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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Action Morphs Into Art

Video games appear in museum exhibits, and scholars scrutinize them as they would film or literature. But some say the true meaning is play.

March 26, 2004|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Three decades after "Pong" ricocheted into popular culture, video games are bouncing into the rarefied world of fine art.

A vocal clique of academics, curators and critics is asking whether digital muscleman Duke Nukem deserves the same study and reverence as, say, a Degas sculpture.

The movement has given birth to college classes deconstructing the symbolism in digital dollhouses such as "The Sims," academic papers exploring the "aporia and epiphany" in shoot-'em-up games like "Doom," and exhibits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

"Games are a powerful, artistic medium just now coming to maturity," said Rene de Guzman, visual arts curator for the Yerba Buena Center. Together with Stanford University, the gallery is hosting an exhibit called "Bang the Machine: Computer Gaming Art and Artifacts" that runs through April 4.

"They're a form of interactive storytelling," De Guzman said. "There's performance involved when you play the game. And they obviously have powerful visual elements. I think some games are, frankly, very beautiful."

It is a sensibility that strikes some in the game world as off the wall.

"Trying to strap meaning onto entertainment sometimes can be ridiculous," said Rand Miller, chief executive of Cyan Worlds Inc., a game development studio in Spokane, Wash., and co-creator of "Myst," a visually arresting game that set new standards for artistry. "When I see a magic show in Vegas, the last thing I want is a silly attempt to attach deeper meaning."

But scholars say video games are an emerging art form, whether their creators recognize it or not.

"There were lots of filmmakers in the early years who also felt that what they were doing wasn't art, that it was just entertainment," said Chris Swain, who teaches game design at USC's School of Cinema-Television, which offers a master of fine arts degree in game studies. "Over time, film became legitimized as an artistic medium because there were people who wanted to push things forward. The same will happen with games."

Until the mid-1990s, video games were relatively crude diversions. Graphics were blocky and clunky. Music was little more than repetitive ditties of pings and beeps. Plots were simple: Shoot the aliens, eat the ghosts. The focus was on high scores, not high art.

Since then, the proliferation of cheap, powerful microprocessors has permitted movie-quality sound and visuals on $200 game consoles. Games now boast special effects, lengthy scripts with elaborate plot twists, original soundtracks and voice-overs by professional actors. Imagination, not technology, defines a game's limits.

Few games illustrate this evolution better than "Return to Castle Wolfenstein," issued in 2002 by John Carmack, a programmer whose "Doom" franchise of games is among the best-known in the industry. Carmack's company, Id Software in Mesquite, Texas, has sold millions of copies of "Doom" since its release in 1994.

The original "Castle Wolfenstein," created in 1983 by the late Silas Warner, an early innovator in game design, was a simple adventure through an ancient castle crawling with Nazis. The enemy soldiers were two-colored stick figures with pixelized swastikas on their chests. The biggest technological feat in the game was that the Nazis barked commands in digitized German.

Carmack's version -- "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" -- borrows more from cinema. The game is what's known as a first-person shooter, meaning players see the action on screen as if they are in the game, standing in the shoes of its hero, Army Ranger B.J. Blazkowicz.

Meticulous programming allows the three-dimensional world to pivot as players make Blazkowicz run, dive and duck through a labyrinthine castle. Physics dictate the trajectory of bullets fired from Blazkowicz's gun and how flickering torches cast shadows in dank corridors. Impossibly complicated subroutines manage the artificial intelligence of Nazi goons who decide whether to stand their ground or run.

"My personal work is engineering," Carmack said. "If you squint real hard, you can see some elements of artistry in almost any engineering effort, but styling it as art is usually an excuse to avoid rigor."

But if art is, as novelist Leo Tolstoy once observed, the passing of an experience from one person to another, "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" cannot so easily be dismissed as simple engineering.

Celia Pearce found the game so engrossing that it drowned out the Friday afternoon hum outside her Venice loft. Pearce, an instructor of game design at UC Irvine, navigated the game's gothic dungeons on her custom-built laptop. Down a flight of stairs, she noticed the gossamer cobwebs tucked in a corner.

"From a graphics perspective, I think this is beautiful," Pearce said.

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