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Video Games and Poetry

Nay Gonzalez By Nay Gonzalez Published on January 21, 2016
This article was updated on April 27, 2017

In the area of audiovisual platforms, video games consistently prove to be a space of freedom for the expression of the most diverse genres, narratives and non-narratives. Whilst the most popular and best selling video games are well-known franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Gears of War, all published by enormous companies such as Microsoft, Sony of Nintendo, there’s an important and already consolidated market in the field of independent video games, produced mostly by small companies or individuals.

Indie games rely mostly on the internet and have various methods of distribution. Some are free, some sold and others supported by advertisements. And perhaps even more than their mainstream counterpart, they’re incredibly diverse and have proved to be so successful that giant companies like Microsoft have bought them, such as the case of Minecraft.

The diversity of indie games is best expressed in its variety of genres; although adventure may remain king, unexpected and even improbable practices have expanded the realm of video games into art forms relegated to a minority online, like poetry. Just like comics or experimental filmmaking, it was just a matter of time for these two practices to come together.

Let’s dive into three examples of video game poetry:

1

A Slow Year was developed by California’s Ian Bogost in 2010 and it’s a meditation in four parts, each one assigned to the seasons of the year. It deviates from narration and action. The passing of time doesn’t really come in a lineal progression, but rather follows the rhythm of nature according to each season. It’s refreshingly slow, or, as the author states, “[the games] require a different kind of sedate observation”.

The art work evokes the early days of video games, specifically the days of the 8 and 16-bit Atari aesthetics, and it’s been released for Atari, Windows and Mac platforms. Somewhere between nostalgia and contemplation, Bogost’s game poem defies a little something other than mainstream and most indie video games: the speed of the internet itself, and the contemporary obsession with the instantaneous.

A Slow Year was finalist in the 2010 IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games. More on A Slow Year: http://bogost.com/games/aslowyear/


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2

Just like independent comics is one of the most cherished outlets of expression for women, poet, game developer and activist Nina Freeman has found the intersection between poetry and gaming a liberating one. Nina wrote her thesis on sci-fi poetry and when she began developing games, she adopted the aesthetics of the 80s and her attention was placed in telling personal stories of ordinary days in interactive vignettes, following the work of other gamers whose narratives are disruptive, such as the queer Dys4ia, about the hormonal replacement therapy of a trans woman.

Nina, who is based in New York, began coding early memories of her childhood in games such as Hokuto no Huchen, a light hearted game with basic pixel art in pastels about a fishing experience with her father. Other personal stories include Mangia, a mostly text-based game with a black background about her struggle with a rare stomach disease. Within the first months of her career in video games, Nina realized she was one of the few women in this industry, and began to take action with other female friends who were as successful as frustrated with the state of women in games.

She became an activist for the inclusion of women in game development. She’s one of the founders of the Code Liberation Foundation, a collective that teaches women how to code games, but more importantly, how to feel safe in an environment of respect and camaraderie, in an industry that still displays a worrying state of gender inequality and even vicious misogyny. Soon, a community of female gamers was formed with generations of about 80 people learning the techniques required to make a living out of games, and changing the rules of it.

Nina has made of her personal stories a collaborative effort with her friend Emmett Butler coding, and Sean Com writing music for titles such as My House My Rules, Freshman Year, A Pretty Ornament I Made (completely based on a poem), Space Dad, Perishable (a “poem game”), How Do You Do It? (finalist of the Independent Games Festival and the IndieCadie 2014), Cybrid 7-x and Ladylike, a story about a girl’s relationship with her mother, that revolves around body issues and offers the multiple options most girls would like to have in real life.

Her work can be accessed for free at her website: http://ninasays.so/ and for purchase via the Steam platform:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/408120/?snr=1_5_1100__1100

More about her activism and teaching: http://codeliberation.org/ .

* With information from http://sexmagazine.us/articles/nina-freeman .

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3

Mammut is another collaborative effort by poet Minerva Reynosa and coder Benjamín Moreno, a Mexican couple based in Monterrey city, who founded their company Concretoons to develop digital narratives, among their “video-poesía”, or video poetry. The couple, also known as Benerva (a contraction of their names), has adopted the same 80s aesthetic of pixel art and synth music for their story about a cowgirl, in a very reminiscent ambient of Mario Bros., that has to eliminate her opponents in order to gain words instead of the traditional coins or weapons.

As the girl obtains her prizes, a poem called Mammut is formed word by word in the background, with no apparent ending and endless possibilities and entirely composed and recomposed by chance. This game, available only for iOS (via the Mexican App Store), was recently presented during the “Narrative and New Technologies” panel of the First International Conference of Reading and Technology Libros Mexico (December 2015).

Video games are a new industry in Mexico, very used to the transnational imports and trying to form an identity of its own. With all the newly formed companies and the investment poured onto them, the participation of females authoring code and/or narratives is just as insufficient as in other parts of the world. Efforts to train women in computer programming are taking place in this country, and Mammut now represents a welcome precedent.

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More on Concretoons: http://cartuchera.concretoons.com/index.html 

I'm interested in popular culture and audiovisual narratives.