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The games architects play

Computer gaming has come a long way since the early arcade shoot 'em ups, but who influences who?

You are alone in the office, re-arming the four heavy cannons you acquired back in that ver tiginous translucent green tunnel and banking at immense speed round the last corner before the Cyborg Battle Chamber when it suddenly strikes you. All that ARB paranoia about people calling themselves games architects has an odd kind of point. Because somewhere in the flickering games-writing warehouses of Silicon Fen, Glen and Valley, there is a class of people with an arguable claim to the title of virtual architect. It is this group which conceives, plots, designs and implements the incredibly complex threedimensional spatial formations of such classic games as Quake, Doom, Tomb Raider and Sim City.

They design three-dimensional space. They deploy colour and texture, form and shape. They take just as long to design a space as architects do. They use the same 3D software - Alias Wavefront, 3D Studio Max, Lightwave, SoftImage - and the other heavy-duty applications which the commercial architectural modellers use although, unlike modellers, they are using it in the act of creation, for dreaming up, designing virtual environments from scratch, just like ARB-approved architects.

Sure, games architects also create trivial things such as monsters. But wouldn't you prefer to be designing a fully articulated monster with nasty habits than scheduling the third floor lavs? The virtual people inhabiting these spaces are not the random bunch that real occupants are. They have predetermined 'behaviours' which are sophisticated but pretty much to a pattern. What architect would not like to be so in control of their potential user?

Another thought occurs to you as you fly into the preliminary flack of the Cyborg BattleMaster's outriders: could virtual architects be having a lot more fun than you? And because they are such free spirits, isn't there a significant chance that they are more likely to come across with the big spatial innovations?

There is some comfort for architects in the investigations of Bartlett diploma student Tom Foster, who has recently been looking at the relationships between video games and spatial reality. He points out that virtual architects with architecture school training are beginning to be recruited by such games design firms as Rare (designer of 1997 Goldeneye), while Tomb Raider's designer, Core Design, has for some time had a lead programmer with an engineering background.

More controversially, Foster argues that the architecture of the average computer game is conventional and the reason for this is probably that 'the virtual built environment is designed by highly skilled but architecturally unenlightened virtual artists'.

The outcome, he reckons, is that we will be seeing big-league architects (brought up on a diet of computer games) contributing to games design. He says: 'If the graphic and interactive control system of the video game were subservient to architectural processes the representation of proposed space and experience could be revolutionised.'

Foster points out how the US military and Formula One motor racing managers train their respective combatants using what are effectively computer simulation games. Jacques Villneuve attributed his fastest qualifying time in the 1997 Belgian Grand Prix, having never raced Formula One before, to 'practising at home on his computer'.

And, Foster notes wryly, NASCAR, the governing body of US motor racing, has recently introduced a new racing division - for virtual car racing on computer.

'Once abstractions of reality and reality itself become so indistinguishable from each other, the differentiation between simulation and simulated dissolves.' So, Foster wonders heretically, now that engine design and aerodynamic set-ups are routinely modelled in the computer, why risk a built car on race day?

There is a subset of the McLuhan medium-is-message proposition which suggests that when the procedures of design change, the scope of the design expands too. Ever since CAD took over as the architects' way of producing drawings, the wrinklies, brought up in the tradition of sketching with pencils, have argued that the computer signals the death of creativity. The evidence around us is that, released from the mindset imposed by the or thogonal mechanics of the T square and parallel motion, architects have found themselves doing one or two more interesting things than before. New drawing applications plus the invention of the pressure-sensitive pen and table has meant that the much-prized ability to sketch freely is now possible on computer.

But that is technology imitating an old two-dimensional tradition. Think about the idea of you, the architect, sitting in a blank three-dimensional virtual space about to create the first tentative plans of your design by standing up and pacing over to where you think the outside wall should be and then creating with a gesture and modifying its shape and form by grabbing it and pulling and twisting and bumping. All of a sudden those lost adolescent hours in arcades skiing perilously downhill and that stolen hour at the end of the day in the office facing up to Cyborg BattleMaster make sense.

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