What I Learned About Interior Design from Living with a Video Game Designer

What I learned about interior design from living with a video game designer
Photo: Chris Liverani

My husband designs video games for a living, and over the years, I've realized that video game design and interior design actually have a surprising amount of overlap. Room designers and game designers are both designing experiences for people to interact with, and though they may have very different end goals, some of the principles are the same.                 

 Even though I'm not a gamer myself, I have played the games my husband has worked on, and we're not talking about Tetris here. These are games that feature detailed 3-D environments, but when you're running around shooting virtual enemies, it's easy to overlook how much thought and effort went into designing the spaces. Just as with interior design, though, good design can make or break a space. 

Storytelling with a Space

The types of games my husband Steven designs rely heavily on "environmental storytelling," or using a space to tell a story. Even in games with combat and fantastical settings, it was important to him to create an environment that told you something about the (fictional) person who used the space. So if you looked around the office of the mad scientist character, you might find evidence of her family or hobbies. He even made an entire combat-free game set in a house that you explore to find out what happened to the family who lived there. The documents and objects that they left behind told their stories.

Exposure to this type of storytelling has made me realize how much you can learn about people from their rooms, and how much you can choose to tell people with yours. Pick a room in your home, and think about what an observant person could learn from it about you without even snooping.  Everything from your choice of furniture to your art and knick knacks tells a story about the room and the people who use it. And great interior designers use this to their advantage, telling an interesting story entirely through a space. 

The Importance of Lighting

I have a vivid memory of the night Steven came home near midnight after putting in extra hours on the game he was working on, furious because someone he was working with had lit an area exclusively with bright overhead lighting. He explained that aside from looking terrible, even, bright lighting did nothing to draw the player's attention to areas of importance. Suddenly I understood why he usually left overhead lights off and used only task lamps whenever possible in real life. 

Morning light streaming through a window
Photo: Holly Stratton

And so years later, when we bought our first house, I wasn't surprised that one of the first things he wanted to do was add dimmer switches to every room. Yes, most rooms should have the option of bright overhead lighting in case you drop a contact lens or something, but I've learned that soft overhead lighting, with several smaller light sources throughout a room, is a much more aesthetically-pleasing way to light a room. It's more interesting, too, allowing you to create depth within a room and draw attention to areas you want to highlight.

Another important aspect of lighting is the light color. Since you can choose the exact color of the light in a virtual space, Steven became picky about the color of light sources in real life, too. Honestly, I hadn't paid much attention to the color cast of different types of light bulbs until he mentioned it, but after we switched to full-spectrum bulbs, I had to admit that he was right: The light color made a big difference to the comfort and appearance of a room. 

Function Follows Form 

A badly-designed video game is one in which it isn't clear to the player what they're supposed to do. It's the game designer's job to teach the player how to interact with the game. And in many ways, it's an interior designer's job to show people how to interact with the room they're in. With a bedroom or living room, it's generally pretty obvious, but a designer's choices in a space like a kitchen or bathroom can really affect functionality. 

Clumsily-designed kitchen space
Not how I would design a kitchen! Photo by Kipras Štreimikis.

If you were working in the kitchen above for the first time, where all of the drawers and doors have a pull, you wouldn't immediately know whether to pull or swing open the doors. Yeah, you would get used to it eventually, but it's clumsy design. If it were a video game where you needed to push a different button depending on how the cabinet needed to be opened, it would be frustrating to play, and the designer would be at fault.

When we were choosing cabinet and drawer pulls for our kitchen, Steven pointed out that the cupboard hardware should match the functionality. So any door or drawer that needed to be pulled got a pull handle, but doors got a knob. Consistency is key! 

Surprising things video game design and interior design have in common
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