Haiku Hero: Poetry and Gaming at Kelly Writers House

"Can a computer game make you cry?"

January 28, 2008


In 1983, Neil Young, Trip Hawkins and a small band of computer scientists introduced the world to Electronic Arts with a professional looking, black and white ad with this question emblazoned along the top. In the 25 years that followed, gaming has gone from a cheap niche toy for an even smaller group of computer owners to an entertainment industry that rivals movie, music and book production.

In this short time, game graphics have gone from monochromatic, vaguely bipedal sprites to digital actors covered with real-time deformable clothing. Settings have changed from brick-colored walls and black floors in something that is supposed to be a dungeon to a simulation of Third Crusade Jerusalem implanted in the mind of a kidnapped American bartender. Stories that once took hours now take days. Actions that once needed a button press are now triggered by a gesture.

And yet, still, the question of whether a video game is capable of the emotional and artistic impact of music, movies and particularly literature, remains essentially unanswered. Will there ever be a video game Shakespeare?

This past Tuesday, as part of the Kelly Writers House Machine series, Brian Kim Stefans did his part to show the contribution of digital poets to the quest to find the ghost in the machine. Or, in Brian's case, the demon.

The "demon," in this case, is a banal little robot trained to create poems on its own and is but one prong in the current state of digital poetry. Brian's talk covered topics ranging from the use of algorithm as literary technique to how interactivity and the idea of fun can augment the modern reading experience.

The centerpiece of the talk was Kluge, Brian's latest work, a game of sorts where the object is to understand what the hell is going on. As you read through the strange series of already abstract half page stories, the words of the next chapter creep into the empty spaces between words, causing errors, making new words and generally making understanding the meaning difficult, that is unless you use one of nine "smart bombs" that automatically clear the page or successfully clean the page letter by letter with your mouse in the appropriate time. Just...do yourself a favor and play the thing.

That and many other essays, poems and web experiments can be found on Brian's website and in his 2003 book Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics. And keep your ears to the ground for more appearances, as he is leaving Philadelphia to teach in New Jersey's Richard Stockton College. His class is on, among other subjects, "The History of Video Game Narrative." Kickass!