Forms in Light
A black and white photo of panopticon, with a central guard tower in the middle of a ring of prison cells.

Influence and Persuasion

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #164. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


Architecture and games.


Architecture and level design share a fascinating and intricate relationship when it comes to influencing behavior, especially movement through space. Both disciplines utilize spatial theory to shape the way that people navigate and experience their surroundings. I’ve always found the similarities between architecture and level design to be a fascinating topic, so I’d like to dive into the details of this connection, exploring the principles of spatial theory and the ideas put forth by influential scholars like Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre. By examining how these concepts intersect, I hope to give you a deeper understanding of the strategies employed by architects and level designers to guide movement and create immersive experiences within physical and virtual spaces.

Spatial theory is the study of how places are organized, experienced and understood. The philosopher Michel Foucault most notably explored the relationship between power and space, emphasizing the role of architecture in shaping social dynamics. His work on disciplinary power and surveillance had profound implications for both architecture and level design. Power is often displayed in architecture through the deliberate design of spaces that control and regulate movement. Buildings for example are structured with hallways, staircases and entrances to guide people through a sequence of interconnected spaces. The design choices made by architects influence how individuals move and behave within a built environment, reflecting the concept of disciplinary power put forward by Foucault. Doors, gates and security checkpoints provide the perfect example.

In much the same way as architecture, power is reflected in the control exerted by level designers over the movement of players in videogames. Level designers have to think strategically about placing pathways, landmarks, obstacles and even enemies to guide players through the game world. This control over movement can be seen as a manifestation of disciplinary power, as designers dictate the actions and choices of players within the virtual space. Levels are both literally and figuratively filled with doors, gates and security checkpoints, often in the form of a trigger for some sort of action such as a cutscene.

The cover for Henri Lefebvre's The Right to the City, featuring a photo of two children running through man-made, brick-laid hills.

The sociologist Henri Lefebvre focused on the everyday practices and rhythms within urban spaces. Lefebvre advocated for a more inclusive and participatory approach to design, emphasizing the “right to the city” as a fundamental aspect of urban life. Architecture primarily deals with the design and construction of physical spaces including buildings and urban environments, architects aiming to influence movement and behavior by purposefully organizing and manipulating these spaces. Buildings are designed with careful consideration for how people will move through them, corridors for example being used to connect different areas, while staircases provide vertical circulation. Entrances are positioned to control access and redirect the flow of traffic. These architectural elements guide individuals and shape their experiences within the built environment. Architects also employ techniques related to lighting, materials and spatial proportions to influence the emotions and perceptions of those who inhabit a particular space, a good example being the use of natural light to create a sense of openness and connection to the surrounding environment. The choice of material can be used to evoke a specific mood or association as well.

Videogames go beyond the constraints of physical architecture, allowing for the creation of interactive and dynamic spaces. Level designers aim to create immersive experiences by carefully designing environments that players navigate, employing a range of spatial elements to guide movement and create a sense of progression. Pathways are created to lead players towards their objective, while landmarks serve as points of reference and help in spatial orientation. Challenges, obstacles and enemies are strategically placed to shape the journey of players and to provide opportunities for problem solving and engagement. In addition to spatial elements, level designers use visual and auditory cues to communicate information and evoke specific emotions. Lighting, sound and visual effects are carefully crafted to enhance immersion and create an atmosphere which complements the mechanics and story.

The famous concept of the panopticon put forward by Foucault, a circular prison design with a central watchtower, had a profound influence on level design. The architecture in question creates a pervasive sense of surveillance, leading to self-discipline and self-control among inmates, at least according to Foucault. When it comes to videogames, level designers often incorporate elements of the panopticon to influence the movement and behavior of players. They create virtual spaces with hidden areas or elevated viewpoints that give players a sense of being watched or monitored. This psychological tension encourages players to explore and move through the space, mimicking the effect of the panopticon. The feeling of being observed can shape the actions of a player, prompting them to act in accordance with the aims, objectives or rules put forward by the level designer.

The broadly recognized “right to the city” on the other hand emphasizes the importance of inclusivity and the active participation of individuals in the design of urban spaces. The concept calls for spaces which are accessible, democratic and foster a sense of community and belonging. This idea from Lefebvre finds a reflection in the design of open world videogames, allowing players to explore and freely interact with virtual towns and cities. Players become active participants in the shaping of their own experience, along the lines of Lefebvre’s vision of urban spaces in which inhabitants rather than architects have the most agency. These games often provide opportunities for players to engage with various characters, take on side quests and impact the development of the virtual world in question, creating a sense of ownership and empowerment.

At left, a photo of an urban architect's desk with their tools of the trade and a blueprint for an urban space resting on top of it; at right, a close-up of the featured blueprint, which has plans for pathways through a park.

Architecture and level design both aim to create immersive experiences, facilitating flow for inhabitants and players. Architects consider various factors including lighting, acoustics and materials to enhance the experience of a user and evoke specific emotions, a museum for example could make use of dim lighting and soundproofing to create a contemplative and focused atmosphere. Level designers employ similar techniques to immerse players in their virtual worlds. They rely on sound design, visual effects and interactive elements to stimulate senses and maintain engagement. The goal is to create an environment which captivates players, allowing them to become fully absorbed in the game and experience flow, a state of complete focus and enjoyment.

The two disciplines in question, architecture and level design, exhibit striking similarities in terms of how they influence movement through space. Both make use of spatial theory to shape and guide experiences within physical and virtual environments. The various theories put forward by Foucault and Lefebvre provide valuable insight into the strategies employed by architects and level designers at a practical and perhaps even unconscious level. Through deliberate spatial organization, architects control movement within physical spaces, employing elements including corridors, staircases and entrances. Level designers on the other hand use pathways, landmarks and obstacles to guide player movement within virtual spaces, ensuring a sense of progression and engagement.

The concepts of the panopticon and the “right to the city,” derived directly from Foucault and Lefebvre, provide even further depth to the understanding of how architecture and level design influence movement. The panopticon is translated into videogames through the creation of virtual spaces that give players a sense of being observed and monitored. The famous “right to the city” is reflected in open world games in which players have agency and can actively shape their experience within the virtual environment. Architecture and level design furthermore share a common goal of creating immersive experiences and facilitating a state of flow for inhabitants and players. Carefully considering factors along the lines of lighting, materials, sound design and interactive elements, designers in both fields aim to captivate individuals and evoke specific emotions. By exploring these parallels, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the power of spatial theory and its application in shaping movement, behavior and the overall experience within physical and virtual places.


Justin Reeve is an archaeologist specializing in architecture, urbanism and spatial theory, but he can frequently be found writing about videogames, too. You can follow him on Twitter @JustinAndyReeve.


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