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Marcus Goodyear

At Play in the Fields of Poetry

An invitation to TwitterSpeakPoetry

On September 9, 2009, L. L. Barkat, Glynn Young, Eric Swalberg, and Bradley J. Moore met together on Twitter to toss out some lines of poetry. L. L. and Glynn had rediscovered poetry through blogging, and they were trying to teach their executive friend why it was important.

"Tweet Speak Poetry really began as a joke," L. L. told me. "We were just trying to use hashtags, and Bradley didn't understand those either." (Hashtags are a way of creating categorizing material on twitter.) Their first shared poetry experience on Twitter was about teaching the technology of Twitter as much as pretending to teach poetry. Although they were being playful with each other, they didn't seem to realize that they were playing a game.

Twitter Is More Than Digital Noise—It's Digital Noise and Games

Twitter games were becoming more and more popular at the time. At South by Southwest Interactive 2010, I learned about several of these in a bizarre session on the future of games. At the time, there were a handful of innocent trivia games like twitbrain and playtwivia. My personal favorite was Twirdie, a golf-inspired game that "uses tweets from the past 60 seconds to measure the strength of your power drive."

But Twitter games had a dark side too. Echo Bazaar is a gothic choose-your-own-adventure that takes place in "Fallen London." Another game, Bet Your Followers is even darker. This game doesn't just tell dark stories; in a twisted version of poker, it encourages players to wager their online friendships. The developers created the game wondering, "If a mass of Twitter followers constitutes social currency, can it be gambled and exchanged like real currency?" For a brief moment, the blogs were abuzz with indignation. Ben Parr dismissed the game's philosophical assumptions on Mashable. We don't treat our friends like currency, Parr argued, but we may treat our interactions with them as such. What kind of interactions do Twitter users want from the service? We want good content when our friends share ideas, links, or images. But we also want good conversation when others respond to us (in an @reply) or share what we've said with their own commentary (in a retweet).

Of course, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams recently announced that Twitter will not try to make money from games at all. Although Williams' motives aren't clear, his comments at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco this past November implied that games might mess up the all-important "resonance" score of tweets. (I don't know what that means either.)

Anatomy of a Twitter Poetry Game

It's enough to make a new media nerd want to study Game Theory. Books on the subject encompass complex mathematics (Game Theory: A Critical Introduction), philosophy (The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia), business self-help (Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life), and even theology. In Theology Remixed, Adam C. English explores the idea of "Christianity as Game." Finally, there are folks who are interested in game theory for the purpose of game design.

In Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, & Playtesting Games, the authors identify the 8 elements of every game: Players, Objectives, Procedures, Rules, Resources, Conflict, Boundaries, and Outcome. Lets use those elements to think through how a few poets have used Twitter to play poetry games.

The Players of Tweet Speak Poetry are the poets themselves. They follow the game's account on Twitter @tspoetry, and they participate through their own Twitter accounts. As in any game, the quality varies depending upon the players. For this reason, the players try to recruit as many good poets as possible, to keep the level of discourse on a higher level than many grassroots poetry efforts online.

The Objective of the game is a bit harder to define. In one sense, players aim for a combination of quality and quantity in the lines they submit, but the game's objective is not as clear as in Monopoly or Chess. No one is trying to destroy anyone or trap anyone. There is no moment of checkmate in the poetry game. Instead, it is a bit like Trivial Pursuit, in which players try to outwit each other, or Follow the Leader, in which players explore their environment together while imitating the person at the front of the line. Tweet Speak Poetry is primarily a way to explore poetry, but the players are certainly trying to outwit each other. Everybody loves the moments when a particular rhyme or image is passed around quickly, each player trying to be more clever than the others.

The Procedures of the game are also fairly simple (but they sound complex if you haven't used Twitter before). Each game begins at a specified time (typically on a Tuesday at 8:30 pm Central Time: after all, we have day jobs). At this time, one player logs in to the game account @tspoetry and begins sending prompts to the players around a theme: "pie," for instance, or "robots" or "mummies." To play along, people post messages from their own Twitter accounts in response to the prompts. These messages must include a hashtag, a little piece of information that tells Twitter to sort the message in a particular way. We use #tsptry. Including those seven characters in a Twitter message will add it to the stream of incoming lines of poetry. To simplify this for everyone, Matt Priour created a special game interface at TweetSpeakPoetry.com, but we have also used Hashtag.org and Tweetchat.com.

The Rules of the game are also simple. Some of them are determined by the medium of Twitter: limit each snippet of poetry to 140 characters (about 3-4 lines of poetry) and include slash marks to indicate line breaks. Others are more philosophical in nature: stay on prompt, be poetic, and be kind. Poetry is not a zero-sum game. We do not advance ourselves in the game by belittling the work of others. In fact, the more people who play, the more lines they submit, the more language we have to enjoy.

The Resources of the game are where things get interesting. First, we could not do this without Twitter and the Internet and computers and cell phones and all of the ubiquitous technology of the 21st century. Also, the game interface created by Matt Priour at TweetSpeakPoetry.com has been a key resource in getting more people to play the game. More important, though, poetry itself is the resource. We don't need Monopoly money or footballs or 3 lives remaining to combat an opponent. We have all the resources of poetic devices and sound devices and figurative language. In order to play the game well, poets need to understand the resources of poetry.

Every good game needs Conflict, and ours has it too. When 30 people are all posting new lines of poetry several times a minute, the flow of language gets very complicated very quickly. Such speed and noise do not put the players in conflict with each other so much as create a sense of conflict and excitement within the players. It takes a lot of brainpower to watch the prompt, watch the stream of responses, and generate new responses at the same time. This element of the game helps people let go. It short-circuits our inhibitions so we can tap into our creative selves again.

The Boundaries of the game are also fairly simple. First, we accept the boundaries of Twitter, posting 140 characters at a time from our personal accounts and including the necessary metadata, like our game hashtag #tsptry. In addition to this, L. L. Barkat created a time limitation. Like competitors in a football game, we have a schedule of play. Most of the time, our game field is empty. But on game nights, we turn on the bright lights, put on our uniforms, kiss our children to bed, and settle down with a laptop or cell phone to join our peers on the playing field. More than other elements of the game, the boundaries are something we continue to tweak. We have tried longer, slower games that last all day. We have even tried adding additional boundaries of rhyme and meter, but the simple one-hour format seems to work best.

Finally, you might wonder about the Outcome of the game. Each game doesn't produce a winner. In the future, we have talked about awarding badges for "best line" or "most prolific," but for now we keep it simple. The goal of each game is to generate new poetry written by the community and to publish the results on the game's blog with links to every participant. In the beginning, Glynn Young edited these poems himself. Now, we open the stream of each game to the players and encourage them to write their own poem from the material, post the poem on a blog, and share a link with the other players.

Permission to Play Games

In the end, Tweet Speak Poetry is more than a game, it is a philosophy of poetry as a game. The rules and resources of the game are mostly decided by the rules and resources of poetry itself. Sometimes our attempts to study poetry in university settings can take the joy out it. We forget how to play with T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" and try instead to wrestle the meaning from it. If we play poetry at all, we treat the poem like an opponent, to be pummelled into submission. If we are to win, the poem must lose.

Applying game theory to poetry has helped us rediscover the fun of it—using our wits, exploring language through social media, imposing new boundaries on ourselves, and reminding ourselves that the outcome of the game is simple: more people who love poetry and write poetry.

Most of all, though, playing poetry games gives us permission to be silly again. We love T. S. Eliot, but we also love W. H. Auden. We love Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson and Julia Kasdorf and Scott Cairns and Luci Shaw, but we also love Shel Silverstein. We can't be serious and disciplined about something if we forget how to play.

Marcus Goodyear is senior editor for TheHighCalling.org. He is the author of a collection of poems, Barbies at Communion.

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