How Videogames Will Change Architecture

I've been working a lot lately at the intersection of creativity and gaming. It's not news to anyone in gaming that there's something brewing. We have seen huge creative communities emerge around games like Little Big Planet, Super Mario Maker, and - of course - Minecraft. There's even a name for this new set of gamers: Generation Blockhead.

I've been wondering for quite some time how this new movement will effect the most staid (and highest-budget) form of art on the planet: architecture. I had the great fortune recently to meet James Delaney, who might as well be the poster child for this future. Not only is Delaney a Cambridge architecture student, he is also the leader of BlockWorks, a 40-person global team of top Minecrafters who are pushing the edge of architectural aesthetics within Minecraft itself.

I had the great fortune to sit down with Delaney over a rickety internet connection (full video here). From across the Atlantic, he dropped logic on the future of technology, games, and architecture. Quotes below are from that session.

The relationship between games and architecture today is somewhat of a one-way street. As game worlds have gotten more visually rich, game studios have brought in architects to design these spaces. The results are quite epic and nothing if not a success. However, very little has traveled in the other direction. Delaney is not aware of any examples of architectural firms using games as design tools. However, "games like Minecraft have the possibility to change that".

In Minecraft, players build their worlds around them by placing and removing blocks on a regular grid. This creative process has potent historical similarities with another form of creation. ""if you go back maybe 50, 60 years, the architects of today, quite a few of them reference something like Lego" says Delaney. Today's children enjoy Lego, but seem far more inspired by Minecraft. For Delaney, Minecraft is "the digital version of [Lego]... it's kind of the natural progression of things.... Just as Lego inspired the architects of today, I think we'll get the architects of tomorrow having played Minecraft... as a kid".

It turns out that Minecraft has been the driver of what is perhaps the first example of real-world architecture being designed in a game. A United Nations program called Block by Block is using Minecraft in diverse locations such as Mumbai, Lima, Kosovo, and Haiti to facilitate community-driven urban planning. Groups of young people gather for a workshop where, collectively in Minecraft, they together plan and design a space.

As exciting as this program sounds, it falls short of that last final step: realizing these Minecraft structures as buildings in the real world. While the website claims that the community-driven solutions affect urban planning for those areas, I could find no direct evidence of Minecraft solutions being executed block-by-block in these neighborhoods. I can't really fault Mojang and the UN for this -- physical construction is dramatically more expensive than these digital workshops they sponsor. However, I can dream.

You see, real-world fabrication is for me where games begin to definitively mark architecture. And Delaney agrees that it's "the precise point where something that's in a videogame is taken and ... built in the real world which is really interesting". Buildings made with games would look completely different. A building built in Minecraft is sure to be blocky. A building made from the elements of Little Big Planet, Super Mario Bros., or Borderlands would no doubt have a fantastical nature to them. I can see Age of Empires inspiring post-modern revitalizations of a slew of historical models. And of course we have games like Fallout and Gears of War to inspire architectural visions that border on post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Delaney agrees with me that new tools will inspire new architecture noting that "the tool that you use is gonna have a real influence on the work you produce." However, his insights into the transformations we might expect are much more subtle.

When using traditional CAD systems, architects are always outside of the building -- somewhat like building a Lego model, architects build from that outside, as if gods.

Working in games like Minecraft, architects of the game world create buildings from the inside. This first-person approach brings "a completely different perspective ... to the design process" says Delaney, one in which the experience of the building at a human-scale is ever-present. "The idea of being able to design a building ... as you move through the space is super-attractive to an architect.". However, it's only available in games like Minecraft. Delaney laments that this approach for architects is "not offered by the standard tools".

This first-person, gaming perspective on design may become increasingly important as we engage with our device-laden worlds. "Moving through a building whilst trying to send an email is not easy because buildings haven't been designed for that" says Delaney. It turns out that first-person games are exactly the tools for such design challenges. While this approach to design -- where the building fades into the background -- might be anathema to traditional architects if that's "how people are using the space, that's what it's gotta be designed for".

Beyond these formal possibilities, the community-based creative principles that are the foundation of Generation Blockhead might have a larger yet influence on architecture. Delaney is quite excited by "the opportunity for a democratized form of design, especially public spaces". This group approach to design is common practice in Minecraft. For Generation Blockhead, collaborative world design is the norm.

The future potential of these tools is a communal, democratic process for designing our cities. For Delaney, "we can't rely on a minority to shape the world we live in". Unfortunately, looking at past history that has too often been the case. Let's hope that the next generation, for whom the norm is a multiplayer creative commons, will find a way to change that. Minecraft is just one of many tools to involve the public in the design of buildings, cities, and parks. Augmented Reality could go so far as to deliver individualized experiences of the built city.

Whatever the future of architecture may hold, games are certain to play a role. As once-revolutionary digital CAD tools become conventional, developments in gaming and entertainment threaten to turn the tables yet again. The story will unfold in the next decade as a new generation, groomed on Minecraft, enters the world of professional architecture.

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