Game Levels as Works of Art, Architecture and Design

Christopher W. Totten

Game Artist in Residence, American University

Christopher Totten is a game design professor and the founder of independent developer Pie for Breakfast Studios. He is also the founder of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Indie Arcade and an advocate for bringing games to museums and cultural institutions. Totten is an active writer in the game industry, author of two books: Game Character Creation in Blender and Unity (Wiley, 2012) and An Architectural Approach to Level Design (CRC, 2014) and editor of Level Design: Processes and Experiences (CRC, 2016). He has a Masters Degree in Architecture from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.



Games have become a novel medium for appreciation of the arts. Many herald their interactivity as a brave new art form, but game makers and fans know that games are more than just their mechanics. This article examines several points of view on games as art, not discussing whether they are, but rather how they are. It also digs deeper to explore how elements of games—artwork, sound, music, and so forth—can themselves be artworks. The article then uses the potential curation of such game elements to explore how game levels—the spaces that players explore as they play—may be considered artistic works. It does so by finding common ground between game levels and works of architecture and establishes several frameworks for understanding designed space: affect, storytelling, and symbolism, occurring in both games and architecture. Lastly, it describes how such game worlds may be curated and included in exhibitions, inviting new comparisons between games and other art forms to further expand our understanding of interactive media.



In the past several years, conversations surrounding games have shifted from whether games are art, to how they are and are not art. [1] Game designer and curator John Sharp divides games with artistic intentions into the categories “Game Art,” “Artgames,” and “Artists’ Games,” based on formal aesthetics: Game Art subverts the goals of games through borrowed subject matter, tools, and processes, Artgames engage subjects—poetry, painting, literature, or film—games often do not, and Artists’ Games provide a synthesis of the previous two goals respectively. [2] Critics like writer Cara Ellison focus on the human element of games as art: personal views of game creators, their approaches, and contextualizing their communities as “scenes.” [3] The question of whether games are art is gloriously fragged like so many Doom opponents by game designer Anna Anthropy, whose influential work champions games as a medium for expressing personal experiences and sounds a rallying cry for new creators. [4] Indeed, museums around the globe exhibit games with increasing frequency, with institutions such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art acquiring games for their permanent collections. [5]

Philosopher Brock Rough takes a different view regarding games and their classification as “art,” arguing that games themselves are not art when they act as systems players can master and win. However, he also argues that artistic works are defined by their relevant features, the elements contributing to a work’s appreciation and understanding. [6] Fan communities show that a game’s assets—the visual art, animations, music, audio effects, and designed worlds—may be considered independently, providing inspiration for fan art or musical covers. Game studios within the industry promote games via exhibitions of a game’s concept art—the artwork made to determine the visual identity of a game—and concerts of incidental game music performed by live orchestras.

These views differ from those of Sharp and game industry historians like Tristan Donovan, who discuss the aesthetics of games based on game design factors such as interactivity, mechanics, rewards, and other rule-based elements. [7] Regarding curation, the notion of games as collected works opens the possibility of showcasing game-related media such as concept art, two-dimensional game sprites, three-dimensional models, game music, and even fan art inspired by games. This mindset is already pervasive in fan-focused events like the annual Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest), an event showcasing fan artists and bands covering popular game music, or galleries like iam8bit that collect and showcase fan art.

Curatorial practices may also help game designers better classify areas for which they struggle to find descriptive language, such as level design, defined here as the creation of environments and contexts where players interact with a game. [8] Industry veteran Rudolf Kremers declares level design to be its own field related to, but separate from, game design. [9] Other authors go further, defining critical terms for the design of game levels and the creation of experiences for players through visual assets and architectural means. [10] This article discusses the elements that define level design as its own creative field within the game medium and proposes methods for exhibiting game worlds as works of art and design.


Historic precedents for game worlds as works of art

As a part of game design, level design has been lauded as “the most important job” [11] on a development team and “where the rubber hits the road” [12] because levels are the primary spaces in which players interact with all the game’s mechanics. Kremers calls levels “applied game design” for this reason, but this description fails to distinguish levels from the games in which they live. [13] Looking to Rough’s argument—that elements composing games are themselves individual works—one can find comparisons in art and design influencing game asset creation. As a field focused on the creation of interactive digital spaces, parallels may be found between level design and another discipline focused on the design of inhabitable spaces: architecture.

In the mainstream game industry, many environment artists and designers acknowledge the influence real-world architecture has on their own work. Many utilize the sculptural elements of famous buildings or styles to create epic backgrounds for their games, setting them in a specific period. [14] Rarer are the designers utilizing spatial and organizational principles of architecture in their work, using methods for ordering spaces and directing occupants’ experiences within. [15] These principles help architects create powerful and evocative spatial experiences, and it is common practice in architecture and other design fields to analyze the work of previous designers as a basis for their own decision-making. [16] Level designers who have learned these techniques have found powerful tools for both creation and analysis, generating works deserving critical consideration outside of their encompassing games. [17]

For both purposes—level design and the analysis of level design—histories of past works are invaluable resources for defining aesthetics and critical language. Level design, seen popularly as a part of game design rather than its own field, suffers from a lack of this sort of recording in ways that games themselves do not. Many games have what may be deemed “good level design,” but with few exceptions, individual levels are not curated to be precedents for future designers. [18] In this way, the connections between architecture and level design become increasingly important.


Architecture as fine art and design

Though there is some dissent over whether architecture is more art to be enjoyed for its own sake or as design meant for public utility, there is little debate as to its significance in the fine arts. [19] Richard Meier, a recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, considers architecture a superior art form for its relationship with the people inhabiting it. [20] Considered as design, architecture has the potential to make aesthetic contributions transcending utilitarian purposes, just as the Constructivist propaganda posters of El Lissitzky contributed to the canon of Suprematist “art only for art’s sake” works. Sociologist Richard Sennett puts this in more philosophical terms, stating that the built environment facilitates a unity of humans’ inner “subjective experience” with their “outer physical lives.” [21] Of ancient cultures, he argues that their architecture was built to represent not only their practical needs, but also spiritual and political ideals, a claim supported by evidence found in ancient tombs and monuments.

Like other forms of art and design, architecture has found its way into gallery exhibitions and curated collections. While many museums are themselves important architectural works, it is difficult to allow entire buildings to travel with an exhibition or store them away for preservation. Instead, institutions like the National Building Museum in Washington, DC and the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibit models, drawings, and photographs from built projects, as well as furniture and other architect-designed objects. [22] Institutions such as the National Holocaust Museum are themselves immersive environments meant to evoke emotions, stage encounters with the space, and provide resources for user-led storytelling through their arrangements of space and use of vernacular architecture. [23] In many ways, such museums blur the line between real-world space and gamespace in terms of the ways in which their construction creates designed experiences for users.


Architecture as level design

Finding comparisons between level design and architecture can add both legitimacy to level design as a cultural form and provide much-needed precedents from which a critical discourse of level design may be distilled. Many game designers express skepticism that level design can have a unifying body of theory due to the spatial gameplay requirements of different game genres, but how humans interact with space can influence how we understand the diversity of game world design. [24] While it is outside the scope of this article to provide a full history of architectural pieces that might provide a critical language for level design, spatial elements common in architectural works throughout history may help establish the discourse. The elements covered here will be architecture as affect, storytelling, and symbolism.

The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius considered venustas, or delight, to be among the most vital elements of architecture. [25] More recently, architect Grant Hildebrand outlined spatial elements that create pleasurable and comforting feelings in occupants, such as covered “refuge” spaces, protection from heights, and so forth. [26] Alternatively, game designers Salen and Zimmerman argued in Rules of Play that much of the pleasure of games comes from overcoming dangerous situations, experiences designed through the creation and placement of enemies and elevated environments providing no protection. [27] In these ways, delight can be created via a blending of functional forms and “subjective experience,” as described by Sennett. [28] For example, architect Philip Webb cast ordered form aside in building his Arts and Crafts architectural icon Red House, designing the structure for the lifestyle of the building’s occupant, William Morris. Decades later, Louis Sullivan, the creator of the modern skyscraper, unknowingly foreshadowed Kremers’ game mechanics definition of level design in a now-famous quotation regarding how the shape of a design should be derived from its use: “Form ever follows function.” Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier would later call the house a “machine for living in,” to which one level designer, alluding to Salen and Zimmerman’s “pleasure from danger” concept, added “living, dying, and creating tension by exploiting everything in-between.” [29] Architecture and level design may have different methods for achieving pleasure and delight, but both do so with spatial compositions meant to affect occupants. These are elements of what I am calling “architecture as affect,” where space design is a response to experiential goals.

Story, or the construction of functional spaces created for religious or cultural significance, relates to the third part of the taxonomy, “architecture as symbolism.” Following from Hildebrand’s assertion regarding architectural pleasure, noteworthy historic architecture creates experiences we might associate with modern game environments. Throughout history, architecture has been used for purposes of storytelling, symbolism, representation, calibrating to the habits of owners or building astonishment in inhabitants. [30] In this way, built space takes on a narrative purpose of the kind found in story-heavy games, becoming “architecture as storytelling.” For example, Gothic churches taught an illiterate populace Biblical stories through ornament and images in stained glass. Japanese gardens mimic natural landscapes in miniature via meticulously-arranged features, such as carefully-placed stones representing mountains, taking visitors on philosophical and aesthetic journeys meant to cleanse them of the outside world. [31] Mesopotamians desired much of the same, the building design of their temples and ziggurats symbolically elevating inhabitants to become nearer to their gods and characterize the mountains from which city dwellers migrated. Ancient structures in what is now the United Kingdom were constructed with specific sightlines and lighting conditions in mind; letting light into a tomb at a specific time of day gave occupants the best view of astrological phenomena. The self-same Gothic churches embedding narrative information in relief sculpture and stained glass also utilized linear elements to draw visitors’ eyes upward, towards the heavens. Stained glass created an ethereal lighting effect known as lux nova, meant to evoke the kingdom of Heaven.

Given that all game levels, even those representing natural environments, are designed spaces, all methods found in architectural works can and have been used in digital game worlds. Game assets are themselves digital representations of real objects, and with the rise of expressive games, they take on more symbolic significance; in works like Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter (2016), certain assets evoke part of the creator’s life. [32] In level design, assets are arranged and manipulated to create spaces providing narrative context to the actions of players. In a more visceral way, stealth games like Arkane Studios’ Dishonored (2012) or IO Interactive’s Hitman: Absolution (2012) utilize Hildebrand’s notion of safe “refuges” and unsafe “prospect” spaces where players are exposed to enemies to create tension. [33]


Level design: contributions and curation

We are just beginning to see proposals of how players may engage with the assets comprising games—art assets, musical compositions, audio design, levels, and so forth—as self-contained artworks. [34] Where critics previously focused on the expressive power of games’ interactivity, we now see them take larger interest in things like the evolution of visual styles in games and other aesthetically-driven aspects of game production. [35] In the case of level design, we have seen that game environments have much in common with the aesthetic and experiential factors of architecture. While previous sections have outlined their similarities, it is also worth exploring the ways in which differences between architecture and game levels reveal levels as potentially engaging exhibition objects.

The difficulty of exhibiting architecture is both in its physical size and experiential nature; viewers need to inhabit works to truly understand the experiences they create. In many ways, a similar challenge is faced by games in the museum environment, as galleries such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum struggle with whether to let visitors play their games. [36] Exhibitions of game levels may begin with the was that architecture has answered such questions. As the Museum of Modern Art and National Building Museum display the models and construction documents for architecture, galleries can display game levels similarly: visitors may gain insight into the game-making process and learn how levels are made from gameplay-focused prototypes made of gray boxes to compelling interactive worlds filled with interesting artwork. [37]

Art of Video Games curator Chris Melissinos highlighted another aspect of game worlds that differentiate them from real-world architecture when he said games were “literally an alternate universe behind glass,” describing game worlds existing as data on computers. [38] For displaying game worlds, this has important implications. First, it means that unlike architecture, game worlds can be easily collected and transported. While design documents can be a useful supplement to the works themselves, game worlds benefit from being interacted with and inhabited by players. Game levels in museum exhibits may be shown and interacted with freely via either interactive or video formats. Game historian Daniel Greenberg also suggests that modified versions of games may also aid the effort of curating games, allowing game level portions to be replayed multiple times in quick succession to highlight specific content. [39] As many popular games are the work of studios still in operation, these types of modifications could be developed in concert with the game creators themselves.

Likewise, game worlds exist in spaces not governed by real-world considerations like physics or time. Game industry veteran Ernest Adams discusses how game worlds such as the version of Chernobyl seen in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (GSC Game World, 2007) might be an important work in its own right by preserving a physically inaccessible location of historical significance. [40] The work of Atelier Ten Architects in Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003) features structures built without the restrictions of gravity and other natural forces. Showcasing these interactive worlds emphasizes ways these works are impossible outside of games contexts, providing new contributions to art and design not otherwise possible.



In focusing on games merely as works of interactivity and mechanic design, we ignore the art contributing to a game’s overall experience—art assets, music, sound, environments, and so forth—created by professionals with their own deep knowledge of fine art and design fields. Game levels are but one type of work within games that may be studied for both their contributions to games and for their own contributions to the cultural canon. One method for distilling the works within games is to contextualize them not only among other games, but within broader histories of the fine arts and design. In these fields, designers may find inspiration for new works from a legacy of past games. Likewise, game studies professionals may find missing pieces of the critical language being developed for games and other interactive artworks.

For these reasons, level designers and architects should find ways to express this common ground. I have discussed a range of museums and cultural institutions that have curated games. A logical next step would be exploring the game design process further by exhibiting game components, like game levels. The taxonomy of architecture as effect, storytelling, and symbolism apparent in game worlds and architecture may engender a united art critical discourse for game worlds.

Likewise, setting a precedent for finding critical language in other arts fields may provide a template for future efforts to add to the lexicon of game design. For level design, real-world architecture holds one such source of knowledge providing both design precedent and opportunities for appreciation, but others may be inspired by theater, sculpture, or any other number of disciplines. By exploring connections between these fields further, other links may be found between the works that create games and the broader canons of art and design.



1. Roger Ebert, “Okay, Kids, Play on My Lawn,” Roger Ebert’s Journal, 2010,

2. John Sharp, Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

3. Cara Ellison, Embed with Games (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2015).

4. Id Software, Doom, 1993; Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-Outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012).

5. “Smithsonian American Art Museum Acquires Video Games,” Smithsonian Newsdesk, 2013,; Paola Antonelli, “Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters,” Inside/Out, 2012,

6. Brock Rough, “Why Video Games in Art Museums Still Aren’t Art,” 2014,

7. Sharp; Tristan Donovan, Replay: The History of Video Games (East Sussex, UK: Yellow Ant, 2010).

8. Ernest W. Adams, Fundamentals of Game Design, 2nd Edition (New York: New Riders, 2009), xxii.

9. Rudolf Kremers, Level Design: Concept, Theory, & Practice (Boca Raton, FL: AK Peters/CRC Press, 2009), ix.

10. Christopher W. Totten, An Architectural Approach to Level Design (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2014), 91.

11. Marc Saltzman, “Secrets of the Sages: Level Design,” Gamasutra, July 23, 1999,

12. Sam Shahrani, “Educational Feature: A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer Games–Pt. 1,” Gamasutra, April 25, 2006,

13. Kremers, 18.

14. “God of War 3 Bonus Features - Environment Art,” SCE Santa Monica, 2010,

15. Totten, An Architectural Approach to Level Design, PAGE.

16. Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); Eric Jenkins, Drawn to Design (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhauser, 2013), 39.

17. Fernando Bueno, The Art of Halo 3 (Roseville, CA: Prima Games, 2008).

18. Saltzman, 1999.

19. Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 105; Lance Hosey, “Why Architecture Isn’t Art (and Shouldn’t Be),” ArchDaily, 2016,

20. Richard Meier, “Is Architecture Art?” Big Think, 2007,

21. Richard Sennett, The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992), xii.

22. Charles Hind and Irena Murray, “Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey,” (Washington, DC: National Building Museum, 2010).

23. Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 118-30.

24. Adams, Fundamentals of Game Design, xxii.

25. Michael W. Fazio, Marian Moffett, and Lawrence Wodehouse, A World History of Architecture, 2nd edition (Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2008), 5.

26. Grant Hildebrand, Origins of Architectural Pleasure (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 46.

27. Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (MIT Press, 2003), 334.

28. Sennett, xii.

29. Christopher W. Totten, “Designing Better Levels through Human Survival Instincts,” Gamasutra, June 21, 2011,

30. Totten, An Architectural Approach to Level Design, 4-27.

31. Chaim Gingold, “Miniature Gardens and Magic Crayons: Games, Spaces, Worlds” (master’s thesis, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2003); David A. Slawson, Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens (New York: Kodansha America, 1987), 79.
32. Chris Priestman, “Hyper Light Drifter: How Heart Disease Inspired One of 2016’s Great Games,” The Guardian, June 2, 2016,

33. Hildebrand, 22.

34. Gerald Farca, “The Emancipated Player” (paper presented at the 1st International Joint Conference of DiGRA and FDG, Dundee, Scotland, August 1-6, 2016).

35. Jesper Juul, “High-Tech Low-Tech Authenticity: The Creation of Independent Style at the Independent Games Festival,” In Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, 2014,

36. Christopher W. Totten, Drew Robarge, and Kaylin Lapan, “Games+ Museums” (presented at Games+ Summit, Washington, DC, 2016).

37. David Hodgeson, Half Life 2: Raising the Bar (Roseville, CA: Prima Games, 2003).

38. T.C. Sottek, “The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian: Still in Beta,” The Verge, 2012,

39. Daniel Greenberg, “Lessons from Let’s Plays,” MAGFest 2017,

40. Ernest W. Adams, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl: Ludic Space as Memorial,” in Space Time Play, eds. Friedrich Von Borres, Steffen P. Walz, and Matthias Böttger (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag AG., 2007), 458-60.