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The introduction to the Fall 2003 issue of Poems that Go.

Literary Games

by Nick Montfort

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 rules.

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, and Эрудит.

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 of Dream.

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.

Arteroids, 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.

The 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 anecdote.

Nine, 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.

Bad 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,


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 (letter), pdf (a4), html.

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.