The Performance of Play

One of my great regrets from this year’s GDC was that I missed Brian Moriarty’s talk.

Do you know Brian Moriarty? Some do. In certain circles, he’s something of a god – or, perhaps, a demi-god, representing vast power as part of the wider (GDC) pantheon. Brian wrote games for INFOCOM in the dark ages (Wishbringer? If you played INFOCOM games, you know what I’m talking about), and is currently teaching game design students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

He’s also one of the best motherfucking speakers the game industry has to offer. And, this year, he gave his first presentation in 10 years.

I’m not clear on why he hasn’t been speaking. However, as far as why he stopped not-talking, the nature of what he had to say made pretty clear why he had re-emerged from his dark hole to shout words at the sky. His talk was called “An Apology For Roger Ebert” – which, I thought, was a joke.

I mean, Ebert became The Devil Himself when he said publicly (and repeatedly) that games cannot be art. Or, rather, Art.

A joke, then, I thought, surely. An apology for this man from Moriarty himself? Impossible.

No, friends. One of the greatest minds of our idiom has publicly, vigorously, and eloquently made a plain-facts argument that games are not ‘art’, and that Ebert may be right that they never can be.

Oh, the horror.

My colleagues in the industry fall into two categories at this point: people who think he’s wrong, and people who don’t give one fuck what that old fart thinks.

Naturally, I had to develop an opinion. But… while I was at the GDC this year, I missed the presentation.

[ASIDE: I was busy having an AMAZING conversation with my friend Link (yes, that's his real name, and yes, he's heard every possible reaction to that already) and made my choice at the time to stay with that and miss the talk. I'd do it again - the chat that Link and I had about the nature of magic and philosophy will go down in my book as one of the finest I've had on those topics.]

Fortunately, I have friends in the Ubisoft Ivory Tower, which means I can get access to the GDC Vault, where all awesome GDC-ness is available for download, forever. Perks are nice. So is technology!

So, last week, I cracked open said Vault, and sat in front of my PC and watched Mr. Moriarty frolic around in front of his podium, talk about Roger Ebert, and propose an argument that games cannot be ‘art’.

Sigh.

See…

…well, his argument is valid, guys. He’s probably right.

Now before you start throwing stones–

…Nah. Just go ahead and throw ‘em. Folks who are going to throw stones on this topic are most likely not able to be convinced of anything other than their own opinion in the first place. So, huck away.

But, for the rest of you, I want to discuss one or two things that he said.

These snippets of wildness have been rattling around in my head for over a week, and they refuse to be denied.

Here they are:

Somewhere in the middle of his discussion of the history of this “what is art” debate, Brian pointed out that no culture has ever even tried to call games art, until the last twenty years. And then, he let fly with this little wonder:

“Are we really so conceited as to reject the wisdom of the ages?”

In his best astonished voice, Brian is pointing at one great big humbucker of an idea, one that is easily overlooked in this age of technological, social, political, and historical revolution. It is just this:

Sometimes, two thousand years of our ancestors get things right.

Not always, of course. Sex roles in society, for example. Not so much a single shred of universal ‘common sense’ wisdom to be found from a high-level historical viewpoint. Nope.

But, for games? Games are -the oldest form of human pastime-. And never, not in… ever, actually, has society conflated ‘art’ and ‘game’. We would do well to examine why. Just because they are old and dead doesn’t mean they were stupid.

But… that wasn’t the killer for me. The killer came as a throw-away line in the middle of his discussion about what art is for. He was moving from one topic to another, and injected this little gem in between them:

“The goal of Art is attraction!”

First thing : I will black-list anyone who emails me after this with why their definition of Art is better than this one. The (incredibly stupid) question of “what is art” is not globally answerable, so stop trying to prove that your definition is better than anyone else’s. Stop. Yes, you. Fairies die when you try to define Art.

And the above sentence is not defining Art. He’s describing the -goal- of Art.

Let’s be careful here. It’s incorrect to say THE goal of Art is attraction. More precise might be to say ‘A’ goal of Art is attraction. You might even be able to go so far as to say that A PRIMARY goal of Art is attraction… and we need to understand that, here, the concept of “attraction” includes the idea of “repulsion” in it as well. To use a math metaphor, negative attraction is still attraction, at least in the sense we mean here.

Okay, argument intact? With me?

Because GOD DAMN is that dude right about that. I mean, WOW. Holy shit.

Amazingly, too, he just blew right past it. He dropped it right in the middle of several other explosions he was involved in. I mean, if I had sneezed at the wrong moment, I would have completely missed it.

Listen, he’s so right about that that I could write an entire month of blog posts on just that. In the week and a half since I watched his talk, my mind has produced something like a hundred and fifty thousand examples of why he is right about that. The goal of art is attraction.

It’s true because it is so fucking broad. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that fits inside ‘attraction’, right? Long-term glory. Getting laid. Finding like-minded thinkers. Sorting good friends from bad ones. Hiring effective coworkers. Getting married.

Almost every human social endeavor, in fact, has this component of attraction in it. We are, all of us, constantly engaged in a swirling vortex game of attraction around each other. We move closer to what we like, and further from what repulses us. That’s just simply true.

And, then, this definition Brian is off-handedly offering us is also true because ‘attraction’ is so very specific. Attraction talks about -other human beings-. Not money, not culture, not the expression of self, not exploration or experimentation or revolution or any of the other crappy justifications that are generally given for Art. No, it’s none of those.

I like this definition, too, of the goal of Art, because it seems to works pretty well in reverse, too. If attraction is the goal of art, then when I am attempting attraction (or repulsion), then I am attempting Art, perhaps.

Careful, here, though. Logic tells us that just because P->Q does not necessarily mean that Q->P. That said…

…can personal beauty be Sublime Art? Is the lure of someone who has made themselves beautiful Sublime Art? Oh, I think so. I most definitely think so. Can gathering a team together be Sublime Art? Well, if public performance can be Sublime Art, then private performance can be… and the highest form of gathering a team together is simply one private performance after another. Attracting a mate? Can seduction be Sublime Art? Of course.

So, what of games?

His point here is really pretty simple. The goal of games is not attraction, necessarily. Perhaps it can be, or perhaps we can learn (or be taught) how to make it so, but intrinsically, games are an invitation: an invitation to play.

One is not drawn inexplicably to a game, unable to resist its call.

I have, many times, been drawn over to a table where players were engaged in play, in a way that could easily seem like attraction. How many times have you walked past a game kiosk in Toys R Us and slowed your pace to see what was happening on screen? Yes, games are appealing, and yes, they have this invitation…

But the emotion I feel at those moments is curiosity, mixed with an expectation of joy that comes from years of experience. I know that games are fun, and I am imagining what this game must feel like to play. I am playing it, in my mind (or, trying to, if I don’t know the rules). I am measuring the response of the players…

…and here we have the point of confusion. It is the -players- that are attractive in a game.

Not the game itself.

Let’s go one more step, and then I’ll shut up for a while. My fingers are tired, and I’m writing this on the airplane from Paris to Montreal, on my iPad. This keyboard kinda sucks.

Okay.

The game itself is not Sublime Art. Without players, it doesn’t exist. However, I will counter Brian’s argument with the following enhancement: -play itself- can be Sublime Art. Watching a truly great player do his or her thing is, unquestionably, Sublime Art. Michael Jordan. Pele. Kasparov.

It is beautiful, appealing… and, its goal is attraction.

Even solo play can have this effect – and this, I think, is where gamers get very, very confused. This is where gamers decide that games themselves are art.

When you play a great game, the connection between you and the game, your interactions, create a performance of play – and that performance can be Sublime Art. But this is a trick that the game has played on you. It is not the game itself that is Art. The game has provided you a perfect context to create a personal performance… but you are the Art, not the game.

Basketball played by Michael Jordan can be Sublime Art. Basketball played by Jason VandenBerghe is an atrocity and an embarrassment. Thus, basketball is not the Art here – Michael Jordan Basketball, perhaps, is.

However, Dungeons and Dragons played by Jason VandenBerghe is, sometimes, rarely, Sublime Art. The players at my table have assured me that yes, from time to time, we go somewhere sublime.

But it is not Dungeons and Dragons that creates this. It is us. Our performance of play is the Sublime Art.

The game remains just a game.

Comments

  1. Gamesmith says:

    Jason, you ignorant slut.

    I attended that lecture. I even saved you a seat! (Actually, it was nice to have a place to set my coffee, so you’re forgiven.)

    I found Brian enormously engaging. His talk was excellent Art.

    He nailed the definition side, but didn’t touch the source of the furor.

    Here is the nature of Shitstorm Ebert: the words are about Art, but the passions are about Respect.

    Art, the word, carries an amazing load of baggage. Among the pile of suitcases is an enormous steamer trunk stamped “Worthy Of Respect.” No matter how one defines Art, as soon as something gets that magical label, it also gets blessed with Respect.

    A madman shouting gibberish? Lamentable, treatable pathology. Same thing in a one-man show? Edgy, mind-bending Art.

    The key difference is our reaction to the creator of the activity. Pity? Disgust? Or respect?

    Video games are an entertainment medium. (A medium is simply a middleman — you know, like a broadcast medium for entertainment, a spiritual medium for ghosts, or a growth medium for bacteria.) Every other entertainment medium (radio, TV, film) has eventually been seen as a form of Art. These other media gain a measure of respect thereby.

    By saying games cannot be art, one is inherently saying that games can never be worthy of the respect one gives to an art form.

    Therein lies the rub.

    “I spent the weekend at a two-day show of ancient Greek sculpture.”

    “I spent the weekend playing SNES Zelda on an emulator.”

    Until those two statements garner similar levels of respect from an average listener, the argument over whether games can be Art will blaze on.

    Never mind that one can readily make the case that the definitions of Game and Art diverge, or just as readily show that they overlap.

    The heart wants what the heart wants. And the heart of the gamer — and the game developer — wants Respect.