Games could learn a thing or two from confessional poetry’s history

For a long time, we’ve been spoiled by games. We’re to believe that the world is entirely ours to save or destroy. Our characters are fully voiced, but as players, we control them like puppets: we win, we lose, the universe swings around our every decision. When the characters talk, it’s so we can envision ourselves saying it; when they’re mute, it’s so we can imagine what they’d say.  The “I” was meant to represent the player and her importance in a world merely handed to her.

But a rebellion has struck. That “I” is no longer you, player, but “I,” creator. In these new, rebellious adventures, players are still encouraged to engage with their surroundings, but they’re also reminded that they are not totally in charge. In fact; the adventure is not even theirs. Nina Freeman’s upcoming game, Cibele, explores Freeman’s real life relationship with someone she met online. That Dragon, Cancer is an autobiographical story about a couple raising a four year old with terminal cancer. These are games that allow players to explore a different perspective, feel immersive in the details, but not completely claim it.

This break in tradition is nothing new when it comes to art. Poetry shared the same fate during the exit of modernist poetry and introduction to the now-accepted genre of confessional poetry. The appearance of confessional poetry faced similar rejection and proved itself to be just as real as any other poetic genre, much like the confessional games prove to be games today.

Many of those games that seek to fully immerse the player in a game’s universe—in short, the type being rebelled against—follow the modernist poetry tradition. Modernist poets, like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound or Robert Frost, felt out of place in a world with rapid industrial and technological growth, and the beginning of the World War I. So they took an objective approach, wrote poems that spoke of the world at large, and removed personal narrative to speak universally. Pound was even noted for sometimes writing almost nonsensical lines in order to let the reader do the work needed to unpack and understand his meaning. To Pound, his poem did not reflect his own thought; rather, they were the poem’s thoughts, completely separate from Pound.

The truth of the world was meant to be uncovered through their poetry. As Pound wrote in a letter to scholar Harriet Monroe, his goal as a poet was to “set the arts in their rightful place as the acknowledged guide and lamp of civilization.” It was as if the poet was the hero, writing the truths of the world and revealing the modern day issues. Modern games follow a modernist poem’s sense of impersonality, an unbridgeable gap between poem and poet, game and game creator.

A traditionally good game, like a traditionally good modernist poem, leaves any trace of creator input out of the work. As T.S. Eliot claims in his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” the creator is merely a tool that uses her writing, or game in this case, to reach a broader idea that is not just about the artist as an individual. She is rooted in the history of the artists that preceded her, which can and should be illustrated in her work. She is not the artist. She is the vessel that creates art; once it is out of her hands, she is forever distanced from what she has created.

If a poem was written in the first person, it was irresponsible, downright offensive to claim it to be the poet’s voice. “I” in a poem was known as the speaker, a distinct difference between poem and poet to never be joined.

“I” is no longer you, player

Confessional poetry broke traditional standards and allowed the poet to speak honestly. While modernist poets spoke of larger topics like politics and society, confessional poetry minimized the scope of poetry to be about the artist as an individual. Writers like Sylvia Plath or Ann Sexton disobeyed modernist rules. They avoided academic diction and wrote in an accessible tongue. They wrote of relationships and family. They established an “I” in their poetry that felt difficult to remove from the poet. Their goal was not to save the world from its problems, but to share stories others could emotionally relate to.

Only recently has the “I” in games started to make a direct relationship between the game’s character and the game’s creator.

Dys4ia, for example, is an autobiographical flash game about Anna Anthropy’s journey with hormones. It begins by declaring its individuality: “My experience isn’t anyone else’s and is not meant to be representative of every trans person.” This is not meant to place the player into Anthropy’s shoes and claim full understanding of her life. Dys4ia is a brief glimpse of Anthropy’s struggles, not a full endeavor into a hormone-inducing adventure.

Coming Out Simulator shares Dys4ia’s autobiographical nature; this time, it’s creator Nicky Case’s coming out story, but it also extends to the imaginary to give a fuller story of real-world experience. Case, like Anthropy, begins by stating the game to be a personal story. Though the game features actual dialogue from the real-life scenario, it also has untruths. Case mentions in the game that his actual father left the family before Case ever came out, and that he omitted his brother due to his innocence. Confessional games, like poetry, do not need to be true to still hold emotional truth. The point is to share a personal tale through interactivity that gives these games a confessional vibe.

This vibe also causes criticism. Confessional poetry, too, was criticized upon its arrival. The truth is that these are not traditional games, and because they lack traditional prerequisites, like interconnected mechanics, or win-states, they are considered not as fun.

Many poets who grew accustomed to high diction in poetry found confessional poetry’s straight-forward language to be lacking in what most poetry before it possessed. The taboo nature of confessional poetry also caused poets fond of the new genre to be called vain. Those against confessional poetry did not see it as true poetry.

Not all poets rejected the personal

But since its arrival in the 50’s, confessional poetry has made a strong community for itself, bringing us poets like Li-Young Lee, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe among many others. It’s created discussion about the beauty of getting nasty in poetry, poems like Silvia’s Plath’s “Daddy” would not have been possible without the desire to dissect the conflicts of a family relationship, and to change the poet from a world-knowing intellect, to a human with heavy emotions.

Not all poets during the modernist movement rejected the personal, however. Revealing the truth about the real world sometimes required a little insight from the poet’s perspective.

During the First World War, the public audience found the war to be a great way to show patriotism. The white feather campaign bullied men into enlisting in the war, as those who were not in uniform were given white feathers. Women supported by working in munition factories, knitting clothing for soldiers or volunteering for the Red Cross. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, meaning “it is sweet and right to die for your country,” was the World War’s very own catchphrase. Poets wrote inspirational poetry about the accomplishments of a good soldier. Most of this war enthusiasm came from people thousands of miles away from the actual battlefield.

Soldiers did not feel the same enthusiasm when dealing with tear gas, flying bullets, trenches covered in mud and rats, starvation, or corpses. These campaigns were disastrous projects meant to keep people in a brutal war that only produced more violence. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among other soldier poets, wrote about the truth of fighting in a war, and countered the widespread claim that soldiers were doing anything beneficial for their home country.

War games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Medal of Honor are incredibly popular, but they’re also fantastical. They may not show war is good—they don’t actively persuade anyone into enlisting into the army—but they create a sense of fun and excitement in a event that is everything but fun and exciting. As confessional poetry influenced soldiers to respond, so too could confessional games influence game designers to respond to larger, real-world events. What would it be like to have a confessional game created by a real soldier who has lost fellow fighters, who is wounded and cannot instantly recover thanks to rations or waiting for the blood on his face to eventually dissipate? That game could hold the same power as Owen’s original lines.

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

-Wilfred Owen, Dulce et decorum est