Notice Something New

I used to play a game with myself while waiting to get picked up from school. I spent a lot of time in the same small spaces. Pre-smartphone (what am I saying? Pre-Internet) this meant reading or doing homework or simply sitting. Staring. I don’t recall exactly when, but at some point I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed before in months and months of sitting in that very space.

More than 20 years away from that moment, I don’t have even a foggy recollection of what that first thing I noticed was. I do recall that it occurred to me… ‘I don’t know this place as well as I thought I did.’ So I started trying to notice new things. This extended reasonably quickly into connected spaces and poking around, opening doors and generally being curious about my environment.


I ended up studying architecture in school (a surprise to no one) and loved it. That curiosity about and observation of the physical environment has served me well as a game developer and level designer. Studying architecture deepened that appreciation and a love of the physicial environment, built and natural, is something I enjoy sharing with my students. (that reminds me, I do need to cut some slides still from my ‘history of western architecture’ lecture… AHEM)

It struck me during one of my level design classes when I was talking to individuals and giving feedback to them on terrains they were constructing that, in general, folks who enjoyed the outdoors and hiked made better terrains.

This may seem so obvious as to be not worth stating, but it is important to set up what followed.

A class hike. Outside.

There is a famous ridge in Los Angeles. It’s called the Cahuenga Ridge. It’s got other names but I like seeing and saying ‘Cahuenga.’ Cahuenga. Cahuenga. Cahuenga. (I say: kuh-HWHANG-uh) You might recognize it:


The trailhead to hike up to the sign is, no joke, ten minutes from the Los Angeles Film School (where I teach a Level Design course). I used to live in close walking distance to this trailhead and — shame on me — never did the hike while I lived there.

And so, the idea struck. If my students are going to be modelling nature, they should see some nature while it’s relevant to them and in the context of mining it for inspiration.

In 2015, we did two class hikes. The trail we use leads up the west side of the ridge, VERY up, for about 0.75 miles to ‘The Wisdom Tree.’

The radio towers on the right hand side are right by the Hollywood sign.

On the ascents (when I wasn’t gasping for breath like a geriatric ox) we discussed the erosion patterns (or, as I like to call it ‘the story of water’), how the shape of the trail has emotional impact, lines of sight, plant life, the history of the site that we could piece together, how birds are total cheaters and what those strange tents were (still not sure, they’re part of a vinyard).

We didn’t have a great turnout for those two hikes, two students on each trip. But it was a good time and in 2016, I’m throwing the doors wide to LAFS students and my USC students.


So far, there haven’t been enough hikes or enough hikers to tell if it’s had any sort of impact on the levels the students make. This hike, while beneficial, isn’t for credit or even extra credit. It’s rather an extension of that philosophy of absorption, observation and curiosity. We do a similar ‘hike’ in the class around the building and talk about construction details and the ‘story’ embedded in the environment. Plus, it’s fun!

I’m looking forward to this.


Author: Karen M

Game designer and instructor.

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