Thesis: Game Design and Architecture

By Christopher W. Totten [06.16.09]

 In my previous article, located here, I discussed the beginnings of my thesis work on how game design methods can be used to influence the architectural design process. The first semester heavily involved help from Valve Corporation level designer Chris Chin, who had previously been an architect and whom I contacted through contact information in the Developer Commentary for The Orange Box. With his help and that of my other committee members, as well as a visit to the Valve offices, I was able to create a design method for architects that is based on game design. The highlights of this method are:  

After the design process was figured out, my committee and I decided that the typical thesis path employed by the school; conducting research then designing a building; would not be as effective as creating a way to demonstrate the design process to architects and students interested in learning how to use it. The argument behind this was that the final focus of any presentations or discussions should be on the process and not on the aesthetic features of a building. It was therefore decided that I would create a design game based on the Game Design and Architecture method. 

During my research, I had become familiar with studies on how kinesthetic learning through games and play, such as the Epistemic Games created at the University of Wisconsin, can be incredibly effective methods for occupational training. I decided to create a simple board game to avoid any long and difficult development processes (I also can't program to save my life.) This choice allowed me to design a game quickly and begin playtesting as soon as possible.  The basics of the rules are: 


To test the game, I recruited some volunteer students and arranged game sessions every two weeks after their Wednesday studio classes. I had the players use either Google SketchUp or Valve's Hammer Level Editor to design their buildings. Using a game engine such as Hammer allowed players to explore their buildings while they were designing it, since it lacks a traditional "orbit" tool but allows the in-program camera to be moved through the model with game controls; as one would move through a game environment with no-clip mode activated. 

The game was a success among my playtesters, who appreciated learning how they could design a more user-centric piece of architecture. Within the game, they succeeded in creating such user-centric buildings many times over the course of the semester. I had students consistently recreate the same building every week, so I could track how different core mechanics and game variables inspired the players in different ways. With the number of volunteers, we were able to run two games:  one had players design houses with core mechanics based on the ideas of famous architects, and the other had senior students designing their current studio project, a transit hub for light rail. 

One of the stand-out results of these playtests was a house based on the core mechanic of "viewing", which was a prominent idea in the architecture of Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier.  The site for the house was a hillside overlooking a river. 

The playtesters conceived the house as a path of rooms that offered sporadic views to the landscape around the house, leading up to the ultimate reveal of the river on the large porch. From an entry platform, occupants walk through a long entry walkway to a front porch, where the front door is.  After entering this doorway, they go upstairs to a roof deck from which they can look down at the site around the building. Moving back downstairs on the other side of the deck, occupants can then explore the living areas and get the full view of the landscape. 

While the opportunities to view the site and the use of these views as rewards for moving through the building responds well to the core mechanics, designers also opened up areas of the roof deck and used glass to separate certain rooms so that visitors could view one another as much as they could view the areas outside the house. In many ways, the house becomes a space were occupants try to find a place where they can be safe from the views of each other as much as they try to find a place to see elements of the landscape. Many of the other buildings had a similar level of complexity that was easier to achieve with the Game Design and Architecture than more common design methods. There was, however, unforeseen positive results to these playtests that were even more interesting. 

During my playtesting phase, I became aware of a cognitive scientist named Donald Norman who has been writing on the way the mind problem-solves and designs at play versus how it does the same in work environments. In his book Emotional Design, Norman discusses how in a state of play, the mind works in a "breadth-first", out-of-the-box fashion as opposed to the "depth-first" fashion that occurs when people work in stressful conditions. 

Aside from the new focus on the emotions and experience of the user, playtesters also reported that their designs were different because they felt they could make more creative moves while in the play environment of the game. Additionally, the playtesters enjoyed the Cabal mechanics and it allowed players in group studio classes to eliminate many of their internal problems. 

Such was the case between two senior students in Catholic University's Comprehensive Building Design Studio, where students set up simulated architecture firms and create a fully specified set of construction drawings. These players were both in a group that had a lot of internal problems with work flow, and playing the game together allowed them to explore better ways to design collaboratively for the betterment of the team instead of for their own desires to have the most implemented ideas. 

I presented this work at Catholic University with an "arcade" of laptops showing off the building results of the playtests in the game Half-Life 2:  Episode Two, graphic assets showing photos of the playtests, and a slideshow displayed on my Nintendo Wii's Photo Channel (my laptop was busy being part of the arcade.)

For the project, I was elected to be in the top seven thesis projects that displayed in my school's "super jury" presentation event. The work with Game Design and Architecture is not finished, however, as the study of the psychology of the Cabal, the potential of Source and other game engines, the role of the core mechanic in the architectural design process, and the potential for creating other parts of the architect's work or other professions into similar games are all avenues I would like to explore myself or see someone else explore. 

You can download Totten's full thesis here.

Thesis for the completion of the degree:  Master of Architecture

The Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning

Washington D.C.      

Thesis Coordinator/committee member:  Matthew Geiss, MArch

Thesis Advocate:  George Martin, MArch

Thesis committee member:  Carlos Barrios, PhD.

Outside consultant:  Chris Chin, Level designer, Valve Corporation

Contents of paper:

Table of contents
Chapter I:  Introduction -- On the Design of Architecture and Games
Chapter II:  Parti vs. Core Mechanic -- Generators of Design
Chapter III:  Narrative and Meaning -- A Second Generator of Design
Chapter IV:  The Rules of Games and Spaces
Chapter V:  Architecture: The Game
Chapter VI:  Designing Design
Chapter VII:  Welcome to City 17
Chapter VIII:  Observations and Future Work
Appendix A:  Experiential Design Considerations of Games and Architecture
Appendix B:  Game Design and Architecture Course at The Catholic University of America -- Fall 2008. 
Research Bibliography

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