Gaming Meets Architecture in an Absurdist Political Fable

'Starry Heavens' is a large scale game installation where players negotiate a grid of steel disks.

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Sep 11 2015, 1:10pm


Starry Heavens. © Susana Raab

"The gamification of architecture" is a term pretty much no one wants to hear, so let's leave it here. But a recent installation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC combined the interactive elements of gaming with the spectacle of architecture. It's no surprise then that the piece, Starry Heavens, was a collaboration between a game designer, Eric Zimmerman, and an architect, Nathalie Pozzi.

The large-scale game installation, which takes its name from a line in German philosopher Immanuel Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, featured an inflatable white curve that snakes above participants' heads. Above is a star-shaped grid of black, white, and gray spots which players stand on. To move they're commanded where to go by a central "Ruler" who's the only person allowed to speak. The object is to overthrow this Ruler, who stands at the center, by collaborating with the other players. Players can join the game at any time.


The rules of Starry Heavens

Zimmerman and Pozzi first designed a game together in 2009 when they collaborated on a sport called BlockBall for the Come Out and Play festival. Zimmerman notes that Pozzi was "incredibly helpful in seeing the game in terms of space and the flow of human bodies."

For Starry Heavens, which the duo first designed for a MoMA event in 2011, the exhibition space has always played a major factor. "For the installation at the Smithsonian, the white curve was very much a response to the physical space," explains Pozzi to The Creators Project. "We wanted to design a visually striking element that connected the play on the ground with the stunning Kogod Courtyard. The curve serves as a theatrical backdrop for the project and also as the 'heavens' of the title, Starry Heavens. We should mention that the curve was fabricated with Erik van Dongen of Air Design Studio, and that Clara Ranenfir helped with the design."

It is at once a participatory public performance and a spectator sport, as both observed and observers are able to enjoy it. But the pair also say it works as a political fable, albeit abstracted, about power and control. "Starry Heavens tells an absurdist story of a pointless conflict. Players conspire with and against each other to overthrow a central Ruler, who commands where they can step. Whoever becomes the new Ruler takes over the nonsensical goal of trying to pull down a gigantic helium-filled balloon before they themselves get overthrown and replaced."


Starry Heavens panorama. © Jeff Gates

Along with the enjoyment of the participants, the collaborations have also been fruitful for the different disciplines—although outsiders may not immediately connect the two, pairing gaming with architecture has reaped many benefits. Zimmerman says there are "strange and wonderful overlaps" like the idea of "spaces of possibility": "The way an architect structures space through material is very much like the way a game designer structures behavior through game rules," Zimmerman explains. 

It's an interdisciplinary exchange that both Zimmerman and Pozzi will continue to explore, possibly one which could possibly have wider implications for each field. "Perhaps architecture can learn to think of itself as a responsive discipline that reflects its environment and its users in a more honest and immediate way," notes Pozzi. For Zimmerman, the permanency of architecture is something that has appeal for a culture like gaming. "Maybe games can learn to be less disposable," he says. "I love the idea of designing a game that—like a building—is meant to last for decades or centuries."


Starry Heavens. © Nathalie Pozzi


Starry Heavens. © Susana Raab


Starry Heavens. © Susana Raab


Starry Heavens. © Susana Raab

Click here to learn more about Starry Heavens.

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