Can Video Games Make You a Better Architect?

What the AEC industry is learning from game designers
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In the game Dark Souls, there’s an early section where the player has to fight across a fortress rooftop labyrinth filled with undead enemies, across battlements, up spiral staircases and through trap-laden medieval architecture. Each death (and there will be many) resets the player at a bonfire located at the beginning of the area. Eventually, if you’re good enough to defeat the boss waiting at the end of the zone, you’re rewarded with a shortcut, a ladder bringing you from the beginning of the zone straight to the end. The remarkable thing about this shortcut is that it’s not a smoke-and-mirrors digital trick—you can look at blueprint-style maps of the castle online. The architecture of the maze is comprehensive and legitimate.

In many ways, the overlap between video games and AEC shouldn’t be surprising at all. Video games require virtual spaces. Virtual spaces require virtual architects. But recently the connections seem to have reached a fever pitch. With the advent of VR and the explosive growth and versatility of gaming engines, the line between digital and physical spaces has grown porous, and the resultant flow of ideas and information across the boundary has benefited groups on both sides.

It’s impossible to discuss virtual spaces without bringing up building information modeling (BIM). BIM software has been around since the mid-20th century, but has only started to gain widespread popularity in the last two decades. The software, which is used to make 3D models of buildings, roads, or basically anything the modeler can dream of, has given users the ability to create digital prototypes of their project before any actual construction begins. Many companies are now using a “build it twice” philosophy where projects are completed first in the digital realm and then built again in the real world.

While much of the actual artistic modeling done with BIM parallels what a game designer might do to create a virtual building, Cody Nowak, founder of DisruptAEC, says that there are still a lot of differences between the two disciplines. For one, games aren’t bound by the physical laws of reality: Platforms can float unsupported; scale is irrelevant as long as it looks right; stairs aren’t required to have an 11-inch tread depth.  “There’s specific knowledge for both skill sets,” says Nowak. You can’t just do whatever and render it out and expect it to be built. When it comes down to actually building a building there’s a ton of codes.”

Erick Prins, an architect at KAA Design Group, echoes the sentiment. “When I compared gaming modeling, to architectural modeling, gaming modeling is much more akin to clay modeling—it can be anything. Whereas the architectural modeling—we’re actually designing and building homes and three-dimensional models that we then take all our 2D drawings from. We have a library, basically, of 3D homes. We need to understand them and build them at a scale that makes sense.”

Where gamers do shine in the architectural world is in the transition from model to explorable space. Models are great tools for designing and visualizing buildings, but when it comes to virtually experiencing a space—to gleaning a sense of how a place feels—gamers are making for attractive hires across the industry due to their familiarity with game engines. A game engine can transform a model into a navigable place complete with lighting, physics, animations and ambient sound. In the past, this transition from digital model to virtual space took enormous amounts of processing power and time relying on high-quality renders often outsourced to a render farm. Now though, gaming engines like Unreal and Unity are advancing to the point where the same transition can be accomplished in hours in-house.

And that advance is paying dividends. The ability to take a virtual tour of a space before it is built is extremely powerful both for the designer and the client. Prins says that his Los Angeles-based firm is constantly using virtual spaces to refine designs long before construction ever starts. “We just bought a new VR system for our office, and we have clients coming in every week to walk around their soon-to-be-physical home, but they walk around it in the virtual,” he says. “We get feedback like, ‘I could see myself in this space,’ or ‘I would love a window here that looks out over the Santa Monica Mountains.’ If we’re able to get them into a space and be comfortable with the virtual space, we know that they’ll be comfortable in the physical space. And it’s quite rewarding to have that dialogue at a much earlier point.”

Lucas Richmond, senior media studio manager for Gilbane Building Company, says his company loves hiring gamers for their problem-solving skills and analytical abilities in addition to their familiarity with the engines. But even if that weren’t the case, he points out that gamers are improving the industry just by playing games. Unreal engine is made by Epic Games, a company most famous right now for their record-smashing game called Fortnite, a third-person Battle Royale game in which players vie for powerful weapons and can quickly construct defensive forts when attacked. (The irony that architecture and construction feature so heavily in a game driving the development of an engine that’s revolutionizing the AEC industry is delicious, but purely coincidental.) The game’s massive popularity has allowed Epic to use it as a testing ground for Unreal Engine. “A lot of media optimization and stuff they figure out creating and updating that game constantly flows into Unreal Engine,” he says. “We’re able to process that information and see how it was used in the video game and then turn around and use it ourselves.”  Richmond has even used some of the animation and rendering optimizations from Fortnite in his design work.

Sullivan, Prins and Richmond all agreed that the future of architecture lies in digital spaces. The power of BIM combined with improvements in gaming engines and VR tech are is too potent to ignore. They all predict that the industry will continue to push towards VR solutions. While this does not necessarily mean that 5,000 hours of Fortnite gameplay will prepare you for an AEC career, the industry is going to need virtual spaces that are believable, interesting, easily navigable and modifiable for the foreseeable future. If there’s anyone with experience with those ideas, it’s game designers and players.