3-D games get more grounded in reality

October 02, 2003|By Matthew Mirapaul | Matthew Mirapaul,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - As flames crackled and the wind howled through a gash in the skyscraper's wall, a businessman wandered in a daze through the smoke. Unable to find an escape route, he suddenly strode toward the sky and leaped.

This appalling scene appears in a computer game, 9-11 Survivor, that was briefly available this summer on the Internet. Players could move through an animated, 3-D rendering of a burning World Trade Center office. One might perish in the fire, opt to jump like the businessman or, if concealed stairs were discovered, flee to safety.

9-11 Survivor provoked an outcry on the Internet. Infuriated e-mail correspondents accused the game's makers of lacking taste and moral decency by exploiting a tragedy.

The game depicts one scene, and although an online description at www.selectparks.net/ 911survivor makes it seem as if a full product were still coming, it was never planned for commercial release. It was created as an art-class project by three students at the University of California, San Diego: John Brennan, Mike Caloud and Jeff Cole.

They said their goal was to reinterpret a historic moment by transplanting it to the medium with which they were most familiar: games. Inured to the televised images of Sept. 11, 2001, they hoped an interactive version would restore an immediacy to the day's horrors. Cole said, "The more I delved into it, the more personal it became."

As better graphics technology has made games more visually realistic, digital artists have been using 3-D game environments to re-create real places and simulate recent events. In the process they are turning what has been a platform for pure fantasy into a medium for social realism.

Digital games appeal to artists for several reasons. Their mass appeal makes them a target for tweaking. The opportunity to build an entire virtual universe can be compelling. And game play generates a live performance with a bonus: Audience participation is required.

Some artists construct games from scratch, while others develop modifications, or mods, to existing commercial releases.

Brody Condon, a Los Angeles artist and the teacher of the experimental game-design class that spawned 9-11 Survivor, said game mods were rapidly evolving into a new populist art form. He said artists and game enthusiasts were naturally inclined to use them to depict the world, including culturally significant places and events.

People who make mods "have this immediately accessible tool for cultural criticism, and it has an immediate method of dissemination, which is the Internet," he said. "That's enticing."

For many artists, adding game-play elements can convert virtual reconstruction into an involving aesthetic experience.

Rachel Greene, the co-curator of Killer Instinct, a game-art exhibition that will open Dec. 12 at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art, said: "Games allow you to move through space and assume a personality, whether it's heroic or one of a victim. Those are powerful psychological tools, especially when artists want to connect them to real-world events."

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