There’s been a lot of interesting experimentation in overlapping the mediums of video games, poetry, and art. Video games by thatgamecompany like Flow, Flower, and Journey allow viewers to appreciate a non-competitive, non-violent world where the goal is to explore and experience beauty through graphics, interesting physics, opaque goals, and an accumulation of artifacts, be they other fish that cause you to evolve new appendages, more flower petals for your flower petal cloud, or updrafts of scarf pieces that, in turn, allow you to fly.
Cory Arcangel’s stripping down of Super Mario to just floating clouds comes to mind when I think about an artist interested in the possibilities of reprogramming video games.
In one piece, Arcangel hacks bowling games, so that they throw only strikes—the internal language of the game coded to destroy itself over and over.
The game that set off the chauvinist #GamerGate hounds, Depression Quest, is a bit of David Foster Wallace, or Sylvia Plath-inspired attempt at capturing how choose-your-own-adventure choice can feel illusory if you’re beset by ennui. Elsewhere, Eva Mattes turns playing Counter Strike into performance art by begging everyone she sees to (please) not kill her:
If you keyword search, “video game” on the Poetry Foundation website, you get Rae Armantrout’s “Paragraph,” which references Fallout 3’s radio station, a voice among many in her multi-throated, fragmented, and Sapphic lyric style:
Wolfman Jack style
dj in the video game says,
“This is Wasteland Radio
and we’re here for you’
Clicking in, you have Paul Muldoon dressing up a bar scene with an arcade master in his long, sonically experimental and irreverent, “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants”:
While the bar man unpacks a crate
one cool customer
takes on all comers in a video game.
Nate Marshal’s reminiscing of the brutally bleak Oregon Trail, is a little more committed to this cross-genre, as he looks back on a time before we were all grocked to machines. The word, “grock,” is a game design term that points to when when the consumer’s brain makes no noticeable cognitive divide between their hands and the controls of any given game:
these were the last days
before keyboards as appendage, when typing
was not nature
It may be trite to find a natural analogue in Arthur C. Clarke’s phrase, “it’s all science fiction now,” which we could rewrite to read, “it’s all video games now.” If we look at the phrase, “video game” in isolation and imagine ourselves knowing nothing of their history, we can tease out that it must be a film that you can play with, change, and “win.” So it is with poetry or visual art’s essential nature. One could argue that we are not trying “to win” when we experience art or a poem, but we are at least trying to unlock the meaning and figure out, “What is the point?” It is a genre marked by being the site of something we can always play with in strange and exciting new ways. To readers, poems reveal themselves differently throughout the day, month, and year, and are notorious for the somewhat farcical accusation that they are “up for interpretation.” Or, in gaming industry lingo, they “value player-choice.” As Charles Bernstein writes, “conflat[ing] Olson and Heraklitus, you can never step into the same poem twice.” Monica McClure goes even further in her poem, “Your True Season,” where she suggests that one can easily not only confront poetry with a video-gamified brain, but also attempt to understand the human experience itself as the ego manages, or mismanages our deepest desires:
No body just the history of her libidinal choices
I had not thought to compare the ego
to a video game because I was so deep in it
I was all drives and instincts
The controversy surrounding “Are Video Games Art?” is a discussion wormhole we could easily circle for pages and pages. According to Wikipedia, the jury is still out on whether they should legally be considered art, but we won’t go there.
Recently, I have been playing a good deal of Minecraft on my phone. I am a bit of a purist when approaching new games like this, especially when I know they’ve been so deeply modded and augmented by users. I wanted to experience it in its bare-bones state, so I play alone, on survival mode (meaning when night comes, so do the monsters, and you can starve, so hunt those pigs and cook them in your furnace). Needless to say, it is incredibly addicting. It is like playing Legos, but your survival can depend on where you place or remove any given brick. Also, the sunsets are fantastic—I find watching that yellow square fall behind the pixelated, bright blue cobalt sea to be strangely profound.
Coupled with the fact that there is an entire generation deeply moved by the opportunities afforded by the game (I teach 2nd and 3rd grade and it is the one constant, alongside the prospect of Youtube-star celebrity) and a longing to escape the dark world we in the U.S. have decided to throw ourselves into, has inspired me to respond to screenshots I was moved to take, for one reason or another, while burrowing into the game.
My constructions reveal an obvious noob, who doesn’t know how to build proper structures or have any no sense for architectural design whatsoever, but they also instigate several, perhaps more interesting opportunities for rumination. If you play the game, I offer you to take snap shots of your own game and see what they spark in your imagination.
If not the site of poetry, or an opportunity for poetic thought, the screenshots themselves should at least pose several questions. What was the person thinking when they created said object or structure? Do you remember building that little ice-fishing hut at the edge of your world? What do your building’s seemingly endless offshoots of bridges and tunnels say about your brain? How do your buildings differentiate from, or camouflage into the algorithmically-created world, where trees spawn and mountains rise out of the earth based on a complex arrangement of percentages and if-thens? Do you remember this tunnel? What story were you creating in your head for yourself, projecting onto the world of the game, when you left that brick there, or dug that hole?
This is my first screenshot. I am looking down at the layers of earth as they glitch out. I rarely see this view, where the walls and floor are suddenly obliterated, so that I can see all the negative space. The jagged collection of right-angels forms tunnels and caverns, dug by me, or the game’s AI, I can’t be sure. I am probably trying to recover my corpse (as my belongings explode outward when I die), as I am completely devoid of tools or resources, with only the clothes offered to me for free by the game. I must have dug this one quickly without any real acknowledgement of cutting stairs as I traveled downwards (and to escape on later if things go sour due to a sudden ambush of skeleton archers). The one torch’s slapdash placement reveals a sudden need for light. Maybe I was running from something and just placed it there, with little care for its aesthetics? The lava at the center of the image shows that if we journeyed down this passage far enough, we might hit bedrock. There may be diamond veins there, the game’s most coveted resource. The sky blue on the right is what hasn’t loaded yet. The black strip snaking in a curve toward the top is most likely some yet, unexplored cavern created by the game. In the foreground, I seem to be standing on gravel, which could fall through if I were to punch my way through it, rather than float as most bricks do when left without support. The pattern of colored pixels on the brick is something like sage, dark grey, grey, light grey, dark grey, grey, grey, light grey. They repeat as the brick repeats, though each row on the brick itself seems to have a different pattern. The character’s skin apparently defaults to white. If I take a few steps forward, I could potentially die from the fall.
Somehow a chicken has come on board my pinewood boat. Either they like boats, or I hopped on board with seeds in my hand. As of writing this, the chicken has still not left my boat. Nor has it died from starvation. It has come with me to this far-off continent, where I think I may have lost all my belongings again. Getting lost is one of the most common things that happen to me in this game. For that reason, I try to make my structures huge and towering, so that I can see them fade in from behind the fog, over the trees and mountains, as the game renders into existence. I don’t recognize this cave, but I do remember discovering the pinewood boat, and rejoicing in its speed. Without thinking, I travelled far from the bed I slept in last, which is the spawn point when you die. I traveled far with valuable items like a diamond pickaxe and maybe even some diamond armor. I journeyed a good distance, explored a cave on a deserted island, mined some coal, and was disintegrated by an armless, exploding zombie called a Creeper. Now, in my hubris, I may never find my coveted belongings again.
This is my first real structure after a dirt-walled enclosure that was quickly blown to bits by a Creeper. It is a tall castle. You can travel to the top via a spiral staircase that hugs the walls, if only for the view. It is built on the banks of an island. I built a path through the sky out of cobblestone to a neighboring mountain that I had hollowed out for resources. I have a suspicion that the skeleton archers, spiders, zombies, Endermen, creepers, and slime cubes are merely protecting their world. The first thing, after all, that one is asked to do, however indirectly, is to destroy their earth, and reap all its resources, so that you can build up your own small, indomitable kingdom.
My second structure began as a tree fort, but has since morphed into a sort of half-built Star Wars spaceship. I irrigated a waterfall. “You have to set goals for yourself,” a friend explained, when we were wrestling with the question of why the game is fun. Roses and wheat grow along the edges of the waterfall, as you have to have an adjacent water brick in order to garden. I built a pinewood bridge over my man-made stream. The bridge flows down a hill and down into a deep hole I built at an exact diagonal, so that into I can travel by boat straight from my garden, very quickly, to the world’s bedrock, where the rarest minerals glimmer with promise. The leaves from a tree float, suspended over my garden. I planted a few trees in my garden, but quickly regretted it as they totally obscured the view, so I chopped down the trees save for this little floating green tuft because my axe could not reach from the ground. All tools have an absurd range, which is all part of the appeal—the absurdity. Somehow children have become fascinated with a game built on nostalgia for a time when they weren’t even alive, when everything had bad graphics and goofy sort of logic governing its gameplay. In my inventory, I have an iron shovel, 41 cubes of dirt, one diamond sword, one diamond, one stone pickaxe, three sets of pinewood stairs, one set of wood planks, two wheat, and four cobble stone. I think taking snapshots like this, building structures with aesthetic appeal, and exploring the internal wiring as well as programming of the game are its natural endpoint. There is a mineral called redstone, which allows you to build electric circuits, pistons, switches, trip-wire, and complex machines built on the logic of programming that one would think far exceeds the capabilities of children. In this tree fort with paths and decks stretching outward from it in crude angles, I built a piston and switch operation that allowed me to turn off my waterfall and free my cave of flowing water, which can be quite annoying when you are trying to travel around. I am holding a cube of dirt out in front of me. My body is made of two cubes. While it might take longer to destroy me, we are really the same. We are born of the same materials: crude jpegs, pixels, and cubes. Even the rain.
Here I am realizing all it takes to make a home—bed and crafting table perched on the tallest tree in this dark oak-wood forest. Enormous mushrooms grow here. You can destroy them quite easily, harvest the small fungi that fall, and make them into soup if you combine them with a bowl and the other species of mushroom. It is raining, which happens when I don’t sleep. The weather worsens. There are not enemies that are airborne in this world, so I don’t have too much to worry about up here, though a spider could climb up and kill me. I will dig vertically through the tree, straight down through the branches and along the trunk until I reach bedrock. I have harvested some vines, which I can replant to climb up here later, but I will need to cut down some trees, so I can build ladders to carry me up from the bedrock. In my possession, I have eight sunflowers, one oak wood brick, two spider silks (which can be fashioned into a fishing rod or bow by combining them with sticks), one piece of rotten flesh from inside the body of a zombie, one iron pick-axe, thirteen torches, one hand-axe, twenty-four pinewood planks, and twelve cubes of cobblestone. I am often playing the game in bed, halfway in a dream. I think I am planning to use the planks to build out the platform, so that it is visible from farther away and so that I can relax up here without worrying that I might fall. I can construct furnaces here and burn any mineral-filled bricks I might find in the infinite below. No other game makes me question, “Why am I playing this? What is the point?” more than this game. No other game answers that question by the sudden onset of night; the square sun suddenly going blue. You are far from your bed. You can punch a tree and quickly craft a weapon, start trying to punch a makeshift shelter in the earth, or start sprinting home. As the great E-40 says, “Everybody’s got choices.” In these fascist American days, maybe its not escape I’m after, but that Minecraft, poetry, and art can realize their basic dream: that we can destroy the world and build it back up, brick by brick, so that it at least reflects our varied experiences and tangled thoughts; the only necessity being that we not wall ourselves in, but journey further and further out.