The game of art

In the exhibit "Screenshots," tragedy is rendered in a playful resolution.

By Howard Wen

Published October 17, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

Life imitates art and vice versa, we've all been told, but just how did video games get involved in the equation? That's just one of the questions raised by the digital art show Screenshots being exhibited at Arizona State University Art Museum. Created by Jon Haddock, 39, who holds down a day job as a computer systems administrator, the 20-piece series imagines historical and fictitious events as if they were scenes from computer games. The images include real events -- Nicole Brown Simpson's murder, the INS raid that recovered Elian Gonzales -- and fictional ones -- scenes from such movies as "The Sound of Music" and "12 Angry Men." All are rendered in the pseudo 3D "isometric" perspective so popular in such current computer games as the Sims.

Inspired by the look of the Sims (which he has yet to play, he admits), Haddock created his faux game images using Photoshop. His first criteria for choosing a subject to interpret in this computer game-style perspective was that it be an image or event that had affected him profoundly. In doing so, Haddock gives equal merit to both the fictitious and actual.

"Intellectually, there is a huge difference between a real and fictional event -- but, at least for me, not so much emotionally," he explains via e-mail. "I don't intend to minimize the tragedy of the real, but I want to point out the power and influence of fiction. And, in most instances, my experience of these events was through the same medium -- television."

Most of the events shown in the "Screenshots" pieces can be identified by a single element or two: Princess Diana's wrecked Mercedes, a lone man standing in the way of a Chinese Army tank, the cabin where Ted Kaczynski lived. It's as if Haddock purposively pared down these incidents to their most basic, universal symbols.

He responds to this observation: "Simplification is a part of the game-like format. But I don't know [if] it was my goal to further iconify the original events."

In the Sims the player creates characters and contrives situations for them, "lording" over their fates in classic computer "god-mode" fashion. The intrinsic idea (that of the viewer being in control) conveys a disquieting effect when applied to some of Haddock's more tragic scenes. The Rodney King beating, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald -- these events and others all come across as harmless games under Haddock's artistic hand. Particularly haunting is the piece referencing the Columbine school shooting, since violent video games were widely scapegoated as partially responsible for the massacre.

Haddock agrees that the god-like perspective evokes conflicting feelings of control, objectivity and disconnect within the viewer. "It emphasizes our relationship with these events as a culture. We create them, just as they create us," he says. "It also provides some emotional distance from the original event or image.

"For me," says Haddock, "there is something about all these events that I don't really understand or accept. Looking at them from the perspective of control is an attempt to understand or, at least, try to contain them."

Howard Wen

Howard Wen writes frequently for Salon Technology.

MORE FROM Howard Wen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gaming Video Games