Let’s quibble over semantics, shall we?

Take a look at these two pictures:

EAW - The Parthenon

One is a photograph of the Parthenon, the other is a video game screengrab of the Parthenon.  

Which one would you identify as architecture?

Lots of people (especially architects) strongly believe the ‘a’ word should be protected as sacred, and only used when referring to ‘physical’ buildings.   Some say we should call it interface.  Some say they’re just 3D models, nothing more.  Many a finger has been wagged at me over my years of designing and blogging about virtual architecture that I shouldn’t be calling it ‘architecture.’  I really don’t feel too strongly about it myself, but plenty of others clearly do, so let’s take a closer look just for fun.  I’m interested in hearing your viewpoint, and maybe even having someone change my mind with a compelling counterpoint.

Here’s how I see it:

It’s all in the eye.  You see a building in a video game.  It is essentially a given configuration of pixels on your physical screen that emit a pattern of light that traverses the distances between your eye and the screen, which is then processed by your brain.   There is very little, if any, practical difference between this experience, and the way your brain processes a reflected pattern of light that originated from the surface of a physical building.

It’s a material world.  The term ‘physical’ essentially means something that has ‘material,’ or the ‘tangible’ qualities of a material.  I would argue that a computer monitor or TV screen itself is a kind of material.  In fact, we might even think of it as a kind of magical hyper-material, but a material no less.  It’s even tangible.  Just because it has the ability to rapidly shift-shape to represent other forms and perspectives through synthetic representation doesn’t make it any less of a material.    Virtual buildings must, at some point, enjoy certain  physical properties, or they would have no aperture through which to be perceived.  They could only exist in our imagination or dreams.

What is real anyway?  You might argue that buildings in video games aren’t architecture because it’s only an artificial representations of the real thing.  Wherever you happen to be as you’re reading this – look around you.  How much of what you see is truly authentic or natural?  Unless you’re working outside in a park, chances are most everything you see is synthetic to a certain extent.  Does a fake or simulated representation of another thing make it any less real, or less physical?  Visit any shopping mall, and ask yourself how much of what you see is ‘real.’  Chances are, nearly every square inch of it is synthetic – probably even the plants!  Maybe even some of the people…   Guess what?  Those stone columns aren’t really stone.  They’re formed concrete painted to look like stone.  That wood flooring is actually a printed vinyl designed to look like wood.  Does that make it any less real, or less physical?  Does it cease to exist because it’s a simulation?  Like it or not, we live in a largely artificial, synthetic world.  Just because we consume a portion of that synthetic material environment through a glowing rectangle doesn’t make it any different.

It’s all relative.  Imagine the reaction of stone masons, trained in the art of traditional load bearing wall construction upon first witnessing construction of a thin, open air steel column structure.  It would, at first, seem to be an altogether inferior technology to their strong, solid, ancient, time-tested craft.  That’s how all new technologies are universally treated.  In it’s infancy, most people generally feared electricity as a “mysterious, quasi-magical force that can slay the living, revive the dead or otherwise bend the laws of nature.”  (Van Riper, A. Bowdoin (2002), Science in popular culture: a reference guide).  Why should virtuality be any different?

It’s durable.  Vitruvius defined a good building as one that is durable, useful and beautiful (firmitas, utilitas, venustas).  Buildings in video games are certainly useful, and can definitely be beautiful.  What about durable?   I would argue that buildings in video games can be theoretically eternal – the ultimate in durability.  I’ve argued in previous posts that game environments are propagated throughout the world, on millions of individual computers.  500 years from now, there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to play an old copy of Skyrim, but what will be left of the physical city artifact that exists today?  They’ll be ruins at best.  Buildings in video games are arguably more durable than what we’re asked to distinguish as ‘real’ architecture.

Ceci n’est pas architecture.  Finally, let’s come back to those pictures above.  If you insist that building in video games should NOT be called architecture, but you DID immediately identify the building on the right as ‘architecture,’ I believe my point has been made.  You see, by your strict rationale, the image on the right isn’t architecture at all.  It’s just a photograph of architecture.  Actually, can we even call it a photograph?  Professional photographers might disagree.  It’s technically a digital representation of a photograph.  If you would insist everyone, everywhere, must always refer to buildings in video games as something other than architecture, and take the time to correct them each time the reference is made, then it’s only fair to uphold that same prefix standard to everything you see.  The next time you’re in an art gallery, and someone points out a work of art and says, “what a beautiful waterfall!”  Be quick to correct them (interrupt them mid-sentence if you have to) and say, “I’m sorry, that’s not a waterfall, that’s just paint applied to a canvas to simulate the look of a waterfall,” then direct their attention to the work of René Magritte.

Architecture in video games is architecture, imho.

What do you think?


Share This