps a more relevant term in such context. In videogames users are called upon to experiment rather than observe (Aerseth, 2001). Huzinga wrote in 1955 that space exists to be interacted with and only through interaction do we make meaning of designs. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmermann construct on this theory even further stating the before mentioned quote: all of design, including architecture, “is a process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant, from which meaning emerges” (2004). The creation of meaning is a crucial tool of architectural design and simply treating the user as an observer is insufficient.

According to “Rules of Play”, a game can be divided into three categories: the rules, the play and the culture. Each one is a smaller system inside a larger one; each influencing the other. Play, the experience of the game or design, is the portion designers wish to optimize, however the rules is the only system that can be directly manipulated. By knowing how to manipulate the rules the experience can be indirectly shaped (Salen & Zimmermann, 2004). In architecture the structure of the building, its walls and floors, can be described as the rules. Everything that occurs inside these open spaces, the movement and actions of the users, is the play. This architecture sits among a wider system called the culture, which it indirectly influences.

Take the Notre Dame as an example. The structure’s proportions are the rules, creating a sensation of magnificence and emotions to the visitor, which is the play. The cathedral as a whole initiated the gothic culture and brought forth the image of Paris (Fig. 8), creating works such as Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) or Viollet-le-Duc’s French Gothic Revival (1854).

When designing a game one must first identify two parameters: the goal of the game and the game mechanic (Rogers, 2010). The goal of the game is the main thrive of the player. These can be divided into two types of goals: the primary and the secondary goals. The primary goal functions as the seducer of the player into the game and becomes the primary motor in propelling the player to continue playing until completion (Salen and Zimmermann, 2004). For example in Super Mario Bros (Nintendo Creative Department, 1985), the end goal is to rescue the princess from the castle. Secondary goals function to keep the user enticed once immersed in the game. They provide frequent “bites of success”, keeping the player entertained (Salen and Zimmermann, 2004). These would be for example collecting all the coins or completing a level in Super Mario Bros..

The game mechanic is the main action used to achieve the goals. Continuing with Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo Create Department, 1985). To get to the castle where one might find the princess a variety of obstacles must be suprassed such as turtles, pits or flowers. The method used to get past these obstacles is jumping (Fig. 9). This is the game mechanic.

Christopher W. Totten (2008), an architecture student at the Catholic University of America, compares in his thesis Louis Kahn’s Assembly Building with the concept of goal oriented design. The building was constructed when Bangladesh became an independent democratic state. The goal of the concept is democracy and the method is inducing freedom of choice through “misaligned layers” in preparation for voting (Totten, 2008).

Goal oriented design can be applied to further constructions such as the Pompidou in Paris. When approaching the building a large staircase dominates the façade, inferring from the rising steps that there must be a wonderful view of Paris at the top (Fig.10). Admiring Paris from above can become the primary goal. Once the entry ticket is paid, walking up the steps becomes the game mechanic that will take the visitor to the top. On the way, to keep visitors enticed, a series of platforms appear. These platforms are the secondary goals that reward - with a café, a free exhibition or the removal of stairs - for having gone up a bit more.

In such games, space exists to be interacted and experimented with and as such architecture can act as a vessel for learning. Well designed games cleverly use space to teach the player about the world. Let’s take Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010) as an example. Each level is a slightly more complicated version of the last and none of this is learned through tutorials or reading text but by simply doing. The lesson is in the architecture itself. Gabe Newell recalls the Gestalt School when naming this the ‘Aha!’ moment and it was one of the underlying concepts of the Portal series (Valve, 2007; Newell, 2008).

Continuing with platformers as the main propagators of designing space to aid the game mechanics, architecture becomes essential to the game. Castlevania (Konami, 1986) is what is often called an old-school hard game. They feature tricky enemies in tight level design that, like Andrew Hanson in his Sequilitis series describes, makes you “stop nervously and assess the situation” (2012). A players position in time and space becomes the deciding factor of life and death, therefore the existence of a wall or staircase becomes indispensable in getting past a level and beating the game (Fig. 11).

The Barbican in London can serve as an example of exploration and learning. It is designed as a clock-working fortress that needed Ariadne’s string to be painted on the floor because of the complex, almost playful nature of its walkways (Fig. 12). Its concrete walls transform the brutalist gardens of Babylon into a spatial game of getting from A to B. Every column and every wall thus becomes a meaningful discovery that makes the visitor stop and think about where to go next.

Not all games are black and white. The set of the game is often used as both in the end product: to aid the narrative and the mechanics. Setting the scene is heavily important in horror games like Amnesia (Frictional Games, 2010). Take BioShock (Irrational Games, 2007) as an example. The architecture embodies the story of the underwater city of Rapture: a city overrun by the abominations of science. Cinematically well placed light sources and waterfalls can greatly increase the sense of atrocity and terror. Yet the shadow cast on a wall can function as a warning of a splicer around the corner (Fig. 13) or water can be used to electrocute various splicers at once. The same is true of non-horror games like Assassin’s Creed II (Ubisoft Montreal, 2010). The architecture of Tuscany is essential to give the impression of being in Renascence Italy yet it is also essential for the pace of the game. Certain buildings have perfect lookouts for the assassination of a target, others offer perfect escape routes from enemies.

The Mosque of Córdoba, now Cathedral of Córdoba, used to be composed of a forest of columns, repeating into the distance (Fig. 14). It was created as an ode to Damascus and with it the Muslim tradition that the inhabitants are the actors on the stage. As one moves through the space, the architecture moves with them - the entire mosque responds to the body interactively, while remaining static. Its emphasis on horizontality and play with perspective means that body in space is relevant to how the architecture is perceived, creating a story-space unique to the visitor. All the while it emphasises the journey and goal towards Mecca through its columns and distant light of the mihrab so aiding both the experience of Islamic culture and the mechanics of the Muslim tradition.

II.3. The Lusory Attitude and Pleasure Complex
When entering a game, players enter the Magic Circle (Huizinga, 1955). It is a new world with different rules to that of the real world where a tree might not just be a tree but home and the ground might not just be ground but lava. A complex state of metacognosis is switched on in a player’s brain when they enter the circle (Bateson, 1972). When recognizing these new signs and accepting the new signifiers, they are indicating to others they are playing the game. Various psychological elements can be found revolving around the Magic Circle which can influence how architecture is thought of.
Bernard Suits describes in his 1990 book, Grasshopper, a phenomena called the Lusory Attitude: “the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end”. For example, when playing League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009) without this phenomena, there wouldn’t be an enemy team or maybe even enemy minions or turrets. Users would just charge for the nexus and automatically win. The end goal would be achieved but the experience would lack meaning.

Suits also states that in anything but games, where such actions are essential, the Lusory Attitude is a “decidedly irrational thing to do”. It is true that if we take the achievement of the goal in architecture to be efficient flow of people or zero carbon emission, the Lusory Attitude is indeed counterintuitive, unsustainable and in some cases might even be immoral. However if we consider the goal to be a certain anticipated view or space, the Lusory Attitude is the prime tool in crafting a memorable experience. As an example let’s take the Villa Savoye created by Le Corbusier. It is designed with the view over French fields as the final goal (Le Corbusier, 1927). Strategically placed ramps, walls and intermediate spaces create a greater build up to this view (Fig. 15). The experience of each space becomes meaningful in our quest to get to that final frame.

In order to entice people to participate and remain in the Magic Circle, the design must prove to the participant that giving in to its rules will reward them with the pleasure of possibility (Salen & Zimmermann, 2004). For example, in the indie game by That Game Company, Journey (2011), players are introduced to the sandy world by panning down on an image of a mountain in the distance (Fig. 16). A beacon of light shoots up from the mountain into the skies and the avatar stands on a dune looking out onto it, understanding that getting to this mountain is the goal. As players move forwards towards it, they get a satisfactory slip down their first dune and into a world of ruins waiting to be explored. This is the double seduction technique of primary and secondary goals discussed briefly in the previous chapter, emphasizing that it is not just necessary to define goals but to prove that these goals are worth pursuing. This can be done by creating signs that hint at the magnificence of the end goal like the mountain at the end of Journey or the staircase at the Center Pompidou.

The second important factor is creating a system that participants understand and perceive as fair. At the 2012 Nordic Indie Game Night in Malmö, Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho held a lecture titled “Juice It or Lose It”, where they called on game designers to use more behavioral techniques to “juice up” their games. The techniques acted out on a copy of Break Out were based on research carried out by the psychologist B. F. Skinner where a good hit was rewarded with cheers (positive reinforcement), the removal of a block (negative reinforcement) and missing caused the loss of a life (punishment). This reward and punishment system can be very pleasurable to the player and seduce them to remain in the Magic Circle. A problem arises when the rules are not perceived as fair. The behavioral system becomes restrictive and the player will remove themselves from the Magic Circle.

The most difficult concept of game design to transfer into architecture is the state of flow: the point where our skills match the challenge and therefore feel invigorated and alive (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). If a game is too easy, players become bored, however if too hard, they become frustrated. Right in the middle is the state of flow, a state that people constantly seek out that makes them feel one with their surroundings. If a building doesn’t reward users enough with new sights and possibilities, they become disinterested and want to leave. If signs are not clear and chaotic, they become lost and want to leave however moments where they might feel one with architecture might just be limited to when linking it with other ludic or work activities.

The experience of flow is described as the motivator of life. People need to enter states of flow to feel alive (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and while it cannot be directly created through architecture, architecture can create the possibilities for flow to happen. In antiquity, architects had to have a powerful imagination to put themselves in the shoes of a visitor of a building that had not been constructed yet. Nonetheless, all these previous architectural examples (the Ancient Agora of Athens, Canterbury Cathedral, Mosque of Córdoba, Villa Savoya, ect.) provide the possibility of flow. In the recent decades, technology has developed so that we can fully test the emergence of this essential sensation, see where and why it happens. It is here where the videogame technique of playtesting becomes trivial to architectural design.

II.4. Playtesting Emergent Systems
In 1993, Paul Virilio requested architects in an interview to "integrate time and movement as spatial parameters into the design of architecture". He called it a great challenge. However nine years prior, the first game engine, the Pinball Construction Set, was marketed that enabled game designers to develop spatial iterations based on the movements of players. This technique later became known as playtesting.

Architecture is traditionally designed by a team of architects and engineers with little to no input from the users. Games on the other hand are heavily influenced by the gaming community. A prototype is created as early as a week into the design process and given to a group of trusted beta testers. Their responses are documented through heat maps, facial video and feedback. In indie games, tests can be done through social sites where the general public is invited to play and comment the game. The developers then edit the game and feed it again through the testers. Games are therefore a grassroots design process where the users themselves become the designers of the game (Totten, 2009).

Testing and development can be a never-ending process. The gaming community has a fame of being very vocal about bugs, unfair rules or unsatisfactory game play which has caused various patches and DLC releases by game producers as big as Blizzard or Bioware. But it doesn’t stop there, the bottom up game production has gone even further. Some games allow players to tweak with the code, leading to endless game possibilities: from the aesthetics of a sword to the rules of the game themselves. The modding scene, as it is referred to, is criticised by some game producers for ruining the top down structure of the company and idealised by others for lengthening the life cycle of the game and improving the play of the game itself (Bain, 2011).

Erik Champion and Andrew Dekker (2011) experimented with biofeedback on the experience of virtual space by having gamers and non-gamers play Half-Life 2 (Valve Cooperation, 2004) (Fig. 17). They discovered that 64% of players had an opinion on how to improve their experience, including those with no prior contact with videogames. None of these testers were professional game designers or developers yet they had improvement feedback on an award-winning videogame.

Champion and Dekker argued that these techniques could be used as a design tool for architecture as well. Architects design for user experience, in which case why can’t they simulate the experience on users to check for effectiveness? John Beckham warned in 1996 that we are grooming our culture to “watch space, rather than to directly participate in it”. Playtesting would be the optimum tool to use against such grooming.

Elizabeth Grosz states that space is the product of the community. To explain this, the concept of emergence must be defined: It is the higher level pattern that arises from simple agents following simple rules that can lead to unpredictably complex results. (Johnson, 1998) As an example Steven Johnson paints the picture with “semi-intelligent, motorized billiard balls”. Each ball is programmed with its own set of random rules (“swerve left when they collide with a solid-coloured; accelerate after contact with the three ball; stop dead in their tracks when they hit the eight ball;” etc.). When set loose on a billiard table, the possible outcomes can be as infinite as they are varied however a higher-level behavioural pattern can begin to emerge that these “semi-intelligent, motorized billiard balls” were not programmed to do. They might split into two moving circles or form a triangle with a cue ball, ready to be broken.

Games are emergent systems. They provide a simple set of rules that can produce an infinite number of experiences. These infinite possibilities, also called the space of possibility, are difficult to predict and even harder to fully navigate. Therefore simulating play and testing all possible outcomes is the only way to improve the design of the game (Sudnow, 1984).

Emergent systems are prevalent in nature from the development of embryos from DNA structures, the behavioural patterns of ant colonies and the structural system of cities (Johnson, 1998). The first showcasing of emergence in nature was proved by Evelyn Keller and Lee Segel, a physicist and a mathematician, in 1969. They studied the behavioural patterns of slime mould (Dictyostelium discoideum) using Alan Turnings morphogenesis theory of 1954. Results showed slime mould moved towards areas of nourishment through a bottom up system of communication between cells. As this behaviour was simulated on the computer, Johnson noted that “the most interesting digital life on our computer screens today evolved out of slime mold” (1998).

Cities, too, follow a concept of emergence. City dwellers act as agents, following their own rules of life that create the wider pattern that is the city. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000) mentions Dunbar’s number: a research showing that when an individual has a network of more than 148 people, they begin to function in terms of social structures. Communities begin to group people into categories of expertise as it becomes easier for the brain to grasp. In a medieval city, people would no longer go to the village smith, they will go to the smith guild. In World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) avatars subdivide themselves into guilds too.

What happens to the architecture of a system when a tiny new rule is applied? On the 13th of December, 2005 a bug ran through the World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) universe that would spread from an infected player to another dependant on proximity. This bug would lower the health of the character so they would either have to constantly take health potions to stay alive or die. The glitch was small, accidental and completely unpredicted by Blizzard Entertainment however it drastically altered the behavioural patterns of the game. Cities lay abandoned, healers created shelters for the infected, the rich loaded themselves with healing potions and a few jokers would attempt to spread the bug. It was later referred to as the Corrupted Blood incident and would inspire many psychologists and disaster agencies into using the MMOs as simulation tool of catastrophic events.

Playtesting architectural designs, which are afterall emergent systems of experience, proffessionals can come to better understand social structures and predict the unseen. In turn, it enables them to create more responsive architecture to the buzzing and often unpredictable community. It is a technique not unlike industrial simulations and virtual galleries taken to an individual experiential level.


To inhabit means to experience space; to make sense of it in the context of our lives. It adapts to our patterns and we to it in a symbiotic relationship of person and culture. As thus, architecture is transformed from a painting in relief to an experience with meaning. Space has been redefined from an euclidian language to a quantum physics definition. Words such as ‘narrative’ and ‘observation’ start making no sense as it insinuates an observer passivity when in reality space cannot exist if there is no movement.

When games become so adept at offering us a state of flow and meaning, (McGonigal, 2011) physical architecture must be a reminder that meaningful experience can be just or even more beautiful in the real world. It cannot be seen as a piece of sculpture but as an experience unique to the user. Technologies used in game design can be empowering in the field of architecture in designing these experiences.

What does architecture reward the user with? The Canterbury Cathedral can give a sense of grandness or spirituality; the Mosque of Córdoba a journey through history and knowledge; the Olympic Park with the emotion and legacy of the Olympic spectacle; homes with warmth and comfort and offices with creative opportunity. Any well designed piece of architecture must reward us with a profound sense of meaning to our lives; a story-space that resonates and empowers us.

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