Gamepoems: A Primer



We’ll Meet Again

Meet a friend, chat about whatever you like until you reach a question that you can’t answer. Say “Give me some time to think,” turn back to back. Walk.

Travel in opposite directions until you have circumnavigated the globe and are back at this point. If you meet each other halfway you gain a point. If you both get back to the starting location you gain a point. If you can now answer the question you gain a point. Agree never to play this game again.

– Adam Dixon

What happens when game and poem meet?

Last month I gave a talk at Feral Vector on crossover art between games, poems and theatre, and ran a workshop exploring one of these intersections, writing absurd, exciting and wistful gamey poemy vignettes with a mix of game developers working in many different platforms. And for a good few months now some friends and I have been writing and sharing things we’re calling “gamepoems”. But I’m still not entirely sure what a gamepoem is! – so this is a primer for me as much as for you, looking at the different ways “game” and “poem” have been put together, and inviting you to join in what happens next.

A group of gamepoems might not all share any characteristics other than the name itself: they’re related to each other (and to “games”, and to “poems”) by family resemblances, which means that they can look weirdly and gloriously different. A gamepoem might describe an absurd scenario that’s fun to imagine; it might awkwardly gamify an everyday experience in a way that’s meaningful; it might be a parodic set of instructions; it might give rules to follow that result in revelatory experiences; it might be contained within a moment or a lifetime. I thought it was time to talk about what we’re doing, where it came from, and where it might go.

I: Naming

The Sleeper Wakes

If you’re in bed with someone who’s sleeping, get a point for each time you manage to make them rotate ninety degrees. You lose if they wake up

– Holly Gramazio

We’re certainly not the first folk to use the term “gamepoem”; others have taken it in different directions.

Our main antecedent comes from the roleplaying community – the group of gamers whose work is closest to something like theatre already, playing games where the players tell, out loud, the story of what the characters they’re playing are doing, only sometimes with dice and figurines and golins and winzards. Within this community, folk gathered variously under “alternative roleplaying” or “indie roleplaying” or “Nordic LARP” have most regularly been exploring these mechanics for artistic, social and political purposes – and within that community there are folk writing what they call “roleplaying poems” or “gamepoems”. In this usage, gamepoems are short, evocative rules for telling a story or having an experience together in a gamelike way. A particularly wonderful example is Gizmet’s “Insomnia”, which begins: “This is a game for one player who wishes to sleep, and six other players who are the voices who keep them awake.” Like many gamepoems, it’s pleasurable just to read and imagine – as with some gamepoems, it’s not certain whether it’s truly playable, but you have the sense that playing it might change something fundamentally. Sometimes the result is practically indistinguishable from what might happen in actors’ improvisation sessions, or at an awkward murder mystery party, and is only recognisably part of the roleplaying world because that’s the world which it comes from and which shapes its meaning. Alongside Gizmet’s work Norwegian Style stands out, and two community portals that use the term and have archives of examples are UK Roleplayers and

A completely different route to mashing game and poem together comes from videogames: Ian Bogost calls his piece A Slow Year a “game poem” as well. He says, “A Slow Year is a collection of four games, one for each season, about the experience of observing things. These games are neither action nor strategy: each of them requires a different kind of sedate observation and methodical input. The game attempts to embrace maximum expressive constraint and representational condensation. I want to call them game poems.” Philip Scott has run workshops on gamepoems on similar lines asking “How can we capture the structure, pace, and flexibility of poetry in games? How can contemporary game making tools transform, analyze, and re-interpret the familiar form of poetry?” The results are “small, focused experiences, each only a few minutes long”. Here, the medium and aesthetic trappings of videogames are being made poem-like through smallness, focussedness, evocativeness.

Another approach comes from writers of text games. Porpentine calls some of her shorter pieces written in the game-maker programme Twine, such as Under the Skin, “twinepoems” – I don’t know if she’s the originator of the term, but it’s definitely taken off. Here, the gameiness of the Twine format (you click to progress through an imagined textual space, sometimes there are challenges to overcome) bangs into aspects of poetry: sometimes a twinepoem might be shaped like a poem on the page, sometimes it might just be small in size (opposing “twinepoem” to “twine novella”, perhaps), sometimes the poeminess might be that it is abstract and evocative rather than literal or narrative. It is to twinepoems that Lana Polansky turns when discussing theories of the poetics of play itself – how play can be like a poem, and how poetry can be like play, and what structures both approaches. Meanwhile, in a different form of text games, the interactive fiction community – which continued the use of the medium used by the earliest computer games after the commercial sector moved on – used to hold a semi-regular “art show” which created “text sculptures”. It’s fascinating to me that twine-makers, when looking for an analogue for their more singular and evocative works, settled on “poem” as the right analogue, whereas parser-based IF-makers used “sculpture”. There’s something here about how the different media conceive of virtual space: as something to read, or something to look at? As something to imagine, or something to move around?

A final example to mention comes from Sidekick Books: they have now produced two anthologies of poems about games, which I’ve also seen called “game poems”. Here the ruling medium is clearly poetry rather than games, and most of the published pieces are only about games, rather than trying to be games. However, in Coin Opera 2, there are several “Boss Fights”, where the editors set two poets a gamelike challenge: poets played a game with each other, and the writing of the poem was the output of that process. The resulting poem might not be a game, but the instructions that led to writing it could definitely be a gamepoem, where game and poem are equal halves of the experience. How can the writing of a poetic text itself be achieved through play and interactivity? This is discussed in the first half of Lana Polansky’s essay; for me, the Oulipian approach to poetry, making authorship about the writing of rules and constraints rather than the writing of poems themselves, is at the foundation of poetic play – and gamepoems. A game, whatever its scale or complexity, is a system of rules designed to imply a set of experiences, and sometimes I wonder whether that description could apply to “poem” as well.

II: Remembering

Hide-and-Seek Piece

Hide until everybody goes home.
Hide until everybody forgets about you.
Hide until everybody dies.

– Yoko Ono

There are many things that aren’t called gamepoems that look a bit like them, because every artform has many histories.

I like thinking about Victorian parlour games as an early form of something gamepoemish. While most of them are much more game than poem, occasionally you happen across one that crosses into new territory. Take Bullet Pudding as Fanny Austen describes it: “You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek at top. You must then lay a bullet at top and everybody cuts a slice of it, and the person that is cutting it when it falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths of which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choking you.” What’s going on here is not just the competition, not just the playfulness, but deliberately creating through instructions an absurd situation that carries more meaning than it ought.

Bullet Pudding reminds me most of all of the “event scores” produced by Fluxus and similar artists from the 60s on. Also sometimes called “instructional poems” and “fluxgames”, these provided concise instructions for interactions or experiences which carried meaning (or didn’t). For a comparison with Bullet Pudding, here’s Milan Knizak’s Flour Game: “At the same time very day, using the same words, in the same store, for 100 days, you purchase 10dkg. of flour (approximately 1/4 pound). On 101st day, you buy 1 q. (200 pounds) of flour. For the next 100 days, but 10 dkg. (1/4 pounds) again. On the 202nd say, buy 1q. (200 pounds). And again, and again, and again. With the flour, mold a big cone. The one who makes the biggest cone is the winner.” There are aspects of the game here, and aspects of the performance, and it’s written as a poem – a blur of genres, like many of the best gamepoems. Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit is a seminal text, which puts something gamepoemish at the foundation of conceptual art.

Much of this work – surrealism, conceptualism, situationism – has as much to do with theatre as with those other genres, and it’s contributed to how theatre has evolved in the same way that it’s contributed to poetry (or, for that matter, games?) And this brings us to the world of theatre games. As they’re usually played, theatre games are training exercises: they teach forms of movement, or attention, or performance skills. Clive Barker’s book Theatre Games deploys games as an actor-training method, but occasionally the games are played for their own sake, and the book is as much an exploration of what games are as a training manual. In their form as improv theatre, these games can turn into a performance for an audience: the performers are playing with each other, but they’re also putting on a show. The result of all of these approaches is a group of people following a set of rules in a way that is interesting or meaningful. Sometimes, reading a theatre game is like reading a gamepoem, and a knowledge of theatre games definitely influences the gamepoem trend. Take Disc, for example: “The stage is a disc, only in its very centre. The disc must be balanced at all times. Any time a player moves, or a new player enters, the others must rebalance the disc, and every move must be justified by the unfolding story.” Playing this game could train actors to be quick-thinking, attentive and responsive, but the experience of playing it is also a reflection in interpersonal dynamics and the way humans take up space: a gamepoem.

Lastly, let’s think about something which blends into improv games quite closely: folk games, games which have no author, and which are passed from person to person. (Games For People is a great compilation.) Tag and Broken Telephone and Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses are all folk games. Sometimes, when you pay attention to a folk game, you find a gamepoem lurking in there, some surprisingly deep reflection on life and play. But my favourite folk game to mention when talking about gamepoems is The Game. The one you all just lost. The version I learned was, “Once you have learned of the game, you never stop playing. Whenever you think about the game, you lose.” I love its concision, its balance, its absurdity. It is the ur-game; that’s why it’s called The Game. I love that it smashes apart our ideas of what a game is, what thinking is; I love that it is unbounded in time and space and by the very way it’s written becomes a supervirus. It’s the gamepoem I try to emulate in complexity and simplicity whenever I write a gamepoem.

III: Playing


You are playing a team of foley artists creating the sound effects for someone walking across a frozen lake. First, decide together who your someone is. Second, decide together how thick the ice is. Play begins when a team member makes the sound of the first footstep onto the lake. No player is allowed to make the sound of two footsteps in succession. The breaking of the ice must be gradual. No player may go straight from “sound of a careful footstep” to “ice shatters and person falls in lake”. When the ice begins to break, players may begin to overlap their turns. It is not permitted to create the sound effects of the drowning person. The game ends when the surface of the water is still again.

– HJ Giles

So, what are gamepoems? What holds all of these different approaches together, apart from the name? What I’m seeing are lots of different artists from different backgrounds colliding the ideas of “game” and “poem” together. What happens when you apply the systemic interactivity of games to the textuality of poetry? What happens when you apply the observational discipline of poetry to the playfulness of games? I’m not keen on fixed definitions, but when we try to describe some aspect of a game – competitiveness, for example – and some aspect of a poem – evocativeness, for example – and mix them together, that’s when you’ve got a gamepoem, in whatever medium.

Gamepoems are the collision of:

No one of these pairs is necessary or sufficient to make a gamepoem, but they all might be. These columns can be extended, disputed, and swapped, and this definition is descriptive and not prescriptive. Gamepoems are indeterminate. Gamepoems are about playing with and making poetic interpretations of what we think games and poems are. They’re about writing concise sets of rules that summon impossible worlds.  They’re about crafting tiny experiences that mean a lot to people. They’re about laughing at the way we act, and acting in ways that make us laugh. Here are some of the gamepoems we’ve been making. They’re all different:

George Buckenham: Monogamy, a game for lovers
George Buckenham: a game for walking home
Adam Dixon: Long Games for Two Players
Adam Dixon: Games for Grimsby
Adam Dixon: Games for Inanimate Objects
HJ Giles: I’ll Check My Diary
HJ Giles: Trashmonsters
Holly Gramazio: 21 Games
Holly Gramazio: A Beekeeper’s Guide to Game Design
Hannah Nicklin: The Ashes Game
Jonathan Whiting: Burn While Reading
Jonathan Whiting: My Dream Game

Now make your own. Now change what the words mean.

image by Louis Vest,  licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0

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