The Tectonic of Video Games

*For a shorter version of this article please go here.*

I begin with a quote:

“I wish to present to you, my comrades in Level Design, three great works that have inspired in me new thoughts on the nature of spatial design, and consequently new ideas on particular aspects of our art. […] I hope to give you insight into their ideas and processes, and toss in a few of my own notions on their expressionistic relationships to our work as geometricians of time, space and experience.” (Warne, 2001)

This excerpt is taken from an article on level design for video games. Its significance for us lies in the analogy that it makes between the “art” of level design and architecture. The author describes the art of level design as the ‘expressionistic work of the geometricians of time, space and experience’. This analogy is not just perfectly formulated; it also can and should be expanded beyond level design.

It is essential to understand that the video game is a Built: This built is achieved through the use of building materials and the application of certain techniques that reach beyond a core functional level and also perform on an expressive level. The video game as a Built is made of joints, which become both a functional and expressive whole. This twofold character of the Built –its technological and its aesthetic dimension- is the key in understanding the player experience that emerges during the encounter with the Built. Furthermore, it is one of the keys to understand immersion in video games.

I will refer to video games as Built/Experience throughout this article. I will do this to accentuate the twofold nature that is so crucial in order to master the design and development of a video game. More than that, I will speak of a tectonic of video games.

What Tectonic Is

‘Tectonic’ is a term borrowed from architecture. It can be described as a term that addresses an essential dual mode of any element that is used for construction. This dual mode is the simultaneous presence of physical functionality and artistic representation in the same element. In his book on tectonic culture, Frampton (2001: 4), reminds us of Karl Ottfried Bötticher’s distinction between Kernform (core form) and Kunstform (artistic representation) as the tectonic qualities within a construction element. “Tectonic”, he continues, “signifies a whole system binding all parts of the built into a single whole”, but the whole is two things at once: The technology that makes it stand on its feet, and the artistic expression that comes from its ‘gesture’ as a standing object. There can be extreme examples of tectonic where the built can refer to its own technological perfection as an aesthetic experience. In such cases ‘monumentalized ability’ becomes the ‘gesture’.

Tectonic as Environmental Storytelling

In his article on Environmental Storytelling, Don Carson (2000) gives an insightful lesson about the differences and similarities of immersive 3-D Worlds and Theme Parks. The article is also important in the way it refers to issues that can be seen in regard to the tectonic of video games, since he perceives the design of theme parks and 3-D worlds as a matter of how story materializes as physical (or virtual) space.

“The design of entertaining themed environments is that the story element is infused into the physical space a guest walks or rides through. In many respects, it is the physical space that does much of the work of conveying the story the designers are trying to tell.“ (Carson; 2000)

Without referring to the term tectonic, Carson speaks of tectonic, establishing a connection between the construction of a virtual world as a twofold process, the utilized material and applied techniques in shaping space, and the poetic or dramatic expression of the crafting and order of this space. It’s a lesson on how to shape and join the pieces together to have immersive story, a dramatic experience. The tectonic of video games, hence,

“is to be understood as encompassing tekne […] It depends much more upon the correct or incorrect applications of the artisanal rules, or the degree to which its usefulness has been achieved. […] As soon as an aesthetic perspective –and not a goal of utility- is defined that specifies the work and production of the tekton, then the analyses consigns the term ‘tectonic’ to an aesthetic judgment.” (Adolf Heinrich Borbein; in Frampton; 2001: 4).

A Tectonic for Dynamic Structures… like Video Games?

If in architecture, tectonic is “the art of joinings” (Borbein, in Frampton; 2001: 4) then video game tectonic has to deal with an important difference: In contrast to the ‘static’ built/experience in architecture, in video games we deal with a dynamic built/experience. The joint elements disappear (alone or as a group), re-join, and even seem to improvise at times (like it is the case in bugs or in emergent gameplay). In other words, the story seems to materialize in a variety of ways, but still a structured and predictable behavior seems to be in place. Goethe’s famous description of architecture as frozen music seems to open a door to get from the static structure in architecture to the dynamic structure in video games.

The expressive power of the video game as a dynamic construct can be better understood when we look at its raw building material and building technology: Code, or algorithm; a sequence of steps, a clearly defined procedure that is designed to perform a certain function and is formulated and expressed through the means of a programming language. Programming languages rely on a variety of essential concepts that enable the creation of such algorithms and procedures. At its simplest, various types of data can be defined and managed through control structures that initialize, continue or terminate the processing of these data. From this perspective, we can perceive the video game as the joining of building materials with a high level of plasticity, altogether creating a dynamic structure which still can be shaped to have predictable behavior. Its plasticity and procedural character enables a discourse on time as well, creating grounds for narrative use.

This dynamic structure is also able to articulate input into this procedural flow, meaning that the created program can engage in reciprocal relations with others by articulating their input into its procedures, changing itself according to the input and feeding the results back to the user. Reciprocity is an important quality of these dynamic structures since it helps us also to establish a connection to one of the oldest literary forms of expression: The dialogue. Once more we can refer to a potential for narrative and story.

The underlying procedural logic together with the capacity of reciprocity, allows us to orchestrate a dynamic whole which is the joining of its dynamic pieces and the dynamic input of its users. It is not difficult to show then where the strength of this medium lies: in its ability to run simulated representations which are open to participation.

Industrial practices like iterative development methods, testing and quality assurance indicate that many rehearsals are needed until this ‘orchestra’ gets away from the initial cacophony and becomes ‘sound’ (in both tectonic senses, solid and art). During its construction, this Built, gradually achieves a unique feel and presence, become more and more immersive as it matures into Built/Experience. A feel for video game tectonic lies at the heart of this process that aims to bow the ends of technology and aesthetics towards an immersive built/experience.

The Goal of Video Game Tectonic

The goal of video game tectonic can be defined as achieving immersion. It is the art to draw the player away from seeing what he looks at: a construct, made by humans, performing a core physical function. Tectonic is the art to erase the traces of the rough physical side of the construct and make the player step over to the structured meaning it conveys, to its expression as a poetic construct: This is not a screen with pixels re-drawn 50 times a second; this is a unique world and I am part of it. Hence, when we speak of tectonic, we speak of one of the main gates that must be passed to find ourselves inside the Magic Circle. This is a question that goes beyond mere technical perfection. It is a question of how the technological built becomes the aesthetic experience. Hence, an immersive game is both Built and Experience; Built/Experience.


Warne P. (2001), Three Inspirations for Creative Level Designing,

Carson D. (2000), Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3-D Worlds with Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry,

Frampton K. (2001), Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture, MIT Press: Cambridge, London.

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2 Responses

  1. It is interesting that Sappho calls the poet a tekhton (bıilder/carpenter). But she also uses this in the sense of “deceiver”. Because the poet is the one who deceives as she builds; or builds deceit.

    Built deceit: verisimilitude?

    Another connection to tectonic can be found in music. “sich fügen”, “to join”.

    The “joint”… the “Füge”.

  2. It’s Fugue in english, I guess

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