In 1994, my mother, a working interior designer, decided to jump on the home computing bandwagon and get 3D Home Architect (opens in new tab). The Broderbund program was part of an uneasy, curious wave of computer-aided design (CAD) software tailored to the burgeoning home market (opens in new tab)—the average joe looking to refresh and refresh in an exciting new digital world. I was already familiar with floor plans and architectural drawings from watching my mother at her drawing table. My mother made a valiant effort to get used to the program, but as a staunch traditionalist she eventually returned to working with her trusty pencil and paper. Suddenly, 3D Home Architect, which my parents didn’t consider a video game (and therefore not something to worry about), was all mine.
Decades later, I’ve sunk oceans of time arranging furniture in Animal Crossing and laying out my free company room in Final Fantasy 14. In games, especially life sims, interior design can be a dangerous path to a place where time stands still. But in the beginning, the world of digital home design was a very different animal: easy-to-use consumer CAD programs that shaped a generation of home computer users.
“When these products first came out in the 1990s, people wanted to play with them because they literally allowed you to do things on a computer that were previously impossible…it felt like being part of the ‘future ‘ to be,” says Dr. Laine Nooney (opens in new tab), which specializes in the historical, cultural and economic analysis of the video game and home computer industries. Like me, Nooney has strong memories of their mother playing with 3D home design and landscaping programs in the mid-to-late ’90s as their family went through a period of upward mobility.
“Even in the mid-’90s, only about a third of American households had a computer. Journalists, investors, and innovators went to great lengths to convince people that a home computer was a must-have or a must-have,” explains Nooney. “The idea of home computing was not simply about having a computer at home. It was a cultural attraction, asking users to imagine one’s life as available for expansion through computing.”
Even with its blocky, unsophisticated graphics, 3D Home Architect was, in my eyes, a gateway drug to the purely raw idea of a fantasy home. Some of its software siblings, like Sierra CompleteHome, had cost-estimating tools, which I blithely ignored. After all, I was a kid, and if I could build a huge and physically impossible mansion with the best materials available, by god, I would. It was the first time I was able to experiment with a digital space without limits – far from the physical limitations of my Barbie Dream Cottage (opens in new tab)who never seemed to have enough room.
On the gaming front, I’ve already blown through 1991’s Jones in the Fast Lane, Sierra Entertainment’s bitterly funny social life sim where you start out in a messy, run-down apartment and work your way up to a luxury apartment. It offered a basic screen showing your home, crammed with hard-earned furniture and electronics, but there was no control over where to place items or modification options.
While ‘playing’ 3D Home Architect, I treated it as a free-form game of imagining hypothetical homes of the future for myself and fictional characters. Maxis began churning out more focused Sim games that took a more nuanced approach to life simulation on a smaller scale, such as SimTower (opens in new tab)— the first Sim game that really prompted me to get psyched about how and where I placed various amenities in the titular skyscraper.
Unlike SimCity 2000, it was both a literal and figurative close-up of modern life, exemplified by the glamor and futurism of the high format. There was also a much more visceral, emotional connection between the residents depicted on screen and the environment – for the first time I really had to think about where I put restaurants and entertainment facilities, as well as the lifts in the building (if the residents waited too long or grew too impatient, they would simply flash out of existence in a red rage.
The psycho-spatial, psycho-geographic aspect in social/life sim games really came to a head when Maxis released The Sims in 2000. Admittedly, it was a bewildering time for adults struggling to parse this new cultural phenomenon (opens in new tab)including the idea that you had to make a comfortable space for computer people to thrive in. For kids like Sophie Mallinson who grew up watching home design shows, it was a no-brainer.
One of Mallinson’s earliest computer memories was the free CD-ROM demos of home design programs that came with her mother’s home decorating magazines. “While these products were obviously aimed at adults, with bland aesthetics and built-in cost estimates, everything on the computer was a game to me at eight years old,” says Mallinson, who now works as a simulation game designer at Maxis. “I remember being blown away by the ability to navigate a realistic 3D environment, my imagination running wild as I created rooms for imaginary characters and devised a backstory for each house.”
In 2000, drawn to the allure of homemaking and the imaginative power of home design, Mallinson decided to get The Sims, which quickly became her favorite game. “Not only was I able to design houses using a wide catalog of furniture, from heart-shaped beds to bouncy chairs, but everything was interactive,” she says. “I could see my Sims using every item I thoughtfully picked out and living their lives in the space I created for them.”
Mallinson, who recently bought her first home, recreated the floor plan in The Sims 4 to play around with renovation ideas. “It’s funny to think that I used to play with interior design software, and now I’m using a video game to plan my own home,” she says, adding that she’s constantly thinking of better, more accessible ways to express The Sims’ core integrate components—architecture and house design—into gameplay.
Now, concepts of home, home decorating, and customizable living have become familiar features in everything from fantasy RPGs and chilling mysteries to dedicated interior design mobile games. The role of 3D home design programs in cultivating this standard, as well as their impact on a generation of game designers and simulation fans who grew up fascinated with things like 3D Home Architect, remains largely unexamined. Although there hasn’t been much research in this area, Laine Nooney believes there are some “interesting resonances” between the way games approach room or unit composition, and the way 3D home design programs view our homes as units of sharable space. presented.
“I think we seriously misunderstand video game and computer history when we draw very firm lines between games and other types of software,” says Nooney, who suggests that these programs can be considered among the first “sandbox” 3D versions available to the average. home computer user. Ultimately, in our search for human fascination and the cultural appeal of computers, early novelty software like 3D Home Architect has not received nearly enough credit for their influence in modern game design. “Interestingly, I think we’re seeing a return of these kinds of tools in the form of augmented reality provided by furniture and home decor retailers,” adds Nooney. “In its own way, novelty never seems to get old.”