Architect as Avatar

3-Peak Int1

Raw Image from The Witness

Last semester I took a class with Nicco Mele called Media Power and Politics in the Digital Age and to my great surprise loved it even though the room was so crowded I always had to sit on the floor craning my neck to see the slides. After a year of understanding web as platform and Google analytics I was alert with excitement as I finally had a seat and he was going lecture on  video games. To be honest I had been looking forward to it all year.  As he spoke about the impact they were having on our lives and the world, people in the class started to snigger in a  patronizing way.  I didn’t judge them since it was not that long ago I had a similar reaction to indie game developer Jonathan Blow when he asked me if I would like to work on his new game The Witness. I was working at Perkins+Will during this time and told him they would most likely not be interested in doing something like this and why didn’t he just find a young designer just out of school. Like a lot of people I thought video games were for teenage boys filled with violence, exploitation of women and war which is still true for many games in the industry.  However Jonathan wasn’t open to my suggestion and was clear that he wanted an experienced designer to work on the project who knew how buildings went together.  I decided to get him started with a few design workshops and realized that in some ways it was not so different than the process of designing real buildings and to my surprise was having more fun doing my job than I had for a long time.

Working with Jonathan

Working with Jonathan

Being a designer who loves to research I thought I better investigate this new industry and it was then that discovered all the things Nicco was speaking to us about in class. I realized that the demographics of the modern gamer are not what we think it is.   The average age of a gamer is 37 not 17 and almost half of these are women.   I learned that my client’s previous game, Braid, had been touted as the first true intersection between art and video games.  (Nicco even told me at a Loeb dinner that he was considered a genius.) I learned from gamer Jane McGonigal at the Institute for the Future that 3 billion hours a week are spent playing on line games. I was amazed to learn that she was using this untapped resource to solve major social problems such as poverty, disease and investigate new energy futures.  I was aghast to find that the US army was using a multi-player video game called America’s Army to lure teenagers into volunteering to serve and that annual revenue generated in the video game industry was over 25.1 billion and growing yet architects weren’t doing this kind of work.  Where the hell had we been?


In the end I left Perkins+Will to start my own practice and have been working part time for Jonathan ever since. Along with Jonathan’s amazing team and the landscape architects at Fletcher Studio we have begun to reinvision the digital gaming environment that will use this platform to do many wonderful things but the dearest to my heart is to increase our consciousness of the world around us.   I believe that  if the billions of hours people spend in virtual environments are better designed then we can begin to raise the visual literacy of our population and impact the physical world.

As I looked around Nicco’s class after his lecture I realized that no one was laughing and one gentleman in the front row raised his voice to tell Nicco he had changed his entire view of the industry. It was a familiar transformation and in a class filled with future leaders it is one that I hope helps the gaming industry to follow a positive trajectory out of war and misogyny to manifesting social change. I also hope that they industry will evolve to make sure that skilled design professionals are part of their teams and that architects will begin to become avatars.

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