Programs as Poetry, and Programming as Art

December 21, 2010 at 8:35 am 7 comments

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.

via What If A Video Game Was Poetry? | Kotaku Australia.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  December 21, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    This excellent idea surfaces every so often, and it’s good to see it here.

    Ann Marion, an artist who was a grad student of Nicholas Negroponte’s in the 70s and who came to work with Atari Research in the early 80s, had a similar insight. She wondered about “slow games” that were fascinating for other reasons … that were analogies to a fire in a fireplace or a fish tank.

    This led to the Vivarium Project at Apple in the late 80s and early 90s — started and headed by Ann — in which children were encouraged to create interesting computer ecologies that were art on the one hand and “behavioral Biology” on the other (and with one more hand, examples of complex systems organizations as understood by children).



  • 2. Ian Bogost  |  December 21, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Alan, what’s the best resource/documentation for the Vivarium project?

  • 3. Alan Kay  |  December 21, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Hi Ian,

    Good question ….

    I’ll ask Kim Rose. This was a big project with many facets.

    I discussed it a bit as part of a Scientific American article I wrote “Computers, Networks, and Education” Sept ’91.

    Also, there were several papers and lots of internal memos written about the children’s programming environment (called Playground) we made for the school part of the project). There’s an MIT thesis by Mike Travers in the mid-90s that is quite nice (AGAR) and had some of the early agent ideas and also early tile scripting.

    Ann wrote some papers.

    There were lots of presentations, including a major one at SIGGRAPH showing some of the earliest real-time 3D graphics with programmable ocean animals.

    There are great Larry Yeager papers and movies for the Artificial Life conferences — showing his take and implementation of a “Braitenberg table” with animals whose nervous systems felt evolutionary pressure (this was a real tour de force in every respect).

    Mitchel Resnick used some of these ideas for an interactive child programmable exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science.




  • 4. Bettina Bair  |  December 21, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Its not code as poetry, but the Ohio State College of Engineering used to sponsor a poetry contest, which was judged by English profs and poets.

    In 2005, I won the faculty division with this:


    “It’s just all about the rules”,
    My computing teacher said.
    “The computer is a fool.
    It can’t read what’s in your head”

    My computing teacher said,
    “Without imagination,
    It can’t read what’s in your head —
    Just coded operations.”

    “Without imagination,
    Computers cannot do art.
    Just coded operations
    Moving bits around its heart.”

    “Computers cannot do art,
    But for a skilled artist’s hand,
    Moving bits around its heart,
    Elegance can be programmed.”

    “But for a skilled artist’s hand,
    The computer is a fool.
    Elegance can be programmed.
    It’s just all about the rules.”


    BTW, a pantoum is a verse form with its own set of rules. Each quatrain’s second and fourth lines are repeated as the first and third lines of the following quatrain.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  December 22, 2010 at 10:25 am

      Hooray, Bettina! Thanks for sharing your poem!

  • 6. Alan Kay  |  December 22, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Some interesting distinctions in computer art forms include
    — the result as art
    — the means as art

    Here we have the result as art, and the range of possibilities is very large.

    More rarely do we see the means also as art. One of my favorite examples still is John McCarthy’s “LISP in LISP”, in which the program itself is really deep art, and so is the result. Both can be contemplated in that glow of artistic reverie.

    I’d nominate Dan Ingall’s versions of Smalltalk-76 and Smalltalk-78 for beauty in both means and ends.

    And we can imagine situations where the means are art, but the result has little to no artistic merit. Both LISP and APL were good vehicles for such creations.

    Don’s “Literate Programming” is an interesting subcase. Here I think the *presentation* of the programs (the WEB formulation with Don’s narratives), and often the results (Metafont), are art, but most of the programs themselves are not very artistic.

    And then there is the other 99.99999999999999% of computer constructions ….



  • 7. Mark Miller  |  December 26, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    I particularly liked this part:

    “When we consume games, when we talk about games, when we make games, we’re being sold this line – this line about technological advancement, that things are always getting better,” he said. “We want more. Here’s the new version of the old hardware. And here’s the new interface for the old hardware. Here’s the new game that’s bigger and badasser than the last game, that’s the next number in sequence after the franchise name in its title.

    “If I can get under people’s skin and make them wonder: ‘Is that what I want? Or am I being duped?’ then that would be a real gratifying seed to plant.”

    I demonstrated many years ago, and in a few rare cases have seen others demonstrate, that older hardware can do what people have been doing with newer hardware and software. It doesn’t look or feel quite as nice, but in essence they can do the same thing, and do it sufficiently well that people can get the point, which is, “It’s not the hardware that makes the idea possible. What you’re seeing is the rendering of an idea, and the computer is just the renderer.”

    I suspect the reason why “newer stuff happens” on newer hardware typically is that even the people who create it just prefer the newer hardware, because it’s easier to do it on that. The whole argument that, “The older hardware could do it, too,” is just brushed aside by, “Why would you want to do that?” They want more, too.

    The broad public are often confused about “what’s doing it?” Is it the hardware, or the software?

    I think a few people will get what Ian is doing with these games, but most will think, “Weird,” or, “Boring,” and move on. I think people expect an other worldly experience of some sort with video games. Looking at these, I suspect most would think, “What’s the point of sipping coffee in a virtual world? I do that in the real world all the time.”

    This article got me thinking of what I’ve seen as “art on a computer.” From the time I entered college in the late 80s I’ve had the opportunity to see what have been called “demos”, what I call “graphics/sound demos,” done totally through code. Most of them are not that exciting, but every year or so a few would always stand out to me. These few have a nice marriage of graphical forms and sound, or music. They have a rhythm, as if you’re listening to and watching something that was composed with some skill. A common trait is they set themselves in the pop culture of the time, and it’s obvious they’re showing off a bit, which makes them garish. Nevertheless I consider them art, because they say something about what computers can be, what they can do, beyond the practical and pragmatic. A lot of them are what I’d call “mathematical artifacts,” because it’s obvious to me that some schemes from mathematics were used to create them.

    Here’s a demo that’s been one of my favorites. It was originally written for the Amiga 4000 in 2005, by a group called “The Black Lotus”, all, or most of it, in assembly code. It was later ported to the Atari Falcon 030 (the last computer Atari made) with a CT60 68060 accelerator card, running at 66 Mhz (the version that’s played at the link). It’s 1994 technology. In a way this is an indictment of what was done with it back then, because I didn’t see anything like this when the technology was considered “current.” This is what was always possible, if people only realized it. From what I understand, everything you see and hear was rendered in real time. I like this one in particular, because it’s not fast and flashy. It’s short, but sweet.


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