mario_gerosa.jpgMario Gerosa is the Editor-In-Chief of Architectural Digest Italy, and has been a gamer for over 30 years. Earlier this year, he released Mondi Virtuali, a book he co-wrote with Aurélien Pfeffer about virtual worlds. Early last month, he published the Convention for the Protection of Virtual Architectural Heritage on his website. The convention details the need for the archiving of virtual architecture, particularly that of MMOs.

Amongst other things, the convention suggests starting a virtual museum, to be run by a commitee which Gerosa is in the process of setting up. GameSetWatch contacted Gerosa via email to discuss his plans, the necessity of documenting this work, and the problems involved.

(Click through to read the full feature, including plenty more info on 'virtual architecture' in games.)

Why is this convention necessary?

Because in virtual worlds we have many interesting architectures made either by programmers, either by the subscribers, and they risk to be destroyed or dismantled. It is a pity, because probably there will be no records of these architectures and few people will know them. In fact, generally, only people attending MMOGs know these buildings, but how many architectural critics know of their existence? This convention is also a way to give visibility to these new expressions of digital architecture, an important expression of the spirit of our time, valuable as the Piranesi etchings or the inventions of Sant’Elia, in a way.

What's your background as a gamer?

I love videogames. I am 43 and so you can imagine I have experienced a lot of videogames, from the arcades of the Seventies (I remember Flying Tigers) to Space Invaders, from Pong to Pac-Man. In the new era of videogames, from the Nineties, I will mention the masterworks of the saga of Myst (especially Riven), then a cult FPS like Duke Nukem, another great game, like Half-Life 2, but also the hi-tension game Fahrenheit. But also, Quake 4, F.E.A.R., The SIMS, Sim City. And naturally the MMOGs and the MMORPGs, from Entropia Universe, my favorite, to Second Life, to City of Heroes.

What's your background in architecture?

When I graduated, in 1988, I made a thesis about the imaginary places in Marcel Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu”. Since then, I have been studying imaginary and literary architectures. In particular, I studied literary hotels, and made an exhibition about the Grand Hotel de Balbec created by Proust. I also made a book about the architectural meaning of the houses of the “locked room murders” of John Dickson Carr. Among real life architecture, I like the creations of Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava. I interviewed some of these masters, since I am editor-in chief of Architectural Digest Italy.

What inspired you to draft this convention?

The Convention for the Protection of the Architectural Heritage of Europe, stipulated in Granada, in October 1985.

You mention that virtual environments "represent valid and new aesthetical forms", but are they as aesthetically and artistically valid as "real world" environments?

There are already some interesting examples to protect, and for them it would be necessary to create new aesthetic rules of judgment, that are not necessarily the ones corresponding to real life style. But you must also consider that probably in a future not so far in these virtual worlds will begin to arrive true artists and true architects. And they will have to compare themselves with these new kind of aesthetics. If a great designer or architect will decide to make something in these worlds, he will have to change a little his style to keep everything homogeneous: you have to respect the style of these worlds, also if you enrich them with a new cultural breath.

It's interesting that you would bring up the need for new rules in relation to games - one of the issues brought up by the whole "games as art" debate is the fact that maybe we don't have the vocabulary to correctly and intelligently criticise gaming properly yet.

Yes, actually, I think we cannot think to explain architectures and art objects created in virtual worlds using categories born for the artistic expressions of real world. For example, take the strange architectures of Second Life. You can’t use for them the classical styles, from gothic to baroque, to define them. Yes, probably you can talk of postmodern architectures, but this is too general, it would mean to simplify everything. The core of the question is that we need a new vocabulary for these artistic expressions and someone has also to historicize them. In fact, I am trying to make a preliminary approach to this theme in an essay that will be published next year.

What do you envision for the "digital architecture museum" you suggest? Something like the Internet Archive?

Well, the idea of a museum fits this project, but it would have not be merely a collection of images or 3D models. I think that these architectures give their best if seen in their environment. They must live, you must see them with their inhabitants. And there is another thing: most of the videogame architectures are full of devices (hidden doors, traps, pitfalls) and if you don’t see these devices work, you don’t experience these architectures. You see just half of their personality.

Actually, have you contacted the Archive about this?

For now, I am just contacting people interested in studying this new phenomenon: university professors, art critics, architects. I am trying to build a scientific committee. In the second phase I will begin to contact the software houses.

That's going to be difficult, trying to exhibit them in a way that people are still able to experience them. I assume this is something you're going to work out with the committee?

Probably one could create some in-game movies. That way one could see how these architectures are while inhabited and how their complex devices work. Imagine how interesting would be seeing movies of old buildings, showing how they were used and practiced. And I think you will agree that you understand more of old castles seeing movies set in Middle-Age, than visiting them in reality. Not too talk about the archaeological sites. If you see Ben-Hur of if you see the TV series Rome you understand much more of these places. The same counts for the videogames architectures.

Which games do you feel are particularly relevant to this convention?

Especially the MMOGs and the MMORPGs. All, without exception.

You've mentioned FPSs like Duke 3D and Quake, but do you think the architecture in, say, RPGs has the same value, or does the mulitplayer nature of MMOs make them more valuable?

I think that we should consider as many videogames as we can, but the priority goes to the ones where there is a personal contribution of the gamer. In MMOGs people often create by themselves new architectures. In these cases the works to protect are more relevant.

One of your points contains a number of ideas regarding crossovers that would be difficult to enact, given current copyright law. Is this something you see happening in an unofficial, or homebrew arrangement, rather than a commercial one?

As I told, in the second phase I will contact the producers and see what it is possible to do.

What kind of feedback have you had from this?

From the beginning I was encouraged by eminent personalities like economist Edward Castronova (who introduced me Sam Shahrani of the Indiana University, with whom I wrote the final version of the “Convention”) and Christiane Paul from the Whitney Museum. Then the Italian press seemed to be quite interested: there was an entire page in the science supplement of La Stampa, and another interesting feature in Il Sole 24 Ore, the Italian economical newspaper. But the Convention was also reported in many blogs.

What contribution did Sam Shahrani make?

Sam was very important for this project. He has a wide experience, either as a theorist, either as a game designer, and contributed to enucleate some crucial points of the Convention.

Have you had any nominations for the committee you plan on setting up?

I have many contacts, either in Italy, either in the USA and in France, where I am a member of the OMNSH, Observatoire des mondes numériques en sciences humaines. The names will come in the next months.

How urgent do you think this is?

Very urgent. Too much virtual architecture has already disappeared forever.

From MMOs that have closed down, for example?

Here there is one of the toughest problems of the whole question. As you see, in these cases everything becomes extremely difficult. In fact, for MMOGs that have closed down one should undertake an archaeological work, trying to see if someone has kept pictures of the architectures that were hosted there. One should also find people involved in the game design, as also people who played these games. But it is very complicated. And I think that here you posed the very central question and you raised the necessity of this convention. Imagine the difference between doing this work of protection for worlds and videogames that still exist and for the ones that have been dismantled and closed down. You can’t even think!