Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why game architecture matters, and the reality / unreality of de_dust.

(This architecture criticism post was cross-posted to my department's research blog, Game @ Parsons. In general, I post my architecture criticism stuff there.)

Last July, the German new media artist Aram Bartholl secured funding from Rhizome to begin building de_dust, a popular video game level, as a 1:1 scale model cast out of solid concrete. It would be a crime to paraphrase his concisely argued rationale, so I’ve pasted a large chunk of it here:
“Computer games differ from other mediums such as books, movies or TV, in that spatial cognition is a crucial aspect in computer games. To win a game the player needs to know the 3D game space very very well. Spatial recognition and remembrance is an important part of our human capability and has formed over millions of years by evolution. A place, house or space inscribes itself in our spatial memory. We can talk about the qualities of the same movies we watched or books we have read.

But millions of gamers experienced the same worlds in computer games. They all remember very well the spaces that they’ve spent a great deal of time in. Computer game architecture and game maps have become a new and yet undiscovered form of cultural heritage. How many people in the world have seen the real Time Square, the Kaaba in Mecca or the Tiananmen Square with their own eyes? Millions of players share the experience of the same computer games and 3D spaces they have ‘lived’ in for a significant amount of time in their lives. A computer game map like ‘de_dust’ appears to be more real than many other places in the world such as artificially constructed places like supermarkets, airports or cities like Dubai.”
Here, Bartholl asserts that the differences between the real / artificial / virtual are quickly becoming trivial. Virtual architectures are just as lived-in and significant to players’ emotional lives as the actual bedrooms and living rooms where they sit to play.

So often we think of "real” buildings as commitments to the future, the result of considering countless affordances offered by cost, materials, building codes, urban planning, stakeholders, history, land use, style, etc. Even the most fanciful and esoteric structures must provide some sort of roof or shelter; this very practical notion of building things for humans has grounded architecture as a discipline.

Virtual buildings have no such constraints. In a virtual world, coliseums can float like clouds, steel frames are purely cosmetic, and matter / energy are limited only by computing power and memory. So in a way, this virtual architecture is limited by money and time, just like anything “real.”

The leaders of the Swedish media piracy coalition The Pirate Bay have a notorious dislike of the acronym IRL (“in real-life”) and prefer the more specific AFK (“away from keyboard”), the implication being that the virtual is, in fact, part of real-life. When you’re on your Facebook or Macbook or whatever the kids use these days, you’re still living, and this real life never gets interrupted until the day you die.

The Pirate Bay has also recently added a new category to its file library, alongside its links to freely downloadable Britney Spears CDs (remember her?) and bootleg Hollywood releases, called “Physibles.” These are 3D models you can download and print with your 3D printer; their grand dream is that one day you will simply log-on and download the new iPhone, or a tasty sandwich — or even, eventually, download a new house.

So from the players’ perspective, video games do not “replace” reality, they simply augment it with a compelling paradox:

De_dust is unique in that its structural scale and legacy are monumental, but it is also made banal from the hundreds (and often thousands) of hours that players have spent murdering each other in its streets and halls, as friends and strangers often do. There is nothing else quite like de_dust, yet at the same time it functions as the neighborhood pub or gym where people spend time after a long day at work. (Art in the age of digital reproduction, blah blah blah.)

To understand the significance and elegance of de_dust as the players see it, one must understand the nature of video game architecture or “level design” and how it fits into the structures of the game.

In the multiplayer video game Counter-Strike, two teams of players (terrorists vs. counter-terrorists) strategically traverse an environment in order to optimally shoot each other in the face. Unlike the dangerously real military encounters this game simulates, the two teams are roughly symmetrical in terms of equipment, movement speed, and so on. Instead, the subtle variations in each round of play emerge from the asymmetrical floorplan of the level — the two teams must adopt different movements and tactics in fortifying the frontline and chokepoints.

Dave Johnston’s de_dust features only two (2) such chokepoints: both are dark, dangerous, narrow interior spaces that are usually easier to defend than attack. However, losing one chokepoint to the other team leaves the other one extremely vulnerable. Thus, the back and forth resembles the tension of attrition between two wrestlers jousting on a log in a river — push hard with your left hand to put your opponent off-balance, but you may leave your right flank exposed at the risk of falling off the log yourself.

If there exists a “street ballet,” then this could be construed as a certain “murder ballet.”

People have spent hundreds and thousands of hours playing this level even though the floorplan and architecture never change, for the ballet is never exactly the same and the performance is always somewhat unpredictable. Because of this enormous strategic variety, de_dust is largely considered a classic piece of game architecture, and has enjoyed a lot of play since 1999 — which, trust me, is exceptionally rare.

Now, a more superficial analysis might fixate on de_dust’s visual style and art aesthetic with relation to Counter-Strike’s emphasis on modern-day counter-terrorism operations. Specifically, the level is styled to resemble a Middle Eastern town made of weathered sandstone. Video game architecture certainly affords this singularly academic type of reading, critiquing de_dust as a sociocultural artifact that exoticizes the war-torn ruins of the Gulf War and glorifies imperialism.

This essay is not that analysis.

Professional Counter-Strike players (yes, they are paid to play games, much like any other athlete) have been known to turn off the graphics entirely because it is “distracting,” leaving only the most minimal in-game representation of walls and floors. In their mind, the surface textures on a game level might be likened to a tennis court with a neon strobe-light floor, which is precisely Aram Bartholl’s point in reconstructing de_dust out of featureless concrete blocks rather than then authentic sandstone. That narrative skin doesn’t matter because that’s not how the residents of de_dust understand their home.

Rather, it’s all about the spaces between the planes, the frantic sprint through a notorious hallway adored by snipers, or the column just barely wide enough to conceal an ambush. It is the joy of reconciling the known with the unknown.

When was the last time a “real” building made you feel that way?

(Also read: "Love letter to a bridge", some writing about de_aztec.)