This is an antapologia for Brian Moriarty. Antapologia is greek for a formal counter argument to an apologia, which is greek for a formal defense.
At GDC last March Brian Moriarty delivered an impassioned, and now infamous defense of Roger Ebert’s even more infamous claim that video games are not, and could never be, art. Moriarty built a somewhat circuitous and dare I say specious argument that drew many cheers and contrarily much ire from the game development and game studies community. He invoked philosophy and faith, Shoepenhauer and Dylan (Bob), to argue that with the exercise of free will exhibited by players engaged in play “sublime art” is necessarily precluded. “Sublime art,” Moriarty incanted, “is the door to a perspective of reality that transcends Will.” His diatribe reached its philosophical climax with the seemingly simple, albeit nonsensical utterance, “Sublime art is the still evocation of the inexpressible.”
I will resist the urge to poke at his house of cards. I will not, in this letter, suggest that he engaged in “pretentious rhetoric” to the point of philosophical obfuscation. I will not argue that he unabashedly rejected wholesale the last 100 years of philosophical discourse about art, intertextuality, mass media, and the collapsed distinction between high and low culture. I will not intimate that in mocking Duchamp, declaring The Fountain to be nothing more than a piss pot, he unwittingly stumbled into Duchamp’s magical urinal, reiterating for the entire audience, the artist’s brilliant statement. No, if you want to read the myriad ways his argument has been dissected and scrutinized, read twitter transcripts. Better yet, read his apology yourself and make up your own mind.
I am far more concerned with how Professor Moriarty framed his argument. I am disturbed by the distorted lens through which he is looking at games, and I am noticing that his vantage is shared by many in the game community. I cheekily call it object orientation, with the full pun intended.
Game designers have become obsessed with the artifacts of their supposed creation. I blame digital games. Games have become commodities, not as constrained performances, rather as obscured or even invisible systems, executed by machines, and operated upon by players. Best Buy, Amazon and Game Stop sell them to us as disks and cartridges or even downloaded software, and we engage them on a superficial interface level while far more complex rules and operations act as the Wizard to our conference with the great and powerful Oz.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the explosion of interactive possibility afforded by computation. However, I am concerned that our understanding of what a game is and is not has been distorted by an obsession with the “game” as object or artifact, rather than the game as performance.
I know, by heart, the rules of chess, and I buy chess sets as a matter of convenience, not necessity. One can play chess with almost anything so long as the parties involved agree upon the signification of the play objects and the space. I dare not even attempt to count the number of times I’ve played soccer with t-shirts for goals, baseball with a stick and rock, or even charades with nothing but the people with whom I shared some space. Games are not the objects that afford their engagement, they are defined by the engagement itself. A game not played is no game at all. Software does not a game make.
Moriarty spent nearly 7,500 words pontificating on the lack of expressiveness in video games. He argued about the imagery, and the sound, and even waxed philosophically about engagement and interactivity, choice and will. All the while he ignored the most expressive act of the medium, that which defines it, which is the playing itself.
Moriarty said “I’m here because of this sentence: ‘No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.'” He repeatedly illustrated his obsession with the auteur and art as artifact. Was Mikhail Baryshnikov not an artist? Is the choreographer of a dance the only artist to whom we owe appreciation for the performance? What about those engaging in the act itself? Does Moriarty look at the score for Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, without listening to it, and in reading the notation unperformed experience a “still evocation of the inexpressible?” I’m guessing not.
The art of dance and music and theater is performance. Sure society has established conventions by which we value and measure that performance, which subsequently gives value to the rules or constraints by which the performance is enacted (sound familiar).
However, the act of engaging, of playing, that willful and practiced activity is, in fact, the dynamic evocation of the sublime expressed.
For many who make and study games, the artifact of the creation is the essential component to their livelihood. I understand why, especially in our exceedingly commercial and material culture, we want to value the object in hand, and deify its supposed “creators.” However, a video game not-played is no game at all. Rules unrealized are not enforced, and cease to exist. Systems uninitiated are chaotic non-things. Designers have grown attached to the perception that they are creators of artifacts. In truth the act of game design is more like composing a musical score or choreographing a dance; the “object” of the creation is not fully realized until it is engaged through performance.