AN FRANCISCO --
THERE she was again. Lara Croft, the virtual character who has conquered
the video game world, has appeared on magazine covers and has even
been portrayed on film by Angelina Jolie, was up there on a big
screen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But this film
loop showed her dying as she was pierced by arrows — and then dying,
and dying again, endlessly.
It wasn't a side of Lara Croft that publicists dream of showing
the public, but rather "Flames," a 1997 work by Miltos Manetas,
a Greek-born artist based in New York and Los Angeles who makes
prints, paintings and video loops based on video games.
Mr. Manetas is far from alone in his endeavors. A global assortment
of media artists, hackers, gamers and social activists have been
using the video game medium for years to engage a younger, hipper
audience, and museums have begun to take notice.
Jon Haddock's Screenshots, a series of gamelike re-creations of
famous journalistic photographs, made it into the recent "BitStreams"
show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. An exhibition
called "Game Show" is under way at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary
Art in North Adams. And a three-day "ArtCade" show last month at
the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art displayed game modifications
next to vintage arcade games and presented a provocative panel discussion
of artists and game-design pioneers.
"ArtCade" included playable works of art like Thomson & Craighead's
"Trigger Happy," a Space Invaders-style game in which players fire
at words from Michel Foucault's 1977 essay "What Is an Author?"
The founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, who kicked off the video game
craze nearly 30 years ago with Pong, was the lead speaker, and some
of his early creations, including the Pong Console No. 47 arcade
model from 1972, were on display.
Mr. Bushnell said he did not believe that a good game had to rely
on good art: building tension is more important. But other panelists
were critical of the video game business for its reliance on game
formulas like first-person shooter, third-person perspective and
"I see things in modern art that I'd like to see in video games,"
said Lev Manovich, a writer, artist and associate professor of visual
arts at the University of California at San Diego. "Different points
of view, subjectivity of characters besides the first person, the
sophisticated design of modern architecture. Why do games have level
designers but they ignore modern architecture?"
If mainstream game designers have not yet woken up to modern art,
artists have certainly warmed to the video game platform, especially
the free game-building tools that are shipped with bloody action
games like Quake, Half-Life and Unreal. Just as girls in the mid-1990's
quickly adopted Quake "skins" allowing them to modify the game's
main character so they could play as women, artists have found that
they can bring their own agendas to games to subvert traditional
Artists say they like the sense of space conveyed by video games
and the way the games draw the participant into the field of action.
Now that the video game business and its icons have become part
of the American cultural landscape, they say, they can use such
imagery to critique elements of contemporary society like violence
"More and more artists are becoming aware of the tools available
to them offered by game software," said Anne-Marie Schleiner, who
teaches digital art and was the curator of the online exhibition
"Cracking the Maze: Game Plug-Ins and Patches as Hacker Art" in
1999. "A younger generation of artists are coming of age who have
always played games and reject the barrier imposed between fine
art and games."
Museums, for their part, see video games as a medium that encourages
visitors to interact with art at a fundamental level.
"Museums are followers," said Mr. Manetas, the New York artist,
in an e-mail message. "Digital is fashionable, and they also hope
to attract sponsors and public."
But he added: "They are also like mothers who want to play Doom
with their son, hoping to communicate with him. They just ruin the
Whatever museums may have done to the game, they have expanded
the playing field, bringing artists the kinds of commissions and
recognition that are hard to come by in online venues. Mr. Manetas,
for example, now has work on view in the "My Reality" show at the
Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Will Wright, the lead designer of the hugely successful SimCity
and Sims game series, emphasized in the panel discussion that game
designers need to think outside the box and stop trying to reproduce
reality down to the last detail. He said that designers should create
alternative worlds, and that in that sense the game industry had
much to learn from the art world.
Last year was a banner year for the video game maker Maxis, a subsidiary
of Electronic Arts, because of the success of the Sims, in which
players can control the lives, homes and relationships of virtual
people. Mr. Haddock, the Phoenix artist, had never played the game
but was intrigued by its promotional material. He created his Screenshots
series by using Photoshop to give a Sims-style isometric view of
well- known and sometimes violent images or events like the assassination
of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Mr.
Haddock's work has been shown in Seattle galleries and at Arizona
State University as well as in the Whitney's "BitStreams" exhibition
Mr. Wright described the images inspired by his video game "cool
in a creepy way"; the Whitney show's curator, Lawrence Rinder, said
that they provoked reflection on the roles of violence, entertainment
and memory in society. The artist himself said that the Sims was
the ideal vehicle for exploring intellectual rights and copyright
issues. Other Screenshots works portray scenes like the Rodney King
beating, the Columbine school shootings, the car crash in which
the Princess of Wales died and the picnic scene from "The Sound
Although such works by Mr. Haddock, 40, have drawn a lot of attention,
their public nature in some ways limits the potential payoff. Anyone
can print out the images from his Web site and frame them without
compensating him. He works as a property manager and handyman to
help support his wife and two young children.