Brian Moriarty did the impossible: he made the “Are Games Art?” discussion somewhat interesting again.

Al Capone Untouchables Opera Scene
The discussion about whether videogames are art is so played out that we’re all tired of hearing people complain that they’re tired of hearing people talk about it. It’s remarkable when anybody can add anything new to the conversation.

Brian Moriarty gave a presentation at the Game Developer’s Conference called “An Apology for Roger Ebert” which effectively summed up the last five years of arguments and gave his own take. Part of what’s made the topic so tedious is that it so easily gets derailed onto any of a dozen unproductive tangents: “Games have art in them, so they must be art.” “The question isn’t art vs not-art, but good art vs bad art.” “Anything can be art; what matters is the expression and intent of the artist.” Or the horrible and inevitable “What is art, anyway?”

Moriarty does an impressive job of addressing most of the tangents without letting the topic spin out of control. To avoid all the loaded terms and value judgements, he introduces the term “sublime art,” which I like a lot. Plus, he gives a pretty good definition of what is art, anyway:

Sublime art is the still evocation of the inexpressible.

So many definitions of “art” are so inclusive as to be meaningless; Moriarty’s does a good job of expressing the distinction between a well-crafted work and something that is undeniably but inexpressibly more.

I found out that Moriarty had put the presentation online when I saw someone on my Twitter feed working herself into a rage about it. That surprised me, because I thought it was one of the most even-tempered and even inspirational takes on the topic that I’ve seen. At the very least, it’s the only time I’ve read anyone claim that games aren’t sublime art that didn’t come across as defeatist, discouraging, and dismissive.

Ultimately, Morarity says that games aren’t art (but acknowledges that they could be at some point). He classifies them as kitsch, and he spend a good bit of time giving a history of and defense of kitsch. That’s a welcome reminder. There’s such a stigma associated with “commercial” art as being crass and derivative; it’s good to remember that art has a long history of patronage, and there’s nothing preventing commercial art from being great art.

While I’m fine with all that, I disagree with a big part of Moriarty’s argument. Much like Ebert’s original argument (before he veered away from all that and ended squarely in grumpy old man territory), it hinges on the issue of choice.

As you all know, games are about choices. Sid Meier famously defined games as “a series of interesting choices.”

And choice is the most fundamental expression of Will.

How can an activity motivated by decisions, striving, goals and competition, a deliberate concentration of the force of Will, be used to transcend Will itself?


Games are purposeful. They are defined as the exercise of choice and will towards a self-maximizing goal.

But sublime art is like a toy. It elicits play in the soul. The pleasure we get from it lies precisely in the fact that it has no rules, no goal, no purpose.

Ebert’s original, reasonably compelling argument was that because a game’s outcome is the result of the player’s actions, there’s no room for authorial intent to define what the game “means.” Authorial intent, the claim goes, is essential to art. It’s straightforward enough to counter that argument: not only is there an entire class of games where the outcome isn’t defined completely by the player’s actions, but the rules — the choices the player’s allowed to make, and the possible outcomes of those choices — are determined by the game designer. Or more simply: the rules of the game are the art of the game designer.

Moriarty’s argument goes deeper, and I think he makes a better case. Sublime art defies rational interpretation, efficient encapsulation, or purpose. A work of sublime art just moves you, or it doesn’t. I don’t appreciate opera, and I’ll never be able to will myself into being brought to tears by Pagliacci.

But the “purpose” of a game isn’t to win. It’s not whether you win or lose, and I’m not the first person to bring this up. I don’t play games to win (which quickly becomes obvious if you ever play a game with me), but for the experience. To define games as being simply the exercise of choices towards a goal would seem to eliminate any work of art that involves a process, which means anything other than visual art.

The rules and objectives of a game aren’t its purpose, but its language. It’s how we interact with the work, just like reading a book, listening to a concert, or watching a ballet. The purpose of a novel isn’t to reach the last line, and the purpose of a piece of music isn’t to get to the best part.

That’s obvious in the games I spend most of my time playing. Most single-player, story-driven videogames remove the whole concept of “winning” altogether; you’ll either finish the experience or you won’t.

But even (or especially) in more open-ended games, the objectives are secondary to the overall experience. I’ll start a game of The Sims with some goal in mind: building a house like this building I’ve seen, making a Sim based on some fictional character and getting him to the top of a profession tree. More often than not, it involves an attempt to initiate a three-way. And more often than not, I don’t achieve my originally intended objective. The experience spins off into something else.

The Sims isn’t “about” reaching the top of a career ladder, or achieving any of the in-game objectives, or making little computer people eat and poop. If it’s “about” anything, it’s about the abstraction of modern life and a satire on consumerist society.

And I can tell you that that’s what it’s about, but reading my description is not the same as playing the game. Because manipulating the systems is the process that makes that interpretation become clear with a depth that’s more profound than just a simple encapsulation; it’s what “evokes the inexpressible.”

It’s good we have Shadow of the Colossus as well, since it weathers so many attempts to classify games as not-art. Your stated goal in Shadow of the Colossus is to kill a sequence of boss monsters by climbing them, finding their weak spot, and stabbing that weak spot repeatedly. And that description of its “purpose” does nothing to describe the feeling of sadness, dread, and guilt that you have while playing it. Any more than saying A Dream Deferred is “about repression.”

It’s refreshing to hear anyone criticize games for not being useless enough. That’s not just being flippant, either: it’s exactly why people (including me) are unwilling to let go of the “games as art” question. Whether you’re playing games, making them, or both, you reach the point where you have to wonder whether the entire pastime is anything more than a diversion.

Along with kitsch and commercial art, Moriarty defends diversions and the value of play.

An hour or two or spent playing Defense Grid or Plants vs Zombies isn’t a waste of time. There’s nothing wrong with recreation. We need it. I need it. It’s good for me!

But when I feel the need for reflection, for insight, wisdom or consolation, I turn my computers off.

And really, that’s fine. I think a lot of us who are inclined to take game development too seriously could stand to stop playing the tortured artist, take a few steps back, and put the value of pure diversion into proper perspective. One of the surest ways to guarantee you won’t make Great Art is to set out to make Great Art.

But to believe that insight and wisdom first require turning off the computer — that seems to unnecessarily cut off a vast amount of potential. And “not a waste of time” is such a low bar to set.

The frustration that many of us who play videogames feel, and are more and more often starting to express, is I believe the feeling of being just on the cusp of something greater. Anyone who says To Kill a Mockingbird and The Life Aquatic aren’t art is nobody I’m interested in hearing from, because both have moments that transcend their stories and make me feel something profound, something that I can’t put into words. Again, they “evoke the inexpressible.”

And I’ve had similar moments in games, although they’ve been simpler, maybe “proto-sublime” moments. Finally having a flash of insight into how a system works. A vague sense of unease or dread or guilt from a game’s narrative. The realization of an idea perfectly expressed in a game abstraction instead of in words. There are so many examples of getting so close but not yet nailing it.

I can spend three hours in a museum, and I’ve been conditioned to believe that I’ve enriched myself. I can spend three hours playing a videogame, and I’ve been conditioned to believe that it was unproductive, empty time. Sometimes, it is gleefully, unapologetically unproductive. But I refuse to believe it has to be empty.

3 thoughts on “Sublimation”

  1. I don’t know how to onomatopoeiaize that gesture where you put your fingers to your lips and then kiss them while spreading them out, meaning “this food is so delicious that it makes me put my fingers to my lips and then kiss them while spreading them out.”

    I like your essay so much I’ll give it a try, though:


    Delicious thinking!

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