Gaming the Lyric: Poetry in 8-Bit

Some video games can evoke complex emotions, activate a voice, and cultivate a political imagination—like the best poetry.

A solitary figure walks in a straight line across a deserted landscape. Mountains and forests transfigure gradually into mesas and cactuses. Clouds drift silently overhead as a star-studded twilight fades into day and back again. Five minutes go by. Twenty minutes go by. The figure keeps walking. You remove your fingers from the space bar; the figure collapses and dies. If this sounds like a metaphor for the plight of countless migrants who risk everything by crossing borders on foot in search of a better life, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Or maybe it’s a metaphor for our concerned yet ultimately distant consumption of such humanitarian crises in the news.

In reality, it’s the premise of Jordan Magnuson’s Walk or Die from 2010, which he describes as “more poem than game.” Such creations that seamlessly blend the playable and the literary serve as the basis for his captivating book Game Poems: Videogame Design as Lyric Practice. The fate of this unidentifiable stick figure rendered in 8-bit graphics on a computer screen is literally in our hands. This cause and effect relation between holding the space bar down and watching the figure collapse initiates a gradual turning inward, away from the pure technicity of gameplay toward the elasticity of emotion. Upon a minimalist canvas dotted with pixelated shapes, Magnuson gives surprising form to subjective interiority. Walk or Die shows us that video games are not simply a medium of personal expression. Such games can evoke complex emotions, even through the fragmented rhythms of a mouse clicking. They can activate a sense of voice through sounds that exceed semantic meaning. They can cultivate a political imagination in the space between your fingertips and a keyboard. Games, in other words, can exhibit many of the same tendencies we associate with lyric poems.

A video game that lasts just a few minutes or makes error an inevitable feature of play may be a “failure” at the level of entertainment or narrative. Yet these game poems, I argue, consciously push back against the norms of mainstream video games, the sort that boast hundreds of hours of playtime (e.g., Skyrim), fetishize high-fidelity graphics (e.g., Red Dead Redemption 2), and prioritize narrative through filmlike cutscenes (e.g., Death Stranding). Such games are the pulpy bestsellers of the reading world, to be read once on an airplane and then thrown away.

But that means there is room for another kind of “reading,” such as games like Magnuson’s Walk or Die, Loneliness, and Portraits of My Child. One can return to these game poems again and again. Such short, ritualistic, hyperbolic games, according to Magnuson, find a new sense of belonging within a tradition of “lyric works … that want to be read not once, but many times.” And, like the best of poetry, one might even feel simultaneously the shock of recognition and the shock of the new.

Just as verse form shapes the development of an image or rhythm for traditional poets, so too does platform influence the ideation of a feeling for game poets. This parallel between poetic form and electronic framework is highlighted by Magnuson from a process point of view, stating: “tightly constrained engines like PICO-8, PuzzleScript, or Bitsy … make me feel like I’m writing a villanelle or haiku; I move to them when I am tired of free verse and wish to work within tighter constraints.” After all, we cannot simply ignore the fact that digital game poems are inherently more prone to technological obsolescence than ones that are written down or hosted on stable web platforms. Consequently, Magnuson admits that the whole process of making video game poems can feel “more like writing a poem in the sand with one’s finger than it does like writing with traditional paper and ink.” As a built-in feature of the genre, however, perhaps this looming risk of obsolescence intensifies the lyric now of the game poem, existing not to depict an event so much as to be an event.

Consider Anna Anthropy’s game Queers in Love at the End of the World. Requiring only ten seconds to play, the game uses an exaggeratedly condensed understanding of temporality to evoke a foreclosed-upon futurity for two queer lovers. Requiring only ten seconds to read, Emily Dickinson’s poem “Wild nights – Wild nights!” similarly evinces a stalled queer eroticism through nautical imagery (as seen in the lines “Rowing in Eden – / Ah – the Sea! / Might I but moor – tonight – / In thee!”).1 For better or for worse, such lyricism was projected onto readings of Emily Dickinson’s work, argues Virginia Jackson in Dickinson’s Misery, only after the discovery, publication, and distribution of her poems.2 Might not the same apply to video games?


Queer Lives Are Not Side Quests

By Cody Mejeur et al.

In his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Alan Turing envisioned a computer that refuses to produce a sonnet, modestly declaring “Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.” And yet, this same computer remains self-assured in its ability to play chess, even calculating the right moves to checkmate an opponent in fifteen seconds when given a particular endgame scenario.3

Turing’s interest in electronic games was not limited to mere abstraction. In collaboration with economist and mathematician David Champernowne, he is often credited with developing one of the earliest computer games in 1948: a chess program called Turochamp. This eponymous game relied on an algorithm that was too complex to run on computers at the time. Still, it began a particular kind of video game, which continues today to valorize rules, logic, fun, and above all, winning.4

This one way of thinking about video games, Magnuson proposes, has overshadowed the expressive, poetic potential of interactive digital games. Indeed, one of Game Poems’s primary undertakings is to salvage the literary possibilities of the hopelessly commercialized genre of video games, or, in Magnuson’s words, “a medium that is often deemed to be so far from poetry as to be irredeemably unpoetic.” Video game studies has exploded as a scholarly field and games have been scrutinized as everything from computational media to cybernetic systems to artworks. But surprisingly few theorists have ventured to consider their potential as poems or situate them within the intricate history of lyric theory. Game Poems argues that examining video games through the lens of poetry allows us to not only “see games in a new light and appreciate [them] more fully,” but also to jailbreak ourselves out of the “weary dichotomy of gameplay/narrative” that still governs most interpretations of games.

Magnuson acknowledges that he is not the first theorist to conceptualize video games as poems or analyze their capacity for being vehicles of aesthetic experimentation.5 Rather, his unique intervention is to lay the groundwork for a “poetics of video games” and, more precisely, to examine why it makes a difference to read games as poetic artifacts indebted to a long heritage of lyric convention. Beyond any connection to purely linguistic sounds or symbols, certain varieties of video games can rightfully be deemed “poetic,” according to Magnuson, because they conjure complex feelings, rhythms, and modes of address. In this regard, his interest is in games that are not necessarily fun, challenging, or even interesting in a conventional sense, but rather in ones that help us with “slowing down and paying attention, being present in the moment, sitting with some particular emotion, encountering the other.”

To demonstrate how lyric tendencies play out in practice, Magnuson uses Jason Rohrer’s Passage (2008) as a consistent point of reference throughout his book. Players familiar with Passage—a pixelated, side-scroller video game about a character who starts as a young adult, gets married, ages, and dies—often refer to it as “moving” and “resonant,” without being able to explain why. Magnuson argues that we can better parse this game by explicitly positioning it as poetry, because it concerns the interiority of a “subject wandering through a metaphorically projected inner landscape of experiences, memories, and emotions.”

And so, Magnuson’s book ultimately opens up important questions: What if Turing’s hypothetical thinking machine had been a poet instead of a gamer? Maybe the more pressing question is, Why couldn’t it be both?

Magnuson has organized his study to be of interest to both scholars working across game studies, poetry and poetics, and the digital humanities as well as experienced and aspiring video game creators. The book is thus divided into two parts: “What is a ‘Game Poem’?” and “Making Game Poems in Practice.” Each chapter in part 1 focuses on exploring one of the seven “lyric tendencies” that Magnuson proposes all game poems exhibit to one extent or another. That is, they are short, subjective, make use of poetic address, exist in a ritual space, are hyperbolic, bound to metaphor and ambiguous imagery, and juxtapose signified meaning with material meaning.

These seven conventions outlined above, Magnuson explains, are rooted in a specific conception of lyric poetry—post-Enlightenment, non–avant garde—a point that he clarifies by digesting the notoriously complicated history of the lyric with commendable ease. Readers who have no familiarity with lyric theory will find this section to be highly accessible. While Magnuson goes to great lengths to synthesize the ideas of major scholars in the field, including Jonathan Culler, Virginia Jackson, and Anthony Reed, he also contributes his own unique theories on the lyric from the game poet’s perspective. Examining how interactive digital interfaces fit within poetic parameters of addressability, Magnuson argues that game poets inherently extend “[John Stuart] Mill’s idea of lyric poetry as ‘utterance overheard’—in this case, the interest is in overhearing the ‘utterance’ of the computer (which takes on the role of poetic speaker and ‘lyric I’).” Such acts of computational eavesdropping—filled as they are with ambiguous, shifting perceptions—prime the player of the game poem to vacillate between subjective and universal feelings.

Generally favoring breadth over exhaustive readings, he also discusses a wide range of other indie video games that intentionally situate themselves as poetical, games like Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia (which I teach to my own students with much success), Ian Bogost’s A Slow Year, Adam Saltsman’s Fathom, Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey’s The Graveyard, Pippin Barr’s A Series of Gunshots, and Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th: A Toy World. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of video game poets—like the vast majority of video game designers—still seem to be men. Magnuson’s oft-repeated mantra that “we need more game poems in the world” applies even more so to game poems by women, genderqueer communities, and people of color.

What if Turing’s hypothetical thinking machine had been a poet instead of a gamer? Maybe the more pressing question is, Why couldn’t it be both?

How, Magnuson asks, can video game designers start to think of their creations in the same way that a poet thinks of writing out a sonnet or limerick? To answer, Magnuson, in the book’s second half, offers a series of practical guidelines for approaching game craft with poetic intent.

If the poet’s primary materials entail words, punctuation marks, and line breaks, we might conclude that the game poet similarly views pixels, waveforms, and chiptunes as the building blocks of their compositions. This assessment, however, does not fully account for the ways in which video games are the product of an intricate harmonization between intangible code and programming languages on the one hand, and physical devices and platforms on the other. Highly influenced by the philosophies of semiotics and deconstruction, Magnuson argues that the material of the video game poet is actually the “language of videogames: a vast tangled web of visual, auditory, and procedural signifiers, with all of their established ways of signifying (both denotatively and connotatively) in relation to one another and to the world.”

In other words, language mediates experience and lends otherwise unmemorable moments in our lives more feeling, texture, and meaning. Game poems and lyric poems share this understanding of language, even if their basic building blocks (e.g., an avatar and an invisible wall, a speaker and a line break) appear to be different on the surface.

Magnuson devotes considerable energy here to pinning down the exact nature of the game poem creator’s material, which I see as a means of being sympathetic toward those who may be struggling to jump the mental hurdle that video games do, in fact, have literary, emotive potential.

Consider Harvey and Samyn’s video game The Graveyard, which the creators refer to as “an experiment with realtime poetry.” This game is perhaps the most readily correlated to Romantic poetry’s preoccupations with solitude, melancholy, and mortality. As a black-and-white, 3D walking simulator, The Graveyard follows an elderly woman as she manuevers slowly around a cemetery, cane in hand, before sitting on a bench and listening to the atmospheric chirp of birds. Beyond the obviously somber tone established by the color scheme and depictions of tombstones, the player’s inability to get the woman to walk any faster incites a more measured, meandering reflection on life and death. The poetic material here is not the setting, character, or colors, per se, but rather the interdependent relation between rhythm and feeling.

The rest of part 2 functions as a beginner’s guide to making game poems in practice, a kind of “creator’s handbook with hints of manifesto.” Magnuson himself is an independent video game designer with over 15 years of experience, though he thinks of himself more accurately as an “aspiring poet whose medium is videogames.”

His own minimalist game poems—which he frequently uses as case studies throughout the book—find inspiration in everything from the mundane joys of fatherhood (e.g., seeing his infant son smile for the first time) to elusive feelings like loneliness to extensive travels throughout Asia. Some may consider this self-referentiality a kind of shortcut to “proving” the seven lyric qualities of game poems laid out in part 1. In my reading, it is precisely Magnuson’s unique positionality as creator-scholar that lends greater authenticity to his claim that personal experiences, complex emotions, and the messy, loose ends of life can gain clarity through video game expression.

Magnuson describes, for instance, how he designed a game titled The Killer after wandering around Cambodia for a month and learning more about the millions of people who were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The game features two stick figures walking across a landscape filled with dense foliage, the key difference between them being that one figure is holding a gun. One of his most played games, The Killer was Magnuson’s way of channeling “the intense feelings of shock and horror that were racking [his] body” into a reflection on state violence. The two figures’ staccato march through forests and across fields evokes a tense rhythm leading up to what Magnuson calls a “line break,” in this case a choice—you can make the figure holding the gun either shoot the other figure, or fire into the sky. Set within the parameters of a harrowing interactive experience, the connection between the material meaning of this final act and the signified meaning of extrajudicial execution jolts the player into a state of culpability, in which the recognition of genocide’s barbarism is unavoidable.

Without pretending that there is a universal approach to the craft of making game poems, Magnuson nonetheless understands the common frustration of trying to get a single pixel onto the screen when staring at a blank canvas. Substantiating his point that poetry and video games share a language of “visual and auditory vernaculars,” the practical pieces of advice he offers equally apply to the culture of poetry writing workshops—advice like embrace constraints, play with expectations, make creation a practice, and don’t be afraid to imitate other games to build technical skill.

The video game is primed to be a commodity; to shape it into a poem instead is a radical act in itself.

At certain times, this predominant focus on design seems to come at the expense of analyzing how the formal properties of game poems relate to larger political and socioeconomic dynamics—a trap we must avoid lest the lyric be further misconstrued as the genre of antisociality par excellence. Magnuson hints near the end of his book that “videogames are entangled with technology and capitalism, while poetry can appear to be the opposite of these things.” Yet, some readers may wish that more concerted attention had been paid to how poems and games, by and large, circulate in vastly different market economies (and how these markets, in turn, may or may not influence design principles). After all, unless you’re Rupi Kaur or Cleo Wade, most poets can’t exactly quit their day jobs. Meanwhile, many video game moguls have a personal net worth of at least $1 million and, according to some estimates, the global gaming industry is projected to reach a valuation of over $470 billion by 2030.6

Moreover, data from the National Endowment for the Arts 2022 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts revealed that 9.2 percent of US adults (22.4 million people) had read poetry in the year prior, whereas the Entertainment Software Association estimated that 66 percent of Americans of all ages (215 million people) play video games regularly.7 While the art world’s desire to track readership levels across demographics is probably not driven by market interests, poetry’s innate ability to express our most intimate dreams, hopes, and fears does not automatically purify it from capitalist values—a point Magnuson implicitly advances by drawing a sharp distinction between mainstream, money-making video games and independent, expressive game poems.

Consider that just a few months ago, Kaur started marketing “card deck” box sets that feature writing prompts on “gratitude,” “self-love,” and “balance” and retail for $25 each—a move for which she will likely be derided as entrepreneurial. On the other hand, the wildly popular video game Ghost of Tsushima received praise for adding side quests in which players can have the main character, Jin Sakai, take breaks from his grueling samurai adventures to find a meditative spot by a pond or bamboo grove and compose a haiku. Whereas video game designers—mainstream or indie—seem to have everything to gain by the lyricization of their games, poets potentially have everything to lose by the gamification of their lyrics.

Whatever Game Poems may lack in fully articulated theories on the relation between poetic video games and commercial markets, it makes up for in anticapitalist praxis. Despite the asymmetries in revenue-generating capabilities of poetry and video games at large, Magnuson shares much more in common with self-published poets, poetry collectives, and indie presses that reject economies of prestige and competitive literary prizes as the sole metric of success. Literary values are deeply connected to market pressures, and Magnuson guides us toward seeing artistic creation as relational rather than transactional. The video game is primed to be a commodity; to shape it into a poem instead is a radical act in itself.

Most importantly, paralleling Magnuson’s plea to aspiring video game designers to make their creations free and open source whenever possible, Amherst College Press published Game Poems in print and also online at no cost through the open-access platform Fulcrum. Focused on supporting born-digital scholarship, Fulcrum allows authors to uniquely marry argument and aesthetics by integrating multimedia materials in ways that cannot be represented adequately in print form.

These capabilities are well-suited to Game Poems’s investments in examining how the material and visual cultures of video games are inscribed with emotional meaning. To show that lyric intent can reside in colors, shapes, and sounds as much as it does in language, Magnuson includes dozens of screenshots from online games captured during play. We can imagine that the digital version of his book would have benefitted even more by incorporating interactive, media-rich elements such as 3D visualizations or short clips of games embedded into chapters that visitors can play on demand. Nonetheless, as it currently stands, Game Poems is intuitive to navigate, rich in both visuals and argumentation, and designed to be accessible to educators, people with disabilities, nonspecialists, poets, and gamers alike.8 Magnuson’s partnership with Fulcrum demonstrates his awareness that, beyond just content, communication platforms and networks profoundly shape social life.

Following through on this open-access mindset, Game Poems concludes with a generous appendix of “Tools and Resources for Finding and Making Game Poems.” From user-friendly engines like Scratch and Phaser, to animation and sound editors such as MilkyTracker, to an extensive list of constraint generators and active game jams like Ludum Dare, this section of the book will be a wellspring of inspiration to readers who are hoping to break into the world of video game design and don’t know where to start.

If we are to make good on Magnuson’s proposal that “we need videogames that call out oppression and injustice in all their myriad forms,” the first step of justice-oriented design entails lowering the barrier to technical knowledge required to produce poetic games. When we approach any act of artistic creation from a place of empathy, generosity, and community building, as Game Poems asks us to do, everyone wins. icon

  1. Emily Dickinson, “Wild nights – Wild nights!”, Poetry Foundation, accessed October 13, 2023.
  2. See Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton University Press, 2005).
  3. A. M. Turing, “I.—Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy, vol. LIX, no. 236 (1950), p. 434.
  4. Debates about which interactive electronic game truly deserves the title of “first video game” are ongoing. Besides Turochamp, other candidates include Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann’s “cathode-ray tube amusement device” (1947); Josef Kates’s Bertie the Brain (a kind of tic-tac-toe) from 1950; John Makepeace Bennett and Raymond Stuart-Williams’s Nimrod (1951); A. S. Douglas’s OXO (another tic-tac-toe) from 1952; and Christopher Strachey’s “draughts” program (known as “checkers” in American English) from 1952.
  5. See Ian Bogost, A Slow Year: Game Poems (Open Texture, 2010); D. Fox Harrell, Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression (MIT Press, 2013); Astrid Ensslin, Literary Gaming (MIT Press, 2014); Patrick Jagoda, Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification (University of Chicago Press, 2020).
  6. Kurt Robson, “Gaming industry to be worth $470bn by 2030 despite setbacks, experts predict,” Verdict, April 3, 2023.
  7. Sunil Iyengar, “New Survey Reports Size of Poetry’s Audience—Streaming Included,” National Endowment for the Arts, April 6, 2023; “2022 Essential Facts About the Video Game Industry,” Entertainment Software Association, June 2022.
  8. Readers also have the option to download a PDF or EPUB version of the book, receive a chapter by email once a week, or listen via audiobook or podcast (two formats that are coming soon, according to
Featured image: Still from Walk or Die (2010)