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Review - Book - Space Time Play

Video games are architecture’s final frontier, says Alex Wiltshire

Space Time Play – Computer Games, Architecture and Urbanism: The Next Level. Edited by Friedrich von Borries, Steffen P Walz, and Matthias Böttger. Birkhäuser Press 2007.

Often likened to cinema, video games’ closest relation is actually architecture, and not simply because they traditionally involve spatial challenges. In defining play as ‘the free space of movement within a more rigid structure’, game designers Katie Saleen and Eric Zimmerman suggest that one of humanity’s most innate behaviours is architectonic in nature.

The video-game industry stubbornly resists this relationship, so any attempt to codify it is welcome. Space Time Play, edited by Fredrich von Borries, Steffan P Walz and Matthias Böttger, offers few conclusions to this sprawling field of enquiry, but with its sheer variety and scope, it’s a valuable resource nonetheless. Comprising a vast series of essays and game reviews written by architects, game designers and related academics including Kas Oosterhuis, Henry Jenkins and Richard Bartle, the book attempts to cover every aspect of the crossover of video games with architectural theory, practice and urban design.

The reviews are the least consistent part of Space Time Play. The high points include a pithy deconstruction of the much-mythologised Sim City (look, it’s a game, not a simulation), and Super Mario 64, in which the game is the environment. The less said about the clunky ‘Civilization’ entry the better.

One of the great strengths of Space Time Play, however, is that it engages many of the questions its articles throw up: a review of Pac-Man is placed next to a piece on the use of mazes in games, while a review of classic space-trading game Elite (a galaxy of planets and societies crammed into 22 kilobytes of programming code) is positioned next to a piece on game design based on procedurally generated situations.

As the book moves to discuss Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games such as World of Warcraft, and location-based games such as Perplex City and Pacmanhattan, Space Time Play shows how socially connected games have become. These new incarnations are almost cities themselves: shifting communities of thousands or millions of people delineated and structured by game design. Here, boundaries between games and the rest of life are blurred. It’s in this ‘possibility space’ that architects and planners could influence, enriching the physical world of the game spaces themselves. Space Time Play is an inspiring introduction on how this might be done.

Resume: Kissing cousins of architecture and video games in a tender book-long embrace

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