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The Performance of Play 2: The Sequel

Several someones made some very strong counter-arguments to my last post on this Brian Moriarty talk (see "The Performance of Play"). I attempt to respond to said arguments without having to admit I was wrong.

Jason VandenBerghe, Blogger

April 16, 2011

16 Min Read

[Warning: this post is really, really, way too long.  Seriously.  You're better off if you don't even start.  I should split it into three posts, but I'm too tired.]

About a week ago, I wrote a blog post that was about what I called "the performance of play".  The post was a semi-rambling response to Brian Moriarty's presentation at the GDC this year.

[ASIDE: I think "performance of play" is a pretty good phrase, but just so we're clear, it's not an official academic phrase or anything: I just pulled it out of my ass, pretty much, right at the end of the last blog post.  You know that thing that happens when you are writing a post, and it has no title, and you're slowly approaching your conclusion and running out of time, and you're like "what in the hell am I going to call this one?"  It was like that.]

The idea of the post was actually pretty simple: according to one Very Smart Dude (that would be Moriarty), a primary goal of art (or Art... or, to use Moriarty's phrase, Sublime Art) is attraction.  If that is true, then one way to decide whether or not something is art (say, GAMES) is to look at the goal of the creation/creator: attraction?  Does the painting/movie/game/whatever generate awe, or appeal, or whatever that feeling is that summons itself up when you are standing in front of an amazing piece of created human artifacture-ness?

Or does it simply generate curiosity?  Interest is not the same thing as attraction, by my measure.

I argued (in my usual stream-of-consciousness manner) that games, by their very nature, are invitational, not attractive.  Games don't draw humans to them in the way that Art does.  Contemplating games doesn't evoke new, well-nigh inexpressible insights into the nature of stuff.

However, the same cannot be said for the experience of watching players playing.  I argued, in fact, that human players create a "performance of play", much like the way that actors create a "performance" that is the play itself.  My argument was that, effectively, the written version of the play Hamlet is not Art - it needs actors (or, at the very least, a reader with a vivid imagination who can imagine those actors performing) to become Art.  When Michael Jordan hits the air, can be Art.  Basketball without players and play cannot be Sublime Art.

For the purposes of this here (new) blog post, we're going to ignore whether or not that definition is true.  (If you want to complain about that, the previous post is still available for your slings and arrows).

My intention here is to respond to what happened in the comments section on the Gamasutra posting of that article.  See... quite a few people took up the gauntlet I had thrown down.

They kinda smacked me around with it.  I'm sore.

So, cheek bloodied and bruised, I am returning once more into the fray.

For the record, I have no idea how this post is going to turn out - I read the analyses that a few esteemed Gamasutra colleagues wrote (props, Glenn Storm, Cody Kostiuk, others), and decided that I needed to confront the keyboard again.



Crap.  I'm scairt!  I might have been wrong!  NOOOOOOOoooooooo...!

Let's find out.

The Argument

Okay, first, what was the response?  Let's let Glenn explain:

...I would go there and say that a game not being currently played is not just inviting, but attractive. The fact that there is an open space for a player to join is, in relation to the question 'Is it attractive?', sort of like the question of a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear it. If one is around, and one recognizes the open space to play, we are talking about intrinsic attraction. The player is dealing with the question of whether to engage or not, just as if the audience of a street performer chooses to engage in the performance or not. Both game and performer are attracting an audience.

The only required condition for a game to meet the threshold of attraction is that there be a recognizable space for a player to engage.

Oh YEAH?!?!?


Yeah.  Actually, it's pretty convincing.  What he and others are pointing out is that, by my logic, if attraction is the only key to Sublime Art, then because I've made an incomplete analysis (read: wrong), games are Sublime Art.

Okay, this is really fricking messy.  I think to get clear on this, we need to dig down into what in the hell I was trying to express.  And, since it's me, that can only mean one thing.

We're going to define some terms.

I used to be a programmer, remember.

Some Definitions

OKAY!  There are four different "actors" in the generation of Sublime Art: the objet d'art itself, the performance, the observer, and the Sublime - the meaning itself.
Let's define these four clearly, so that I know what in the hell I'm actually talking about.  (If you don't know what in the hell I'm talking about, uh, well, you're probably not alone.)

  1. The objet d'art itself - the object(s) that serve as a method of communicating the intention of the author to any future performers.  For example, this would be the canvas and paint, in the case of a painting.  It would be the script in the case of a play.  And, in the case of a game, it would be the game - specifically, the part of the game that doesn't change from implementation to implementation.  Generally - the rules (but not always - careful!).  The rules of chess, for example, which define the idea of the pieces, board, and players.

  2. The Sublime.  In all cases, this is what the observer takes away from the encounter.

  3. The performance.  This is where the intention present in the objet d'art are offered up for scrutiny.  For a play, this would be the actors, the stage crew, the set, etc.  For a painting, this would be nothing more than the presentation of the work - the wall it is hanging on.  Performance of a painting (as you say) is fairly static.  And, for a game, this is the implementation of the rules: the board, the venue, the assets - and the players.

  4. The observer.  The observer is the one who receives something from the Art.  It's tempting to call this the "audience", but that focuses our conversation a little bit too much on the commercial application.  We're talking at a boring, high-brow level now, so let's stick abstract.  For a painting, the observer is the art gallery visitor (say).  For a play, it is an audience member.  And for a game...
    ...well, here, perhaps, is where we encounter the argument that I am making, in fact.  Huh.
    Check this shit out.  There are three possibilities here.  Either:
    - the observer is someone watching the game be played (an audience member at a basketball game),- the observer is the player himself, OR- both.
    But which is it?

Damn.  This is some tricky shit right here.


I think what we need to do is draw a nice, neat, impossible-to-defend line between two ideas that come into play: intention and reception.  Intention is when someone wants to express something.  Reception is when someone wants to have something expressed to them.

These words aren't perfect, but they're what I'm going with.  We're going to analyze how and where intention and reception function in different kinds of Art.

And then we'll try it on games.  See what happens.


Let's start with paintings - since they're simpler.

With a painting, the object d'art is the painting itself, which is created by "the artist".  Simple enough - the artist has an intention of some kind that ends up generating an object of attraction.

The performance is when that painting is "presented" in some form or another.  This could be by being hung on a particular wall, being printed in a book, or simply being held up for examination.  

There is always a person involved with the presenting - and, until the moment comes where the painting is ready to be scrutinized, that person has only intention.  He or she wants to express something (the painting).

Now, the observer is receptive.  They see the wall (or the book, or whatever), they approach... and they receive something Sublime from the image and the surrounding environment.


Where things get a little hinky is when you try to connect the intention that the artist and performance had with what was actually received.  This is something of a crap-shoot.


...however, I think one of the points that Moriarty was making is that since (conveniently) we are only talking about Sublime Art, things aren't nearly as bad.  We pre-suppose that Sublime Art is the stuff that people consistently are attracted to and respond to - and so, there, by definition, the alignment between intention and reception is higher than normal.
Perhaps we can say that when humans raise artists to "revered status", it is partially because they are showing us things that we would never have seen ourselves.  They take us out further.

Not all Art does this.  In fact, most Art does not.  Remember, though, we're talking about Sublime Art - the stuff that actually impacts you.  The key point here, I think, is this: without an intention behind both the objet d'art and the performance, Sublime Art can't occur.  Sublime Stuff can happen - but here we are talking about humans making things for other humans.  Art.

Okay, cool.  That makes sense to me, even if it doesn't make any sense to anyone else.



What about a theatrical play?

Well, the objet d'art in that case is clearly the script (which is written by an artist, not "the" artist - interesting).

The performance is mounted by a wide cast of individuals.  The actors, directors, stage crew, etc, are doing this because they have the intention to express something (or because they just want to be loved).

The audience is attracted to the show.  They are receptive.  They attend, and receive something Sublime (if the performance doesn't bomb).

So: the intention of the theatrical art object (script) and the performance (actors, etc) align to attract an observer (audience), and produce Sublimity (is that even a word?).
I'm amazed at how pretentious I can be when I really try.


There's an important thing (to me) emerging as I write this.

If the observer would never have received what he/she got without all this preceding crap, then it is Sublime Art.  It has to show you something otherwise inaccessible.  By my (local, highly opinionated) definition.  But that sounds right, don't it?  Don't it?  Sublime Art is supposed to change you - and that means it's adding something you didn't have before.

Intention -> Attraction -> Reception.  I'm starting to like this theory.  I'm sure it's complete bullshit.  But I still like it.

Okay.  Ready?

Let's do this.


Let's start with the less-complicated-but-feels-like-it-is-more-likely-to-fail-the-Art-test example: BASKETBALL!


The objet d'art is clearly the game of basketball itself.  Wikipedia tells me that the inventor of basketball was one James Naismith.  Who knew?  I think we can assume that the word "artist" could also apply there, if we were feeling liberal - but the fact that we use "inventor" is an interesting distinction already.

We have to ask ourselves: is there an intention to express something on the part of the author here?

Again, let's be liberal: sure.  We're not here to evaluate if the thing expressed is Important - just whether or not it has the capacity to be Sublime.  Given that Sublime Shit surely happens on the basketball court, and that that is a big reason why people play and watch the game, I think we can safely say that's what Mr. Naismith wanted (at least partially).

Grand.  Intention intact.  So far so good.  Basketball is a potential "Art object".


Next is performance.  Okay.

The performance of basketball is a combination of two things: venue and play.  The court and seats is the obvious part.  But if you have a court, seats, two teams, a ball, and the game has not begun, we can safely say that there is no game, and certainly no Art.  We've got a bunch of dudes standing around on a basketball court... which is not a game, in the same way that a bunch of actors standing around on a stage is not a theatrical play.

So, the play itself is a necessary part of the performance.  Duh.  Like a theatrical play, every game is a unique performance.  And, unlike a theatrical play, the outcome of the performance is not known at the beginning of play.  Which is awesome.

Intention -> Attraction -> Reception.

The players all share the intention to express something through this performance of play - the completion of a game of basketball, perhaps.  The declaration of a winner.  Spectacular movement.  Mock combat on a 28 meter by 15 meter battlefield.

Interesting.  Again, so far, so good.

Is the audience part of this performance?

I think most reasonable people would agree that you can have a successful game of basketball, filled with most (if not all) of the meaning that basketball can have, without an attending audience.  So, let's go with "no" on that one.

So the performance of basketball is this: the venue, the players, a run through of the game itself, coupled with the intention of the players/performers to express something ("basketball-like").  The game comes into existence, we dance with it for a while, and then it disappears.  Temporal Sublime Art.

Huh.  Well, we're 2 for 2.  Basketball appears to be a valid objet d'art, and be a valid candidate for performance with clear intention.

I'm starting to get a little bit freaked out.


So, then, who is the observer?  Who is the receptive one in this equation?

We can easily say that the observer is the audience - and while that's certainly true, it's irrelevant.  We already decided that we can have a game without an audience.  In fact, when we take this example into the world of video games, we will discover that almost every video game is played without an audience.  So, while an audience is very important to sports, and does actually exist, they remain irrelevant for this.

Bye bye, audience!  /WHOOOOSH!

[ASIDE: That... was the sound of them turning into insubstantial mist and being sucked into a vortex of some kind.  Yeah.  I've clearly watched too much Harry Potter.]

OKAY!  Where was I?

Audience / observer!  Right!

So what in the hell is going on here?  Without an observer external to the game, we still manage to draw meaning from this 'performance of play'.  Sometimes, Sublime meaning.

Clearly, players of games become performer and observer.  They occupy these two positions simultaneously.  They hold both the intention to express something and the receptiveness of the observer - hopeful that they will receive something Sublime along the way.


I think I can stop the analysis there.  The structure will be exactly the same for video games, save that the idea of "venue" comes to include the world, characters, and other resources that the player interacts with and uses during play.
So, what have we learned?


I presented a theory - Sublime Art needs and object, a performance, and an observer - and this generates the Sublime in the observer.  I like this theory, but have no substantial way to 'prove' it other than to say "sure sounds true to me!" - and to try it out.

So, I walked two forms of currently accepted Sublime Art through the structure - and it seemed sound.

We then walked basketball through the structure...

...and I'll be goddamned if it didn't hold up.

I'm in deep shit here.

Last Ditch Effort

Hokay.  There is only one remaining question that I can't resolve.  With any luck, this one will get me out of admitting I was wrong.  It is this:

We imagine that the player (observer) receives something from the performance of play, yes?  I mean, I sure have.  Is this received something from the intention of the author and the performance?  Is it new?

Or, put another way: the player is the performer, right?  Can the player/observer receive something that the player/performer doesn't already have?  Can the performance of play stretch a human being, in the same way that a great film, great novel, great sculpture, or other piece of Sublime Art can?

Or, are games inherently limited in what they can express?  Is the best that a game can offer to be a mirror?

As a comparision: can someone who doesn't understand Hamlet (say, a six-year-old child) mount a performance of Hamlet that would result in Sublime Art?

Heck No

Let's look at the rest of Glenn's post - the one that got us into all this trouble in the first place:

In this way, a ball or frisbee lying on the ground is attractive. Common household items can be attractive. All one needs is to recognize the potential to engage for the purpose of play to reach this threshold of attraction and, by this definition, _bang_ we've got Art.

I agree - up to a point.  However, the frisbee has little in it for me that I didn't already have.  I can work at it if I want, turn it, pound it, and perhaps extract something Sublime from it...

...but then I become the artist - and I imbue the frisbee with my (discovered) intention...

...and the frisbee becomes a new objet d'art.  But it wasn't until I re-shaped it into something Sublime that the meaning appeared.


No.  After over 2500 words, and after convincing myself that I was wrong before, and after (certainly) boring you people TO DEATH (I am quite sure that I am wholly alone, down here at the bottom of this post; I could say anything I want, as no one will ever read it!), I have re-convinced myself that there is something fundamentally different in games.

Can games convey parts of the Sublime that simply did not exist in me before I encountered them?  

I think back to my own experience - and when does happen, it is is always through their use of other mediums - writing, cinema, and the like.  The rules of the game themselves do not convey the Sublime - and, I fear, cannot.

The End?

I need to stop now.  Please, do not comment on this further.  Just lie still, tell me I'm right, and let me move off this topic.  I want to stop now.

/curls up in a ball

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Jason VandenBerghe


Jason VandenBerghe currently resides in Bothell, Washington. He is Founder & CEO of Corporation X, an independent games publisher dedicated to making opportunities for independent developers who want to bring their games to market. He can be reached at [email protected].

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