Nick Murray

Poetry Games

Game, in comparison to its considerably older
and more established sibling Film, is still a mere fledgling at seventy years old, give or take. The landscape of game for much of that time has been in finding its feet and testing the space around it. But now game is welcomed as a mainstream artform. There are games being collected at the British Library, and on display at galleries around the world! What was once a no-man’s land (or only man’s land) has become a network of thriving communities. Much of this is down to the recent boom in game-making tools. Where once a budding game-maker would have to learn a whole new language in Python, Java or HTML, now game engines allow creators to draw, write and piece together a game in a matter of minutes without having to type a single digit. Around the mainstream super-cities of games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, there are frontier communities of game-makers, pockets of creativity testing the boundaries of game and seeing what games can be beyond a cursor that explodes things. It is within these utopic neighbourhoods that poetry games reside. 

If We Were Allowed To Visit by poet Gemma Mahadeo and game designer Ian MacLarty

By their nature (and by their title) poetry games are cross cultural, but they’re also countercultural. As of yet, you won’t find them in the poetry section of your local bookshop. By being small, often intangible, they resist traditional commercial routes. Like zine culture before them, poetry games become connectors between communities, gifts shared within subcultures. The game If We Were Allowed To Visit, an anthology of poems rendered in fully traversable 3D, was the output of two artists (poet Gemma Mahadeo and game designer Ian MacLarty) discussing what poetry could be and deciding to form a new connection through collaboration. They sent poems and digital renders back and forth to see how poetry could be integrated into game and game could encapsulate poetry. 

Astra Papachristodoulou’s Poetry Jenga

In the book A Slow Year, Ian Bogost illustrates how, while playing a game, the methods for reading that game are the same methods used by readers of poetry. Going beyond this, I would posit that the methods for creating a game are the same as those used to create poetry. If poetry is boiling words down to their most fundamental parts, games take those parts and create defining actions from them. If a game is a series of choices, a poem is those same choices imposed as a rule. A perfect example of this is when a game and a poem overlap so perfectly that the rules for each are identical. Poetry Jenga, a game and object poem by Astra Papachristodoulou is played and read using the exact same rules as traditional Jenga, as though the rules were made from the very beginning to fit the poem. Readers pull pieces to form and reform the poem, which becomes increasingly unstable. Eventually the words fall apart and the poem ends with a clattering full stop. 

Philippe Grenon’s Émile et Moi

Sylvia Plath wrote of poetry that to write it ‘you have to burn away all the peripherals’. Strip away anything inessential. The same goes for game, and therefore doubly so for poetry games. If burning away the peripherals is a method to creation, then Philippe Grenon’s Émile et Moi is a perfect example. A poetry platformer, originally made up of 200 Quebecoise poems, and specially translated for the National Poetry Library’s new Poetry Games exhibition, this poem game uses one simple rule for reading: ‘jump’. The reader, or the reader’s gaze on the text, is personified by a little character, and by jumping from platform to platform a poem is created from a repository of words and phrases. If a game is a series of interesting choices (Sid Meier), then maybe a game poem exists in the space left when all but the most important are removed.

What the Poetry Games exhibition aims to do is address the common misperceptions of both poetry and games. That games are light, entertainment focused toys, and that poetry is the inaccessible and stuffy side of literature. 

Through Poetry Games, we want to show a series of works that combine a playful method of exploration with a depth of understanding. And I hope that by playing these poems and reading these games, people will have a glimpse at the wider world of both of these artforms. The ways that someone can read a poem are the same ways that one can read a game, and the ways that one could play a game are the same ways that someone can play a poem. It doesn’t even need to be explicitly a ‘poetry game’. By discovering the overlaps in form, method and concept in Poetry Games, I hope that audiences will be able to go on to see the playful in all poetry, and the poetic in all games.

The Poetry Games exhibition runs at the Southbank Centre in the National Poetry Library from 21 October 2022 – 15 January 2023. The exhibition is free and unticketed.

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