Jon is a writer and editor who specialises in hybrid forms, sequences and collaborations, a “poet of fantastic inversions” (Poetry London). His work has been published in The Sunday Times and performed on BBC Radio 4, as well as appearing in a number of British and international journals. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 2012 and the Poetry London prize in 2014 and 2016. He has been researching the interplay of poetry and digital games at UWE in Bristol since 2015.
“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International
“Multifaceted, mega-fabricated, louche architecture.” Magma
Games and Poems
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I’ve been interested in digital games since the 1980s, and poetry since my late teens, for similar reasons. Both mediums, at their best, exemplify G. K. Chesterton’s assertion that “the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window”, implying vast reaches within a confined space. Both combine a kind of fussy technicality with a prediliction for spellcraft. And both have a tactile appeal – games because their worlds respond to cybernetic interaction, poems because they emphasise the physical character of language. As such, they ask to be explored, rather than merely absorbed.
I spoke briefly about other features the two share in an interview with Georgia Mann on BBC Radio 4 in 2016, though I didn’t have quite the same grasp on it back then:
Poetic-ludic intertextual mutation
One of the simplest ways of bringing poems and games together is through allusion and quotation: poems that play on and into the fantasy of games, or games that embed lines and images from poetry. From my starting point as a writer and editor, I worked with my long-term collaborator Kirsten Irving on a series of projects that plumbed the last four decades’ worth of digital games for their undersung symbolic lode and imagistic splendour. We crowd-funded and published a ground-breaking anthology of poems, Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge, which included work by some of the most prominent UK poets of our generation. As a bonus booklet for early purchasers, I also wrote, designed and printed Super Treasure Arcade, a set of micro-poems, each based on a single game released in a particular year, starting from 1971.
Interactivity in Poems
Loss Pequeño Glazier describes the process of poetry’s expansion into digital-interactive space as extending “the physicality of reading”. It is an experiential augmentation; readers become physically involved in shaping and moving through the poem, beyond the point of holding a book and turning the page. We began dabbling in this area too, at first by creating digital versions of ordinary print poems broken up into stages, including Doomdark’s Revenge by Kate Potts, which we had previously published in Coin Opera 2.
This was released as part of a series of ‘play-poems’ produced in Twine, an online resource for writing interactive texts. But we also tried using presentation software; this fusion of two of my own poems, Meat and Mustard, uses a free CSS resource called impress.js. (Meat in particular seemed to lend itself to interactive adaptation – each line has within it a hidden word).
Does interactivity alone make a poem game-like? I would say not. As I embarked on a four-year PhD research project focussing on poem-game interplay, I began to formulate a theory of ludicity that centered on responsibility; that is, a game implicates a player in the process, rather than merely enabling them. What happens in the game is, in some way, your fault, and reflects on you. One of our play-poem experiments, Shag versus Cormorant, strayed into this territory by rewarding the reader with one of two different poems (and accompanying illustration) depending on their responses to a range of questions.
I have coined the term ‘ludokinetic poem’ for a form of poem/game hybrid which is mostly text-based, but which implicates the reader-player in its processes in a game-like way – by, for example, making them a protagonist in an unfolding narrative, or giving them choices that are implied to carry dramatic impact. A ludokinetic poem does not have to be digital, though the effect is easier to achieve with digital tools.
Dice Cave, which is embedded below, is a metaphysical undersea wreck-diving poem that draws inspiration from both
Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), one of the first text adventure games and the precursor to the modern adventure game genre, and Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance) (1897), an early modernist poem which anticipated free verse and concrete poetry, and which also uses shipwreck imagery. It has no end point, and its beginning stanza is randomised; there is a secret message to uncover, but otherwise simply allows the reader to move from area to area via flickering portals.
Where a poem-game hybrid takes on a form that is more recognisable as a game, it is better thought of as a poetry game. Poetry games incorporate poetry as a major building block in the game-world – not necessarily as a directly interactive element, but certainly as a major component of the game’s internal system of meaning. The distance from making poems and books is at this point fairly substantial, so most of my experiments in this area are very much in-progress.
The clip below is from a poetry game provisionally titled Erratum, in which the player takes on the role of a rat, interacting with both other characters and the text component of the game.
There is no one direction or form that poem-game interplay ought to take. I continue to explore the possibilities for simple intertextuality, as a way not only of extending the expressivity of poetry but also of building on the play experience inherent in games. My current aim is to allude to games only very lightly – that is, as much as possible, to avoid excluding or putting off readers who are unfamiliar with gaming tropes. The poem leads a double-life, within and without the context of the game/s whose material it utilises.
Take, for example, The Lookout, which won the Live Canon International Poetry Prize in 2018, and is performed in the video below by Guy Clark. I could tell you that this poem was inspired by, and generated out of, the experience of role-playing as a thief in Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine. But all that one needs in order to understand the poem (aside from a willingness to look up 17th century thieves’ cant) is an appreciation of the role of a lookout in an archetypical criminal gang.
Rationale and Wider Context
The justification for my wanting to combine games and poems has much to do with how they differ – or really, how they are perceived to differ. I’d go so far as to suggest that the cultural separation of poetry and games is representative of the cultural separation of meaning and pleasure, and of purpose and play. There are, I would agree, formal and phenomenological reasons why the two are difficult to successfully integrate (my research covers this in some detail). But these are obstacles that can be overcome. The more powerful separating force is our desire for neatly partitioned categories of activity.
Liam Murray and John Maher, for example, write compellingly on the devaluation of fantasy in video game properties, where it is often divorced from its political and psychological function and turned to a purely utilitarian purpose: to make the game more entertaining, to develop its addictive qualities. Games are simplistically viewed, by vocal sections of both fans and critics, as glorious nonsense, free of any application to the real world.
On the other hand, mainstream literary culture sidelines – or side-eyes, perhaps, more accurately – the fantastical and the playful, deeming it inimical to the serious pursuit of truth and wisdom. Murray and Maher have an apt term for that property of games and other popular media which makes traditional critics queasy: “scurrility ... that which is demeaned, impoverished, hidden, secret and guilty.”
So things are divided into the literary and the ludic, the rarefied and the mindless, and the people who attend each are viewed as broadly different types of people. As a result, they gather in different spaces, and struggle to understand one another’s conviction.
Having one foot (tentatively) in each of these spaces can feel like being wooed and clawed at by rival siblings. Gaming all too often proffers itself as a crude supplier of endorphin, asking the player to perform repeated feats and efforts in return for stars and treasure chests, blood and wallop, narrative catharsis. Literature demands its own kind of thralldom: to accounts of death, trauma, birth and journeying, and to grand displays of erudition and authority. Both have their roots in magico-religious performance, and both advance toward banality the more they concentrate the dosage.
Yet siblings they are. To echo Yeats, as Murray and Maher do: “Now that my ladder’s gone / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” And to complete the Chesterton quote, “the perfect drama must strive to rise to the high ecstasy of the peep show”. These two realms – that of making sense, and of exciting the senses – are messily interwoven at their edges. They depend on each other, and flow into one another. Moreover, the abandonment of the fantasy realm by serious literature leaves it all the more vulnerable to plundering by purely commercial interests.
I argue, then, that poetry and games can be combined in a number of configurations: digital poems with moving parts, games with poetic parallelism at their heart, and so on. In these configurations, there is the opportunity to incorporate the reader more completely into the world of the poem. There is the opportunity to lend lasting significance to the sensations experienced by the player. And most significantly, perhaps, there is the potential for doubling up the power each has to summon us to reach inward and outward, to reorientate ourselves, to make ourselves pliant and nimble – able to escape the constrictions of place and identity that are imposed upon us.