Video game poetics

Via @brkeoghCraft and Form by Andrew Vanden Bossche is well worth reading.

Talking about character and plot without form rapidly becomes ungrounded and airy, because I’m hearing about people that aren’t real and things that didn’t happen without any grounding in the countless craft and form choices that made all of that junk matter. If plot and character was all that mattered, Wikipedia would be a sufficient replacement for literature. Any description of the effect a game has on the author should come with your explanation of how that happened. What exactly was it about the heartbreaking indie puzzle platformer that made you feel nostalgic? What did Jane Austin do to make you like that dour Mr. Darcy so much? These are not strange or unusual or “academic” questions, they are questions of very basic specificity and clarity in any sort of writing. It’s incomplete to talk about the emotional reaction the game effected in you without describing the cause. This matters for “game mechanics” but it applies equally to writing, art, and music, and the mechanics and form and craft that drive those as well

Where I part ways with him is that I don’t think it’s critics’ backgrounds in literature or English that are an issue here, so much as it’s the particular critical skills that are being brought to bear on games. At present a great deal of games writing is concerned with hermeneutic questions – issues of interpretation. What does it mean? What is it trying to say, or saying without trying? Is it aesthetically pleasing? What’s the cultural or generic context? But much less common, as Andrew notes, are questions of poetics: questions that tackle the mechanics of how a game functions, how its elements fit together and act upon the player – or how the player acts upon them – to cause an effect.

Robert Louis Stevenson speaks to game designers about realism as a tool, as well as to writers. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters has kinship with the Personism Manifesto in its approach to accessibility, personality, realities of experience. It’s only a matter of time before we get a video game version of Projective Verse, most likely delivered at a conference or in free ebook form disguised as a design approach to the Oculus Rift. I can see Aristotle getting along nicely with video game formalism.

This leads me to suspect that – concerned as they are with the mechanics of language, the careful structuring of words to build worlds with minimal tools, with rhythm, pace, meter, tone, pattern, breath, the physiology of the reader, the interweaving of meaning with mechanic – theories of video games are going to end up having a surprising amount in common with theories of poetry. I know that my own thinking about game mechanics – in terms of their effects and their overall aims – draws on poetics as a framework along with other disciplines. But they’re often excruciatingly inaccessible, and perhaps lifting the curtain is less engaging for audiences who want to be entertained, rather than to examine the nuts and bolts. As Stevenson says:

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.  …  We shall never learn the affinities of beauty, for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man. The amateur, in consequence, will always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be stated but never can wholly be explained…

Can poetry be journalism?

I’ve been thinking even more than usual about unconventional storytelling in the aftermath of The Story, and ended up back on a question I last seriously thought about while I was at university.

It’s about poetry. Since I came to London I’ve rediscovered my ability to write creatively, and a couple of projects have taken off – I’ve got a poem in this month’s Rialto magazine, and a couple of weeks back I read a few pieces of writing at the launch of Whippersnapper Press, a small press devoted to getting more snappy, exciting work out to more people. It was fun.

The first piece I performed was arguably an act of data journalism. It was born out of an FOI request I put in to Norfolk Constabulary in late 2009 on the subject of big cat sightings – one that yielded some fantastic results in the form of the CAD logs written by operators during emergency and non-emergency calls. Each one of these is a story in and of itself – the two women who sparked a lion hunt at Cromer caravan park after seeing two stone lioness carvings; the South African man who was convinced he had just come face to face with a leopard; the 41 calls received by the police about a large black cat and cub near Kings Lynn in 2001. And the performance piece was an aggregation and curation of those stories.

That taps into a long history of observational poetry and literature, works that take official or historical documents, curating them and reshaping them into a newly readable and accessible (normally) work. I’ve seen examples of this including transcripts of court cases, lists of statistics, and inquiry evidence, juxtaposed and curated to introduce new meanings and ambiguities that are not necessarily evident in the original documents.

One example that has stuck with me for years – but that I’ve so far utterly failed to track down online – was a novel-length collection of real-life stories of work-related accidents, that led to health and safety laws being introduced. I read extracts in the context of a literature course, but it could just have easily been an introduction to the power of journalism, in collating and curating those reports and bringing them into the public eye. I came away with a much deeper understanding of the subject – something that for me is a major function of journalism.

And the cross-over goes the other way, too – something that’s perhaps too easy to forget when you’re concentrating on 15-word intros and the inverted pyramid. The Gravedigger column is not only a fine piece of journalism but an incredible literary work – fantastic writing can be found all over the world in disposable newsprint as well as on bookshelves.

But, given that poets have been turning journalism into poetry for at least a century now, can journalists do the same back and turn poetry into journalism?

With that in mind, this is an experiment.

Yasqot Yasqot

they kill a boy on Youtube and you watch because you barely believe
and facts are few and far between and it matters
that before you pass it on you verify
and they film from a balcony in Alexandria as he advances arms outstretched
on the stone-throwing police
he crumples
and they stop shouting yasqot yasqot

so you Google Asmaa because you don’t know how it started and you watch
the screen flicker
and you’ve no way to know if the subtitles
tell her words right or if she’s still alive or where
but trust a pseudonymous someone not to mistranslate
and watch your friends retweet the news that the regime has fallen
even though it hasn’t

there are too many faces on the screen and in the end
you can only parse the numbers when they kneel to pray
or in HD for five minutes at a time before you’d have to pay
so you pick the numbers you believe from the nearest journalists
who aren’t being beaten arrested abused or killed
at the time
though they may be later

and there are at least 300 dead when you snatch your headphones
from the desk and load up al jazeera on livestation and listen
as the crowd roars
for fifteen minutes

and your goosebumps
are not enough tribute
and they stop shouting yasqot yasqot

Short is sexy

16/06/2009 - Magnetic poetry wall at the Cambridge Arts FestivalI’m a fairly recent Twitter convert, and at the moment there are two main reasons I’m sticking with it. First, it’s short, and second, it’s art.

I’ve failed to enjoy Facebook or work well with it for several years, preferring to do my moaning on my blog and my events management by email. Yes, I know, I should do better. That’s why I joined Twitter.

The interface is easy, keeping up with people you find intriguing or blogs you want to keep tabs on is suddenly very simple, and you can engage as much or as little as you fancy.

All of which is lovely, but it’s not why I like it so much – it’s not why it works. The best and most innovative thing Twitter has done is forced us to condense communication into short bursts – to crystallise. To be brief.

Twitter’s 140-character limit forces poetry from mundanity. It’s possible to build a tweet around a single thought, a concept, without over-egging it or forcing it. It rewards neatness. Even “pointless babble” becomes a crystal of meaning, complete in itself.

And people are using the microblogging format for all sorts of textual art, from condensing words down to fit within the strict limits to haiku to artistic political satire, such as William Shatner’s Tonight Show recital of Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed. The medium even spawned the world’s first interactive poetry competition.

Mashable laid out the reasons for loving the character limit very neatly and persuasively, but didn’t mention the possibility of poetry.

Twitter is forcing us to distill our words, and words distilled can make art.