This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.
“Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” — Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel”
Super Dodge Ball is an NES game in which the player takes control of an American dodgeball team and competes against other national teams on a journey around the world.* There is an English team–replace New York and the Statue of Liberty in the screenshot with London and the Tower Bridge–an Indian team, an Icelandic team, a Kenyan team, Team Japan, and, finally, a boss battle with Team USSR. You should watch the playthrough here if you want to see the game in action. Nintendo thought highly enough of the game to include it with the NES games on Nintendo Switch Online, which is where the screenshot comes from.
Odds are, if you played this game in 1989, you were familiar with Rocky IV, which debuted in 1985, and Top Gun, which came out a couple years later. You might have watched the 1988 Olympics, which were relatively drama-free following the political scrimmages surrounding the 1980 and 1984 games, but still drew huge audiences to a spectacle of nationalist competition. Maybe, inspired by the World Cup in 1990, you pulled the game down from the shelf to play through it again. That is something I would have done, substituting dodgeball for soccer to reenact the thrill of the television event. Maybe the looming Kremlin in the game’s final showdown flashed across your mind when the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR along with it. Super Dodge Ball probably sat on your shelf when the United States invaded Iraq for the first time in 1991.
Rocky IV, Top Gun, the Olympics, the World Cup, Super Dodge Ball (and other games like it), the fall of the Soviet Union, Operation Desert Storm. These things appear disconnected, but they were woven together in an intricate pattern, disparate phenomena contributing to a noumenon of nationalist triumph in the eye of the American beholder.
Set against world-historical events like wars and political collapse, cultural products like films and video games seem to speak with an infinitesimally small voice in the historical record. We should reconsider this point of view. Because these events take place out there in real time and space, the vast majority of people experience them passively. Movies, games, recorded music, and other cultural products occupy personal time and space. We experience them actively and use them to think through events.
For most Americans, the Soviet Union collapsed on the news. Americans who played Super Dodge Ball contributed to this collapse in their minds when they played the game. Along the way, they internalized certain ideas about difference, about strength, agility, and development. Many of these ideas were expressed spatially. Players have inhabited these spaces for more than thirty years.
“You’re branded, branded, branded, branded.” – Tom Peters
The first function of signcraft is branding.
Our time, incidentally, is the era of The Brand. The era of The Brand coincides with the rise of the internet. Branding existed before the internet—of course—but as our lives are almost completely mediated by screens now the brands surround us, assaulting our senses and needling their way into our thoughts from every direction, every surface. Even our relationships are subject to capital-B Branding. In 1997, business guru Tom Peters wrote, “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.” When we use the same tools, employ the same postures, and undertake the same motions to join a work meeting, find a date, chat with our friends, or order a meal, however, “to be in business” is synonymous with “to be alive.” The Era of the Brand is the Era of Business All the Time.
We are encouraged, therefore, to cultivate a “personal brand” which we can use to manipulate our friends, partners, employers, clients, and associates. After all, “the greatest success stories inevitably involve people who stand out from the crowd.” A recent business book argues that we live in a “new world of new rules” where “mobile phones and digital technology give even average people the chance to build a brand around themselves.” To erect a sign is to mark the earth with a brand. Hence this blog.
If branding is the first function of signcraft, narrative is the first function of branding. This example, a pylon sign for “The Flats” apartment complex, illustrates one of the ways in which narrative might be put to use. Brands are rarely honest, and this one is no different. This sign obscures.
First, the sign itself. Its high-waisted sans-serif fonts evoke a sort of friendly modernism at the nexus of art deco and children’s storybooks, while the bright colors spanning the spectrum from warm to cool signify a vibrant and diverse community. The architectural elements in the logo—the stairs, window, and doorway beneath the implied rooflines of the lettering—bring to mind a close-knit urbanism, like the Painted Ladies of San Francisco or the immigrant communities of old New York. Putting it all together, this sign implies that the community behind the sign is both urban and urbane, warm, vibrant, and modern.
What is behind the sign?
The architectural values of The Flats do not align with the implied values of the sign out front. Far from warm, vibrant urbanism, this array of hotel-style lodging perched on stilts above a parking lot is housing as a utility. Building on top of the parking lot is a clever use of space, but it cedes pride of place—the very footing upon the earth we all need to feel secure—to residents’ vehicles. In a city built to serve vehicles instead of people, at least this apartment complex and others like it completely surrender the earth to the cars. There is honesty, at least.
If architecture is meant to empower humans and shape their spirit through beauty and excellence, why do we relegate students living through the most formative years of their lives to the most utilitarian housing? Built and furnished with spartan commodities, colored with low-quality paints in neutral colors, student housing suggests to its inhabitants that home is something they will enjoy later. Now is time for something else. Landlords and designers would say it doesn’t make sense to spend more on student housing. The students won’t care. Worse, they will probably just damage the building, the furniture, and everything else. This is probably true. I’ve heard of students literally charging through the walls in their apartments playing football. They draw on the walls, clog the toilets, burn holes and spill drinks on the furniture. But how much of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, I wonder? Do students recognize that landlords, parents, and university administrators treat their housing like a utility and consume it accordingly?
Brands and their signs do important work to shape this complicated reality into a narrative. Student apartments here evoke fantasies of place and class—Tuscany Village, Villa Sienna, Chateau Deville, The Polos. Others evoke states of being—The Players’ Club, The Luxe, or, somewhat vaguely, Quantum. None of them match the stories they tell about themselves. This is what brands do because it is what humans do: name a thing, tell a story. But because these things are named and narrated to sell a product, and because the story these brands tell is meant to obscure the commodity relationship underlying one of the most fundamental part of a student’s life, the signs that tell those stories deserve critical attention.
In summary, The Flats is student housing. Its materials are bare commodities–vinyl siding and soffit, asphalt shingles, steel and concrete stairwells, steel piers—and the rich, vibrant colors on the sign are nowhere to be found. Beige, gray, off-white, and rust-red: this is American neutral, a building that withdraws from the eye and eludes memory. There are two ways to look at the reality behind the sign. On the one hand, it is a memory hole, a place that withdraws from mind and spirit so students can spend their time at home focused on other things. On the other hand, it is housing at minimum, a raw commodity meant to be rapidly consumed and forgotten, like a Big Mac or a rental car. Either way, reality belies the brand. The sign hides the thing signified. This sign is doing some heavy lifting.
This is the second entry in Signcraft, a series of posts looking at signs and the things they describe. You can read other Signcraft posts here.
You enter the facility through an abnormally large air vent in the bathroom. The vent hangs open over an empty bathroom stall. You can see, in the next stall over, a young soldier in a garishly green uniform. You take aim at his head, probably not thinking about his neatly pressed garrison hat at all as you peer over the sights of your silenced handgun. You fire a single shot, killing the young man instantly. You drop—silently, ever so–into the stall below, careful not to slip on the toilet looming beneath the vent. You kick open the door, gun poised, and fire two more mercifully silent bullets tsk tsk into the body of another soldier regarding his reflection in the mirror. If you are skilled, he is dead before he even realizes you’ve entered the room. His body slowly disintegrates until nothing remains. One more soldier cowers in a stall across the room. You kick open the door, gun blazing, and he is gone.
Now the bathroom is yours. You’re free to take in the surroundings.
The ceiling and walls are an unassuming gunmetal gray—a dark, damp concrete poured, no doubt, with a careful eye on the ledger book instead of the architect’s vision board. An economical white tile begins at eye-level, continuing onto the floor beneath your feet. A large service column divides the room into moieties, like restrooms you’ve seen in a truck stop or rest area. There are sinks set into the outer walls. They are bare-bones fixtures; stainless steel, no flourishes to arrest the eye or introduce a measure of warmth to the fluorescent cold. Opposite the sinks there are urinals bolted in the recessed wall of the service column. Perhaps an elevator or chimney shares the column with the plumbing. Perhaps if you waited long enough you would hear the inner workings of the facility behind these spartan walls. Unlike the soldiers guarding this facility—two of whom will never live, laugh, or love again—you won’t be spending a great deal of time in this restroom. You are merely passing through.
You are not an assassin or spy. Perhaps you are a student, in fact. You could be a cashier, a mechanic, maybe a teacher. But for a few nights a week, especially if you were alive around the year 1998, you may have spent a lot of time here or somewhere nearby. This is the opening scene in a level of the classic first-person shooter video game GoldenEye. The rest of the level, like the rest of the game, is full of similarly constructed spaces: offices, archives, corridors, laboratories, guard towers, missile silos, control rooms, closets, warehouses, a naval vessel, even a radio telescope. More than anything else, in fact, GoldenEye is characterized by space–by hundreds of spaces, each designed with care and constructed from raw materials and assembled through a combination of logic and skill. The facility in GoldenEye is a building. Its designers were architects.
If architecture is a way of shaping the human experience by shaping the spaces in which it unfolds, we must include video games in this category. We spend so much time there. My first exposure to a personal computer unfolded in the corridors of the Castle Wolfenstein nearly thirty years ago. I remember spending hours exploring the dungeons, hallways, banquet rooms, guard rooms, on and on, spellbound by the castle’s winding corridors, by its secrets. I’ve been back many times.
I still feel that sense of immersion and awe I experienced as a child. I’ve passed more time in the world of Wolfenstein and GoldenEye than the lavish spaces of the colleges and universities I’ve attended. I remember the facility bathroom in GoldenEye better than the restrooms at my middle school. If those schools are works of architecture, so is the facility.
GoldenEye is designed as a series of spaces through which the player navigates, but all video games—even card games, board games, and puzzles—are primarily spatial. They draw us into the action unfolding on the screen, compelling us through the strength of their design to withdraw from the space in which the screen is situated. Unlike television or movies, however, they invite us to interact with that space, to inhabit it and make changes.
Unlike movies or television, then, we should criticize and praise video games, perhaps glory in them, just as we would a work of architecture. We live in these spaces. We socialize there. If we view Zoom, Teams, and similar software as gamified work platforms, we work and go to class in these virtual spaces as well. As more of our life moves from physical to virtual spaces, the architectural aspect of video games—their ability to shape how we feel about ourselves and how we interpret the world—is more significant than it has ever been. It is worth exploring some of the many electronic spaces we inhabit in more detail.
Similar to other recurring features I’ve been launching lately, I will explore these virtual spaces on the pages of this blog by posting screenshots and recordings from the games I play along with personal or critical essays. Hopefully I’ll hear from you along the way! Feel free to comment below. I welcome thoughts and suggestions for spaces to explore.
You land on a strange “installation” and there are a few moments of silence for you to take in this unique world. After a quick look around at the clearing where your shuttle crash-landed, you make your way across a narrow bridge high above a bubbling stream. To the right, the stream cascades down a well-beaten course cut through a precipitous rocky valley. To the left, this. This expanse of land, water and sky slicing the inky vastness of space. There is a dialectic of sublime beauty and precarious terror in this space. You feel as though you could peer into the cumulus distance for hours, exclaiming at the wonder of it all like Bernal Diaz del Castillo and his murderous crew of invaders. They felt as alien in Tenochtitlan as you feel in this place. The only choice, though, is to pass through an evergreen grove up the rough path leading toward the source of the stream. There is gunwork ahead, unfortunately.
What I want to suggest, in this and future posts about video game spaces, is that games are a new design commons — a new public architecture that we should take just as seriously as we do “real” spaces. We inhabit games for longer periods of time than we inhabit most public spaces. I’ve spent more time running around the archives level on GoldenEye than I have spent in church; far more time driving around the virtual streets of San Andreas than riding the subway in New York City. All of these spaces were shaped by human hands and minds for humans to inhabit.
I also hope to think through some of the design problems inherent in games. These are not democratic spaces, for example, and they are not free in any sense of the word. Burning electricity instead of calories, too, may not be sustainable for our bodies or the planet. As in Halo, violence is the dark centerpiece of most video game spaces, as well. What cultural work are these costly, undemocratic, and violent realms performing? Are we designing and inhabiting beautiful hellscapes?
I’ll share spaces in games here when the inspiration strikes. I hope you can use them to question your assumptions about architecture, landscape, and industrial design, as I am. At the very least, I hope that you can appreciate their beauty and the skill that goes into designing and building them.
The Grove is a historic house that has been converted into a museum in midtown Tallahassee. It stands, behind a screen of stately oaks, next to a busy intersection amid attorney’s offices, stores, and restaurants. The mercury was hovering around 100° F when I visited recently, and the traffic on Monroe Street nearby was raging, but the Grove was like an oasis of shaded calm. The staff offer tours of the home at the top of every hour, and visitors are free to walk the grounds and soak up some peace before heading back out into the busy capital city. Check out the Governor’s Mansion next door if you have a few minutes to gawk. Though the Governor’s Mansion is not open to the general public, it is possible to schedule a tour during the legislative session.