Games for architecture

Computer Games in Architectural Design

Peter Fröst, Michael Johansson and Peter Warrén

Space & Virtuality Studio. The Interactive Institute, SE-205 06 Malmö, Sweden

Key words: Architectural design process, VR computer games, design tool, creative environment



The goal of the project presented in this paper is to explore the possibilities to use modern computer games in architectural design and integrate them with easy-to-use modeling tools, in order to facilitate some of the features available in the technically advanced, cheap and wide spread computer games. The project has its point of departure in the observation that several modern real-time computer game engines (Quake, Half-Life etc) are advanced 3D/Virtual Reality simulation tools. They provide the possibility to interact in a multi user environment (over the Internet) and there are good modeling software supporting the games available for free. We have tried the computer game Half-Life integrated with an easy-to-use architectural modeling tool for visualizations, as a multi user environment accessible over Internet and in student projects as a creative environment in architectural design exercises. In this paper are observations and conclusions from different case studies presented. The results are promising and show that modern computer games in combination with other tools can be a very efficient in collaborative architectural design processes.


Tools for architectural design

Our research is aiming at develop and integrate advanced visualization technology into the architectural design process by application of digital tools such as 3D modeling and Virtual Reality. Our focus is primarily on projects where users are actively engaged and a participatory or collaborative approach to design is practiced. A collaborative architectural design framework is presented in the Process Architecture approach by the SPORG Group at MIT (Horgen et al., 1999). Here possibilities to work with a broader sense of design artifacts as muck-ups and design games and the art of using a variety of tools for design have been developed. (Hornyansky-Dahlholm, 1998) at Lund Institute of Technology has described examples of the use of visualization and full scale modeling in participatory architectural design. The usability of Virtual Reality in participatory design has been investigated and developed by Roy Davies and the Design@Work group in Sweden (Davies R, 2000). An outline for www based software for participatory architectural design is outlined in (Cimerman 2000).

Computer Games in Architectural Design

The rapid technological and artistic development in the game industry compared with the more military/industrial oriented professional VR market is a challenge to research. At Martin Center, Cambridge University (UK), a model of a complete building (10,000 sq.m), built on a computer game Quake platform, has been built and published on the Internet. (Paul Richens, Michael Trinder, 1999). Our group has also followed the development of the VRML standard for communicating 3D models on the Internet. Both these tracks has in more than one way led us to the conviction that there are alternative paths away from the “professional standard” to work with Virtual Reality and 3D as design- and communication tools in architectural design. Modern real-time computer game engines (Quake, Half-Life etc) are advanced 3D/Virtual Reality modeling and representation tools. They provide rich graphical environments where “physical” persons/bodies interact in a multi user environment (over the Internet). They are wide spread, cheap and easy accessible and can be used on a “standard” PC. Advanced modeling tools are available for free. The game technology develops and improves very fast through commercial and non-commercial processes (there is a whole Internet community working hard, sharing information). It is easy to learn and fun to use, that means stimulates creativity and fast learning. We selected the game Half-Life because it is very open with a SDK available for free. It is very easy to set up and manage your own server. It also supports different kind of level editors such as Worldcraft and Quark, which are both good modeling tools. The method of building libraries with prefabs makes it easy to customize for every session and objects can easily be reshaped and exchanged.

HardHat Designer

Our research goal is to integrate our experiences from user participation in collaborative architectural design using VR Cave technology (Fröst, Warrén 2000) into a digital modeling and VR-visualization tool based on Half-Life. We have therefore developed a prototype to a quick and easy design tool together with a student in Interaction Technology at Malmö University Collage. It is an extremely “easy to use” digital modeling tool called “HardHat Designer”. Here you can move around and build your own environment with elements and furniture on a 2D surface. By a single mouse click the 2D layout will “immediately” be transferred to a lightened 3D/Virtual Reality world in Half-Life. You are only able to build and modify in 2D.

The virtual world in which you build is designed as a laboratory, with fixed ceiling height. Its size can be varied according to task. In the laboratory you have a set of different building elements. You can divide the space with walls in four different lengths plus window and door and you can furnish it with eight items of chairs, sofas, tables etc. The furniture in this early version of the program was chosen directly out of Half-Life:s standard, rather game-looking library. As a way to present integrated technology in the world, a set of eight prefabricated “placeholders” is available. That is simple geometric figures in different shape and size, from a Palm Pilot to a TV set, which can be used freely. The application is written totally in Java, which we find to be a good tool for rapid development of small systems. The language also offer access to a huge number of different software libraries witch provide the opportunity to, in a simple way, add extra functionality and reuse code.

Experiment cases

Half-Life – a creative environment

Last year (2000) we investigated how you could use Half-Life in communicating certain moods and feelings in architectural design. In a master class in Interaction Design at Malmö University Collage we started our first Half-Life project. The commission was to build a room or a “world” in Half-Life that communicated a certain mode or feeling. After a 2 days “crash course”, the students were able to build for 8 – 10 days and construct their own worlds, add textures, interactivity, and lightning. The overall impression by the students was that the editor (Worldcraft 2.2) wasn’t hard to learn but had the computers “go mad” at first. But as the students gained experience the crashes came more seldom and in the end they actually felt that they could work around most of the shortcomings of the editor. They found that when they got a grip of the editor, it was fun an engaging to work with. At the presentation the students where allowed to “play” each others world and make notes of what feeling they experienced inside the other students worlds. To our surprise about 80% of the student manage to communicate their intentions.

This year (2001) the exercise was repeated with the extension that the student had to write a reflective text about their first contact with the Half-Life community. This was part of a second evaluation of the Half-Life environment as a design-tool. The demands for improved graphic capabilities were very clear in this group of students. Also the need of tools for working with more organic shapes was a shortcoming. To compensate for this, some of the students went in another direction by making the environments more interactive and dynamic by using sound, music and opponents to support their “mode”. The introduction of movement features as ice-skating, sneaking & spying and the body as DJ clearly points out what architectonic possibilities a virtual environment like Half-Life, which allow the users to experiment with expanded aspects of spatial design and interaction, maintain.

Scenario workshop with HardHat Designer

HardHat Designer was first externally used together with a group of High-tech companies in a scenario workshop with the goal to design different technology integrated workspaces under the theme “Office of the Future”. The task was to sketch on technical and spatial solutions, which could support the office work in the future. Participants came from several different invited companies. The participants were divided into three cross groups, which were given the assignment to present a story within a collectively predefined theme, and design a spatial solution for that story. After some introductory discussions, the groups were offered to try the HardHat Designer to visualize their ideas. The actual modeling was circulated within the group so that they all could try “hands-on”. The possibility to immediately view what you had done in 3D/VR was much appreciated and widely used, there was a constant shift between 2D and 3D/VR representations. The 3D/VR mode was used for evaluation of what was built in 2D but also immediately generated a lot of new ideas, which then was executed in 2D.

The HardHat Designer session lasted for about one hour. After that a presentation was carried out on a large screen display. The persons who made the presentations where placed in front of a large projection of the virtual spaces they just had modeled. They could immediately interact with a Virtual Reality/Half-Life world in scale 1:1 of the scenario they just had designed. They could navigate around freely in the world and show the rest of the participants all the spatial arrangements and where they had placed and integrated the technology in their scenarios.

Design workshop with Multi-user interaction.

A second workshop was performed with a Real-estate Company together with one of its tenants (an R&D Company housed in a traditional office building). After a series of preparing exercises the task here was to use HardHat Designer to model a section of their work environment that had earlier in the workshop been identified as having a need for change. Within this section spatial reorganizations, based in the earlier collaborative discussions, where outlined. Before this second workshop the HardHat Designer where changed and improved in some ways. The surface or “playground” on which you build in 2D could now easily be varied in size up to 80 x 120 meters. You could also display a grid with a ruler. The Half-Life furniture where changed for a set of new more realistic modern furniture.

The participants worked together two persons in each group. They had a hard copy of the actual floor plan as point of departure and started with making a 3D model based on that. The exercise lasted for about two hours. During this time the groups (unskilled in 3D modeling) managed to schematically build workspaces of about 3-400-sq.m, furnish them and in some cases change and even add new rooms. One of the groups executed three different alternatives of the same space. The modeled Half-Life worlds were then displayed on the wall and used at the presentation session to present the proposal from each group about how to change and improve their work environment.

After the workshop the participants and others had access to the worlds on a Half-Life server over the Internet. There the workshop participants, their colleagues who had not attended the workshop, the research team and others could meet, look around and discuss (in Half-Life there is a text chat feature available for simple messages on line) the outcome from the design exercise in a multi user environment.


In our test cases we found that game based VR is a usable tool in architectural design processes: It is possible to use a simple “freeware” game editor and with nearly no computer experience communicate both spatial information and more complicated issues as moods and feelings. A 2D-based rapid modeling tool, HardHat Designer, integrated with a real-time computer game 3D/VR engine, was efficient and easy to use. Totally untrained persons were able to build rather complex furnished and lightened workspaces within short time limits.

Our conclusion is that the way you move around in virtual architectural space is important. The subjective viewpoint and the feeling that you are an actual body in space which are provided in for example Half-Life, are of great importance, especially if you are in a multi user world. The way in which you bump into the environment and a little instability in the first person view (since it tries to simulate the body moving) is also very relevant to the experience of the environment itself.

In the experiment workshops the design tool showed to be effective for expanding ideas and gain a better understanding of the design task. The tool was fun and stimulating to use, promoted innovative thinking and in that way activated the design process. The test cases with HardHat Designer, which the participant made as collaborative design events, expanded and changed the outcome of the exercises. There were observable differences between the list of qualities, which was formulated orally or in written form before the modeling sessions, and the final presented results. Our conclusion is that this is due to the fact that the actual design of the virtual spaces forced the participants to combine different ideas, negotiate and prioritize. In this way the design tool deepened the understanding of the complexity of space and in that way made the result much better. During the relatively short exercises all participating groups succeeded in building rather elaborated spatial configurations, which were innovative and had managed to integrate space and technology in a meaningful way.

The design dialogue was promoted in several ways. By presenting 2D and VR visualizations, the design tool provided a “holding ground and negotiation space” (Hendersson, 1999) which you could argue about and discuss, and in that way invited to a dialogue between the participants. The possibility to display the virtual worlds in real time on a big screen made it possible, during the presentations, to interact with the scenarios and walk around and show the worlds from several different viewpoints. It made the ideas easier to communicate and trigged a lot of comments and reactions from the rest of the participants in the workshops. The multi-user function clearly added communication quality. The possibility to revisit the built worlds in a multi-user environment on the Internet gave a new reflective distance to the outcomes from the engaging design sessions. Now several persons, who had not been involved in the collaborative design work, went into “your” worlds and interacted and made comments to your design. They acted as a second pair of eyes and in that way enhanced the multitude of expressed ideas in the process.

The detailing and visual quality of the 3D/VR worlds generated from HardHat Designer seems to be adequate for the chosen tasks. The few negative comments from users mainly concerned furniture design and lack of daylight. Half-Life seems to be designed primarily for interiors and a “garage” character was apparent in some of the built worlds. Despite this, an important quality in the Half-Life VR environment is the ability to very quickly produce spaces that is artificially lighted. Light has the power to make spatial representations “come alive” without having to overload them with irrelevant detailing. The 3D/VR spaces in our examples were regarded as very understandable and to have character by the participants, although the walls and furniture indeed was very simple.

Future work

Our next step is to develop a more integrated application, called “ForeSite Designer”, which could be used as an “easy to use“ interface to different 3D/VR applications. The goal is to keep the user interface in an extremely simple way, and only add some minor improvements that we identified through our test cases. The need of making quick drawings and in an easy way visualize them in 3D/VR, is something that we will need in the future. The problem right now is that we have to change sketch tools every time we want to use another visualization tool.

We are also aiming at visually develop the laboratory in which we build our worlds. For example with a tailored library of specially designed parts and furniture, further integrate the multi-user function in the design process and experiment with colors and the level of detail in each scene. In that endeavor we would like to do some testing with non-realistic textures and lightning in different environments, for example design a day lighted laboratory.


Johan Torstensson, student in Interaction Technology at Malmö University Collage, Sweden: For developing the HardHat Designer in a student project where Peter Fröst and Peter Warrén where tutors.


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