Issue Extra: Digital Interplay: Where Architecture and Entertainment Meet

In the current issue of FORM, contributing writer Jack Skelley explores the overlap between architecture and video gaming. Above, a virtual skyscraper by gaming company Square Enix.Renderings courtesy Square Enix.

One of the highlights of our March/April 2014 is Jack Skelley’s feature on architecture and gaming. We’re delighted to share it with our online readers.

By Jack Skelley

Architecture and video gaming have a lot in common. They share both natural and technological synergy. Computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D Modeling, via animation and modeling programs are used by each. Both disciplines imagine built environments. The difference, of course, is that gamers stay on the imaginary side. But the technology that has freed the imaginations of game designers has also freed the imaginations of architects.

AJ Artemel writes in Architzer that architecture appears in gaming in a few broad categories: realistic but passive backdrops (as in Grand Theft Auto); “labyrinthine settings through which the action moves,” (as in Doom); and world building, with imagined places reflecting an imagined culture (as in Minecraft). Two of the most enduring games put world-making front and center: SimCity, which emphasizes the practicalities of urban design; and Myst, whose fantastical places resemble the Gothic/Art Nouveau flights of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí.

Michael White is principal and firm-wide leader of Gensler’s Media Practice Area, which includes architectural projects for the video gaming, film and television industries. Gensler has a Los Angeles studio of 40 designers exclusively focused on these fields, with robust practices in the Americas, Asia and Europe.  The team’s software palette is broad, using Maya, Adobe Suite, AutoCAD (2D and 3D), Sketchup, Revit, Rhino, MAX, Vray, and Digital Project for some specialized pieces—even some older programs such as FormZ and Cinema4D.

“Most architectural firms had converted to CAD as the video gaming industry was emerging,” he says. “So architecture’s computer-savvy talent was ripe recruiting ground for that industry.” As technology has matured, the platforms have diverged. “One of the components unique to today’s video games is live multi-player interaction – not part of traditional architectural design,” he adds.

Both communities have executive crossovers. Andrew Risch, the founder of gaming-artist group Polycount, was trained in architecture. According to Risch’s bio, “a few years ago he made the transition from real architecture to virtual, and has since helped build the worlds of Planetside and Star Wars Galaxy.”

Another top game designer, though not a trained architect, strives for a strong foundation of design credibility: “It’s extremely important, especially if you are creating a city in a near-future, urban setting,” says Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, Executive Art Director at Square Enix, and creator of the Deux Ex series. “As game designers we are not architects or urbanists. So we absolutely must not invent anything off the tops of our heads. It must be well researched and informed, or else it feels ‘gamey’ and not credible.”

Jacques-Belletête’s research includes observing significant contemporary architects and artists ranging from Zaha Hadid to Damien Hirst – an approach he feels is missing from too many popular games.

“I couldn’t care less about the videogame visual culture. Most of it is pretty bad and cocooned in its own redundant aesthetic circle. When I design the visuals for a game, I look at the real things around me, and build from there,” he says. “Overall, in the industry things are getting better now. But back when we started, we were almost the first one to think this way.”

Similarly, SimCity lead designer Stone Librande has immersed himself in city planning manuals to approximate the complexities of urban design. His firm, Interactive Arts, maintains a library of planning manuals. Even more important for Librande has been the urban realities discovered via Google Earth and Google Street View. “I found it to be an extremely powerful way to understand the differences between cities and small towns in different regions,” he said recently in The Atlantic.

Of course, there is a third profession that crosses over in the same ways as architecture and gaming: computer animation. As with gaming, architecture was the breeding ground of the first generation of digital effects artists. Bradley Sick, former modeling supervisor at Rhythm and Hughes Studios, oversaw the creation of the lifeboat, island and famous tiger in Fox’s 2012 movie Life of Pi. Sick graduated with a Masters in Architecture from UCLA in 1991.

“It was a fairly small leap to animation,” he says. “I knew the concepts and applied them in new software. It’s about understanding three-dimensional space and how characters move within that space.”

When he was in school, there was no such profession. But by the time he joined Rhythm and Hughes, animation degrees had become a path to digital effects work. With that path no longer necessary, Sick feels the profession is missing a fundamental understanding of spatial design.

“The work of today’s artists often lack the verisimilitude that comes from real-world, design knowledge,” he says.

Meanwhile, new knowledge has flowed back to architecture.

“Consider,” says Gensler’s White, “3D technology which largely started in video gaming and film animation. It has helped architecture evolve from its dependency on Cartesian – or grid – patterns and develop more fluid forms.”

So, while technology has created fantasy worlds, it has also allowed brick-and-mortar architecture to achieve shapes in real life that were previously impossible. White cites the sophisticated use of parametric animation technology in Gensler’s design of the new 121-storey Shanghai Tower, the new COEX Mall in South Korea and Farmers Field stadium in Los Angeles.

He adds: “Technology within animation and video gaming has dramatically expanded our creative process.”

One thought on “Issue Extra: Digital Interplay: Where Architecture and Entertainment Meet

  1. An enormous and growing online virtual city composed of ultimately thousands of the most-potentially-real-world fictitious structures created for video games and architects' unbuilt designs for major buildings could be an important contribution to architecture visualization and digital design. Perhaps called 'Architectropolis,' the site could simultaneously serve as an online sales portal for architectural designs and an environment for game action available for copying into video games.

    An early version of this idea, from 1998, is in the Internet Archive at

    Gregory Wright in Sherman Oaks, California

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>