Sure. My name is Geoff Manaugh. I am 41 and currently live in Los Angeles, where I just moved after six years in Brooklyn, New York.
I sometimes joke that writing about architecture is like a Venn diagram -- that, at the center of all of my interests, I can find architecture. You know, if I was interested in abandoned cities or lost ruins, archaeology, and that kind of thing, there's a way to write about archaeology from the point of view of buildings and architecture. Or if I was interested in warfare, or what might be happening with U.S. military actions overseas, there was a way to write about that from an architectural point of view, whether it’s the physical damage caused or the way the U.S. constructs its bases. Those are architectural questions.
I'm also an avid reader. I love science-fiction and horror, even detective fiction, and one of the things that interests me there is the use of architecture, as well. There's the trope of the haunted house or the blasted landscapes of Gothic horror or of H.P. Lovecraft or that kind of thing. Even the fantastic visions of future utopias or dystopias that you find in science-fiction. It seemed like that there was a way to write about that by writing about it through the lens of architecture. I could go on and on.
I'm currently writing a book with my wife, who's also a writer, about the subject of quarantine. Quarantine is a spatial practice where you separate one thing from another to prevent infection or contamination. And so, at heart, that's an architectural undertaking. You're separating someone. You're putting them in different rooms or different buildings or different cities. By writing about that topic, which is about medical safety and medical isolation, there is nonetheless an architectural angle. I guess I'd say that it's that kind of thing that draws me to the topic. That's why I'm interested in space and cities, and how those are both used.
And that, of course, circles around to games. I've written about some stealth and heist games from the point of view of how burglars use architecture or, for that matter, misuse architecture, where architecture is the thing that stands in the way between them and what they really want. How that question is cast in game environments just seemed really interesting to me. That was another thing that came out while writing A Burglar's Guide to the City.
So, I mean, when you mention this Venn diagram -- maybe you can't separate out the distinct parts of it in your interests. But does that come from a belief, your interest in architecture, that it's in the middle of that Venn diagram that all parts of culture reflect the whole? Or is it just that you're really, really into architecture?
Well, I'd say it's actually something more like, if you take a topic, you can really find an architectural or at the very least spatial angle at the center. Or, at the very least, is somewhere in the topic that you're interested in. So, you know, we've talked about medicine through quarantine and pandemics and that kind of thing but also horror-fiction and military activity overseas and science-fiction novels. The fact that you can find an architectural angle to it, to me, is almost like a Where's Waldo? kind of thing. It's actually a fun intellectual challenge to take a topic and find some sort of architectural or infrastructural angle. It adds almost a game-like enthusiasm to the process of writing about this stuff because, you know, "How can I find the architectural angle?” Reading a random article in The New York Times or reading a novel or watching a new blockbuster action film: Is there some way to write about that from an architectural angle?
But I guess to get back to your question, it's almost like a forensic analysis. You can deduce the things that a society holds important based on the kinds of buildings it lives surrounded by and produces. You can look at either the housing here in Los Angeles or the lack of it for that matter, or the kinds of skyscrapers that are popping up in these Middle Eastern boom cities and what that says about the how they view the future. I do think that you can start with architecture and work back to some of these things, to show that it is a good gauge for these larger conversations. It's like reading the temperature of a society at any given moment: What are the things that it's building?
So, we don't need to tie all your responses back to videogames. But just to address it up top: Yeah, I mean, Burglar's Guide does mention a few games as you just said, and we emailed a little bit about this, but what is your general awareness of videogames? Like, "videogame industry" and "videogame culture," when I say those words, what does that conjure up in your mind, if anything?
Well, I guess I'd say I'm somewhere between -- I'm kind of like an informed outsider, I guess I'd say. I know a little bit about the gaming world, so I'm not a total newbie. And yet, at the same time, I'm definitely by no means a seasoned vet of playing, you know, even entire platforms let alone families of different games and that kind of thing. I've never even played Call of Duty, to use a particular cultural touchstone.
But games are something that I was raised playing, albeit, primarily because of my age, mostly text games like Zork and all of the Infocom games that were coming out in the mid-'80s when I was growing up and we first got a computer in the house. But, obviously, I'm drawn to games like Monument Valley, which is almost a cliché in the architecture world, but at the same time it specifically prioritizes spatial thinking as a way to navigate each game level. I think there's something really great about that. I tend to gravitate to those types of games.
Yeah. Well, I mean, I guess the way to get at this is: Do videogames feel stuck on emulating real places? Like you just mentioned Monument Valley. But I'd be curious to hear -- do you feel like when it comes to videogames, do they feel overly fixated on what we already know versus exploring what is uniquely possible in videogames with space?
Well, I guess I'd say insofar as when a game comes along that challenges that approach and has a different form of navigation or deals with moving between game levels in a different way, those tend to stand out precisely because they're anomalies. And so, there's a couple games that -- now that we're talking about this -- I wish I had looked up before we hopped on Skype here. But you know, games that play with depth perception so that when objects viewed from a certain perspective radically change their function in the game when you as the player move around that object. I've seen attempts to play with that kind of thing, which I think is fascinating -- perspective, depth perception, object orientation. Those are really strange ways to navigate a game world and it seems like those are pretty rare or at least few and far between. Whereas, the first-person approach, for example, seems so ingrained now.
So, I do think there are opportunities for spatial navigation and depiction that aren't being explored and could be in a really interesting way. I can't speak for the entire industry, obviously, just because of my lack of familiarity with every conceivable game out there but I do think there's a priority on the idea of the sole person alone in a landscape moving forward through that landscape. There seems to be a real fixation on that. You know, I think it's a holdover from cinematic culture and the representation of how we move through environments in that regard. But maybe that's something to talk about later.
Hmm. Are there ways architecture has influenced videogames that you think maybe aren't articulated or people just aren't aware of?
Well, I do think that, in general, the built environment definitely gives people new ideas for how to shape game environments. I think from people I've spoken with in the gaming world and people who do level design, they're always looking for new architectural ideas and going back to some of the classics like Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Italian engraver who was famous for his atmospheric, shadowy speculative prisons and ruined cities. They're really, really imaginatively vital. All the way up to the present day, where you've got architects like Zaha Hadid or even some of the British high-tech architects like Norman Foster and Nicholas Grimshaw and Richard Rogers producing architecture that inspires people to think in terms of what the city of the future might look like with elevator shafts on the outside of buildings or huge cantilevers or a really dramatic use of steel and glass. So, I do think that there's a way that architecture is giving ideas to level designers.
The key here, though, that I think would be more interesting would be not just the visual depiction of what a city is supposed to look like, but playing with how we navigate space in the first place. That's one of the reasons why why the heist genre is exciting because it doesn't just say, "Hey, here's a building and this is how you get from one room to the other." It says, "Here is an environment and you now have to solve the environment." You have to realize that going through a wall instead of down a corridor is the way to go. Or you have to go down through the floor and up again into the next room instead of just using a door. I think that that way of undermining the architectural expectations is really interesting. And that's even before you get to stranger ways of navigating.
There was a famous -- I shouldn't say "famous," but there was a game that got a lot of attention on architecture blogs a couple years ago that was played by moving forward into a totally white, empty environment but you were shooting paintballs forward and as the paintballs hit walls, they would reveal where the corridors went and where there were junctions or where you had to turn left or right. That’s such a visually strange way of navigating the environment. It would be compelling to think about other ways of using that sort of left-field approach to get people to genuinely think about how they're moving through the environment and not just making it shine like a sci-fi city.
Oh, right. That's The Unfinished Swan, which was actually a student project.
Well, when you think about videogames, they are sort of this Eastern export that has been imported to the West. I wonder: Are there ways you have noticed Eastern and Western sensibilities about space meeting and mingling maybe without even realizing it in videogames?
That's interesting. I would say that that's one of the questions I'm not quite qualified to address: cultural differences between the East and the West. I would, though, hypothetically or speculatively, say that one of the things that came out while writing the Burglar's Guide was the interesting transformability of traditional Japanese architecture, where turning one room into three rooms was as easy as closing a screen. Or opening up an entire house so it all appears to be an outdoor veranda was, again, as easy as pulling screens out of the way and changing the entire internal layout of a building. I think that that type of literally hands-on transformability is really interesting and is something that we really don't have in terms of "Western" architecture.
You know, you see fragments of that popping up in places like Los Angeles modernism or even in Australia, where you have huge glass walls that are almost like garage doors that can be opened to create a partially indoor-outdoor sitting area. But there's nothing like that internal reconfigurability that is in the standard Western home design. You see it a little bit in the corporate fantasy open-plan office where you're meant to just put up a cubicle and next thing you know you've got a totally different kind of workplace. You know, but those are psychologically kind of terrorizing for the workers who are stuck in these open-cubicle offices.
And then, of course, you see it in military architecture. You know, where the idea is you can just air drop a couple crates into the middle of nowhere and next thing you know, you have an infinitely reconfigurable space that can be fortified or de-fortified or moved around internally to turn bunks into a mess hall.
In any case, that's a very long-winded way of saying I'm not necessarily sure I'm qualified to say whether or not those are Western or Eastern characteristics, but I would say that that sort of everyday ability to alter one's environment with something that stands out in traditional Japanese architecture -- and that's such an interesting way to approach the built environment that I'd love to see more of that. How that has influenced game design I think would actually be just an open question that would be interesting to discuss with others.
I think this is gonna just come down to personal opinion, but I would be interested to hear you talk about how being lost in the real world is different from being lost in a videogame world. By "lost," I don't mean immersed, but you don't know where the hell to go and you're just disoriented.
Well, I'd say it works in both directions. On one level I think it's less terrifying to be lost in a game world because it isn't actually you. You know, there isn't the genuine sense that you might be stuck here all night or that you might freeze to death or be mugged or you simply have no idea how to get home again. There's a feeling of playfulness to it instead of a feeling of existential threat. Yet, on the other hand, one of the things I think is exciting about getting lost in a game world versus the real world can be that the literal point of the game world is that there is something happening here that you're meant to figure out. There's an end point or a goal, a puzzle. I think that lends what you're seeing a kind of narrative urgency that the real world can often lack, because you realize, "There's something I'm missing here. Either I'm not seeing the correct doorway to get out of this room or I am simply not solving the puzzle as it has been presented to me perhaps because I can't even see the puzzle yet." It heightens your attention and makes you realize that someone has designed this specifically for you and you being lost is part of the experience.
I think the other experience of being lost in a city lacks that that, "Is there a goal that I'm meant to solve in order to get out of here?" It's more, like, "How the hell do I find the right bus station."
“Can I follow the sun to the west and maybe that will lead me back to the right avenue?” That kind of thing. It’s a different way of reading the signs. I think that's quite interesting. To put this in the terms of architecture again: The alternative would be a prison break. In that case, you are actually trying to escape a building and you're trying to figure out, "Okay, where does this water pipe lead? Does it go into a corridor behind the wall or a maintenance room behind the wall that I can somehow access myself? If I follow the pipe, will it take me to the edge of the prison?" The prison itself becomes part of the game -- a lived, real game environment that you're trying to solve. I feel like that that type of interpretive experience isn't present in everyday navigation of cities. I don't know how in the world you would build that into cities so that people feel more excited about being lost. [Laughs.]
But you do see people writing about that in the architecture world at least as far back as the 1960's where you have the Situationists and you have other kind of avant garde theorists proposing that we should redesign cities to be more like games of navigation where you actually do have some sort of challenge and you can pay attention to the built environment in a way that, in the present day, we would just simply equate with solving or playing a videogame.
What do you make of that?
If by "that" you mean redesigning cities to be --
Yes. Not so much the practicalities of it but just sort of the idea of it.
Well, I think it sounds exciting. I don't know what it would look like and I'm afraid that at least in the present American context it would just come off as some ham-fisted, corporate gamification of the everyday environment. Like, go to this store and get six points. You could imagine Walmart or CVS or any number of different retailers grabbing onto this and mistaking their attempt to dupe consumers as a form of play. That's what I would be worried about.
But if there was a genuine cultural way to do that kind of thing, that would be thrilling. I mean, I don't know, it's the kind of thing where even here in Los Angeles there are a couple of neighborhoods that are linked by these -- I want to call them "secret" staircases, but they're not secret at all. It's just that most people don't know about them. But there are these stairs that go through Silver Lake, for example, and you can get from one street to the next by going back behind people's property, where the stairs branch off and lead to other stairs. Those are pretty small, minor presences in the built environment, but they do add a feeling of discovery and play in an interesting way. That kind of thing, which isn't corporate sponsored and doesn't rely on any kind of dungeon-master figure to try to give you a clue of where to go, is still a fun little detail of the city that gives it a feeling of game-like play.
Well, so, based on your knowledge of videogames and what you do see and what you've read about and what you've played, how do you feel space affects the stories that are told in games? Or how do they not?
I guess I'd go back to Monument Valley, where the space is the story. Again, I'm obviously drawn to things like that, where literally what you're being asked to do is to figure out different ways for the architecture to be rearranged and then once you've solved that in a really M.C. Escher-like way, that's when you can move onto the next level.
I do think that what's interesting is a rise of an almost like an art history of videogames where you see so much enthusiasm amongst people on blogs or comment threads talking about the scenography of what they've experienced, so, really beautiful planetary renderings from a sci-fi game or amazing buildings in the background of some sort of multiplayer fantasy videogame. I think the attention to that backdrops is almost the way it would have been for a different generation going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and looking at the landscape paintings from the Hudson River School or romantic paintings from the Alps. I think there’s a sense of awe and almost majesty that is captured in the background of some of these games. Even speaking to a couple friends of mine, who have worked on level design, the attention they pay to everything, even boulders, geology, and how rocks form over time, or the difference between metamorphic rocks and sedimentary rocks and how to render those in a videogame environment, I think shows that these sorts of details are important.
I guess the example that flies in the face of this is the No Man's Sky debacle where the whole -- you know, for two or three years everybody was talking this thing up as if it was the most exciting, infinite example of game design and romantic beauty and all of these different planets and seas and mountains and forests and all of the things that we could experience through digital rendering. And then when it came out everybody was like, "Nevermind." [Laughs.] It was kind of like when you meet someone who doesn't like hiking. It was like, "What the hell am I doing out here?"
"It's another beautiful planet but there's nothing to do.” So, that's an interesting counterexample. Like, you still need plot and narrative and goals.
Yeah. And I think those were man-made algorithms -- some sort of symbiosis or collaboration between just pure algorithmic generation and human curation I think would have benefited it.
But that's a whole other separate thing. Or maybe not. I mean, what did you make of that escape that people -- 'cause maybe that game more than any other sort of demonstrates some sort of desire to escape into videogames. You know, into fake space, basically. Like, what does that say about who we are as humans that for years, people follow this plotline of this product being hyped up of however -- what is it, 81 quintillion planets or something?
Is it that people have fantasies of being astronauts or does it say something else about us and what we expect from space? Which, I mean, fake space and also the space online where --
Yeah, yeah. Totally. I think it says all of the above, but I think a couple trends came together. One was the sense that -- I feel we're, as a culture, there seems to be a collective sense of impatience to finally experience true artificial intelligence, to see a created, thinking being in the world revealed to us. This is such an old fantasy. Arguably, it goes back all the way to ancient Christianity and Gnostic and esoteric religious beliefs. But it certainly at least goes back to the 1980's with the notion of a Tron-like fantasy of complete immersion in a world created by a machine intelligence. I do think that No Man's Sky had some of those expectations tied up in it, which is the fantasy that we have tapped into a super-intelligence and that we will use algorithms and AI to create so many planets that we could explore this space forever. I think it felt like, "My God, it's finally here. This is the machine world. This is the Skynet. This is The Matrix."
"This is the thing that we've always talked about." But you know, it's produced these gorgeous landscapes for us to explore.
Yeah. I mean, it goes deeper than that, too, because in that game, the AI actually -- I wrote a thing about this -- assembles the soundtrack on the fly, too. There's a lot of really interesting, weird stuff going on in there.
But, as you said, I think you're right -- videogames are continuing on in this cinematic tradition. Do you have examples off the top of your head of movies that showcase architectures well? Not just cool shots of architecture but other things like Die Hard but not Die Hard? [Laughs.]
Yeah, yeah. Well, there's tons. I do think that going all the way back to German Expressionism, there's some really interesting uses of arches and shadow and the city as a kind of looming dark presence. You see that picked up in a movie that I used to be really, really into called City of Lost Children.
You know, which is a really fun but also quite intellectually interesting movie set in a fictional Parisian port city, full of arches and shadows and submarines and musical staircases and long hallways and chutes leading from one plane to the next and that kind of thing. It's a pretty interesting architectural undertaking.
Some of the early -- you know, movies like Tim Burton's Batman, which, to be completely honest, I think has not aged particularly well in terms of performances.
No, I would agree. [Laughs.]
But I think that architecturally, it's still interesting in its attempt to depict Gotham as -- as the name applies -- this soaring Gothic environment, taking a kind of European cathedral city and putting it on steroids.
But, I mean, there are so many architecturally interesting films. Let me just -- you know, it's one of those things that as soon as someone asks you that, you forget every movie you've ever thought of.
I’d definitely say that heist films are a particular interest of mine -- writing the Burglar’s Guide was a great excuse to binge on movies like The Bank Job, Inside Man, The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England, and so many others. Die Hard, The Italian Job. That entire genre puts architecture front and center. In fact, arguably the entire point of the genre is to treat architecture like a puzzle that needs to be solved. How do you get into that bank vault? How do you get from this building into the one next door? How can you use only rooftops or sewers or alleyways to get across the entire city, whether they’re trying to break into a bank or you’re trying to get away from some mansion you just broke into? Good heist films, I think, also reveal something about the city or building where the crime takes place. Or good burglars, I guess you could say, always reveal something about the buildings they break into, because they’re not using the building the way the architect intended them to.
I'd be curious to hear you talk about, are there attempted shortcuts or visual clichés that you notice in movies or TV or anything else? Where you can sense that maybe they don't have a full understanding or appreciation of space but you can see them trying to poker face their way through it?
Well, I don't know. There was a movie that came out about two years ago called Midnight Special, about a child who is abducted from a religious cult and he can't take off a pair of sunglasses because he's got some sort of superpower kind of thing. In any case, at the end of the film -- which has a really nice, dark sort of shoestring independent movie feel, and takes place in hotel rooms and little suburban houses and is filmed mostly at night. But, at the very end, there's this big reveal where they show how the kid has almost been getting his intelligence from a kind of alien world that exists parallel to ours. And when they reveal what that world looks like, it's just this absurd world of every bad student architecture project over the last 10 years.
You know, you've got these big things that look like spiderwebs and everything is made of steel and glass and it's totally pointless formal explorations that serve no purpose other than to look like some sort of plant-like rendering. There's something really disappointing about it. It felt like they phoned it in at the end. They were like, "Hey, what can stick at the end of the film for the last five minutes?" I found that enormously disappointing. I mean, it just felt like they didn't know what they were doing so they went for the biggest cliché they could find to represent the future. You know, "Let's make it out of steel and let's make it look like some sort of giant plant." That's one of the biggest clichés of architecture schools right now -- buildings that look like carnivorous plants for no reason.
Yeah, how about in videogames? Are there visual clichés that you recognize as an informed outsider, as you said?
Well, again, you'll have to take this with a grain of salt because I'm not the most prolific game-player, but it does always seem like where -- I can't even remember which one it was. I believe it was one of the Calls of Duty, but there was a depiction of what was very obviously the Burj Dubai in the background. It might've been a different game. But just the notion of Dubai as the city of the future, so let's use it as a touchstone for where we set games. I think that those types of semi-ruined cities looming in the background can be done really well and have a kind of Piranesian sense. But done badly, they're just these clichés of, "Hey! Let's have another half-collapsed dome or a skyscraper that's leaning on its side." That is meant to indicate so many things at once. It's a post-apocalypse, so there's been a war. Or things are economically collapsing.
You know, it represents things without doing any real work.
Yeah. Well, to shift gears a little bit, this is something I look at quite a bit in videogames, but it would be interesting to hear about architecture: What do you feel architecture critics don't understand about the work that goes into architecture? Like, what do you see them speaking authoritatively about that they may actually be misinformed or uninformed about?
Yeah, that's tough. I would say that one thing that is missing, I think, is an adequate appreciation for the differences between what an architect wants to build and then what is either physically or financially possible at the end. And so, while at the same time the thing that gets built is obviously the thing that needs to be critiqued, there are often choices made not by the architect but by the contractor or by the person funding the building or even by the code of the city where that building was constructed that limited what was originally proposed. Those are often decisions that are totally out of the control of the architect and arguably shouldn't be considered critiques of the architect's vision but of the actual process of building. That's almost more like contractor criticism or zoning code criticism. It's really not architectural criticism at all.
Those, I think, could use some more work. Also, I think architecture critics overlook the overwhelming majority of the built environment that we all experience and they tend to focus on these big signature buildings like a new art museum in London or a new hotel in downtown Los Angeles or a stadium in wherever it might be. They tend to overlook all of the things that we actually experience as people living in a society whether it's a strip mall or a it's a big-box store or it's just a new suburban subdivision. So, while that criticism might sound really uninteresting to write or read, at the same time, I think it would be more valuable culturally because it would remind everybody that we have the right to critique the world we live in. We shouldn't just take it for granted that we have to live surrounded by strip malls, big-box stores, and badly designed suburbs and that architecture can come along and actually help give a critical vocabulary to home owners or even to shoppers so that they can give feedback and improve the built environment. I mean, so few people actually even go to these big signature museums that get so much coverage in the architectural world. I'd love to see that change.
Well, these are books that have sat on my shelves for a while and I'm assuming you've read them and are familiar, but from what I hear a lot of game-design folks -- maybe you found this in reporting your book -- are fans of A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building. Like I said, I'm curious from your awareness of games: Are there concepts from these books that you've observed the game developers are particularly good fans and students of?
I guess I'd say -- and, again, I feel like a really disappointing interviewee.
No, no, no. Don't. [Laughs.]
I guess I'd say the whole point of those kinds of books, the Christopher Alexander books, is to promote an internal coherence in the built environment so that everything from the courtyard of a house and then up to the scale of the streets and then up to the scale of a neighborhood and then up to the scale of a city -- you know, there's a kind of organic coherence that makes it feel like a place you can recognize and navigate and live in and feel comfortable in. I think that games tend to do coherence well.
It would be interesting, in fact, to actually mix things up in the opposite direction and encourage more unexplained incoherence so that a neighborhood that looks like an old-style Parisian neighborhood is suddenly next to a completely different style of American corporate, glass skyscraper in a way that makes no sense at all. First of all, that would be more representationally accurate to the present world, but it also might entail some interesting gameplay lessons for how the game itself moves forward based on these kinds of strange and unexpected juxtapositions.
Yeah, offhand, I'm reminded of -- I don't know. There are so many Batman videogames but one of them does a thing where Batman gets get infected with Scarecrow's fear toxin or whatever and it starts kicking in very slowly in this interesting way, which is you go through this place and you go through a door and you have to double back and go back the way you came. The room that was there before is a different room. So, basically, when you go through this doorway you go back and it was not the room you came from. I'm surprised games don't do things like that more. But I also have no clue how complicated that is to do. [Laughs.] I mean, are there times that you have played games or read about them that you wish they did do more fantastical things with architecture?
I think that even some of the games that I tried to spend more time with while I was writing Burglar's Guide -- you know, this is kind of a bad example but games like Monaco, for example, that got a lot of hype for being a really interesting way to do a top-down heist game. You know, I thought it was interesting but I was definitely left feeling that there were so many other ways that you could have really amplified the sense that the environment is there for you to manipulate, where getting from "A" to "B" is much more interesting and much more complicated than just going down the hallway. I think there could have been ways of really accentuating the complexity of that so that vaults were nowhere near where you expected them. Or weird new types of security systems that required architectural or spatial navigation that wasn't present in the game as it was actually realized. I think that maybe would be one example that I would give.
But just in general, I think that -- yeah, unfortunately I don't really have a specific reference for you here, to my embarrassment. But I think that in general when games are simply this sort of first-person moving through an environment that has been semi-ruined or damaged by warfare, where you're meant to move through it killing people, has limited architectural appeal. It would be interesting maybe even to hire an outside architectural consultant who can come in and say, "Hey, do this exact same scene -- but try these things. Try to play with something where, when you go back into an environment, it's no longer the thing you left. Or the way to get from here to there is through some sort of previously unthought of way to connect them. Or even to play with depth perception or to play with the Swan example that we were talking about a few minutes ago, where something with light effects or paint effects reveals the way forward." I mean, if you go all the way back to the notion of the instancing gate in World of Warcraft, where you go into a dungeon and then, five minutes later, I also go but we are in different instances of the same place. I think it would be interesting to play with that as a concept. Like, is there an instancing version of an interior that could be experienced even simultaneously by one player or is there some way to do something that is more architecturally complex?
Well, there's no good segue into this question, and I may have neglected to mention this up top but the ongoing research I'm doing is just comparing game industry to other industries as they went through the cycles of fighting for legitimacy and getting it: I guess I'm curious, what was the profession of architects like when it was new? Was there ever a time when being an architect was stigmatized?
I guess as a profession -- I mean, I'm not really aware of there being a period where it was stigmatized or looked down on but it did have a lot of trouble and, in fact, is arguably is now experiencing this all over again of just defining what it is that architects do. You know, architecture many, many -- I mean, literally centuries ago, architecture didn't really exist as an independent discipline. There was literally just building. You know, people who understood how to stack masonry and how to build arches and a lot of times that was semi-improvised. They didn't have elaborate floor plans or elevation drawings or sections that they would use to get to the final results. There was just the basic idea of a cathedral -- and then they spent 200 years building it.
It wasn't a specialized discipline of knowledge that was taught until people finally started to realize that architecture, in fact, can become professional through documenting what they do. That means that things like floor plans and construction diagrams and all of these things began taking off over generations and generations of work to actually give architects a specialized skill. But what's interesting today is that architecture is going through this exact same crisis. Something that I think might be interested to you in the game context is I feel like architects are once again facing this question of: "What is it that we actually add value to? How do we add value?" 'Cause, you know, when you have these engineering firms who are so good at what they do, they can build skyscrapers and entire districts of cities and massive, massive developments like the west side of Manhattan right now, where they're covering over an entire trainyard in order to build a whole new neighborhood. You know, do you really need architects to do anything other than suggest a final form that the buildings will take, when the engineering firms themselves are so powerful and so skilled? Or, almost every suburb you see in the United States, those aren't built by architects. They're designed by contractors based on the materials that are presently available in the marketplace. So, you know, the size of 2x4s for example, or plywood sheets, all of that shapes up to be a particular kind of house. And there's no architectural thinking there. It's all about, "What do we have access to? What can we buy at Home Depot? Who can we hire to put this thing together?"
It's about resources.
It's how they can be configured.
But these aren't architects building these suburbs. Architects now are thinking to themselves, "Well, how on earth do we stay employed? How do people think that we're actually worth hiring to do certain things?" And I think that there's a crisis of legitimacy in architecture right now, while they're trying to win back the sense that they're important.
[Pause.] Interesting. I had no idea.
Well, you spoke to a lot of burglars for that book. I interviewed a writer for Breaking Bad for this project, and we got talking a little bit about people's darker behavior -- plus toxic behavior online, or whatever you want to call it -- on TV shows. She told me that she feels that some of this comes with a bit of permission from shows featuring darker protagonists or evil protagonists. I guess I'm just curious to hear you talk about: What did you learn talking to so many burglars? I mean, is there something to learn in turn from that vis-a-vis how we champion anti heroes in pop culture?
There are so many things. I do think that the burglar, as a character type, is so easy to celebrate. You know, it's the notion of this kind of suave, Cary Grant-like figure who walks through the lobby of a bank and the next thing you know he’s robbing the place blind. There’s something seductive about that -- sometimes I compare it to, it's like they solved the puzzle. There's something inherently attractive or interesting about that. You know, they came in and said, "This building is not just a building. It's also a puzzle that needs to be taken apart and solved. I'm gonna do that by popping up in the vault at midnight tonight."
I think that is kind of a Hollywood misunderstanding. I think that 99 percent -- I'm just making up that statistic, but the overwhelming majority of burglaries are committed by people based on spur of the moment decisions. They don't have a plan, they just need money right now. They generally have a drug habit and it's about breaking into a house to try to steal medication or jewelry out of the bedroom. There's nothing romantic or even intellectually exciting about it, let alone morally exciting about it. I think that that aspect is pretty easy to overlook. Burglary is actually not a glamorous crime at all.
But, you know, having said that, I do think that if you look at it purely from an architectural point of view -- and I think that this is relevant to game design -- what is so interesting about burglars is that they are actually not looking at buildings the way everyone else does. They're not just saying, "Okay, here's the building in front of me. There's an entrance around the side and there's a door in front, so I'm gonna knock on this door and go in and use the building the way I'm supposed to." Burglars, instead, look at the roof and say: "Is there a tree that gets me up onto the roof? Is there an unlocked window up there? Is there a way around back that I can hide behind a fence and maybe go in through a basement window? There are any number of ways into a structure, and then once I'm inside there are also any number of ways to get around and from one room to the next." I think that burglars reveal that buildings are games and that there's a better way to play the game. There's something about that that is really exciting because it also means that you and I -- well, I won't speak for you, but it means that people like me are actually the unimaginative ones. You know, burglars reveal that I am taking buildings for granted when I shouldn't.
No, yeah, that was one of the more interesting takeaways from that book and was a concept I had a lot of difficulty explaining to friends of mine, about how you break down how they sort of are buildings wrong. Which is such a great way of putting it. Yeah, because what's more boring using the front door?
The funny thing, too, is that so many of us experience this sort of thing as teenagers, where, if you want to sneak out of the house to meet friends you use the back door instead of the front or you crawl out of your bedroom window instead of using the front door. Or, you know, you wanted to get downstairs to try to get a sneak peek of your Christmas presents and so you figured out a way to get past your parents' door without waking them up or to get downstairs without anybody hearing you. That's thinking like a burglar. It's simply acknowledging that architecture is something more than just a passive background. It's an active shaper of behavior. And you can play along with that and you can use that in a different way. That's one of the things that was exciting about the burglary research, as well.
[Pause.] Relatedly, you wrote about Vegas and -- I think if I'm remembering this correctly, you talk about architects not thinking about criminals, which seems ironic given it's Las Vegas. Maybe this is a bridge too far, but do you see a similar sort of naïveté in the way tech people think about building platforms? Not anticipating the way people may misuse these spaces? Not speaking specifically about any one platform, but do you see any similarity there or naïveté there?
I definitely do. The funny thing is there is a lot of attention -- in fact, actually, I found that a lot of readers of A Burglar's Guide were actually people from the tech world who did white-hat testing of security systems, hacking into databases or into entire platforms.
That was interesting because there's a direct analogy between the two. But what's so funny about the platform question is that there's a different way to misuse a platform and that's a moral misuse. An ethical misuse. I think that there isn't enough moral pen testing, so to speak. Like, it's not just, "Can I hack into Twitter and post fake tweets from somebody else's account?" It's, "Could I use a real Twitter account to harass a particular person?" That’s moral misuse, not technical misuse. Or, "Could I use a Facebook account to spread fake news?" Those are unethical uses of a communications platform, but they're not a breaching of its technical, underlying function. I think that that's interesting because it's almost as if we need to have white-hat hackers who are doing it simply to see, "Could a bad person do something shitty with this?" [Laughs.] I think that that question is only just coming to the fore. There's a huge naïveté in the tech world that everybody is good at heart, we're gonna build this system that's just gonna make the world a more transparent and better place. And then all of a sudden, they realize, "Oh my God, actually, people kind of suck and they're not gonna use this platform for good."
It's almost like a generation of very young tech entrepreneurs are starting to wake up to the fact that human beings -- I have a very negative opinion of human nature, which will come out in this answer. [Laughs.] But it's almost as if now that they're getting older, they're realizing that actually human beings are not nearly as good as they thought they were when they first invented these utopian technology platforms and they're starting to realize how difficult it is to control the experiment and to get rid of people who want to be bad. Because so many people aren't motivated by good will.
Right. This next question echoes the question I asked you about architecture critics. I wanted to ask you briefly about Gizmodo, if you're okay with that.
[Laughs.] Depending on the question. [Laughs.]
Sure, sure. I guess I'm just curious what you think reader-critics, typical users of Gawker Media and other websites -- what don't they realize about the pressure to churn out posts I guess is one way to put. But just the expectations and the demands and the daily requirements of what those jobs are like.
I'll answer that by referring more broadly just to the whole world of internet writing these days. I think that -- and obviously, you know, Gawker Media is now a different company, owned by Fusion, etc. I worked there a pretty long time ago now, in 2013-2014. But I guess I'd say that, if the entire point of what you're doing is just to produce content and have a minimum number of readers per day, then there's a pressure not to just say sensationalistic things, although that's part of it. There's also pressure to cover things that everyone else is already covering because you know that that's one of these things that is getting eyeballs. That means that basically everyone writes the same stuff over and over again.
I mean, I used to joke, years and years ago -- and you can interject any name here that you want here -- that you could read Wired to see what was on Gizmodo and you could read Gizmodo to see what was on Engadget and you could read Engadget to see what was on The Verge. It's just circular reporting. Everybody's reporting the exact same thing, and they are literally doing it because other people have reported it. I don’t mean breaking news items, but things like a speculative design project from five or six years earlier -- it’s on Gizmodo literally only because someone at The Verge blogged about it. It’s “news” because it entered the ecosystem. It got to the point where the supervisor I had at Gizmodo, who consistently had awful advice, recommended literally the exact opposite of what I wanted to do there, was that if there was any topic, anywhere in the tech world that people were likely to leave a comment on, then he wanted us to get it up on Gizmodo as fast as possible. That way when people Google it or when people want to comment somewhere -- which generally meant posting a GIF -- then they'd come to Gizmodo. His editorial advice had nothing to do with, "Do we have something to say about this? Are we even interested in this topic? Or, for that matter, should this topic even be in the public conversation right now?” It was just: "Let's make sure we have a post up so that we can get people posting reaction GIFs."
Because imagine the alternative: We could be covering stories that other people aren't. We could be giving attention to people who don't have attention right now, but who deserve it.
We could be focusing on products or books or people or entire lines of research that haven't been discovered yet by the media elsewhere and we're gonna help shine a light on that world. I mean, there are just so many other ways to treat a media platform and that was not at all what I was told Gizmodo wanted despite the fact that I had been hired to change what Gizmodo was supposed to be.
I was an in-house editor for The Onion A.V. Club and later NBC. I was around -- I mean, I used to write for print and then I started writing for web and print and then, you know, things started to go the way that they have. And so, I don't know what it's like firsthand, but I guess I'm just curious about that mentality. How does that affect the way people think about writing?
I guess -- the funny thing is it doesn't really change how I think about writing. It’s important to emphasize before I say this that this is overly simplistic, but what's funny is that I knew so many people in school, men and women both, who wanted to be writers. It was a literary goal for them and a kind of cultural fantasy. They wanted to be Margaret Atwood or Franz Kafka or Jack Kerouac. They wanted to devote themselves to literature. It was something they were excited about.
What was so interesting about working in online media, in particular in tech journalism -- and, again, this was back in 2013, 2014 -- was that there were so many people working in the field who appeared to have no interest whatsoever in being writers. Like, they wanted to go into completely different fields or maybe they had no idea what they wanted to go into, but they didn't grow up writing short stories or writing letters to their friends or, you know, sneaking away to read Don DeLillo novels. There was no interest in literature or writing. Believe me, I realize how incredibly pretentious this sounds, which is why I'm trying to flag it with all kinds of warning flags, but what was interesting about this was that you could see it in the output.
It felt like an entire generation of people was finding work as "writers" on the internet with no interest in really being writers. It was just a technical skill that they could do because they spoke English. I guess what I'm implying is that there was no investment in -- I mean, "craft" is a horrible word, but there was no sense that they were doing anything other than churning out reports and hitting "publish.” So, at the same time that all of my friends who really wanted to be novelists or screenwriters or poets were finding that they couldn't get the work they wanted, there were all of these other people who had no interest whatsoever in becoming writers, yet they were making upper-five figures reviewing wireless speakers and Bluetooth-enabled dorm refrigerators. It was a strange thing to see.
Again, what I'm implying here is that I feel like I really enjoy writing, and that is not to say that I am good at writing. It is simply to say that I like doing it. Working in tech media didn’t really change that at all. It has perhaps fatally undermined my confidence in the reading public. [Laughs.] You know, that people actually fall for this over and over again and are constantly clicking on stuff that is patently worthless and has no meaning for themselves or for society. But I don't know. I guess that just fits into what we were talking about a couple minutes ago -- I have a pretty dark opinion of humans.
But it certainly hasn't made me think that writing is not still, or arguably one of, if not the best ways for figuring out what you think, how you think about it, and what you’re really interested in. I think writing is not just a thing that you should do to heap scorn on some random person you've never met because you have to write a shitty post on a tech blog. It’s tool to figure out what you think.
Is there a particular headline construction you’re absolutely tired of seeing?
[Laughs.] Oh, God. I mean, most? There are all of the clichés like, "This One Trick," or, "This One Way to Do XYZ.” Or: "Doctors Hate People for X," but those are just clichés 'cause those are more like Outbrain ad links.
The thing that started driving me nuts was when there was a day where I think it was literally 11 out of 12 stories visible on the homepage started with "this." It was like, "This Gadget does X." Or, "These Photographs Show Something or Other." These descriptive, uninterested, almost passive statements that "this thing is XYZ." That's so uncompelling as a headline.
I guess what I try to do -- like, the headlines I try to use on BLDGBLOG, for example, are totally abstract. They're references to something else, or just plays on words. They're very, very, very SEO-unfriendly. But I don't mind that. I feel like the title is part of the article. You know, if you want to write something that has interesting resonance, you should go ahead and do that. But unfortunately that's not -- or the BuzzFeed cliché of overwhelming emotional investment in what you're writing, it just seems so fake and strange, yet people keep falling for it.
This is my final question for you. It's very abstract. Usually I ask people what they feel videogames have accomplished and I don't know if you feel you've interacted with them enough to say that. But I guess I could ask a variation of what you think space in videogames has accomplished?
Well, no, I guess I'd say I do think why videogames are as popular as they are today and what they've accomplished is really investing people in experiencing fictional storylines in a way that I think is quite intriguing. It reveals that people want to be more invested in the fiction that they consume and it gives them a sense of narrative control over where that fiction goes. I think that by making that the very premise of the game, the output is based on you and your interaction with the scenario and giving you that control over the story that's unfolding, I think, has revealed that people really do want more of a hand in the kinds of things that they consume.
I think it's woken up a sense that your imagination is important and it should be part of how you engage with things based on what compels you or draws you into it. And I think that maybe generations ago that would have been a short pulp fiction-type thing or it would have been the paperback rack at a local bookstore. Nonetheless, even if it's just a new product but it's the same old thing, I still think it's important that people turn to games as a way to experience fiction firsthand and know what it's like to be a protagonist. I think that those are two pretty important things.