Programs as Poetry, and Programming as Art
Ian Bogost has just released a quartet of video games that he calls “poetry.” I’m familiar with the idea that program code itself is a form of expression. We have literate programming, and Donald Knuth’s famous Turing Award lecture “Computer Programming as an Art.” Ian is saying something different here — that the program can be art, by being “expressive within tight constraints.”
Ian’s poems are saying something very interesting about human-computer interaction (HCI). The poems are all about improving the lives of the humans who play them, in the subtle way of introducing new ideas and encouraging reflection. However, they are not about usability. These poems perform no useful, application-driven function. They are “inscrutable.” The user manual for each program is a single Haiku.
Both literate programming and Ian’s poems introduce an interesting idea for computing teachers: What do we teach students about programming and programs as art? What should we be teaching them, about expressiveness, about craftsmanship, about creating code for reasons other than solving a problem or facilitating a task?
The games are simple, introduced to us who have no standards with which to judge the quality of video game poems. The A Slow Year games were made with the understanding that poetry can resist being obvious, that it can be expressive within tight constraints, that it can, like a video game, challenge its reader to work through it, that it can be vague but specific, harsh yet beautiful. The autumn game is just a slow game of waiting for a leaf to fall off a tree and catching it right on time. The spring game’s goal is to match thunder with lightning in a rainstorm. The summer game is the simple but daunting challenge to take a proper nap, a first-person game seen from behind drooping eyelids.
Each game was made to run on the Atari but will run on Windows or Macintosh computers.
Each is tough and accompanied with only a haiku for instructions.