Can Poems About Network Optimization Get Poetry a New Audience?

We talked to Raph Koster about how to get games into poems, and poems into game.

Emanuel Maiberg

Emanuel Maiberg

Image: Raph Koster.

You might not know Raph Koster by name, but if you play massively multiplayer online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft, you should be familiar with his work.

Koster was the lead designer on Ultima Online (1997), one of the earliest, most popular games in the genre, and the creative director behind Star Wars Galaxies, the first Star Wars MMO. He's also the author of A Theory of Fun Game Design, an influential game design book.

But even if you're intimately familiar with his Koster's games, I'm willing to bet you had no idea he has an Masters of Fine Arts degree in poetry from the University of Alabama, and that poetry, not game design, was what he thought his career would be growing up.

That was the plan, but a hobby of designing board games based on video games evolved into designing MUDs, or Multi-User Dungeons (in a sense, the earliest form of MMO), and eventually became what he's known for. But Koster never left poetry behind.

He publishes his poetry on the same blog where he muses about games, and he knows his audience, meaning a lot of his poems are about games and programming, for gamers and programmers.

Koster recently published a book, Sunday Poems, collecting the poetry from his blog, so Motherboard sat down with the game designer and poet to talk about how these seemingly unrelated areas of interest came together.

Motherboard: Do you think your poetry is influenced by programming and game design?
Raph Koster: In a lot of ways, the process of designing a game is the process of taking away and finding the elegance buried underneath your cruft. That to me is something that I took from poetry into games.

I think the whole book is driven by the fact that games and the games audience flowed back into the poems. These were poems not for fans of poetry, but for gamers who were reading my blog. It changes the language I would use. To use business lingo, it changed the target audience. All of a sudden, instead of writing for other poets, I was trying to write for people who didn't really give a flip about poetry. I wrote towards the things these gamers might like.

Yeah, I was so surprised to see a poems about video game strategy guides and BASIC. There's a poem titled Network Optimization, which is about just that.

That one arose out of doing network programming. I was working on Metaplace back then, trying to track bandwidth usage. Metaplace was a user-created MMOs system. We wanted to give players tools to see that they were putting too many items somewhere and causing lag. I created a system that tracked all the network packets sent out, and put graphs up for you to see what's going. That's why the second stanza is all about the metrics system, "metrics march, events arch."

The poem is literally the process of doing that. I was literally using link lists and maps and other structures to store the data. There was a moving average that was sampled per second and everything. So it's actually a very literal poem.

One of the things about writing a poem like that, you can almost see the gears moving, even though there aren't many gears involved. I wanted to have that feeling in it, and that's why it has that sing songy tempo. There's moment where there's a buffer overrun at the end of the poem, so I put an extra syllable in the line on purpose, so it would feel like the rhythm got lost for a second.

Image: Raph Koster.

Programming seems antithetical to poetry. One is about feeling and aesthetics, and the other is a language with very clear rules that is purely utilitarian in its syntax. Is that a fair assumption, or is there some overlap there for you?

I do see some commonalities when working with really formal structures like sonnets. There's a syntax you must obey, and programming is also extraordinarily picky about syntax. It's an element that the two have in common. With poetry, you can set these rules for yourself. With programming you don't have a choice. You can't commit syntactic violations, it won't compile and run, or if it did, it will lead to horrendous bugs. In poetry the syntax is optional. You can break it at any time. Even if you're working in free verse, you give yourself constraints as you write. We find ourselves falling into cadences or using particular rhythms. Thinking about line breaks, any number of examples.

But they do have that sense of structure, and of trying to express something using only that ruleset.

It seems like Sunday Poems did well in terms of sales.

Well, you know, it's poetry. It peaked at number 13 on the American poetry chart, on Kindle. It did that with single digit sales. I guess that's what it means to be a best seller in poetry these days. There's really not much of an audience.

I think next time I should make a game that has the poems in it, and I bet it would be seen by a much larger audience. Why should these things be tied down into traditional media and release methods? Why couldn't commingle them much more? If you were doing the game adaptation of that poem about network optimization, what the heck would that be?