gaming + poetry

Can poetry learn from gaming? Like music and film gaming in the last thirty years has built a massive audience while being at times enormously complex and abstract. Unlike most music and film gaming requires active participation from its audience in a way that is in fact wholly different from what might seem like the analogous processes of reading complex literature. And without intending to be provocative gaming - and I mean both designing and in some cases playing - is a genuine artform. Like film - another technologically enabled artform of the twentieth century - gaming draws on a huge range of disciplines.

Perhaps this is something poetry should learn? That the distinctive and successful artforms of the past hundred years or more have been social in execution and in consumption. This is even true of those forms that use a narrower range of disciplines - the various popular musics from jazz and blues onward for instance. Why should a poem be the work of one person? Why should a poet's work be solitary? Isn't the Romantic notion of the solitary genius getting a bit old? In fact isn't the idea of a writer slightly peculiar? A detached individual creating work not for large groups but for large numbers of detached individuals.

Then there is the more obvious difference of technology. Some sound and visual poetry aside poetry makes little use of recent technologies. Certainly the internet and in particular blogging micro-blogging such as twitter and social networking have substantially altered the way work is disseminated and poets communicate with one another. But after the microphone and the photocopier not a lot else appears to have impinged on the way poems are written or consumed - or on what they look like. Is there anything comparable to the invention of amplification or recording technology allowing eventual post-production manipulation of sound in the recent history of poetry? There doesn't seem to be.

Although in retrospect continuity with older forms can be seen both film and music - as gaming later - invented new ways of communicating with their audience. Film uses shorter scenes, much closer and more distant perspectives, juxtaposition, and a whole range of techniques unavailable on stage without the same technology used by film. Yet for all the novelty of their techniques film music and gaming have been able draw audiences into and guide them through complex sequences of events and ideas. Poetry on the other hand often seems to be more like an arcane kind of crossword.

So what does this mean? That the solitary poet should be consigned to history? That poetry should be an essentially social artform? That poetry should use technology to reinvent itself? I don't know. I'm trying to find an answer. While slow starting mutapoem is one possible attempt to create a social poem. Sound poetry has been another field of investigation concentrating on the technological aspects this time. In recent months I've felt that somehow using gaming might be another avenue to explore.

Then there's another parallel. Gaming takes time. It takes time in a couple of ways. It takes time to design a game and it takes time to play a game. There's a lot more can be said about designing games and I aim to provide links in the blog over the next few weeks. What interests me here is the time taken to play the game. In particular the point articulated I think by Dara O'Briain on Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe that when you buy a game you don't have access to all the content you've paid for. You have to earn it by playing through the game - solving the puzzles and exploring the world - going back to levels once the whole is complete. This takes time. In fact if it didn't take time you'd be pretty disappointed. But the experience does have to be enjoyable. Clearly the rewards are less tangible for poetry - and I'm not suggesting anything like the poetic equivalent of a boss fight at the end of every ten pages.

Besides which over the last couple of years I've discovered a large number of poets that I find enormously rewarding after spending most of my life struggling with the dismal mainstream - so this is not an argument that poetry is dying. Rather it's an argument that something challenging something time-consuming can be successful and that technology opens up enormous unimagined possibilities. In particular technology has facilitated new ways of networking for poets and readers.

I realise that this discussion is incomplete and that there is a lot more to say. I will return to some of these themes in a couple of weeks once my MA commentary is out of the way. In the meantime I'd welcome any thoughts you might have.

Finally apologies for the long delay between this post and the last. I was away over Christmas without internet connection and after I got back had persistent problems getting online - although I hope they've now been resolved. I would have posted from work but in the event I was only in on Tuesday 29th.


Jeffrey Side said…
You raise some interesting points, Matt. Coming from a background in the now ancient practice of video production in the early 1990's, I found collaboration essential. And certainly limited collaboration in poetry can work in a similar way.

The only problem I see with wide scale collaboration is that many of the poets I’ve had dealings with still hold to the idea of “authorship” despite their intellectual acceptance that such a thing is problematical. (I’m talking about non-mainstream poets, of course.) Given this, it may pain some of them to be listed as “merely” one of a number of collaborators on a poem. I expect there would also be contention over whose names should appear in which order in the credits etc.

Also, would poets collaborating on a poem be able to keep in check their egos in a similar way to those collaborating on a film or a play? I somehow doubt this, because those working on a film or play are contributing to different aspects of that form: lighting, sound, design, directing, writing, acting etc. Each “know their place”, so to speak, and is quite happy with that place, because that is the place they chose to train for before they went into the business. Poets, in my experience, would find this sort of restraint difficult; such is still the influence of the Romantic idea of poetic composition, which you rightly mention.

So, yes, as an ideal I think your idea is good, but in practice difficult, unless strict “anti-ego” rules were set in place.
Brian said…

As you pursue these ideas, you might take a look at Asian poetries in general, Japanese renga in particular.There has always been a "group" poem in Asian cultures. Basho was not a haiku (hokku) poet per se but a traveling renga master.

I believe Jeffrey Side is right about the play of artistic ego in in the west and how collaborative work would (at least initially) play itself out. Asian cultures have no problem with leaders, masters or "sensei". Western individualism is unknown even in the arts. It is not at all uncommon to hear Asian poets discussing the idea of the "one poem" being written across the centuries.

It can be eye-opening to see how these ideas work themselves out in Asian practice. For example, during a renga session, if a poet presents a verse that the sensei revises to the extent that (as Basho says) "only one word of the original remains", that verse still is credited to the originating poet.

Unfortunately, my experience with renga (now renku) was enough to put me off it for good. The month-long session was a complete trial with a leader who was all ego, interested in impressing the female poets involved and rude as hell. I mention this to underscore the problems Jeffrey mentioned above. That said, I know of others whose renku experience has been wholly positive, even addictive.

One more thing: the idea of plagiarism is, for all practical purposes, unknown in the East. In fact it is often considered a way of honouring and connecting the past to the present. Usually it is not overt but suggestive. However, in the case of tanka poet and filmaker Shuji Terayama, it meant lifting entire lines from earlier poems. Despite his critics, this was not considered a major issue but a simple controversy involving poetics. It certainly had no effect on Terayama's reputation. His poetry is still among the most popular in Japan today 20 years after his death.

Matt Dalby said…
Jeffrey, Brian,

Thanks a lot for your thoughtful and illuminating comments. I'll aim to reflect them in the next follow-up to this post.

One of the things that surprised me - having failed to read through my post critically before publishing it was how much I emphasised the social dimension of the argument. Not that it isn't important - just that it was meant to be one strand of three or so.

Jeffrey - you're quite right to point out that there are important structural differences in the way that poems are made compared with film and gaming. Contemporary games in particular require a vast range of disciplines - the demands of which are often competing. Poetry is capable of being created by one person - film and games generally not.

Brian, you've opened up a whole bunch of new areas for me to research. I'm completely unfamiliar with Asian poetries so I was speaking in ignorance of the poetic culture you refer to. Part of that ignorance is having struggled unsuccessfully to learn to speak Cantonese let alone use Chinese characters I'm aware of how far any Western translation of Asian poetry is only ever an approximation.

I will give all these ideas some more thought and try to respond more fully in the follow-up to this post.
Brian said…

Rereading my comments, it occurs to me that I perhaps need to clarify that my renku experience was led by a western poet, not a Japanese?

And you are absolutely right about translation as approximation being even more pronounced East to West. I have the friendship of a Chinese poet here in Canada who never lets me forget the inherent difficulties (one is tempted to say impossibilities) involved.

Thinking about your topic, I wonder if collaboration between sound poets might somehow go more smoothly than between written word poets? It certainly seems to be a mutually enjoyable process between visual poets.

Jeffrey Side said…
I suppose anonymity of poetic composition might solve the problem of egos. The deal would be that such collaborators would go into it knowing that they would not be credited. But then, how many would agree to this?
Matt Dalby said…
You're right, Jeffrey, I guess a lot of people would be suspicious of either credited collaborative composition or anonymous collaborative composition.

It will depend very much on the individuals, their relationships, approach to writing, outside activities.

The only example I can think of immediately is the Italian novel-writing collective Wu-Ming who have produced a number of books and seem to have a system (with a small group) that works. On the other hand you have endless well-documented clashes over credit in both music and film.

As Brian mentioned I think that visual and sound poetry are 'easier' sites for collaboration - I've engaged in a few collaborations and personally don't really care how they get credited - although I may be unusual in this. Collaborations where different parties have distinctly defined roles such as James Davies and Simon Taylor's Joy As Tiresome Vandalism projects (aRb, Absolute Elsewhere) are probably easier to manage.

An interesting question is to ask why visual and sound poetry should seem to be more amenable to collaboration. Is it that the written word feels more 'personal', or is there some other reason?
Brian said…
I suspect Jeffrey as theorist can address the issues better than I but wonder if some part of the answer to your question doesn't lie in the historicity of the practices in question?

Maybe it's important to keep in mind that, unlike written poetry, visual and sound poetries as practiced today rise out of literary/artistic milieus already in the thick of deconstructionist questioning regarding authorship, text, etc. I use "deconstructionist" broadly as I would also include here those questions posed by Dada, Surrealism, Futurism and others preceding Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze & Co.
Anonymous said…
As usual your musing send my brain grasping out for possibilities. One that struck immediately was the possibility of fusing a reading with the mechanics of the "choose your own adventure" oveure.

A reader on stage is guided through a collection of thematically linked poems based on the choices made by the audience, via a paddle with a series of buttons on it. The buttons meanings could be projected behind them as they read.

You could even bring in collaboration by having the 'narrative' of the pieces being worked on by several people, with the individuals in question coming on to read for the poems that they wrote.

You could do the whole thing with rudimentary electronics/coding knowledge or just go the easy route and have people txt their choices in via sms. Hell, why not have each piece accompanied by ambient/industrial/sound poetry decided by taking the number of most popular votes, dividing it by the least popular and rounding up/down?

The project would transfer very well to the web where you could also add a video element, include all kinds of interesting easter eggs, or even by throwing the whole thing up as a flash game?
Matt Dalby said…
That's a really interesting practical suggestion Adam. It kind of brings together a couple of disparate ideas I've had over the years, and then pushes them a bit further.

I remember way back in the early noughties thinking about using the ability to link pages in a website to construct a poem whose reading was open. That is you had a starting point with several links which you could follow in whatever order you liked, and each link then had further links and so on.

More recently when I was writing this article I remembered reading something (I think on/via Information Is Beautiful but I haven't checked that) which graphically analysed the structure of choose your own adventure stories, and how they'd changed over the years. Those representations looked remarkably similar to the underlying structure of a user-generated level on Little Big Planet featured in the third programme in BBC Four's Games Britannia series. That idea of somehow structuring work so that it can be followed through in a number of ways interested me.

And I am well aware of the various novels and poems across the years that have come as loose leaves in a box, and of Robert Sheppard's Twentieth Century Blues (which I have) that has a number of alternate ways of reading through. These are very much paper-based solutions, and all so far as I know single-author endeavours - except for the illustrations and performances not in the book that are taken to form part of Twentieth Century Blues.
Anonymous said…
Yeah, i think i remember glancing at the graphical analysis of the CYOA books in my daily web wanderings.

That idea you had back in the early noughties is actually a really old idea from back in the bad old days of the world wide web, although to my knowledge i don't think anyone ever applied it to poetry.
Anonymous said…
Great post… great topic… here are some of my thoughts.
1. Literary magazines and anthologies would be an example of collective works by multiple poets who work together to create one piece of art. But unlike something like film, they’re easier to segment the work done by individual artists (poets).
2. “when you buy a game you don't have access to all the content you've paid for. You have to earn it by playing through the game - solving the puzzles and exploring the world - going back to levels once the whole is complete. This takes time. “
Poetry is already like this. You can read the surface level meaning right away… but the more you read it and work with a poem, you begin to solve literary puzzles set in motion by the poet. Often, the more your spend with a poet or book of poetry, the more you get out of it.
3. Video poetry will yield greater collaboration. The internet expectations of videos will yield growth in this area allowing poets to create short videos that find a global niche.
4. I’d love to see a big boss fight every ten pages… wonder what that would look like.
Thanks again for posting on this topic. Now to go put a link to the article and brief commentary over on my blog. I blog over at : a blog about poetry and technology.
Anonymous said…
one more thing on the www poetry thing. check out the longest poem in the world A twitter version of the web thing you described.
Matt Dalby said…
Andy, thanks for your comments. They've helped clarify my thinking a little further. I will reflect them, and those of the other contributors in the first follow-up to this post at some point this week.

I haven't yet checked out the longest poem in the world but I suspect it may be similar to something I saw a while back aggregating tweets from all sources along certain themes. Your quote on the post along the lines of 'do that with pen and paper' also reminds me of the strategies used by Kenneth Goldsmith involving scanning and manipulating large bodies of text.

Personally I'm not sure that I'd regard an anthology or magazine as collaborative in the kind of sense I was thinking of, but it's a point worth considering.

I kind of had in mind that poetry doesn't give up its content immediately, but I don't believe the processes are necessarily analogous. However, I would need to go away and think about it to settle why I think that.

Videopoetry I simply hadn't considered, which is shameful having attended Tony Konyves well put-together programme of film-poems at Bury Text Festival last year.

And finally, even as I wrote it I thought that actually a poetry boss-fight every so often might make reading a lot more fun.

My plan now is to start with a follow-up post which clarifies what I meant, examines the various points made by contributors to this thread, and starts to think about where the ideas go from here. There will then, after I've done some research, be a third post, though that's likely to be more than a month away.
Brian said…
A "poetry boss-fight" might be fun but would it be helpful? Poetry isn't like (or shouldn't be like) corporate-climbing, political debate or sports. I know I would find a boss-fight irritating. Like war, it eventually has to end and everybody get back to the real issue(s) at hand.

But then, I've always thought Sartre only got it partly right and that "hell is other poets". Why exacerbate the fact? Participate in a renku session sometime with an asshole sabaki and see what you think.

(Of course I'm willing to entertain the boss-fight notion was meant facetiously).
Matt Dalby said…
Yes I was being facetious. I'm not really sure how a poetry boss fight would work. However, the idea does point up something that's unclear in my post - what exactly do I mean by 'what can poetry learn from gaming'?

This is something I'll address in the follow-up post that's coming soon. The lack of clarity relates to what aspect of gaming I meant. Was it the narrative structure of games? Or the technological elements? Or the 'playability'? In fact I hadn't really thought about it.

That's the sort of thing that the feedback I've had has helped me identify. The thing about most discursive posts is I post them, usually without spending any time identifying problems. Where there's no response I then never spend the time thinking further about the argument and never get the chance to clarify it properly.

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