to an unknown audience
Games, Math, Poetry/  /October 31, 2002

A new addiction may have struck me. Never did I imagine I might be awake after midnight trying eagerly to decipher lines like these, scrolling by my face:

You picked up 2 side of beefs.

You picked up 36 bamboo shoots.

You picked up 32 head of lettuces.

You dropped 23 thingamabobs.

You squeezed 1 chicken.

Game Neverending.

- o * o -

I dreamed of something like this when I was younger.

Is it just me, or would anyone's imagination be so tickled by these seemingly coarse representations? Most of the holy grails of my life are sandboxes like this one, boxes made of a few trivial objects that can be endlessly combined. There are limitless possibilities for creative combinations and applications of one element to another. Because the pieces are discrete and known, anyone can immediately appreciate a new idea expressed in this form. "Ah yes," we say, "I see what you're doing with that [chicken/thingamabob/side of beef]." And although it is easy to see the brilliance of a new combination, producing one requires one of those exciting moments of inspiration. You know the moments I'm talking about.

Computer science is like this, and so is math. Go and chess are like this; Legos are like this. Language is like this, at least if you're into sentences like "This statement is false," and "I knew too that through them I know too that he was through, I knew too that he threw them." (Gertrude Stein, "A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson"). Prose, on the other hand, and the more typical sort of poetry (the sort with referents), is a more subtle and furtive art. The elements of story and character are not well-known—they're up for negotiation between reader and writer. As a result, the tree of possibilities is much wider and, in a way, shallower: it's harder to build on other people's ideas. Two novels, taken at random, or two paintings, have almost nothing to do with each other, or else one completely reproduces the other. We may all be using the same paints, but the arc, the color, the pressure of a single stroke varies to a continuously infinite infinite infinite degree.

This is why criticism, or shall we say interpretation, or shall we say understanding (signifiance?) is so difficult. To read a book, and for it to mean anything at all—to stare at a painting, and care—is a creative act in itself. You, viewer, you invent your own painting: you take the impression on your retina and you make things out of it—a dog here, a doorway there, a woman, a boy, a glance—what kind of glance? The connection, if any, between that glance and its "sense" comes from trolling back through decades of experience: "It is a bit like the look my mother gave me when I fell off my bike in fifth grade; but also something like Marlon Brando's in that one film. . ." What is it in an image that allows us to say, "How sad"?

Is it better to have that wide, supple tree of ambiguous possibilities, or to have a narrower but more structural tree of well-understood relationships? To clarify the difference, consider poetry, a wide open arena of ambiguity. This poem by Adam Zagajewski affects me because what it says reminds me of something un-articulated in my own experience, and perhaps also because of its structural properties—the lay of the lines, the turn of the rhyme, the recurrence of certain motifs. These motifs each come close to something I've seen or felt, and each one turns away at a certain point, leaving me to wonder how the poet's life is different from my own, and how different my life could be from what it is.

Poetry is very real—it is rooted in the real world, in the world we experience. We read it because we have to, because it saves us from death, at the hands of a firing squad or our own desires. There is abstract poetry, but what's the point?

Wallace Stevens would live in a world of imaginary relationships, but he's working in the wrong medium. I agree, abstract relationships are fascinating no matter what or where we are: if I'm riding a Greyhound bus, or kissing, or building a house, or for that matter, dead, I will take up some set of pieces in my mind and begin putting them together in different ways. I will make a machine out of gears, or a puzzle out of knights, knaves, tigers, and ladies. Lady or lord, I don't care, it's the truth-teller/liar dynamic that interests me: the relationships.

But logic puzzles are an antiseptic place to live. Game Neverending, SimCity, Civilization, NetHack: these stir my imagination toward a world, a space, like our own, but where it is really possible to play, to make new things.

When I look at an image, or a story, of a foreign world, it is usually exciting not because of what is in it, but because of what else might occur there, what else I might do with it.

Time's Arrow takes place in a world as nitty and as gritty as our own, but ever so slightly different. He mentions only a few things: poop painfully extracted from the toilet, cheese being carefully removed from a sandwich and reassembled, e.g. But it asks me to reimagine all my everyday activities this way.

The frustration with a typical novel, as compared with Game Neverending, is that just one thing will happen. What excites me is the range of possibilities, the room for creative invention. A novel itself is a creative invention, I admit—but it makes me passive. The author is brilliant, yes, but I have to wait (impatiently) (days/weeks/months) for h/im/er to lay out that brilliance. The essential element in novel-writing is the control of the sense of time—the slow unfolding, the quick turns, the reader's loss of certain memories, which eventually resurface. If it's not done perfectly, I lose patience. I want to play.

I have no delusions about the possibilities of "interactive fiction." This medium loses the novelist's masterful control of time-unfolding and gives me no more opportunity to play than does a paperback.

No, the best medium is a world. A sandbox in which we can play. A set of toys—thingamabobs, and chickens, maybe, as long as I can play one against another. We sit in the sandbox; we play; we make things, we discover. We show each other what we've made. This is our glorious future.

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