Academic Outlook: How Game Design Can Change Architecture

Chris Totten was playing video games when he started thinking about what game design could teach architecture. He hooked up with a level designer at Valve and explor
Chris Totten was playing video games like Half-Life when he first started thinking about how principles of game design and fun could be applied to the discipline of architecture. On a whim, he sent an email to Valve Corporation, and luckily enough, found a level designer who was uniquely interested in his ideas. The result of his investigation is his thesis for his Master of Architecture degree, which GameCareerGuide has just made available, alongside the story of how Totten connected with Chris Chin at Valve. In this excerpt, Totten explains how he first initiated contact: “After learning about their design methods from reading ‘The Cabal: Valve’s Process for Creating Half-Life,’ I became interested in Valve Corporation and how they create user experiences within space. I bought a copy of The Orange Box during the spring of 2008 and played through each of the included games, keeping a journal on the concepts and experiences I found in each game. Eventually finding the developer commentary included in Half-Life 2: Episode II, I knew I had another valuable resource at my disposal. To my surprise, Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve, includes his email in the introductory comment in each game with the assurance that he, ‘may not respond to every message, but does read all of them.’ Taking a shot in the dark, I contacted him and was lucky enough to have him not only read my message but forward my email to Chris Chin, a level designer at the company who had practiced architecture for nineteen years. Chin contacted me during the summer and expressed an interest in my project, describing a similar outlook on architecture and an eagerness to see game engines used as tools for architectural visualization that allows clients walk through their own buildings instead of having architects prescribe paths in 3D walkthrough movies (an element of my own graduate concentration.) Having only truly worked in the architectural design industry (with game design being a hobby of mine), Chin’s input gave me an important perspective for how my work could include in-the-industry game design techniques. Working together, we discussed the types of experiences that Valve and other game designers create, and how those could be recreated in real-world architecture.” The thesis is titled “Game Design and Architecture,” and was completed for the Master of Architecture degree at The Catholic University of America School, School of Architecture and Planning, Washington D.C. The complete story of how the thesis came to be, as well as a PDF download of the full document, is available on

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