Urban Screens: The Schematic City in Gaming and Architectural Representation


by Greg J. Smith

A section is an assemblage of dark spots on a plane. It maps the residual of surgery on an object by a plane of incision.”

– Jennifer Bloomer, Architecture and the Text: The (S)crypts of Joyce and Piranesi.

The above quotation describes the architectural section as a precise operation, a surgical slice that yields information about space and structure. If the same logic were applied to gaming, a screen capture of mid-motion play would be not only a stoppage of time, but a freeze-frame schematic for considering spatial relations. Architectural drawings and models are fundamentally connected to the image of the city and while buildings may function as singular edifices, society experiences the resonance of built form through density.The accumulation of buildings and roadways, workers and residents, conflicting programs, noise, memory – that is how we understand the city as place. While architects communicate with the construction industry, fabricators and legislators through a highly developed, codified language of orthographic projection, they speak to the public through more accessible drawings (often rendered perspective projections) that allow viewers to consider the assembly, materiality and form of proposed buildings. These experiential drawings provide detailed views that illustrate how the design proposal sits in relation to local context and how it integrates with the streetscape. Over the last two decades, representations of urban space have become a prominent subject within gaming. Franchises such as SimCity and Grand Theft Auto have taken the ebb and flow of the city and created simulations that synthesize the economic, sociopolitical, experiential and aesthetic qualities of urban life into reflexive environments. The eye of the contemporary gamer is trained to decode the isometric projection and urban informatics associated with the “god game” genre and switch over to the point of view of a digital citizen in a sandbox style open-city game without skipping a beat. Advances in computer graphics and a need for increasingly sophisticated in-game navigation and informational systems have made gaming an R&D lab for exploring methods of representation derived from not only architecture, but interface design, cinematography, cartography and data visualization. In 2007, Dariusz Jacob Boron forecasted that the future of gaming would “represent an interbreeding of various genres and points of view”.[1] This interbreeding is not simply a one-way flow of ideas from varied disciplines “into” gaming; as we can clearly see the graphic language of gaming influencing mapping, military imaging, cinema and broadcast design.

here and there

An example of this influence is the BERG project Here and There (2009, detail pictured above), a set of “horizonless projections” that provide spectacular views looking up- and downtown Manhattan. The designers of Here and There drew inspiration from a number of techniques for representing space from Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Syndicate and SimCity, all popular games. In Software Takes Command, Lev Manovich addresses these types of combinatory representational techniques and identifies them as “hybridized” media – “metalanguage” formed by mixing together previously distinct languages or mediums.[2] Here and There and the representational techniques employed in games like Civilization or Mirror’s Edge operate as idiosyncratic lenses for considering the city. If games function as viewing machines for abstracting, evaluating and experiencing urban space, what might we learn from comparing them to specific instances of architectural representation? What common ground and differences can be identified? This short essay will consider two broad themes in examining the delineation of urban space by architects and game designers. These themes are a top-down, consideration of the city as a system and the charged notion of “play” in urban space. The title of this text, Urban Screens, is itself a play on the way we describe the representation of the city. Part picture-plane and part screen-capture, this is a speculative endeavour, a superimposition of multiple “ways of seeing” the same universal subject – the blanket of urban fabric that covers much of the world.

The Systematic City

Is there a more complex assemblage than the contemporary city? The conflicting interests of a distributed citizenry, the logistics of service and infrastructure, flows of traffic and capital, the self-interest of NIMBYism and amnesia of gentrification, the creep of history, decay and waste – all interlocking to form a rickety network, a Wiki-like social contract. The city has always been ground zero for political and aesthetic experiments and architecture is often deployed as an instrument to effect or symbolize change. In representing their ideas, both architects and game designers are in the business of crafting convincing visions – plausible urban scenarios. When drawing, architects need to situate their proposal in the city and illustrate how the plan will compliment, contrast and enhance life at that site – clients and citizens have to believe in an image before ground can be broken. Game designers simulating the urban realm face similar challenges as they must schematize the complexity of the city to create an engaging “digital urbanism” to facilitate play, one that is immersive, layered and reflexive. In both gaming and client-oriented architectural representation the city is communicated as a systemic construct, one that employs the social and spatial idiosyncrasies of a specific site or zone of play and reconciles these variables as either an edifice or experience.

plug in city

Peter Cook | Plug-In City Max Pressure Area | 1964

Presenting large swaths of the city as systemic is implicit in master planning and urban design. At this scale, constructing or modifying urban fabric is not unlike surgery – blocked arteries are cleared, fractures corrected, infrastructure initiatives and zoning serve as tools for modulating urban homeostasis. Baron Haussmann, Robert Moses and the hyper-rational cityscapes of Le Corbusier all read the city at 1:5000. Even more ambitious than any of these examples was the speculative fiction of the London-based Archigram collective in the 1960s. Archigram distributed their wild futurism via a cheap, limited-run magazine that was launched in 1961 and became extremely influential after being championed by the prominent critic Reyner Banham. These publications were characterized by brilliant illustrations, prophetic poetry and a general techno-inebriation. Archigram’s cities embraced connectivity and operated at a scale that dwarfed the architectural and urban thinking of the era. These cities were modular, nomadic and reprogrammable – playful, unified constructs. Peter Cook’s Plug-In City (1964) proposed a megastructure that incorporated office parks, commercial districts, mass housing and transit routes. Individual building elements could be removed as needed and the massive structural frame that housed various architectural programmatic “chunks” also featured infrastructure for crane systems so that the construction would never have to end. The representation of Plug-In City and other prominent Archigram projects exhibited such virtuosity that they have been described as anticipating the aesthetic of computer aided design through referencing “circuit design and automobile manufacture”[3] of the period and repurposing these visual languages to delineate a new urban reality.

civilization gameplay

Civilization Revolution | 2008


Civilization (1991 onwards) is a turn-based strategy game that puts the player at the helm of a nation-state competing for cultural, military, technological or economic dominance in a fictitious global arena. Founded on the idea of a remixed global history and geography, a player of Civilization is responsible for taking a small settlement, at the beginning of recorded time, and “growing” it into an intercontinental web of cities. Imperialism is implicit in Civilization, and in stepping aside from the elasticity of national boundaries what most relates to the aforementioned “systematic city” are the interface and play mechanics. Gameplay in Civilization is obsessive micromanagement where the civic character of a city is primarily determined through construction. Architecture takes on an exaggerated, instrumental role and the deployment of buildings and institutions has direct and quantifiable results – the water provided by an aqueduct will speed city growth, a university will increase scientific production, etc. In addition in urban planning the player must manage incoming flows of raw material and natural resources that are extracted from the surrounding hinterland. Within this abstraction, the citizenry serve as a malleable labor force who can be placated with cultural facilities (churches, theatres, etc.) or imprisoned within city walls. In Civilization the operation of the metropolis is an exercise in total management; buildings are interdependent engines that drive production and economic growth.

Exactly what common ground do the modular megastructure of Plug-In City and the instrumentalized cityscapes of Civilization share? Both of these frameworks propose that urban growth is an algorithmic or procedural operation whereby “the city” (rather than a singular edifice) embodies the essence of Le Corbusier’s technophilic proclamations that architecture should function as a “machine for living”. These examples encapsulate systemic thinking in paper architecture and game design by suggesting the possibility of an instrumentalized, “plug and play” urbanism founded on the notion of homogeneous citizenry and the possibility of infinite expansion. These reductionist approaches to reading the city are equal parts utopian and monomaniacal – one need only look as far as McKenzie Wark for some sage advice regarding such totalizing thought: “The delusion of God games is that the gamer is in control when at the controller … But it is the game that plays the gamer … the gamer who is an avatar, in the sense of being the incarnation of an abstract principle.”[4] While Wark is levying this warning at the players of strategy games it could well be heeded by urban planning firms who find themselves enmeshed in the market forces and legalities that dictate the scope of most city-scale projects.

Urban Play

If strategy games and Utopian architectural proposals schematize the operation of the urban realm into an abstract diagram, what can gaming and architectural representation teach us about how we might “play” the city? Furthermore, how exactly can we define play? Quentin Stevens has identified the four elements of play as competition, chance, simulation and vertigo.[5] These criteria are useful because they invoke specific interactions – pick-up football, flash mobs, skateboarding and urban infiltration are examples of how the social contract of collectively regulated districts within the city could be challenged through intervention (broadly speaking, the system-fetish of Plug-In City and Civilization would fall under “simulation”). Computer games that foreground urban space employ competition, chance, simulation and vertigo as filters to re-present how the city looks, works and the terms by which it is engaged as a precisely calibrated control environment. In the context of the aforementioned Grand Theft Auto series, making the protagonist drive a car in a particular direction would initiate a number of operations – 3D models would be called from memory and appear on the horizon, a library of texture maps would be accessed to locate the “skins” for these models, new ambient activity would be set in motion and alternate missions or side-quests would become accessible. In this example (and countless other “sandbox” games set in an urban environment), the experience of the city emerges from the friction between the actions of the player and the underlying algorithmic language of the city. In a sense, the agency of the player is the catalyst that allows the city to happen, prompting it to awaken from a scripted, ambient state.[6] While play is clearly pivotal within gaming, to what degree can it be explored within architectural representation? One key project that we can consider is Bernard Tschumi’s Manhattan Transcripts. While this example is both idiosyncratic and far removed from standard architectural production, the manner in which it reconstructs the 20th century metropolis as an elaborate setpiece is an extremely provocative point of reference.

Manhattan Transcripts

Bernard Tschumi | The Manhattan Transcripts, Part 4 ‘The Block’

Part storyboard, part graphic treatise, the Manhattan Transcripts (1981) is a literal “play-book” examination of the narrative possibilities afforded by the drafting board. This collection of experimental drawings employed the Manhattan street grid as a framework through which to program a series of geometric and cinematic interventions. In Tschumi’s own words the project was a “book of architecture” rather than a “book about architecture”, a document charged by the rhythm of page turning, time and motion.[7] Divided into four sections, the Manhattan Transcripts examine familiar metropolitan areas such as the park, the street, the tower and the city block. Each of these thematic chapters functions as a staging ground for the serial recombination of photographs, architectural drawing conventions and diagrams to create dynamic urban notation. These vignettes draw much of their inspiration from the frame-by-frame language of film, but beyond the appropriation of this technique there is clearly a desire to reposition architectural discourse as an arena for abstract narrative. Flipping from page to page reveals a litany of congregations, betrayals and escapes—machinic streetscapes and tectonic choreography—that provide a post-cartographic representation of Manhattan. These drawings pulse with energy and do not so much depict the city, but our (untethered) imagination of it.

mirror's edge gameplay

Mirror’s Edge | 2008

Given the ascent of open world gaming and the fluid movement across architecture in titles like Assassin’s Creed, it was only a matter of time before gamers were wall running and vaulting their way through Sim Cities. Mirror’s Edge (2008), a first-person title published by Electronic Arts, was the first game explicitly focused on parkour and it explores the “art of movement” in a pristine, totalitarian cityscape. The game is defined through velocity and acrobatics – reaching a goal might entail sprinting across a rooftop, running up and launching off a wall, turning around 180 degrees while airborne and grabbing onto a ledge to hoist oneself upwards. The player might then break into a sprint, slide under a pipe (without breaking stride) and hurtle themselves off a rooftop to grab onto the ductwork of an adjacent office tower and then breach the building through the ventilation system. Urban infiltration is an apt frame through which to consider the city in Mirror’s Edge as the game revels in taking infrastructural and peripheral spaces such as rooftops, scaffolding, service corridors and sewers and subverting them into alternate means of circulation that are not navigable to the general populace or authorities. The game focuses on chance and vertigo that are cultivated through putting a body in motion to act as a real time cipher to circumvent architectures of control. This fixation on route, path and accessibility is hardwired into the “runner vision” of the urban courier protagonist; surfaces and architectural assemblies are codified – red objects denote routes while orange and yellow are used for wayfinding. This augmented perception neutralizes materiality and reads the city as a text – rather than merely inhabit architecture, a player must decipher and exploit it.

On close reading, the Manhattan Transcripts and Mirror’s Edge posit that the urban landscape should operate more like a complicated spatial puzzle than a simulation of everyday experience. Rather than consider the metropolis through a standard frame of reference, these examples take specific ephemeral themes (movement and desire) and uses these discourses as experiential building blocks to construct the city anew. Of the previously discussed four elements of play, these projects are particularly invested in using vertigo to defamiliarize conventional notions of the relationship between the body and the city. Whether careening across a rooftop or moving your eye across a diagram generated from a photograph of a crowd, these ventures are tools for drawing lines of force that cut through existing power structures and programmed space. To engage the Manhattan Transcripts or Mirror’s Edge is to maneuver – each of these endeavors calls on the player/viewer to take an active role in programming new routes through familiar spatial typologies.


In Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions (2000), Edward Soja describes how the simulation of cities serves as a “launchpad” into discussions about the “actual” hyperreality of everyday life in Los Angeles.[8] It follows that this position can be extended and a broad examination of games focused on the city can help us glean new insights about the manner in which we conceptualize and engage the urban realm. As outlined at the beginning of this essay, architectural representation does more than simply showcase specific design proposals, it provides a window into distinct synergies and modes of social organization. The views offered within these mediums might rest in the instrumentalization of municipal operations as an elaborate interface through which a user can “embody” the city, or they may provide an opportunity to step outside social convention and flex the imagination. Both (urban centric) gaming and architectural representation foreground the city as a site of production – a nuanced set of relationships to be parsed and explored. Precedents like Plug-In City, the Manhattan Transcripts, Civilization and Mirror’s Edge are useful because they each present the metropolis as a microcosm, an encapsulation of priorities, representational systems and desire. The infrastructuralist, the crazed voyeur, the despot and the traceur – these are all roles that are available to us if we choose to take them.

The coming years will undoubtedly yield scores of additional “new breed” projects like Here and There that further collapse the distinction between depictions of urban space in gaming, architecture and cartography. Given the ubiquity of mobile mapping tools, the adoption of GIS in architectural research and the nascent information overlays of augmented reality, it goes without saying that any reconsideration of “the image of the city” is now a transdisciplinary affair.

Grand Theft Auto City Scene

Grand Theft Auto IV | 2008

Piece originally published at Serial Consign (via) | Some Rights Reserved



1. Brown, Darius Jacob. “A Short History of Digital Gamespace” in Space Time Play. von Borries, Fredrich. Steffen P. Walz & Matthias Böttger (eds). Birkhäuser: Basel, 2007. pg. 26-31.
2. Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Control. (draft – dated Nov. 20, 2008) Pg. 76.
3. For more on the influence of Archigram on architectural representation see Robert Bruegman’s “The Pencil and the Electronic Sketchboard: Architectural Representation and the Computer” in Architecture and Its Image: Four Centuries of Representation (1989)
4. Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pg. 217.
5. Competition, chance, simulation and vertigo are adapted from Roger Caillois’ agôn, alea, mimicry, and Ilnix.
6. See Alexander Galloway’s “Gamic Action, Four Moments” in Gaming: Essays in Algorithmic Culture (2006) for a lucid account of the significance of ambient states in gaming.
7. Tschumi, Bernard. The Manhattan Transcripts. London: Academy Editions, 1994. Pg. 6.
8. See “Simcities: Restructuring the Urban Imaginary”, the 11th chapter of Soja’s Postmetropolis