Can poetry act as a form of journalism?
On Election Day, The New York Times published a series of election themed poems in the Op-Ed section. Even Stephen Colbert picked up on this oddity, making fun of the newspaper on his show this week.
Even if these poems aren't journalistic in themselves, The New York Times seems to be suggesting that other media forms and genres might usefully complement traditional journalism.
Or, restated in terms of our own project: whether or not games can function journalistically, they still might have a useful role in the larger news media "experience."
One way to view these poems is as an attempt to recast otherwise exhausted news content (e.g. this year's election) in a new light. Introducing the poems, the New York Times succinctly writes: "What's left to say after this seemingly endless campaign? The Op-Ed editors asked five poets to answer that question."
More cynically, we might accept this role of poems (and by extension, games) as a way of feeding the 24/7 news cycle addiction. Writing about journalist fatigue in The New Republic, Julia Ioffe quotes The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza remarking: "What the hell do we write about? What are the interesting stories left to cover in this election? There are a lot of people scratching their heads trying to find a new angle at the end."
In this view, games might not even have to be so journalistic. Rather, it might be precisely their unique, more non-traditional qualities that make games valuable to the business of selling news. Or, even if games might somehow be less "desirable" than traditional forms of journalism, they might still be useful when a news outlet wants to explore all possible angles of a certain story.
Another way to view these poems is as the written equivalent of editorial cartoons. Like editorial cartoons, these poems don't so much "report" new information as they do depict news events in a way that might help us to rethink or better understand those events. Tellingly, the poems are even accompanied by cute city and election themed drawings.
Yet unlike editorial cartoons, these poems don't appear to be as geared towards satire. They certainly employ some humor (see "The Polling Place"), but their primary contribution seems to be the way they paint the broader revelations that can be found in the specific: the emotional resonances of the campaign trail, the universality of the voting experience, the absurdities of democracy, the character of hope.
One poem, "Election Day," explicitly claims this very purpose:
She will sit and stare at charts on CNN.
(But aren't we redeemed by what they cannot show?
The struggle in each restless heart to know
The terms on which the nation's fate depends.)
Another poem, "In the Present and Probable Future," seems to legitimize itself by questioning the limitations of news-like pursuits: "What does it mean to have a point of view? What does it mean / to have a notable achievement? To succeed in representing the nuances / of a determinate activity?"
The medium of the poem is a useful hook for us, because the game-poem relationship has been somewhat established. I Wish I Were the Moon, for example, is a short poetic game that uses interactive audio-visuals and hidden endings in an attempt to speak to the human condition (as opposed to any specific truth or piece of information). In fact, the game is even inspired by writer and storyteller Italo Calvino.
What would a more journalistic game-poem look like?
One existing example that immediately comes to mind is Gonzalo Frasca's Madrid, a simple flashgame in which the player lights candles to memorialize the 2004 train bombings in Spain. Rather than tell us about the bombings, Madrid tries to get us to empathize with the victims.
Miguel Sicart, in his paper "Newsgames: Theory and Design," argues that Madrid is deserving of the newsgame label precisely because it attempts to "serve rather than steer." That is to say, Madrid presents "a conceptual interpretation of an event that can intervene, and potentially enhance the public debate, without steering the argumentation."
In short, the interactive, audiovisual nature of the game-poem might be uniquely suited to conveying the so-called spirit of the times.
Reflecting on more recent events, I can't help but notice how the news media has struggled to adequately capture all the emotions surrounding Barack Obama's historic election. How can we comprehend the gravity of a moment that we happen to be living in? The interviews, documentaries, photographs, and video footage certainly help. We might also imagine a game that follows the civil rights movement up to the present day, or a game depicting the spontaneous street celebrations and widespread joy that swept American cities on Tuesday night, or even a game about how Obama might be destined to disappoint expectations.
Just this week, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen ended his post-election piece "Perfecting the Union" by citing a short poem, to powerful effect:
Rosa Parks sat in 1955. Martin Luther King walked in 1963. Barack Obama ran in 2008. That our children might fly.
Perhaps one day in the future, a New York Times columnist will accent their point with a short game. Stranger things have happened.
Check out this New York Times election day photo commentary by Bill Cunningham, complete with voiceover commentary.