UNSW Built Environment staff: Gaming and the future of architecture

13 05 2009

Russell Lowe, Lecturer in Architectural Computing

Recently I was asked “how can animation help me as an architect? Is it a worthwhile investment of my time and money? Is this the future of architecture?”

As a lecturer and researcher in architectural design and computing, my reply was, well, no. Animation was a great step forward but if you want to see the future of architecture you have to take a good look at the world of computer games.

This answer might raise more questions: How can shoot’em up games which lure tens of millions of people into online cyber battles help architects? Should architects spend time and money understanding products marketed as entertainment? And are computer games really the future of architecture?

Let’s look at the games first. Computer games have come a long way in the last few years. Games such as Valve’s “Half-Life 2”, Epic’s “UT3”, Crytek’s “Crysis” and Media Molecule’s “Little Big Planet” represent the current generation of offerings where avatars – representations of human participants – can interact and assemble objects that have real-world mechanical behaviour such as weight and inertia.

Animation, on the other hand, doesn’t require your participation – you sit and watch passively.

When you play a computer game, objects can be opened and closed, pushed and lifted, often in quite complex and sophisticated ways. We have virtual electronics, sensing and control systems at our disposal. Natural systems aren’t left out – water, fire, wind, snow and rain are all present and working as you would expect.

How will this help you as an architect? Well, if you’d like to show someone what you believe to be true, use animation. But if you want to find out whether the architecture you’re creating is going to behave in a certain way – and you haven’t made up your mind beforehand – you’ll need to experiment with it using the mechanisms above.

You might think computer games are all bloodshed and gore – gratuitous violence between Zombies and AK47 wielding maniacs. That’s true. But the “theme” of a game is in no way dictated by its underlying structures.

The best computer games can be modified so that none of the original visual content of the game remains – leaving an interactive, real-world environment.

The opportunity for architects is to utilise the underlying capabilities of the computer game for a purpose beyond the scope intended by the game developer.

The most progressive clients, architects, engineers and developers see computer games as advanced simulation tools.

So, should architects be spending time and money understanding games, that is products marketed as entertainment?

For my friend asking the questions above, I would say no. I mean, if Architect X is still wondering about getting into architectural animation there is a long way for him to go before he could be a proficient computer game modder. It’s not that he’s not smart enough: 13-year-olds teach me new things every day (true story, Coen is from the Netherlands and wants to be an architect when he “grows up”) but from experience it takes my final year masters students the best part of a year to get really good at the more complex stuff.

Architect X should instead get someone to do the modding for him (and if he is interested in learning animation, a good starting point is Google SketchUp 7).

So are computer games – and game mods in particular – the future of architecture?

Innovative firms such as LCA Architects, leading developers such as Brookfield Multiplex and the Queensland Health Board certainly think so.

Sydney-based LCA Architects used Crysis to win the Greentech ‘Eco House of the Future Competition’. Brookfield Multiplex think that a simulation created using Unreal Tournament 3 will give them the edge in bidding for an upcoming project. And the Queensland Health Board is building a massive hospital on the Gold Coast and my research (along with John Mitchell, Vinh Nguyen and Jules Cromarty) is helping them simulate and test clinical environments before the first sod has been turned.

For these companies the future is fun and definitely now. If we take a look at their present we’ll get a pretty good idea of what the future holds for the rest of the profession.

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