Fads and Aftershocks: what can poetry and gaming do for one another?

Open mic poetry night in Grim Fandango

This article asks, and attempts to answer, three questions:

1. What can poetry do for gaming?

Electronic gaming culture is expansive and continues to expand, with indie development in particular burgeoning at a phenomenal rate. It’s become almost an umbrella term, in that it covers everything from teenagers playing mass-marketed war simulators with film-quality CGI to commuters idly thumbing through Temple Run on the train to work, to the activist inclinations of the interactive fiction community. Many game-making tools are now freely available on the Internet, and it seems as if every few months a new lone gunman developer surfaces with a breakout hit, earning him enough to quit his job.

But the conversation around gaming comes back repeatedly to its legitimacy as an artform, with gamers frequently expressing their desire for the best games to be ‘recognised’ as works of art. What is missed in the deployment of the term ‘recognition’ is the fact that the behaviour of the audience is an immeasurably large part of what defines a practice as an art, and the principle obstacle to games being recognised as art is gamers. I don’t mean that pejoratively, but as long as the bulk of the audience for games continue to express themselves mostly through financial behaviour – buying, then exhausting the product before moving on to the next purchase – gaming will struggle not to be regarded as a form of disposable entertainment. Shakespeare is not held aloft as an artistic genius because hundreds of Elizabethans and Jacobeans flocked to see his plays night after night; his esteem has been managed and sustained by generation after generation of writers and scholars who have provided intelligent assessment and insight into his work and used it as the foundation for creative works of their own.

There is no sense, therefore, in waiting around for ‘recognition’, or indeed for waiting for the Shakespeare of the game development world. How we act and think now will change how other people think about games, and aside from financial behaviour, the vast majority of discourse is journalistic in character. I have read many, many insightful articles about games, but journalistic copy is written to be succeeded the next day by something else – it is incredibly impermanent. Games studies courses are beginning to find a foothold in academia, but academia is, by its nature, secluded and self-insulating. I don’t want to diminish the importance of either of these areas, but there needs to be as much variety in writing about games as there is in games themselves. (I would go further and suggest that the cause of gaming as art has a serious problem when the most vexed and visible conversation of recent months has been a pitched battle between affluent consumers and corporate spokespeople.)

1997’s Snake, now a thing of nostalgia, is revisited by Cliff Hammett in Coin Opera 2

For games and gaming to be acknowledged and discussed in poetry – in the work, that is, of writers who are, first and foremost, poets – is an important step in the way gaming is written about. It’s not quite the same thing as blending poetry into games or making poems more like games, though I’m an advocate of those as well. It’s also not simply a case of putting a badge on games, saying, “You have been deemed worthy.” Poetry has that reputation of being lofty, but has also, of course, had a sideline in reconstituting detritus into art for the better part of century, so to be plundered for poetic content is not necessarily an honouring process.

No; the importance of poetry about games, as with poetry about anything, is that it suggests new ways of considering the subject, new ways of ‘reading’ games beyond the purely evaluative. It’s a creative-critical approach. I’ve been proffering examples from Coin Opera 2 to people for some time now, so here’s just a couple more: Cliff Hammett’s ‘Snake’ works as a reading of the once-popular mobile game Snake as a visual metaphor for the movement of water across the fissures in man-made structures. It suggests this both through its words and through its shape, and might cause us to return to the original game (now long since superseded as casual entertainment by Angry Birds and its sequels) and find something new and remarkable about it. Prompting the return is important; individual games may sell millions and enjoy a brief period in the public consciousness, but if any are to rise above the level of a fad, we need to find reasons to return to them once newer ones with better graphics supplant them.

My second example is Dan Simpson’s ‘Sympathy for the Orange Ghost’, an extract from a full-length show he’s taking to the Edinburgh festival this year. Pacman is already legendary, the main character already an icon. The game has gone about as far as games can go in embedding itself in our culture. Notably, it has already had a starring role in a one-man poetry performance show: Ross Sutherland’s The Three Stigmata of Pacman. But Dan’s work enriches Pacman further by unearthing a further implied narrative in it: the outcast status of Clyde, the orange ghost, whom he lyricises into a symbol of social marginalisation in general.

Poetry about games extends their life and extends their relevance. It is, in itself, a form of the ‘recognition’ that some gamers crave, but operates through an active creative engagement. This is what poetry can do for games.

Ross Sutherland performing The Three Stigmata of Pacman

2. What can gaming do for poetry?

At first blush, the answer seems obvious. In commercial terms, poetry is a dust mite to the gaming industry’s behemoth. In fact, poetry barely even registers as an industry at all, and therefore by infiltrating the culture of gaming, poets might be seen as making some calculated grab at the larger audience.

But it’s a mistake to think in these terms. Poetry is a much wider, older and potentially longer-lasting cultural discipline than gaming, and while it might look sickly in terms of revenue, its health in terms of the number and variety of its practitioners is booming. Money troubles may slow it down, greatly reduce its reach and hurt individual poets and publishers, but poetry will go on in some form, while the unsustainability of Western opulence may still spell an early end for gaming (in its electronic form at least).

What’s more, poetry’s lack of commerciality is in large part down to its effectiveness. That is to say, a little goes a very long way. Consumers burn through games, novels and even sprawling television sagas in days and find themselves hungry for more, while a small amount of poetry is enough for most people for most of their lives. Contemporary poets struggle for attention not through lack of skill or personality, but because poets of past eras successfully remain instilled in the national psyche, nourishing our cultural discourse far beyond their lifespan. We have an excess of good poetry, and in this sense, one sensible argument is that poetry requires nothing, that it is already the survival specialist of the arts, able to live on water and thin air if need be, growing fat in times of plenty or austerity.

What poetry does crave is renewal. Without renewal, entire generations risk coming across as nothing more than an aftershock of those that came before. Renewal is the sign that poets are in step with the present and prepared to attend to it, rising to the challenge of being the world’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’, rather than wallowing in nostalgia or trying to relive past glories.

Gaming provides an obvious opportunity for such renewal. I don’t suggest, of course, that all serious poets should at once turn to games in order to demonstrate an affinity with modern life. Done cynically, this leads to cheap and embarrassing poems (see Wendy Cope’s attempts at text message poetry). But we’re now living in a world where younger people are reading more from computer screens than they are from printed material, and part of the reason for this is the richness of virtual environments, where identity is more fluid and the ways of absorbing information more varied. The opportunities for philosophical and artistic exploration are immense. Thinking, for instance, of identity – a huge preoccupation in contemporary poetry – poets should be interested in the implications of being able to come home from work and role-play as a humanoid plant who can summon the dead until bedtime. Since experience is subjective, is there any reason to believe experiences in virtual environments are less real, less a part of our make-up and a contributing factor to our character, than experiences in the concrete world? Consider this particularly in the light of the increasing amount of social interaction within online communities.

What about how virtual architecture can inform form and rhythm? It’s no coincidence, I would say, that a good number of the poems we took for Coin Opera 2 chose to use shape, space or meter as a way of expressing their engagement with a game. And because the history of game narratives is one of constant, rapid evolution and faltering experiments, often with the reins of authorial control loosened in order to accommodate player interaction, they are, I would suggest, a treasure trove of myth, where ‘myth’ means the opportunity to take elements of a known tale and retell or reinterpret them to explore wider themes.

Games are abundant, often scrambled packages of meaning waiting to be untangled and made sense of. Gaming culture is a cluster of new experiences whose careful evaluation, in any literary form, will help us all make sense of ourselves. That’s what gaming can do for poetry.

3. What else can they do for each other?

Finally, there’s the importance of cross-disciplinary discourse, which I also allude to in my Dr Fulminare interview over at Sabotage. At present, as far as I can make out, there is very little discussion between gaming and literary audiences, much within the bubble of each. Meanwhile, there are multiple issues afflicting both literary and gaming culture wherein both could benefit from sharing their ideas. One example is the problem of gender bias, which I go into more thoroughly here.

There are numerous social and political problems all of us are grappling with in some form or another. There are arguments that poetry can be a constructive force in this respect, and there are arguments that games can be a constructive force in this respect. I believe these arguments, but if they’re right, then both cultures – and both disciplines – could stand to share their ideas a little more freely.

Poetry Guest-Appearing in Games #2: Dishonored

Like Mark of the Ninja, 2012’s Dishonored is an action-stealth game and a shining example of that genre. It’s also credited with introducing gamers to one of the most memorable fantasy worlds of recent times: the plague-ravaged fishing city of Dunwall, a kind of steampunk Victorian East London powered by whalefat batteries (the whales are implied to be Godzillarish mutants with connections to another dimension). Automatic gun turrets and electric ‘walls of light’ exist alongside flintlock pistols and duelling sabres, as the protagonist, Corvo, traverses titanic iron bridges and vast stone fortresses to revenge himself against the corrupt ruling classes.

Taking a design cue from Bioshock, also set in a city gone wrong, the lore of the world is revealed to the player mostly through notes and books he or she finds scattered about the place, often near decaying corpses. Reading them is entirely optional and has little bearing on the plot; they’re there to add flavour to the world, to make it feel inhabited by more than the main characters and a legion of disposable guardsmen. And wouldn’t you know it: out of all the various material I found, two were definitely poems.

The first, found in the second level of the game near a homeless plague victim, is the stronger of the two. It’s called ‘Death in the Month of Songs’, with a notation explaining that it’s both an excerpt from longer work and a translation (from ‘old Serkonan’, if you were wondering). This is a clever move by the writer, as it provides an explanation for the poem lacking the sense of an ending, and also excuses a little of the tinniness, since translations tend to be difficult beasts. That said, it does read like an honest attempt at a decent poem. It consists of four stanzas of three lines, with an implied narrative and use of repetition in the first lines of each: “She was shy in the Month of Hearths” through to “She was dying in the Month of Songs”. It apes the style of the romantics somewhat, and has the odd moment of interesting imagery:

She was wed in the Month of Clans
To her sailor cousin from Cullero
A shrill bird, drilling at my chest

The last line, though, is pretty poor: “A terrible kiss on her distant lips”. ‘Terrible kiss’ has that try-hard vibe about it, and the internal rhyme is heavy-handed. She’s dying from a disease at this point, but why are her lips distant? Distant, perhaps, from the narrator, who is her suitor but who ultimately loses her to the cousin. In fact, I have to hand it to the poem: it does manage to tell a tragic story with very few words. The lady in question marries a sailor instead of the narrator, who loves her, because she has a head for adventure. A cruelly short time later, she dies from a tropical illness.

The second poem is depressingly bad. It purports to be an excerpt from ‘a set of cautionary tales for children’ and is obviously intended as a sort of macabre nursery rhyme or folk ballad:

Here’s the thing about rhymes and ballads though: they tend to scan. The rhythm is such that the lines roll off the tongue. Here we start with:

They say that Jimmy Whitcomb Riley
Was a brawler his mates called Smiley.
He ran around, up and down-town,
Pulling off every kind of crime-y.

Which is all kinds of awkward. And what’s the point of forcing a rhyme with the ending ‘y’ if it’s not even a full rhyme? Two stanzas later, we get ‘a-sleeping’ rhymed with ‘Clavering’. This is as lazy as it gets. On top of that, the rhyming pattern established in the first stanza, which is basically a variation on a limerick, is abandoned in the second through to fourth, presumably because it was too difficult to find more than one rhyme for ‘boys’ or ‘day’.

But the worst thing about this effort is that there’s no real story. If you’re going to half-arse the poetry for the sake of telling a ‘cautionary tale’, you should at least have a tale in mind. This one starts off describing a typical no-good character. Then, in stanza four, he wakes up as a fish! That’s it! Even McGonagall had something he actually wanted to tell us about.

Someone on the Dishonored writing team obviously decided that inserting poetry into the game through these books and documents would help give the world credibility. It’s one of those little details that makes an imaginary people seem real. Indeed, ever since Tolkien, it seems to be an unwritten rule that every fantasy world must have its ballads, tavern songs and poems as a sign of the richness of its culture. This makes sense. But it also leaves you wondering: why, then, don’t games developers hire a poet to write them their poems? Poets tend to come very cheap, and many would embrace the challenge of writing in whatever style you wanted.

I suppose the answer is that for all that the ‘idea’ of poetry still holds sway, the average person’s familiarity with it is so lacking that they can mistake an awful, rushed attempt for a convincing approximation.

Gender / Gaming / Literature

That there is a major issue with gender representation within both gaming and literary culture is now so widely accepted that it’s easy to forget the claim is even contested. But contested it is; the worst that can be said about Anita Sarkeesian‘s Tropes vs Women series so far is that it’s a succession of statements of the obvious, but that hasn’t prevented a wave of antipathy and attempts to discredit Sarkeesian, even to the point of publicly accusing her of fraud for asking for too much money from her supporters.(1)

Even if we ignore this resistance to eminently sensible criticisms, just because a problem is widely acknowledged doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. One argument deployed when feminist critics like Sarkeesian emerge, or when statistics are released that point to comparable problems in literary culture, is that we’re only seeing a reflection of wider problems with equality in society. Games developers cannot employ more women if women aren’t applying for the jobs and female authors can’t be published if they aren’t submitting work. Similarly, if there is a lack of female protagonists, characters and perspectives in games and literature, it’s because the public aren’t interested enough in them.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that this is a case of neutrality as complicity. The metaphor of the travelator(2) is useful in characterising what’s happening. There is a cultural drift towards inequality – not just to the detriment of women, but to the detriment of minority ethnic groups, the poor, gay people, transsexuals, the disabled and others. We can debate about who is responsible for that cultural drift and whether or not it’s part of human nature; what’s important for now is to understand that if you aren’t resisting – if you aren’t walking in the opposite direction along the travelator – then you’re being pulled towards accepting greater and greater inequality, into a position where you’re more likely to find basic notions of freedom and fairness unrealistic or fanciful. The most common complaint against feminists is that they’re too visible, too attention-seeking, too forceful. This complaint ignores cultural drift and the fact that you can’t create a countercurrent without considerable noise and activity, nor without making demands.

Secondly, literature and gaming in particular should be at the forefront of positive change. Games are spaces where we can play. Books are spaces where we can exercise our imaginations. Creative mediums are where we can take stock of what is unhealthy in our world by imagining a better one, where we can test outlandish theories, and explore our most dangerous instincts in a safe environment. They’re where we can visualise and articulate internal conflict. In short, they’re areas where notions of what is realistically achievable in society should give way to idealism and social experimentation, where everything we think we know should be regularly turned on its head. This already happens; it just needs to happen more.

More importantly, they’re areas where change can occur relatively rapidly because of their accessibility. In most industries, systemic prejudice is so ingrained, so threaded into the system that change is generational at best. Women don’t land corporate jobs, often, because they lack the requisite aggression and competitive edge. They lack aggression and a competitive edge because these are qualities that, early on in children’s development, are identified as masculine, as unfeminine. In other areas, women lack qualification or experience or self-assurance, all because they are undermined at an early point in their lives and placed at a disadvantage. But you don’t need to land a job to become a writer. And with game creation tools like Twine and Construct 2 constantly evolving, you don’t need a job in technology to become a game developer. Best of all, the Internet provides the necessary tools for disseminating the resulting work and building an audience for female critics and creators alike.

Twine is a simple, window-based development platform for text adventures.

So what needs to be done?

One of the most important things to challenge in both literature and gaming is the idea of a type of book or game that is aimed at women, and the accompanying notion that addressing the gender imbalance will mean more of these types of games and books, at the expense of the type that we (men) typically enjoy. The scare story is that political correctness demands an overall reduction in quality.

But these are industries/environments where the full spectrum of what appeals to boys and men has been heavily explored and is collectively well understood, while women’s tastes are very poorly understood, in part due to a deficit of widely disseminated critical writing by women. The kind of games and books that are marketed to girls and women – chick-lit and dolls’ house games – are the result of this poor understanding. That’s not to say women don’t like these games and books, but that it represents only a tiny part of the full spectrum of what they might like – a spectrum which, in all likelihood, overlaps to a massive degree with men’s tastes.

If women’s tastes were more thoroughly explored and understood, what I suspect would come to light is that a multiplicity of minor changes would do much to bring more women on board while sacrificing little of what appeals to male audiences. To take an example from gaming, one of the reasons women can feel excluded by the content of a game is the proliferation of female characters whose sole purpose appears to be titillation. This is frequently misunderstood as an objection to partial nudity or attractiveness, when in fact it’s a complaint about deficit of personality and relatable goals. It would be easily resolved by introducing female characters who fill out a much wider range of roles, as well as genuinely sexy male characters. It does not necessitate censorship.

GLaDOS, one of gaming’s most unusual and memorable female characters.

Although literary culture prides itself on sophistication, there is a similar issue with crude understanding of what women want and what is distinct, if anything, about women’s writing. Famously, VS Naipaul last year attempted to reduce the entire scope of women’s fiction to ‘sentimentality, the narrow view of the world’. If this isn’t a clue as to a greater problem in how we envisage women’s role in literary culture, I don’t know what is. Even within poetry, there is a barely-remarked-on but, in my opinion, noticeable stylistic pigeonhole that women’s writing slots into. Women who write in this way (broadly: confessional, relationship-focused, formally loose) are, in my judgement, more likely to be published than women who write in any number of other ways. I would suggest that there is a subconscious, male-led selection process at work that highlights this style of poem as ‘representing’ women better than some of the other styles women choose to write in.

Let’s address the argument that better representation of women in either medium means a drop in quality, means opting for the poorer candidate to fulfil a quota. Women make up over half the world’s population. There is no scientific basis for the assumption that men are more intelligent, more creative, more individualistic or harder-working than women. If you have two local sports teams who, in totality, are equal to one another, and you make up a national side that is heavily weighted to one of those teams, as a matter of logic, you must have picked the weaker players from one team at the expense of stronger players from the other. In any culture, subculture or industry where the gender balance is skewed heavily in favour of men, the weaker candidates are already being picked. More equality should logically amount to higher quality.

Finally, I want to say a few words about Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge and our approach to gender equality. The final ratio of contributors is 23 male to 18 female, which is 57:43 in favour of men. I consider this not ideal but within the boundaries of acceptability considering our limited resources. During the process of soliciting poems, three male poets approached me with unsolicited poems, while no female poets did. At one point, I did make a concerted effort to get more female poets on board because I felt we didn’t have enough. Not one female poet turned us down on the basis that she didn’t play games, and the games they played ranged from pinball tables to Skyrim. Some found that the games they wanted to write about had already been covered, and so declined. One, whose relationship with games was mostly through her children, specifically bought and played the game they wanted to write about for the first time, in the interests of getting a more in-depth perspective. Some poets of both sexes said they would have a think but ultimately didn’t get back to us.

I would say that, on the whole, the collection is definitely richer for its inclusion of a good number of female poets and gamers and that their work does not betray any notion that there is a strict segregation of tastes or styles between men and women. I don’t think of this as providing a service to women (albeit I hope that providing a platform for more women to respond to games and gaming is helpful) but as something that improves the overall quality, accessibility and range of the book.

Further links

Coverflip: Maureen Johnson on gendered book covers
Jane McGonigal, game designer and games culture activist
Helen Lewis writing in the New Statesman on female protagonists in games


(1) Prior to writing this article, I’d only seen the fraud accusation made in the seething jungle of comments sections on news sites. But I only had to type ‘Sarkeesian fraud’ into Google to find this page in the top two results.

(2) I first stole and redeployed this metaphor here.