“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

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“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Modding the Waste Land: Intertextual Mutation Between Games and Poems

I’m presenting an extended abstract at the DiGRA 2019 conference in Kyoto this coming week, based on my practical PhD research. This is the final introduction/summary text:

In Ludic Mutation: The Player’s Power to Change the Game (2012), Anne-Marie Schleiner describes how artists and players alike resist the mechanically and culturally imposed rules of digital games by finding unconventional, expressive ways to interact with game content. In doing so, they reclaim play environments from commercial games publishers, treating games as sources of “play material” that can be endlessly appropriated, hacked, remolded and recontextualised. Fan art, fan fiction and other kinds of creative adaptation inevitably exert a transformative effect upon the material they adapt. Thinking of this activity in the light of Julia Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality – the understanding that all texts absorb, transform, and are in dialogue with other texts – we arrive at the idea of intertextual mutation: conscious alteration of a text or texts by creative reconfigurement through another text. This can be thought of as an extension of play, akin to the work performed by modding communities when they change the code or otherwise tamper with a piece of software directly.

Intertextual mutation taking place between games and poems is one dimension of a broader, emergent field of ludic-poetic interplay that includes games behaving like poems (poetic games), poems behaving like games (ludokinetic poems) and poem-game hybrids. In this sense, intertextual mutation might mean the reconfigurement of poems by their inclusion, partial or total, in a game, or it might mean using poetry as a means to play with and alter the content of an existing game. Since authors have always engaged in the activity of reworking other texts, and poetry in particular works on the basis of finding symbolism and meaning in artefacts both textual and non-textual, as well as in creative iteration of established patterns, it is not surprising that a number of volumes of poetry have already been published that use material from computer games and computer game franchises. These include The Mario Kart 64 Poems by August Smith (Cool Skull Press, 2015), But Our Princess is in Another Castle by B.J. Best (Rose Metal Press, 2013) and Level End by Brian Oliu (Origami Zoo Press, 2012). Myself and Kirsten Irving co-edited an anthology of computer game poems by UK poets in 2013, at a time when we sensed that a generation of younger poets were beginning to look to games for fresh poetic material. A number of the poets we published in this volume have gone on to win major awards, and among the books shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection in the UK this year is Stephen Sexton’s If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin, 2019), which borrows its structure and much of its imagery from Super Mario World.

The position of the poet engaging with the content of games is unique. Since there is little crossover between the audience for commercial games and the audience for poetry, they cannot easily rely on reader familiarity with the text they are reconfiguring. On the other hand, they do not face the same legal restrictions that fan artists, fan fiction writers and modders do with regard to copyright law. This is because fair use and fair dealing exemptions generally permit the use of copyrighted material both where there is a substantial “transformative” effect, and where it is being selectively quoted for the purposes of comment or criticism. Poets are very much in the business of metaphor, and metaphor is a process that is fundamentally both transformative and selective. As phrased by Philip Wheelwright, metaphor is marked by “the double imaginative act of outreaching and combining” (1968, p.72), an act that changes what it uses. The poet who works with the play material of digital games wields it as the semantic vehicle for something “more obscurely known” (Wheelwright, p.73), and in so doing articulates and expands on the symbolic properties of that material. 

A typical strategy in the volumes of poetry I have mentioned above, therefore, is to redeploy characters, items and specific ludic situations from games as elements of a poetic conceit directed at broader themes of identity, intimacy and modernity. Oliu’s poems in Level End, for example, are staged as “boss battles” or “save points”, but each frames an account of events occurring outside the world of the computer game, mixing details we recognise as being derived from real-life experience with other elements imported from the unreality of games. The latter are invariably put to work as metaphor, enhancing both the immediacy and the polysemantic essence of the poetry.

As a poetry practitioner myself, I have found that characters from games can be used as personae, as imaginary interlocutors and as rich sources of imagery in exploring personal, interpersonal and sociopolitical issues, as well as simply inventing new unrealities. I consider this exploration to be both a form of play, connected to and extending out of the play engendered by the games themselves, and a kind of critical intervention. Furthermore, I would argue that the flexibility of metaphor allows the resulting poems to lead a double-life, both independently of the texts on which they draw, and as paratextual add-ons or modifications to them. In the full talk, I will develop these claims with examples from my own practice, giving particular attention to intertextual mutation as a creative-critical act related to both play and theory.

Best, B.J. 2013. But Our Princess is in Another Castle. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press.

Kristeva, J. 1980. ‘Word, Dialogue and Novel’. In L. S. Roudiez (ed.), Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (pp. 64-91). New York, NY: Colombia University Press.

Nintendo Entertainment. 1990. Super Mario World. Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo.

Oliu, B. 2012. Level End. Origami Zoo Press.

Schleiner, A-M. 2012. Ludic Mutation: The Player’s Power to Change the Game.  Accessed 19 January 2019. (published in print in 2017 as as The Player’s Power to Change the Game: Ludic Mutation. Amsterdam University Press).

Sexton, S. 2019. If All the World and Love Were Young. London, England: Penguin.

Smith, A. 2015. The Mario Kart 64 Poems. Somervilla, M.A, USA: Cool Skull Press.

Stone, J. and Irving, K. Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge. London, England: Sidekick Books.

Wheelwright, P. 1968. Metaphor and Reality. Bloomington, USA; London, England: Indiana University Press.

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