Testing, testing… It’s been so long, I need to blow some dust off the keyboard here.
It’s hard to believe, but I started writing this blog exactly fifteen years ago today. If you’ve been around for even a fraction of that time, thanks for reading.
[Image: Wiring the ENIAC; via Wired]
One of many things I love about writing—that is, engaging in writing as an activity—is how it facilitates a discovery of connections between otherwise unrelated things. Writing reveals and even relies upon analogies, metaphors, and unexpected similarities: there is resonance between a story in the news and a medieval European folktale, say, or between a photo taken in a war-wrecked city and an 18th-century landscape painting. These sorts of relations might remain dormant or unnoticed until writing brings them to the foreground: previously unconnected topics and themes begin to interact, developing meanings not present in those original subjects on their own.
Wildfires burning in the Arctic might bring to mind infernal images from Paradise Lost or even intimations of an unwritten J.G. Ballard novel, pushing a simple tale of natural disaster to new symbolic heights, something mythic and larger than the story at hand. Learning that U.S. Naval researchers on the Gulf Coast have used the marine slime of a “300-million-year old creature” to develop 21st-century body armor might conjure images from classical mythology or even from H.P. Lovecraft: Neptunian biotech wed with Cthulhoid military terror.
In other words, writing means that one thing can be crosswired or brought into contrast with another for the specific purpose of fueling further imaginative connections, new themes to be pulled apart and lengthened, teased out to form plots, characters, and scenes.
In addition, a writer of fiction might stage an otherwise straightforward storyline in an unexpected setting, in order to reveal something new about both. It’s a hard-boiled detective thriller—set on an international space station. It’s a heist film—set at the bottom of the sea. It’s a procedural missing-person mystery—set on a remote military base in Afghanistan.
Thinking like a writer would mean asking why things have happened in this way and not another—in this place and not another—and to see what happens when you begin to switch things around. It’s about strategic recombination.
I mention all this after reading a new essay by artist and critic James Bridle about algorithmic content generation as seen in children’s videos on YouTube. The piece is worth reading for yourself, but I wanted to highlight a few things here.
[Image: Wiring the ENIAC; via Wired]
In brief, the essay suggests that an increasingly odd, even nonsensical subcategory of children’s video is emerging on YouTube. The content of these videos, Bridle writes, comes from what he calls “keyword/hashtag association.” That is, popular keyword searches have become a stimulus for producing new videos whose content is reverse-engineered from those searches.
To use an entirely fictional example of what this means, let’s imagine that, following a popular Saturday Night Live sketch, millions of people begin Googling “Pokémon Go Ewan McGregor.” In the emerging YouTube media ecology that Bridle documents, someone with an entrepreneurial spirit would immediately make a Pokémon Go video featuring Ewan McGregor both to satisfy this peculiar cultural urge and to profit from the anticipated traffic.
Content-generation through keyword mixing is “a whole dark art unto itself,” Bridle suggests. As a particular keyword or hashtag begins to trend, “content producers pile onto it, creating thousands and thousands more of these videos in every possible iteration.” Imagine Ewan McGregor playing Pokémon Go, forever.
What’s unusual here, however, and what Bridle specifically highlights in his essay, is that this creative process is becoming automated: machine-learning algorithms are taking note of trending keyword searches or popular hashtag combinations, then recommending the production of content to match those otherwise arbitrary sets. For Bridle, the results verge on the incomprehensible—less Big Data, say, than Big Dada.
This is by no means new. Recall the origin of House of Cards on Netflix. Netflix learned from its massive trove of consumer data that its customers liked, among other things, David Fincher films, political thrillers, and the actor Kevin Spacey. As David Carr explained for the New York Times back in 2013, this suggested the outline of a possible series: “With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.”
In other words, House of Cards was produced because it matched a data set, an example of “keyword/hashtag association” becoming video.
The question here would be: what if, instead of a human producer, a machine-learning algorithm had been tasked with analyzing Netflix consumer data and generating an idea for a new TV show? What if that recommendation algorithm didn’t quite understand which combinations would be good or worth watching? It’s not hard to imagine an unwatchably surreal, even uncanny television show resulting from this, something that seems to make more sense as a data-collection exercise than as a coherent plot—yet Bridle suggests that this is exactly what’s happening in the world of children’s videos online.
[Image: From Metropolis].
In some of these videos, Bridle explains, keyword-based programming might mean something as basic as altering a few words in a script, then having actors playfully act out those new scenarios. Actors might incorporate new toys, new types of candy, or even a particular child’s name: “Matt” on a “donkey” at “the zoo” becomes “Matt” on a “horse” at “the zoo” becomes “Carla” on a “horse” at “home.” Each variant keyword combination then results in its own short video, and each of these videos can be monetized. Future such recombinations are infinite.
In an age of easily produced digital animations, Bridle adds, these sorts of keyword micro-variants can be produced both extremely quickly and very nearly automatically. Some YouTube producers have even eliminated “human actors” altogether, he writes, “to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos.”
Bridle notes with worry that it is nearly impossible here “to parse out the gap between human and machine.”
Going further, he suggests that the automated production of new videos based on popular search terms has resulted in scenes so troubling that children should not be exposed to them—but, interestingly, Bridle’s reaction here seems to be based on those videos’ content. That is, the videos feature animated characters appearing without heads, or kids being buried alive in sandboxes, or even the painful sounds of babies crying.
What I think is unsettling here is slightly different, on the other hand. The content, in my opinion, is simply strange: a kind of low-rent surrealism for kids, David Lynch-lite for toddlers. For thousands of years, western folktales have featured cannibals, incest, haunted houses, even John Carpenter-like biological transformations, from woman to tree, or from man to pig and back again. Children burn to death on chariots in the sky or sons fall from atmospheric heights into the sea. These myths seem more nightmarish—on the level of content—than some of Bridle’s chosen YouTube videos.
Instead, I would argue, what’s disturbing here is what the content suggests about how things should be connected. The real risk would seem to be that children exposed to recommendation algorithms at an early age might begin to emulate them cognitively, learning how to think, reason, and associate based on inhuman leaps of machine logic.
Bridle’s inability “to parse out the gap between human and machine” might soon apply not just to these sorts of YouTube videos but to the children who grew up watching them.
[Image: Replicants in Blade Runner].
One of my favorite scenes in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is when a character named Jacopo Belbo describes different types of people. Everyone in the world, Belbo suggests, is one of only four types: there are “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.”
In the context of the present discussion, it is interesting to note that these categories are defined by modes of reasoning. For example, “Fools don’t claim that cats bark,” Belbo explains, “but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs.” They get their references wrong.
It is Eco’s “lunatic,” however, who offers a particularly interesting character type for us to consider: the lunatic, we read, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”
It might soon be time to suggest a fifth category, something beyond the lunatic, where thinking like an algorithm becomes its own strange form of reasoning, an alien logic gradually accepted as human over two or three generations to come.
Assuming I have read Bridle’s essay correctly—and it is entirely possible I have not—he seems disturbed by the content of these videos. I think the more troubling aspect, however, is in how they suggest kids should think. They replace narrative reason with algorithmic recommendation, connecting events and objects in weird, illogical bursts lacking any semblance of internal coherence, where the sudden appearance of something completely irrelevant can nonetheless be explained because of its keyword-search frequency. Having a conversation with someone who thinks like this—who “thinks” like this—would be utterly alien, if not logically impossible.
So, to return to this post’s beginning, one of the thrills of thinking like a writer, so to speak, is precisely in how it encourages one to bring together things that might not otherwise belong on the same page, and to work toward understanding why these apparently unrelated subjects might secretly be connected.
But what is thinking like an algorithm?
It will be interesting to see if algorithmically assembled material can still offer the sort of interpretive challenge posed by narrative writing, or if the only appropriate response to the kinds of content Bridle describes will be passive resignation, indifference, knowing that a data set somewhere produced a series of keywords and that the story before you goes no deeper than that. So you simply watch the next video. And the next. And the next.
[Image: “The New Establishment” by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint].
There’s an interesting and provocative article in the most recent issue of Blueprint called “The New Establishment,” by Peter Kelly. In it, Kelly takes issue with the lack of formal criticism in architecture blogging today, writing that “one tends not to find rigorous criticism of significant new buildings” on sites such as Strange Harvest, things magazine, and BLDGBLOG.
Instead, he suggests, a “like-minded” community of writers has arisen, one “that prefers speculative musing and celebrates increasingly niche interests.” He adds, with not a small shade of foreboding, that, “as blogs become a more important part of the establishment, a more realistic and rigorous approach to architectural criticism online is urgently needed.” After all, “As traditional publishing media and institutions become less influential, one wonders where architects can go to find informed, intelligent criticism of their work.”
These are absolutely valid points. I agree wholeheartedly that a more vigorous critique of the built environment is needed, as it will always be; I’ve said this before, in fact, and I have not changed my mind since then. Infrastructure, the growth of police power in urban space, pedestrianization and mass transit schemes, improved access to cultural institutions, the politics of military landscapes, healthy housing projects, aging and the city—all of these topics need more coverage and broader public discussion. Kelly is right to suggest as much.
[Image: “The New Establishment” by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint].
But what I find deeply confusing about Kelly’s article is that, rather than read websites or blogs which do, in fact, offer “criticism of significant new buildings,” as he puts it, Kelly specifically and only focuses on websites that claim to do nothing of the sort (with perhaps one exception: Kieran Long’s Bad British Architecture).
As such, Kelly’s article feels a bit like listening to someone who’s just spent two weeks looking around the classical music section only to come out complaining that he couldn’t find any death metal. Well, no shit: you were in the wrong section, and it’s your mistake not ours.
In fact, it is illogical to assume that, because this site in particular is more likely to post about topics like weaponized climate modification, Greek mythology, strange infestations, narrative film, haunted house novels, paleontology, and so on, rather than about a new suite of renderings released by Rem Koolhaas, or a new museum in outer Rome, that I am therefore uninterested in seeing buildings and their architects held accountable to rigorous standards of design. As it happens, I am very interested in that; I just don’t tend to write those pieces myself.
To draw an analogy, Kelly seems to be assuming that, because someone plays guitar, they must be willfully obstructing the careers of people who instead play saxophone. Kelly, in this context, plays saxophone; he wants a bigger audience for people who play saxophone; so he writes an article not critiquing other people who play saxophone but deliberately selecting a group of guitar players so that he can make the obvious point that they don’t play sax—and this is what passes for serious architectural criticism? No wonder its audience has evaporated.
What amazes me about these sorts of critiques of blogging—and they are becoming more and more common and predictable today, now that interest in academic architectural discourse has faded (if there was ever interest in it) in favor of other, more energetic, unapologetically interdisciplinary writing styles—is that these critics are actually complaining about the lack of something they themselves purport to do.
Put another way, writers like Kelly are complaining about the unacknowledged side-effects of their own inadequacy as architecture critics. If they had actually known what they were doing in the first place, then people would never have lost interest in “rigorous criticism of significant new buildings.”
That is, speaking directly to Peter Kelly, if you want to see a more vigorous critique of real buildings, then, by all means, go ahead and show us how it’s done. Make it popular again. Find an audience for that type of writing and cultivate it. Convincingly demonstrate the power of the genre you so openly wish to celebrate.
But for Kelly to complain that BLDGBLOG doesn’t tour Alice Tully Hall, for instance, and offer constructive feedback for the architects is like complaining that Point Break doesn’t have anything to say about the design of the High Line, or that The Hobbit lacks exegetical interludes about the theories of Walter Benjamin—but neither of those things are about that, and they’re not without value because of it. They are, we might say, valued otherwise: performing an altogether different cultural function than the one whose absence Kelly mourns.
In fact, it’s a serious methodological flaw for critics like Kelly to read only the blogs that aren’t about building criticism—he cites BLDGBLOG, Pruned, Tim Maly’s Quiet Babylon, and so on—in order to make the point that today’s blogosphere is lacking in building criticism. Talk about shooting your own skeet. It’s not only lazy, it’s tautological and it betrays a total lack of commitment to original research.
To use another musical analogy, it’s like listening to smooth jazz for six years and then complaining that not one of those songs had vocals by Dave Mustaine—well, you were listening to the wrong kind of music.
[Image: “The New Establishment” by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint].
Pointing out that BLDGBLOG doesn’t offer traditionally recognizable formal criticism of the built environment misses the fact that the modus operandi of this blog is all but precisely not to do that. Indeed, this blog is and always has been very consciously about architecture and landscape in a representationally broad sense: exploring how spatial environments appear in film, literature, mythology, games, dreams, and comics, and to write about the otherwise radically under-reported side-effects of buildings and cities, from freak local weather systems and invasive species to psychiatric disorders and rodents. In fact, I would say that BLDGBLOG has never claimed to be a place “where architects can go to find informed, intelligent criticism of their work.” I don’t want to do that; that is not my goal as an architecture writer. But that doesn’t mean—nor does it in any way imply—that I don’t want to see other writers successfully demonstrate how that sort of criticism is done.
Again, to address writers and critics such as Kelly: you all have had so long to prove your point about the value of serious architectural research. You claim absolute, if not unique, critical priority for a style of architecture writing that you yourselves fail to produce in any convincing manner, and you’ve failed to find any real audience for the very thing you are hoping to promote. Even now, you have blogs, zines, pamphlets, international magazines, Ph.D. funding, radio shows, whole university departments, conferences, and teaching opportunities at your disposal. You can make documentaries for the BBC. Your words and ideas should speak for themselves.
With that in mind, how exactly is your failure to find an audience—indeed, even to find more writers like yourselves willing to write this stuff, surely a damning absence if there ever was one—the fault of a loose group of bloggers who prefer “speculative musing” and “increasingly niche interests”? What exactly are you saying here—that we are Katy Perry to your Shostakovich? Is that a universally negative thing?
To use a wildly overblown historical metaphor, it’s a bit like seeing a lost group of battle-shocked British troops suffering from amnesia as they wander down the streets of Philadelphia in the summer of 1778, asking, in all seriousness, why there isn’t more British influence on display. But one of the reasons we came here in the first place was to get away from people like you.
[Image: “The New Establishment” by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint].
In any case, having said all that, I want to reiterate that I actually agree with the underlying premise of Peter Kelly’s article: that we need more direct and engaged criticism of the built environment. This is true, and Kelly is right. We need more Christopher Hawthornes and fewer Nicolai Ouroussoffs. We need more Matthew Coolidges and fewer Philip Jodidios. We need the next J.G. Ballard.
But until architecture critics can find a way to make formal building criticism interesting, entertaining, emotional, funny, adventurous, sexy, or thrilling, it—and its popular appeal—will languish. If people like Kelly can’t bring it upon themselves to reinvigorate their chosen discipline, then it’s not the fault of Sam Jacob or Alex Trevi if they fail. We’re back to the saxophone/guitar thing: what you need to do, Peter Kelly, is learn to play your saxophone so well that everyone else stops liking guitar; you can’t just complain about successful guitar players. Or, in market-speak: put us guitar players out of business by offering the world better music. If you can do something amazing, then I want to hear it, too.
Consider this an open appeal, then, to all architecture critics unnecessarily scared of blogs: produce the texts you want us to read & study. Find writers working in the genre you’re actually talking about and constructively team up with them to promote good and rigorous criticism. Use multiple media. Cast your net wide. Don’t assume that to entertain is to lose critical insight. Remember that sometimes the most “significant new buildings” in public life today are not museums and concert halls, but film sets and game environments.
Indeed, Alex McDowell is a more influential architect than David Chipperfield, which means covering McDowell’s work is not just fringe speculation. Grand Theft Auto generates more conversations about crime and the city than the writings of Adolf Loos, which means discussing GTA is not just self-indulgent musing.
After all, there is absolutely no reason in the world why we can’t have blogs that “celebrate increasingly niche interests” alongside blogs that offer “rigorous criticism of significant new buildings”—in fact, there is no reason in the world why a single blog couldn’t simultaneously perform both functions. It would be a dream to read.
Imagine a world, then, where critics like Peter Kelly actually step up and demonstrate how to do the things they so enjoy pointing out as lacking in others. If they could succeed at this—and find an audience, and push an agenda, and gather influence, and raise the stakes of what it means to be an architecture blogger—then we would all, as writers and readers and builders, be stronger because of it.
And, if they don’t succeed—if they can’t pull it off—then they should do better than to pin the blame on others.
[Image: Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities].
Jim Rossignol is a games critic, blogger, and the author of This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities, published by the University of Michigan Press. Rossignol’s book is “a wonderfully literate look at gaming cultures,” according to The New Yorker‘s John Seabrook; Chris Baker of Wired magazine says that “we need more writers like Jim Rossignol,” writers who can intelligently explore “the deeper significance of games.”
My own familiarity with Rossignol’s work came through blogging: we first crossed paths online a few years ago; I read his book; we managed to meet up at the Barbican last winter; and we soon decided to have a much longer conversation about our mutual interests and books.
The following interview is an edited transcript of that discussion, focusing on Rossignol’s book, but also covering my own interests in gaming and architecture, Rossignol’s travels to Seoul and Reykjavik for games research, the plug-in avant-gardism of Archigram and others, the psychological effect of historic preservation in the UK, and the rewards of speculative thinking in the design of both physical and virtual worlds.
I’ve often wondered, for instance, how the process of playing a game might compare to the experience of using a building, and if these must necessarily be different ways of engaging with another person’s created space. Further, if the same software packages and other digital effects can be used to design a building and a new videogame, might this imply that there are deeper structural similarities between games and architecture—or is this merely a sharing of aesthetics and tools?
Such a conversation could go in any number of directions, of course; this interview merely helps kick things off.
Rossignol and I spoke by phone.
BLDGBLOG: First, what was the origin of your book?
Jim Rossignol: This Gaming Life came out of an essay I wrote about the Korean gaming scene, which is fairly unusual for gaming cultures around the world. There was a series of circumstances in Korea that led to something quite strange in the way Koreans approach gaming—via massive social gaming through internet cafes, but particularly their E-Sports, which focus on professional players playing games like Starcraft. I went out and looked at that for PC GAMER magazine—which, at the time, was doing very progressive games journalism. So I wrote a piece on that and it was very popular, and people became interested in the cultural angle of gaming. The University of Michigan, which does a collection of technology writing each year, put that into their 2007 anthology. Afterwards, UMICH came back to me and asked if there was any similar material that I had written, and we eventually decided it would be a good idea to sit down and put together a longer work—and that’s what became This Gaming Life.
I actually found it very difficult initially to come up with a cogent theme for the book! It developed quite a lot along the way, particularly in its focus on three cities. The structure of the book is broken up between London, Seoul, and Reykjavik, the London part being the most autobiographical. It’s me explaining my particular angle on gaming; moving into Seoul to talk about gaming cultures worldwide, particularly the differences between the west and Korea. Then the third section is Reykjavik, which I suppose is more personal once again, because it’s expressing some ideas and angles on a particular game—EVE Online, which was developed in Reykjavik by a company called CCP. I think there are some very interesting lessons and ideas in that game model. EVE, being a massively multi-player game, is never a static, fixed thing, as games have been in the past, and I think it points to the way games are going to work more as social systems, involving both the gamers and the developers. It creates a sort of symbiotic process where the developers are developing for and reacting to the way that gamers are using and doing the game. That stuff fascinates me.
[Image: A scene from EVE Online, taken from Robin Burkinshaw‘s massive EVE Online Flickr set].
BLDGBLOG: Your section about Seoul almost seems to imply that there’s less of a cultural difference between the gaming cultures of London and Seoul, and more of a recreational drug difference. What I mean is that everybody goes out drinking in London—it’s a social culture built very much around alcohol—but, when you go out in Korea, it sounds more like an all-night caffeine binge. That creates a very different urban and social reality.
Rossignol: I may be wrong in my impression of Seoul, of course! But wandering round the city myself, I didn’t tend to stumble across many bars—whereas it’s impossible not to stumble across a bar in any British town. There’s a lot of social eating, as well, in Seoul. It’s hard to really gauge how dominant gaming is there, and how much this is a factor of caffeine consumption; but, on the surface, the gaming is very obvious. It’s well-promoted and it takes place in public.
I was thinking the other night, though, about what prohibition would do to England. The disabling aspect of alcohol certainly changes motor tasks—but gaming does appear in bar culture here. There’s darts and pool, and so on. And there are slot machines, which are sort of prototypical video games. Gaming itself is so ubiquitous in British culture that you perhaps don’t even notice all the aspects of it and where they appear.
BLDGBLOG: In that sense, you suggest, gaming pops up everywhere. There’s a lot of stigmatism around the idea that you might sit at home alone playing a computer game—or blogging—or that you might go out to an internet café and play a game with your friends, as if there’s something socially wrong with you; but if you go down to the pub for a game of pool, that’s the height of sociability. That’s the right kind of gaming. So only specific types of games are stigmatized, and only specific types of play have been rewarded.
Rossignol: I wonder whether there will be a massive generational shift over the next 40 years, so that electronic gaming will just be everywhere. People will be so familiar with it. Kids who are growing up now are so used to the idea of a digital interface that they will expect to find one everywhere. When I was in Vegas a few years ago, I sat at a bar and there was a little betting machine panel in the bar top—a touch-screen betting system. But I was thinking: I would have happily sat at that bar longer if it had been a touch-screen Tetris.
BLDGBLOG: I can easily see games being embedded in different social environments—even instead of hold music, when you call the bank, you get a short text game.
Rossignol: Or a sound-based game. There are apparently a number of games which are based just on sound response, for blind people—sound-structure games. There’s no reason you couldn’t play a pure audio game while you’re just holding on the phone, by responding to sound cues.
BLDGBLOG: Something else you mention in the book, and that has been getting more and more attention in popular media, is the idea that games aren’t just a frivolous way to waste time; they’re almost a form of job training. You can learn to be a better brain surgeon and so on. Do you think games are a kind of pedagogical device like that, or even an emerging neurological frontier?
Rossignol: The U.S. military did, I think, say gamers were ideal helicopter pilots, due to the spatial awareness and coordination required. But games have other roles: like that Tactical Iraqi thing—that was actually a role-playing game: you go into a village, and you have a bunch of text trees, and you explore how you should approach the situation, and how you should talk to the locals. I thought that was interesting because the immediate thought is always the helicopter fighter-pilot angle—the classic “games make you have better reactions” angle—but games as social teaching devices I think is quite interesting. Perhaps crucial, from a military angle.
One of the things about games journalism, though, is that it’s dominated by business, and by products and product marketing, so a lot of the writing is preview/review cycle stuff. The other end of the scale is very academic material that tends to be theory-based. But there’s not a lot of practical study of the fundamentals of gaming, which I find very interesting.
It’s also one of those areas where I almost don’t want to make too much comment, because I feel like all I really want to say is, “For God’s sake, scientists! Spend some time with the subject and really use your methodology to see how people react to games. Do that kind of deep research that’s been done on so many other subjects.” It increasingly comes up. Just the other week there was an article called “Your Brain on Games,” where researchers had used an MRI scanner to look at someone’s brain while they were gaming, and talked about the effects and so on—but that still seems like a trivial treatment of the subject.
I think the University of Rochester in NY is doing some research on this, and I hope they continue to. One of the things they’re looking at is, as you were saying, the effect on the brain long-term. Which is a completely new frontier for neuroscience research. What they have shown is that visual processing is increased—so that gamers are much better at figuring out what’s happening in a particularly busy visual field—and it’s a very quick change, as well. People only have to play games for a few hours to see a distinct difference. What I think is interesting about that is that we don’t yet have any real handle on what’s going to happen to an entire generation of people who have spent years and years increasing their visual processing. Will we have this sort of super-visual human whose abilities to pick things out and understand things on a visual basis are going to be massively accelerated beyond what we’ve had in the past? I can’t even really see what sort of ramifications that would have—other than that we might be short-sighted as well, from being sat looking at the screen for so long. [laughs]
I read in a recent story about texting—I think it was in New Scientist—that texting actually improves your general literacy. That was the headline. I think the actual content of the article was that people who were more literate were better at texting, and better at reducing words down to a shorter form. There are graphical forms finding their way into text—obviously, the smileys and emoticons—and people have started doing other ones, like an o with a slash—a little man waving hello—and stuff like that. That kind of pictorial thing—this truncation that you’re getting from text-speak—is rapid visual processing.
BLDGBLOG: That reminds me of something else about your book—it has no images. However, I think that actually helps to demonstrate what your book is talking about—which is that you can have a literate, intelligent, and articulate approach to gaming, and it doesn’t require pyrotechnic visuals for people to be interested.
Rossignol: Yeah, we quickly dismissed the idea of using pictures at all. I wanted to make it pure text, which I’m quite pleased with. Even if we’d had color plates, I think that would have distracted from the themes I was talking about. I think a lot of the material isn’t easily illustratable—you can’t really illustrate interactions or game development, or indeed a lot of the cultural or theoretical stuff I was going to talk about. Having a picture of Mario would have been redundant.
Something I wanted to ask you about was how being speculative seems to be rewarded in architecture writing—which is almost the opposite condition that we have with games. Critics and writers are heavily dissuaded from being speculative when talking about games, and I think this is because there’s a tendency for gamers to be backseat designers. There’s a strong tendency for people to dismiss journalists who write speculatively about games or who talk about games’ futures or the possibilities of game design the way that you do with architecture. I wonder if that’s different with architecture because there are so few backseat architects, so to speak.
[Image: From Pixel City by Shamus Young].
BLDGBLOG: That’s interesting. I’d say that one of the ways that blogging is doing this—leading to more speculation in today’s architecture writing—is that blogging has tapped into a massive class of unprofessional writers who, nonetheless, have strong opinions about the built environment. After all, they’re surrounded by it at all times. It’s not just Harvard graduates now who have the microphone, so to speak; even some kid in the suburbs—playing videogames—can offer an opinion about architecture, and it almost definitely will not involve references to Mies van der Rohe. It will be about shopping malls, or the suburbs themselves, or the ruined cities you see in movies like Terminator Salvation. It will be about the architecture of videogame worlds.
In any case, I think as people start to realize that they can have an opinion about architecture, in the same way that they can have an opinion about the food they order in a restaurant, or an opinion about a book they’ve just read, then they will also realize that they can ask questions about the buildings they see all around them. You know: why am I surrounded by buildings that look like this? Or: why on earth is there a road in the middle of that children’s park downtown? Or why can’t the world look like this—or this, or this? Very soon, you start speculating about how the world could really be.
But I’d also say that one of the reasons this is the case—why I can speculate freely about a Rem Koolhaas building, or about the future of London in an era of rising sea levels—is that there’s almost no risk that someone is going to take my ideas and realize them in built form. No one’s going to build an alternative version of London, with 80-foot seawalls, because they read about it on BLDGBLOG! But if I outline an amazing idea for a new videogame, then there’s every chance in the world that someone might take that idea and run with it.
I think I even saw something like this on Warren Ellis’s blog, where he says that, if you email him, don’t mention any new ideas for future stories or comics—because, at least in my interpretation of that, if he then puts that idea into a comic strip five years later, he’s probably going to be sued. It’s unlikely, on the other hand, that Zaha Hadid will read on my blog about some great new room she should design someday—and then actually go and add that exact thing to a new museum of hers in Potsdam.
In other words, there’s quite a large barrier to entry to becoming an architect. The idea that I would actually build the next Olympic Stadium is absurd, whereas—and I don’t mean to make it sound easier than it is—I think I could presumably become a games designer much faster than I could design the next Los Angeles airport. You’re less of a competitor as an architecture critic than you would be as a video game critic.
Rossignol: At the last game developers conference in San Francisco, one of my colleagues said to me that perhaps what was most interesting were all the ideas that were walking around inside the heads of the developers—the ideas that they wouldn’t talk about, or stuff they kept secret because it was too good and too commercially important for their companies. It did make me wonder whether the fact that games are so commercial stunts their futurology—after all, if game developers were given free rein to be pure creatives, I think there would be a massive exchange of ideas. This kind of accelerated avalanche of development could come out of there being no limits on sharing ideas. It makes it very difficult for game designers to get the ideas they need to make games better—because they’re going to be protected, or hidden, or otherwise held back by commercial concern.
BLDGBLOG: In a way, though, this brings us back to EVE Online—to the idea that there is a feedback loop between the players and developers. You do seem to be able to influence the future structure of a game, and it’s precisely through playing it in a certain way or demonstrating a certain behavior. That sort of thing doesn’t happen very often in architecture—it’s way too expensive to redesign buildings every two years based on how people have actually been using the space.
Or—actually, here’s a random example. When I lived in London seven or eight years ago, I worked at Norman Foster’s office in Battersea. I’m not an architect; I was just an admin person. One day, though, my task was to go through this huge cupboard full of old VHS tapes, many of which were unlabeled. I actually had to put them into the VCR, watch them for a few minutes, take notes, and figure out what they were—then label them and stick them back in the cupboard, in an organized way, based on chronology.
At one point, I found a bunch of tapes that were nothing but surveillance footage taken inside Wembley Stadium. It was unlabeled, black and white footage of people milling about outside the bathrooms, near the ticket gate, and so on—and my initial thought was actually that some sort of crime must have taken place. There had been a stabbing, or a riot—and, I thought, maybe even someone here at Foster & Partners had been involved. That’s why we had the tapes. Then again, that’s how it always is with surveillance tapes: you’re always waiting for something to happen on them. All CCTV footage of road traffic, for instance, looks like CCTV footage taken right before an accident.
In any case, nothing happened: there was no crime. What those tapes were actually used for was a kind of spatial research project: the office had pulled a bunch of surveillance tapes from the stadium so that they could watch how people actually used the space: where they congregated, what needed to be better designed, how things really, on a social level, worked. They could then figure out how to design the next Wembley Stadium.
My point is that that was an example of user-research coming to influence the spatial future of a building project—but it’s very rare, I think. Most people just design buildings based on whether or not it fits into their own stylistic development, regardless of whether anyone else will like what results. They just put up a new building—and you have to adapt to it, not the other way around.
Having said all that, I’m wondering if you could talk about how, in the specific case of EVE Online, the players’ interaction with the game affects how that game might be developed in the future.
[Images: Scenes from EVE Online, taken from Robin Burkinshaw‘s EVE Online Flickr set].
Rossignol: The thing about EVE, which is distinct from other online games, is that it’s a single galaxy—a single space. Most games aren’t like that. Even massively multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft, are broken up into “shards”—so that, if you’re playing Warcraft, you’ll be on a shard with maybe two or three thousand other people. In EVE, everyone is in the same galaxy together. It’s never been switched off or restarted, although there’s a brief downtime everyday, so there’s been this continuous etching-in of detail since the game was first launched.
To create the actual structure of the galaxy, they used some crystal-forming algorithms—the maths that explain how crystals grow—and then a bunch of random generation to architect the solar systems (which creates some weird anomalies in places). It’s the system that they’ve laid down on top of that, and the detail that’s gone in subsequently, that often reflects how the players started using the world itself.
The two best examples of this occurred quite early on. One was this phenomenon called “can mining.” It may even have been in the beta version, but certainly in the early weeks of the game, when players realized that the asteroid belts could be mined for resources, and that that was the best way of making money. That’s no longer true, but it was true when it started. The logistical problem of getting minerals back to the space station hadn’t really been considered. There was no model for it, although there were these industrial hauler ships that could take large amounts.
What players realized early on is that they could eject a cargo container from their ship, a container which had vastly more cargo space than a mining ship, and they developed this process where they would mine into their own cargo hold and then move the minerals over to a canister; the industrial ships would hurry back and forth over to the can to take minerals back to the space station, where they could then be used to build stuff. I don’t think that CCP initially thought that their economic system would definitely work from the ground up like that, or that they would have people wanting to put together the most basic resources in the game; but once players discovered this cargo canister loophole, mining became very important to them. Subsequently there’s a huge section of the game, and the updates that followed, just based around mining. That perhaps goes counter to the designers’ expectations, because designers come in looking at gamers wanting to shoot things, wanting to blow things up, wanting to do combat and exciting stuff like that.
Another, bigger, example is the alliance system. Quite early on in the game, CCP introduced the alliance management systems. They expected players to band together in alliances to fight each other, but they didn’t quite know how it was going to work. They wanted players to be able to capture space, and very early on, pretty much from day one, players banded together in these sort of feudal tribes to do that. Initially it was done purely by the players saying, “Right, anyone in this corporation or in this small group of corporations which are all friendly with each other can use this space. Anyone else that comes in, we’ll just blow them up.” CCP waited to see what tools players would need to make this work before they implemented them.
But this created a kind of “piled up” evolution of game structures. The Something Awful GoonSwarm war against Band of Brothers—those are the two main alliances within the game as it is now—demonstrated how CCP had laid down layer after layer of game functionality in a sort of house of cards manner. They pulled down one part of that and the system collapsed drastically. Vital defensive systems were based on the alliance tools—not in any logical way, just in a kind of design legacy way—so when a Goon Swarm defector shut down the Band Of Brothers alliance, many of their entrenched defensive systems shut down, too. It handed the keys to the fortress over to the enemy—and it was a loophole created by the evolving design of this single galaxy.
That kind of ongoing development is pretty much unique to EVE. It’s come about because CCP’s philosophy is essentially that the game needs to be purely about human interaction. There is non-player interaction in the game, and there are non-player ships that populate various areas—and you can go blow them up, and you can do missions against them and so on. But the crucial step for CCP has been the idea that what fuels the game is interactions by players with each other, and that interaction is either through combat or through trade.
The economics of it are really interesting. I’ve had people say, “I can just stay in my space station and trade, or just play on the stock market, and not really interact with any other players”—but, of course, when it’s a purely player-based in economy, when players are mining to get the minerals that produce the materials that are sold in the market, any economic interaction is still interaction with other people. That in itself is unique within EVE. There are elements of it within lots of other games—Second Life, for example—but I think EVE’s game-like structure is what makes it so interesting.
Although it might not always be to its advantage: I’ve recently written an article about whether this dependence on interaction could actually be the downfall of EVE, because there is always the danger that the game will run into an evolutionary dead end—that the way the players behave within the systems that these people have created simply won’t continue functioning. A lot of people are speculating now, after this recent Band of Brothers/GoonSwarm conflict, that the big game—the alliance game—will be over, because everyone will be essentially allied with each other, and there won’t be enough war to make it worth playing. This would bring the whole game grinding to a halt, because once there isn’t any war and there aren’t any losses, then there’s no reason for a massive economy to turn out spaceships to get destroyed.
BLDGBLOG: It’s funny, though: listening to that as an outsider, or as a non-player, it sounds a lot like the end of the Cold War, when people like Francis Fukuyama were predicting that we were now at the “end of history.” If there was no more USSR vs. the USA—if there was no more good vs. evil—then everything would come to a halt and we could all go shopping. That would be the end of history. But, as we’ve seen, all it takes is these much smaller minor conflicts, and maybe one or two ambitious groups, like an Al-Qaeda—or, for that matter, an internal economic collapse—to step on stage and kick-start the engines of history again. If part of EVE is watching for these emergent, unexpected, angular behaviors, then there’s no telling what might happen next.
BLDGBLOG: To go back to can mining briefly: your description made me wonder whether you might ever be playing a game that requires a certain behavior to win, but that behavior has absolutely no interest for you. It’s boring. But what if that game is Chinese, say, and the winning behavior for that game is something highly valued in Chinese culture—even though it leaves you basically wondering when the shooting begins. It’s incomprehensible that someone would actually want to do this. So it’s a kind of anthropological exchange through the embedded goals of gaming.
Rossignol: There is an element of that. Korean MMOs are seen as what’s called “grind-heavy,” in that they tend just to be about killing 50 floating eyeballs—and then you go off and kill 200 more, and then you move on to bats, or evil horses or something. It’s deeply repetitious, and there’s very little story. Some Korean MMOs—I think RF Online and ArchLord are probably the best examples—have stumped Western audiences, who have said, “Why are they so grind-heavy? Why are they so repetitious?”
I think there’s just a different philosophy for Korean developers. They want to create those games because they know that the players will spend time doing that. The high-end castle sieges and stuff have been invested in very heavily, long-term, by Korean players—it comes out of what Lineage did: huge castle sieges where you’d get hundreds of people, all fighting. I wonder whether that’s born out of their different gaming culture, where all 40 people who were fighting online in the castle siege would probably have been together in the same internet café. Whereas, in the West, it’s a much more solitary, single-player experience—like what you find in World of Warcraft, where it’s much more about the solo player’s experience.
[Image: A scene from Love by Eskil Steenberg].
BLDGBLOG: So if the sorts of user-generated structures you were describing are unique, at least for now, to EVE Online, do you think it’s something other people might start incorporating into their own games?
Rossignol: It’s a tough one. I think one of the main problems—and one of the reasons I’ve written so much about EVE—is that a lot of game designers who are making these games haven’t played EVE and they don’t understand the systems. It’s that traffic of ideas thing again: I think most people just don’t get it. They don’t understand why it works. It’s much easier to copy, say, World of Warcraft, which has quite a prescribed level structure—sort of “go and kill X number of monsters for X reward in money or experience points to continue to the next level up.” Game designers understand that a lot better.
EVE has been such an esoteric project anyway. The EVE computer cluster is one of the world’s supercomputers, and they’ve had to build this up over time to cope with the sheer number of people who are logging into a single world. The single galaxy model is such a big deal for them. I don’t think anything other than Second Life does the same thing. Any big commercial launch that tried to do the same thing would need to aim higher for more people to try to make more money, and, right now, that’s just not happening. I think where it’s most likely to come from is, in fact, going to be someone independent, starting very small like CCP did, and then slowly building it up over time.
There’s one developer operating at the moment who just programs things on his own—this guy called Eskil Steenberg. He’s sort of a graphical programming savant who used to be a tools programmer, and he’s now building his own tools to make his own world. He takes some similar ideas from EVE—it’s not quite the same, but his concept is basically city-building. It has a similar ethos, in that he wants players to build a lot of the content. They’ll be creating the architecture, creating the game world by being able to interact physically with the terrain. So he’s going to procedurally generate the landscapes, and then the players will have to build cities into them and then go out on quests to find stuff in the world, and bring that back to furnish the cities that they’ve built. It has a similar reliance on player productivity to make the game function.
I think that realizing that players want to work and want to invest in these things, and that they will put a lot of effort in over time, is probably the lesson that EVE has given to other game designers.
Have you seen LittleBigPlanet on the Playstation 3? The idea behind that is essentially that players can build their own levels. There are very simple tools—it allows you to cut-and-paste a world, and to import assets such as photos and so on. They’re relying on player creativity there to create game content.
[Image: Plug-In City by Archigram; meanwhile, check out The BLDGBLOG Book for an interesting, and previously unpublished, interview with Archigram’s Sir Peter Cook].
BLDGBLOG: One of the things I was doing while reading your book was trying to read the word “building” wherever you wrote “game.” In other words, every time you referred to user-generated content for a game, I was trying to imagine: could you do the same thing for a building? Could a building also have a built-in quest or goal? Could you have player-generated rooms and levels?
What’s interesting, though, is that once you start asking those questions you’ve basically just rediscovered the avant-gardes of the 1960s and 70s—where you had people like Archigram proposing plug-in architecture. You know, you’d show up in London with your own room and you would just plug it into an existing anchorage point on a building core near the Thames—it’d be a kind of user-generated utopia of temporary levels and rooms. That was the Archigramian vision of the city: I could bring my building, level, or room anywhere in the world and just plug it in to everyone else’s before eventually moving on. But what if I wanted to add a floor to the Empire State Building?
Anyway, what would user-generated content be in architecture? The most immediate thing that comes to mind is when you do things like geo-tagging, or immersive gaming, like cellphone gaming, where you chase someone through the Louvre based on cellphone signals—things like that. It seems, though, that user-generated content for architecture only exists through the digital world: you can have a temporary Google Maps mash-up that allows you to see who else is in Trafalgar Square with you—but that’s about as deep as it gets. Compare that, for instance, to showing up in London with your own Trafalgar Square. What might be called a gamer’s approach to architecture still has unrealized structural possibilities that might even allow that sort of thing to happen.
Rossignol: I think that’s born of the extent that architecture is often about preservation in urban environments. Isn’t that sort of the great frustration of architecture—that you can only ever put down small layers and make small changes? There can’t be a blank canvas—unless you’re building in the middle of the desert, on billions of dollars of oil money.
BLDGBLOG: That’s definitely part of the imaginative allure of cities like Dubai, Shanghai, and Beijing, even after the bust. There was, and perhaps still is, a real jealousy amongst architects, in the sense that China gets to do this but “we” don’t. You know, why is all this happening in Dubai and not Berlin?
Rossignol: That’s always been an interesting aspect to living in the UK, particularly where I live—Bath—which has an incredibly strict architectural theme. It’s all sandstone. Even modern buildings—they’re building a huge new shopping complex in the center of town—are built with sandstone in the Georgian style. Preservation lends a weird sort of museum air to a lot of the UK. Even where I live, outside of Bath, there are no new buildings—it’s all stone cottages and so on. But it can be quite complex: I love the fact that Bath is like that, and it’s very beautiful—but I’m also such a neophile. I like to see new buildings. I find the obsession towards heritage, and sustaining this mummified England, quite terrifying.
I can’t think whether it was an essay or a short story by the writer Will Self, but Self wrote about England as controlled by the National Trust. The National Trust is our core heritage organization that looks after stately homes and parks and so on. Self reimagines the UK as this fascist state where brown-shirted Heritage Police—the National Trust uniform is a brown shirt—are controlling the UK and not allowing any kind of change. I think that’s a splendid satirical image, and very telling about what it’s like to live here.
It’s also one reason why I love modern videogames: they are really heavy on architectural fantasies. They’re probably the best place to feel out a lot of that stuff. Sim City is obviously an amazing example of that.
BLDGBLOG: Yeah—there’s a funny gap between what people actually enjoy and what they feel is theoretically appropriate for their output as a designer. I’m referring to architects when I say that. I think that many students today, in order to be rigorous to the legacy of Le Corbusier, or to be rigorous to algorithmic design philosophies as laid down through a rereading of Gilles Deleuze in the mid-1990s, feel like they have to produce a certain kind of design—but then they go home and play a videogame, or watch a movie, or even read a fantasy novel or whatever, and they see these vast tree-cities, or old castles on cliffs, or Japanese pagodas the size of whole planets, or derelict mining spaceships, and they actually like that kind of architecture. But it’s exactly what they do not design in the studio. Of course, part of that is the fact that the physical realization of those sorts of ideas very quickly crosses over into kitsch, into the realm of the theme park: that’s Euro Disney or Busch Gardens. Or, for that matter, it’s Dubai.
But I do wonder about this. At the same time that it’d be ridiculous if San Francisco was rebuilt as a mock European village, I also wonder why I think that. Is there not a way to adapt fantasy architectures to the real-world without taking on the air of a kind of Walt Disney postmodernism?
There seems to be a very real sense that you have to design certain things, in a certain style, in order to demonstrate your seriousness as an architect—to the point that it might actually be that you’re out of touch with what you, yourself, desire and what you would actually want to build. I often wonder: do architects really enjoy these sprawling, biomorphic, 21st-century algorithmic buildings that look like huge webs of kudzu—or would they rather, just for kicks, design Dracula’s castle? It’s a question that doesn’t seem to be asked very often in architecture school.
[Image: A geological rethinking of Dracula’s castle, by a designer named Audit; from a recent Environment of the Week thread on ConceptArt.org].
Rossignol: I’d love to see figures for trained architects going into the videogame industry. I wonder how many of them actually are building castles and cities and so on.
BLDGBLOG: I’d love to see that number, too.
However, I’d like to reverse what I just said. Instead of asking: “Why aren’t architecture students designing the real world to look like a videogame?” It might be interesting if videogames started to use what are precisely not fantasy environments. For instance, at what point might architects stop putting out $100 coffee-table books that are only bought by libraries, and instead commission someone to design a game environment that features all of their buildings? It’d be a new kind of monograph. You buy the new Grand Theft Auto—but all the buildings are designed by Richard Rogers. It seems like you’ve got incredibly imaginative and very passionate people playing those games, so why not present your buildings to that audience? It seems like a missed opportunity.
Rossignol: I don’t know if you’ve seen Mirror’s Edge? That’s the one game recently that really made me think: wow, that’s a studio that’s paying attention and trying to use a specific architectural theme. The game is this perfect, controlled utopia, with whole cities full of pure white concrete skyscrapers. You also have these beautiful monochrome interiors, where everything is green or everything is orange. It’s a unique visual theme.
I’m hoping that kind of experimentation might push designers to create something that is more wholesale environment design, rather than lifting stuff either from the real world—or just trying to do Aliens again.
[Image: The architecture of Mirror’s Edge by Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment (DICE), from an article by Charlotte West published last month in Varoom. “What distances Mirror’s Edge from the murky visuals often associated with gaming is its sharper, more intricate imagery,” West suggests].
Thanks again to Jim Rossignol for taking part in the conversation!
For more, check out Rossignol’s This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities; his ongoing reviews at Rock, Paper, Shotgun are also always worth a look.
Thanks, as well, to Nicola Twilley for transcribing this interview.