Остранение. That's what some say it is: making strange. Literature
is defamiliarizing the ordinary, making us see even the most
quotidian things in a new way. And games? We might describe
them in several ways, but they are certainly ritual spaces
in which rules that are not the ordinary social and cultural
ones apply. So perhaps the concept of the literary game
a seemingly curious concept is not truly oxymoronic.
It may be that certain literary games, including works of
interactive fiction, derive their power from the play between
their literary aspects and their nature as games (Montfort
and Moulthrop 2003). Whether or not such arguments are persuasive,
in some ways literature and game do seem to toe the same line.
Literary game actually is far from meaningless
it means several things. One is the metaphorical game played
by the author of a literary work with the reader, a figure
that can help us understand why the author writes particular
things, what the reader may think in response, and how the
text has anticipated the "moves" or "play"
of the reader. A wonderful investigation of this sort of literary
game is found in Playtexts (Motte 1995), which considers
many playful works of literature, including Pale Fire
and Nadja. This issue of Poems that Go features
more literal games, however, so we had best turn to those
that structure the interactions of participants through explicit
Numerous common games are deeply based on the structures
and strictures of language. Crossword puzzles call on the
puzzle-solver to think of a word that satisfies some interlocking
lexical constraints and the provided definition. (Novelist
George Perec is one literary figure who also constructed devious
crosswords.) It seems a bit strange to call such puzzles "games,"
since a single person engages with the puzzle an ordinary
situation in computer gaming today, but hardly the archetypical
gaming situation. However, there are also multi-player games
that use a crossword format, including Scrabble, Upwords,
The host of letter-based games also includes word searches
and jumbles; there are even games that can be played verbally,
such as one that involves adding letters to form a prefix
while trying to avoid forming a whole word; it is variously
known as ghost or prefi. Along different lines,
dictionary (commercialized as Balderdash) is a bluffing game
in which players define obscure words and try to persuade
others that their definition is correct. These games may resonate
in certain ways and may tease apart things about language,
but perhaps these aspects, and the involvement of letters
and words, do not suffice to make them truly literary. Consider,
then, that some games can actually produce literature.
Several literature-producing games were developed and played
by the Surrealists, who were inspired by parlor games and
nonsense literature but had their own agenda of freeing the
mind from the structures of rationality by means of strange
and ludic structures (Brotchie 1993). Their games include
question and answer, in which one player writes a question
and another (without looking at the question) writes an answer;
the resulting text is then read. The famous exquisite corpse
requires each player to blindly write certain different parts
of speech in turn for instance: article and adjective;
noun; transitive verb; article and adjective; noun. Legend
has it that the first sentence produced by this method was
le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.
In 1953, comedy writers Roger Price and Leonard Stern invented
a similar sort of game in which one person's text, written
with certain words omitted, could be completed by another
person who filled in a form, providing certain parts of speech.
The duo did not publish this game, Mad Libs, until 1958. Stern
explained their conundrum, which will be familiar to electronic
writers and artists working in new media: "[The first
publisher we asked] didn't think it was a book, but honestly
believed it might appeal to a game manufacturer. The game
manufacturer in turn thought it was a book and sent us to
another book publisher, who didn't think it was a book!"
(Stern 2001) In honor of this paper-based literature-producing
game and its Surrealist ancestors, Rachel Stevens and I have
cooked up a bagatelle especially for this issue: Fields
While the writing of palindromes, acrostics, and the like
is often dismissed as a game, it makes no more sense to define
these as games than it does to say that the writing of sonnets
and five-paragraph essays is a game. Which is not to say that
it makes no sense at all; we would simply be waxing metaphorical
and should not expect that everything we know about real games
will apply. There is no way within the usual "game"
of this kind to evaluate, for instance, how someone might
win, lose, or advance, although such a feature is commonly
found in many scholars' definitions of "game" (Salen
and Zimmerman 2003). We still might find that the rules of
such compositions, or similar rules, can play an interesting
role in games, however.
If we need more assurance that the literary game is not a
chimera, we can look to a similar category, the dramatic game
(Boal 1992). Just as literature can participate with the structures
of a game in an experience, just as there are games that result
in literature, Augusto Boal has shown that "play"
in the dramatic sense can coincide with the playing of a game.
His "Theater of the Oppressed" provides a structure
of rules whereby people in a community, participating as "spect-actors,"
can engage with actors to attempt to physically enact responses
to oppression to rehearse for the revolution, as Boal
puts it. Since the dramatic game is not trivial, despite being
a strange-sounding combination, we should hardly expect literary
games to be restricted to silliness and trivialities.
The games in this issue, drawing on the tradition of computer
and video games in various ways, provide a more certain proof
that the literary game can do the serious, hard work of both
literature and gaming, and suggest several ways in which different
aspects of a literary game can function effectively together.
by Jim Andrews, is a game, a kinetic poem, and a piece of
creative software in the vein of MacPaint and Music Construction
Kit. It is a way of playing (playing freely, not just playing
a particular game) and allows the one at play to make art
with moving images and words. Arteroids is not just
a different-looking clone of the epunymous video game Asteroids.
There are essential differences: in the physics of that world;
in the way that large asteroids no longer break into medium-sized
ones which break into smaller ones, all the while retaining
their lethal power; and in the absence of the occasional flying
saucer. Arteroids pilots a different course that involves
more color and language and a different sort of trance-like
challenge, perhaps more akin to a two-dimensional Rez
than to the early arcade games that kept one's nerves constantly
on edge. Even choosing where and whether to destory certain
phrases is a creative activity, but in "play mode"
one also is allowed to type new words that are then hurled
through space. Andrews offers his game and information about
it in Portuguese translation; Bookchin's game, discussed next,
is available in French translation. Other literary game creators
and electronic writers would do well to take a page from these
two, even though translation is more difficult for games that
use forms of natural language understanding or that rely on
the structures of a language for their rules.
Intruder, by Natalie Bookchin, is based on a very
short story by Jorge Luis Borges in which two brothers fall
in love with the same woman, live with her for a while, sell
her to a whorehouse, buy her back, and finally kill her (Borges
1970). Bookchin's work is "a tale told in ten games,"
each with novel skins that do at least three things: visually
refer to objects, incidents, conflicts, and themes in the
story; incorporate text from the story; and refer to various
retro computer games with their gameplay and appearance. Most
of the games have the same forms as Pong, Kaboom, Laser
Blast, Outlaw, and Jungle Hunt; the sixth is interesting
to compare to Gal's Panic, an arcade game that displayed
a nude woman as a reward for completing a level. The skins
and structures of the game communicate in intriguing ways.
Bookchin's piece, like the antifable that Borges wrote, is
both diverting and disturbing. It suggests that games can
be made to work in complex, artful, perhaps even literary
ways Borges can write an antifable, thus Bookchin can
write an antigame; the antifable can make us question aspects
of our society and even the form of the fable itself ... the
antigame, similarly. While The Intruder clearly derides
the stereotypical structures of the video game, it also suggests
that the literary game can do better than this, just as "La
Intrusa" reveals how literature can exceed the banal
by Jason E. Lewis, takes the format of the nine-square, eight-tile
sliding puzzle as its most evident interface. This game is
familiar to many as a physical puzzle and also familiar to
all but the latest Macintosh users as the canonical built-in
game, the solitaire of that platform. As the user/reader/puzzler
slides the tiles about, short texts are presented in the spaces
left behind, narrating Lewis's birth and upbringing. Interestingly,
although the texts appear in different places and alongside
different images, they appear in the same sequence, no matter
how one shifts the tiles around. As some manipulations will
reveal, sliding the squares into the empty space is not the
only way to change the image; shifting a square does something
other than simply translating the image in space. Although
it seems to invite us to puzzle pieces of an imagine together,
this surface puzzle ends up not being the real one
it is solved to begin with, seen a certain way. It exists
mainly to invite us to turn our thinking in literary and artistic
ways, joining the texts we read to our own experiences, reading
about the connections between the author and his hypothetical
double, affiliating images with words.
Machine, by Dan Shiovitz, is an exquisite and involved
work of interactive fiction. Bad Machine not only allows
users to type things in; this program actually has the ability
to understand commands and to simulate action. Language becomes
not just a rock to be blown away with a keystroke or a ball
to hit with a paddle, but the very means of guiding your "ship,"
a character, within a world that is textually described. A
quick perusal of Bad Machine is unlikely to be enjoyable
or intelligible. Player/readers should plan to spend at least
thirty minutes with the game to begin to understand what is
going on; roughly speaking, it is more like a novel or long
poem than like a sonnet or piece of visual art. On its surface,
the texts that Bad Machine displays share some features
with the writings of Talan Memmott, Alan Sondheim, Mez, Kenji
Siratori, and JODI. But this game is also a rich simulation
that can generate different narratives depending upon how
the player instructs the main "character"
a curious sort of machine protagonist, in this case
through a world that has been made strange. The way in which
the world must be figured out draws on scientific traditions
and on ways of thinking that someone solving a literary riddle
might use. Shiovitz, in crafting Bad Machine, chose
not to sacrifice or convert any of interactive fiction's
"game-nature" in building an artful world.
So, why wait any further? Press play.
Nick Montfort, http://nickm.com
Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Trans.
Adrian Jackson. London; New York: Routledge, 1992.
Borges, Jorge Luis. "La Intrusa." In Informe
de Brodie. Buenos Aires: Editores Emece, 1970. html.
Trans. as "The Intruder" by Norman Thomas de Giovanni
in Doctor Brodie's Report, New York: Dutton, 1972; Trans.
as "The Interloper" by Andrew Hurley in Collected
Fictions, New York: Viking, 1998.
Brotchie, Alistair, compiler, and Mel Gooding, ed. Surrealist
Games. Boston: Shambhala, 1993.
Montfort, Nick and Stuart Moulthrop. "Face It, Tiger,
You Just Hit the Jackpot: Reading and Playing Cadre's Varicella."
Proceedings of DAC (Digital Arts and Culture) 2003, Melbourne,
Australia, 19-23 May 2003; Fineart Forum 17:8, Aug 2003. pdf
Motte, Warren F. Playtexts: Ludics in Contemporary Literature.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design
Fundamentals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003 (forthcoming).
Stern, Leonard. "A
Brief History of Mad Libs." 2001. html.