I have a critical game theory thing. It's in the early stages and it's not something I've totally thought through, so it doesn't need poking at weird little exception cases yet, but I thought I would share it in case it sparks some ideas and fires in someone else's mind.
I was thinking today about the term "game poem" and that I don't think it's particularly accurate. Or, rather, nearly every game is a poem. Games, when played, have complex rhythms, beats, structures, moods and rhymes. This is equally true of Polaris, D&D, Monopoly and Super Mario.
What I mean is this. In a poem, we see repeated structures with variable contents and, sometimes, alternations to the structure. This happens at a syllable level (iambs and dactyls, say), inside lines (internal rhyme) between lines (meter, end rhyme) in stanzas (stanza structure) and, in lengthier genres, at even greater extent. Good poetry will often play with our expectations and change up its contents, but doesn't have to (some of it is less or unstructured, some of it clings strongly to form.)
A game, in play, is similar. Some examples:
In Super Mario, you have your very basic beats (jumps, moves, hit from above, hit from below), you have the pattern of the level, you have five (?) different "moods" expressed by level type (brick, underground, underwater, mushroom, castle and maybe one I'm forgetting), you have variations on theme in terms of challenge, you have semi-structured interludes like Star and Fireflower, you have the constant, rhyming castle and fireworks at the end of the level.
In Dungeons and Dragons, you have your basic beats (what do you do? what do I see? check for traps), you have the pattern of map and explore, you have each dungeon as a book, the repeated but never identical process of leveling up, semi-structured interludes like combat, etc. Like with Mario, there's structure and repetition, even though very little is actually identical.
It seems to me like, in a lot of critical game thinking -- at least about RPGs -- we are focused on the rules and structures of the game at a meta-level. We care about the rules, we care about the text. But in talking about games like that, we miss most of the reality of the experience, in which the rules are the superstructure that our play fills, not the thing itself. When you read, D&D, you only read the combat rules once, and you may not understand that combat can form a repeated beat or interlude in play*, rather than just a singular thing-unto-itself.
(* I am thinking particular of a long-running 3e game I played where we had a big fight at the end of every session. If a session passed without a big fight, or if we had a big fight at the beginning of the session, it would throw everyone off, in the same way that you get thrown off when a rhyme structure breaks or when a song skips a beat.)
Of course, not everything in a game repeats. The endgame of My Life With Master only happens once (each time you play.) Character creation is often a one-time deal. And, in a more particular sense, very few things in games repeat absolutely. Rather, we see repeating structures, combining and interpreting and sometimes breaking in interesting (or not interesting) ways. Only a few RPGs (Polaris, say) have direct repetition. Board games have a lot more.
The connection to poetry is not, itself, important, it's just the gateway I had into this line of thought. Rather, I feel like there's a huge world of game structure that we haven't really thought about much or explored.
Anyway, that is what's running through my mind right now. Hopefully some of you find it inspiring. Thoughts?+Vincent Baker +Epidiah Ravachol
who I was babbling about this to earlier.