This month's column began life as a lecture I gave to the Ars Electronica festival of electronic and computerized art, in Linz, Austria. They requested the topic, and although it sounded a bit odd at first, the more research I did, the more interesting it got. This month's column is a short version of that lecture. My audience was mostly artists and a good fourth of them had never played a videogame in their lives, so I had to include a lot of background material about game design that isn't included here.
Why Humans Construct Buildings
The most popular PC game of all time, The Sims, was influenced and partly inspired by the work of an architect, Christopher Alexander's book A Pattern Language. It has more to offer us than perhaps we realize. As I began thinking about the role of architecture in games, I started off by making a list of reasons that humans construct buildings in the first place:
If we look at these functions with respect to games, however, some are meaningful and some are not. Weather, the primary reason for constructing most of the buildings in the world, is irrelevant. If it exists in games at all, it's usually cosmetic. Privacy, too, is normally immaterial -- most games don't let you take your clothes off anyway.
It is useful to organize human activity in games, but buildings aren't the most efficient way to do it. There's no real need to visit a building called the "Town Hall" in an online game when you could just send email to whoever works there; but the building provides a convenient metaphor for the functions that the Town Hall provides. Theft, likewise, may or may not be possible in games; if it is possible, a building provides a convenient metaphor for concealment and protection -- a way of indicating that an item is inaccessible to thieves. In Age of Empires, once a resource is placed in the storage pit, it's protected from theft. The storage pit is really a magic place that converts resources from being vulnerable and unusable, to invulnerable and available for consumption. The game could call it anything it likes, but it calls it a building. It's not much like a real building, though: it never fills up, and if you burn it down you don't lose the contents. The Treasury in Dungeon Keeper was more like a real treasury: it could get full, and people could steal money out of it if it wasn't guarded.
Two functions that do translate over directly are military activity and general decoration. Just about all wargames make use of constructed edifices as a means of concealment and protection for troops, and any game that tries to create a sense of place uses architecture to define how that place feels to be. In short, buildings in games mimic the real world when necessary or aesthetically desirable, but this is not always the case. There are no buildings in chess.
Games do have a problem portraying outdoor spaces. Because of the limitations
of looking at a monitor, we can't create sweeping vistas or panoramas
that feel like the real thing. If you've ever tried to photograph the
emptiness of a desert or the Great Plains, you'll know what I mean: an
essential part of the experience is the sense of being surrounded by vast
open space. Players sitting in a room, looking at a CRT, never feel that
way. Another part of that sensation comes from the sheer length of time
it takes to get anywhere. Most games allow you to move pretty fast --
no more than a few minutes to walk from one side of the world to the other
so, the sense of scale is diminished. And of course aerial perspectives
reduce the impressiveness of everything: the Great Pyramid is no big deal
from 5000 feet up.
We're not very good at natural objects, either. In 3D games, straight lines are cheap and curves are expensive, so we tend to avoid curves. But look at an oak leaf: it's nothing but curves. With thousands of leaves per tree and thousands of trees in a forest, there's a good reason why we leave forests alone. As a result, most 3D games tend to feel rather sparse and sterile. Bauhaus, yes; botanical gardens, no.