clock menu more-arrow no yes
A woman stares at a balcony Remedy Entertainment/505 Games via Polygon

Filed under:

Video game design has tragically changed how I look at the world

The spaces in which we live and learn now seem ready for violence

After a decade of playing cover shooters, I’ve finally figured out how to see past the decoration.

Today’s genre flagships are aesthetically lavish. Even Gears of War, previously lampooned for its colorless palette, has evolved into something both vibrant and beautiful. But for all the artists’ work, I still see the levels utility-first. No matter how gorgeous the level, I can always tell which pieces of geometry the game wants me to take cover behind — and because I’m playing a shooting game, I happily oblige.

However, the fact that I can internalize a virtual world’s purpose so easily makes me worry about how we may unwittingly change our behavior to fit a space’s design. Because with growing frequency, our real life is designed for violence as well.

This essay on real-life school design as it relates to video games was written as a companion piece to the video above, also created by Jacob Geller.


Fruitport High School is set to open in Michigan in 2021, and it boasts features reminiscent of the shooting games I’m so familiar with. Impact-resistant glass. Limited sightlines. Hard concrete wings that shelter the hallways. It’s at the forefront of a new trend in American school construction: designing to minimize fatalities in the case of a shooter.

In the past decade, Americans have experienced at least 180 shootings in K-12 schools across the country. 2018 was the most lethal year yet: 37 killed and 68 injured from 29 separate incidents. Despite this, and the Federal Commission on School Safety’s consensus that the availability of firearms is the biggest contributing factor to the shootings, scant legislation has meaningfully addressed the prevention of these incidents. As such, some school architects feel they have no other choice but to design as if a shooting is an inevitability.

Not every new school tackles this challenge in the same way. Some, like Southwestern High School in Indiana, lean into militarism. Billed by NBC as “the safest school in America,” Southwestern’s halls are dotted with cameras that feed directly to the nearby sheriff’s department.

Teachers wear panic buttons, and each classroom has a black box that can be used to signal for help– or more disturbingly, “medical attention.” Perhaps most carceral are the school’s smoke cannons built into the ceiling. The sheriff’s department can remotely trigger the cannons, filling the hallways with a dense smoke, ideally disorienting a shooter.

Other schools attempt to design more invisibly. Sandy Hook elementary school was completely remodeled after the shooting in 2012, but the new look doesn’t immediately betray its tragic past. Architect Jay Brotman took efforts to make the building feel natural: the entrance is beautifully finished wood, hallways incorporate themes of nature, and most rooms are bathed in natural light. “You’re not going to raise a good person in a prison,” Brotman said on his design philosophy.

But behind the organic facade, the school knows that it has to prepare for the worst. All doors can be electronically locked at the push of a button, that natural light flows in through bulletproof windows, and the school has a literal moat built around the outside.

We know what spaces designed for gunfire look like

When I read about these schools, I can’t help but think of different methods of video game level design. Some cover shooters, like the original Gears of War or Platinum’s Vanquish, barely disguise the utility of their worlds at all. Gears of War helped usher in the trope of “waist-high cover” by building worlds almost exclusively populated by short stone walls meant to be crouched behind.

The design, while not particularly naturalistic, clearly communicates what’s expected of a player. Levels built like this indicate that gameplay comes first. The breakneck pace of Vanquish means that any second trying to figure out a level’s geometry is a second spent not getting a high score. Likewise, running between cover in Gears of War feels like bowling in a bowling alley; what else would I be expected to do here?

Other games, like Max Payne 3, create much more naturalistic environments. An office in Max Payne 3 feels startlingly legitimate. Papers are piled convincingly on desks and cubicles are arranged in a logical fashion. Absent any context, the game’s locations could be mistaken for high-end architectural renders.

When violence broke out in these locales though, I quickly learned that the hallmarks of shooting game level design were still present. It only took a few minutes for my brain to translate the desks and cubicles into the same kind of waist-high cover I knew from Gears of War. Max Payne 3 initially feels architecturally innocent, but it’s not. The sightlines are too controlled, the entry and exit points are too deliberately placed. Under the layers of aesthetic and decoration, this game’s world was designed for violence as well.

Consciously or not, we take behavioral cues from the spaces we spend time in. It couldn’t be more obvious in games; a level in Gears of War shows us that the only way forward is through flanking and cover. Even the organic-feeling spaces of Max Payne 3 fade into shooting galleries.

Schools aren’t being built for shooters, which is how game design treats its environments. Instead, they’re being built for defense, to make it harder for someone to use the environment to be a more effective shooter and easier for students and educators to take cover. These designs are largely meant to be invisible unless they should become necessary, but whether we understand it consciously or not, we still know why these decisions were made, and we can still feel what the design is trying to avoid, versus what it’s trying to encourage.

Fruitport High School has cover built into the walls. Sandy Hook has cameras covering every angle of the building. Southwestern has red lines on the floor for students to crouch behind, indicating what parts of the room aren’t visible from the door. And in schools across America, students practice active shooter drills, piling desks around the door and then falling silent as an administrator shakes the handle.

Little research has been done on the efficacy of these preparations for shootings— they’re just too recent to have meaningful data. But we do know that metal detectors, a longstanding feature of some public schools, have been shown to increase feelings of fear and insecurity among students. Students can sense the implication behind the security measures; they understand the purpose of the space.

I adore the feeling of mastering an environment in shooting games, but seeing those design trends reflected in educational environments sends a chill down my spine. Although I’m sure they’re built with the best intentions, I can’t help but worry about this architectural trend. If these spaces are where kids spend their formative years, what does that do to their perception of the world? What do continuous reminders of the possibility of violence do to a 14-year-old? How do students develop in a building where the very walls are built to shelter them from a hail of bullets?