We’re reading COIN OPERA 2, edited by Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone

13 Dec

It’s a long and winding road between games and poetry. Hayden Westfield-Bell watches the meter


Sidekick Books, £12.00

“I have written two sets of poems about computer games” says Kieron Gillen in the foreword to Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge; one of these concerned “a tragic Defender game that ended when my final life was lost just 100 points – a single alien, a single shot – before I managed to secure an extra life. Clearly a traumatic event in my teenage life, well worth immortalising in verse.”

It was that final line that stood out for me, though initially I didn’t know why. (I’d never played Defender – it was a bit before my time.) I found myself focussing on a possible interpretation of that final line; that in order for a computer game to be featured in verse it must be ‘traumatic” enough. It’s not a completely fair interpretation of course; it would be equally valid to argue that any event must be traumatic to turn a teenager towards the page. Yet there’s some truth to it, isn’t there? When was the last time you came across a poem referencing Final Fantasy, or a game that featured well-written poetry?

Jon Stone touches on this in his introduction; “The first Coin Opera was a tentative experiment, aiming to combat two prejudices simultaneously: the prejudice against computer games that denies the artistry of their content, and the prejudice against contemporary poetry that rejects its readability and relevance” This is precisely why I’d picked up the copy on show at a poetry book fair in London. Poetry: land of the lofty, world of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats – names we come across academia, most likely – or at any rate, in settings of relative tranquility. Video games: spawn of the not-quite-art entertainment industry. World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and Fifa: pulpy titles that yell from billboards and TV adverts. From delicate lines on love and tenderness to the raw mulch of a chainsaw tearing through flesh: the two areas couldn’t be any more incompatible, could they?

That Coin Opera 2 is the second volume of computer game poems published by Sidekick Books suggests otherwise, and Jon ruminates on the connections between the two mediums later in his introduction – how; the player/reader encounters resistance in the two forms, how both are limited by formal/graphical restrictions, how they can be affected by changes in their respective environments and how we engage in “play” in both mediums. These similarities having existed since Pong, but the decision to include games in poetry is a very recent one.

Phil Brown’s opening lines to “Side Scroller” – “when 16 bits were enough for us / my friendship with my father was strongest” – will no doubt feel familiar to those who grew up with a fourth-generation console. Just overleaf, Aliya Whiteley continues the theme of bonding with “Groan”, a poem that traces the relationship of two friends through “cider-heavy nights / shooting the screen”. The years between the child in the first poem and the adults in the second show how computer games have become attractive to all ages, and how, as the technology powering games has developed, the industry has been able to engage more readily with new audiences. Consoles are now ubiquitous, and the growing power of desktops, laptops and tablets lets even the most modest of them run videogames.

By engaging with videogames, the poets featured in Coin Opera and Coin Opera 2 give voice to a generation that has grown up with its feet as firmly placed in the virtual world as the physical. Videogames have already found a place in prose, and crop up in virtually every genre. Still, in general fiction, gaming is often shunted off as a childhood occupation or a leisure activity. In science fiction, it’s usually little more than just an easy way to create a believable alternative world with potential Baudrillard-ian complications. Characters rarely interact emotionally with these virtual worlds, and when they do their feelings are often concentrated on virtual Playable Characters; characters controlled by physical beings.

This is odd, because fictional characters are (of course) no different: they’re fictional. Even so, readers are still encouraged to sympathise with them. We talk endlessly about about how authors create (or fail to create) “well-rounded, believable characters”. Our relationships with these characters are completely artificial – they are wholly virtual – yet we still find ourselves emotionally engaged with them. If fiction has taught us anything, it’s that we can and do relate emotionally to virtual characters. Virtual interactions can invoke the same emotional responses as physical ones. In “The Thirteenth Colossus” by Matt Haigh in which a colossus from Shadow of the Colossus becomes intensely physical, the point is well-made: “the thrum and chug of you, liquid muscle / between my legs, twisted thickets of gristle”. To the player of the game the creature appears so real; when playing I feel “my bloodied fists / caught up in your pelt’s oasis […] the accordion bellows of your cavernous lungs”.

We can trace the beginnings of videogame poetry back to Seth Flynn Barkan’s Blue Wizard is About to Die (2004) and interest in the medium has grown since; the first Coin Opera anthology appeared in 2009, in 2012 The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail by Gregory Sherl appeared and most recently B J Best produced a volume of videogame inspired poems titled; But Our Princess is in Another Castle (2013). In his “Return of the Introduction” Jon adds to the number of independent games developers who are exploring “the possibilities for poetry within gaming’”, giving a lot of attention to Ian Bogost’s A Slow Year.

He leaves us with this hopeful declaration: “Beyond these games-as-poems and the examples in this book of poems-as-games, there surely lies the possibility of the hybrid, a form which is both game and poem at once. While this is rather exciting, it should not be mistaken for an ultimate goal; the entire spectrum of possible interactions between the two mediums is fit for further exploration”.

Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge is an incredibly accomplished collection of such explorations, deconstructing the way in which we interact with this fast-growing medium. Multiplayer poetry, anyone?


James Smythe takes on the games engines in Postcards from Uncanny Valley (Arc 2.3), out next year. Subscribe to our newsletter for further details.

Also on the blog: Adam Roberts considers the philosophical implications of Ender’s Game.

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