This essay offers detailed readings of Toby Davidson’s ‘Double Dragon’ (2012) and Connor Weightman’s ‘Garden Pixels’ (2013) as examples of contemporary Australian poems concerned with computer games. Unpacking the computer game allusions in each work, the essay demonstrates how games might supply a rich background for specific poems, both in particular game content, but also in the complexities of the material form of the video game. The readings of each poem take into consideration theoretical perspectives (such as N. Katherine Hayles’s account of transhumanism), as well as insights from game studies (including work on controllers by Bjorn Nansen and Graeme Kirkpatrick) and more traditional literary comparisons (such as works by Franz Kakfa and Philip Salom).
Keywords: Poetry – computer games – transhumanism – Australian Literature – technology – game studies
Video games seem inaccessible to those who don’t play them, like the literary canon of a foreign language. Many see them as nothing more than militaristic wet dreams or playthings of young and old boys: racing cars and shooting aliens and not a whole lot else. (Brendan Keogh ‘On Video Game Criticism’ 2014: n.pag.)
‘This is what the consoles cannot show.
In the event of game over, re-read the instructions’
(Toby Davidson ‘Quartet for the Age of Interruption’ 2012: 51-56)
To date, it appears that few Australian scholars of poetry have explored contemporary poetic allusions to computer games in systematic or detailed ways. Certainly no one within Australian poetry studies has closely examined computer games as technological texts in quite the same manner as, say, Philip Mead’s perspicacious exploration of cinematic technology and the poetry of Kenneth Slessor (2008: 30-86). Given the contemporary cultural significance of computer games and the rigour with which other types of poetic allusions or intertexts have been treated (e.g. Shakespeare, the Bible, classic films, the works of the Symboliste poets) it may be time for such analysis to begin (even if the gaming industry’s nascence is eternally pronounced). For computer games, with their complicated types of interactive textualities and their increasingly discernible impact on Australian poetic practice, seem to lend themselves to rich poetic moments. Poems can cite computer games allusively and briefly (see Motion and Glastonbury below). But they can also set computer games into broader intertextual agendas, questioning and appropriating not only game narratives, but modes of use, histories and materialities (see Weightman and Davidson below).
However, two things should give us pause from the outset. As Brendan Keogh notes above, many people see computer games as a new and inaccessible form or one hardly worth pursuing because of superficial and seemingly infantile content. Furthermore, the sexism and outright misogyny of video game culture (as pointed out by media critics such as Anita Sarkeesian and as exhibited in online campaigns such as #gamergate), mean that one must be wary of claiming anything utopian about the medium as a whole. Indeed, perhaps because of the gender disparities in gaming more generally (and the online verbal harassment of female gamers), there have been only a few Australian poetic references to computer games written by female poets at this point in time. This means that any study of Australian poetry and computer games finds itself working within a heavily gendered and often volatile space.
Yet as generations of gamers age, and as games find themselves part of cultural memory, we are seeing a growing numbers of references to computer games in Australian poetry. For example, James Stuart uses the line, ‘a console, two controllers and one game’ (line 4 and line 7) in his pantoum on consumerism titled ‘Time for a Deal’ (2013: 60). Keri Glastonbury begins ‘Brunswick Mall’ (2012: 17) with the uber-ironic phrase, ‘I was smitten by your pikachu’ (line 1). Saxby Pridmore’s ‘Gameboy’ involves a grandmother who links her grandson’s gameboy to a sense of excess and waste:
The latest Gameboy has two screens
One more than one can use
Or that’s the way it seems
And extra buttons you can choose (lines 1-4)
Derek Motion catches a toilet-graffiti voice claiming to be ‘just really tired of pokemon’ (line 23) in ‘dinosaur jr 07’ (2011: 58). Motion’s electrified poetic nostalgia also includes a quintessential Commodore 64 experience. In the poem ‘becoming a tourist attraction’ the reader is warned that ‘it’s more work than it seems loading shoot em-/ ups from cassette’ (lines 1 and 2). For his part, Jaya Savige offers this circumspect, formally metrical stanza describing childhood gaming in ‘Crisis’ (2011: 33):
Once I was entrusted with a planet
I was a child in a sweltering house.
All the world’s peace was up to me,
Quiet, cross-legged before the mouse. (lines 1-4)
My contention is that such references will become more commonplace in all kinds of Australian poetry. We find them in the lyric formalism of Savige as well as in the sophisticated playfulness of Motion. However, in this paper, I’d like to focus on two longer poems by Connor Weightman (‘garden pixels’ 2013: 38-40) and Toby Davidson (‘Double Dragon’ 2012: 67-68). Both poems take a sustained interest in particular computer games, rather than using computer games as momentary metonyms for, say, a world of constantly shifting virtual images, or realms of facile consumerism. Indeed both of these poems are remarkable for the kind of rich readings that they can sustain. They demonstrate that computer games references and intertextuality can have profound, intricate and emotionally stirring effects (even in works that are not necessarily experimental or conceptual).
Weightman’s ‘garden pixels’
‘in the end you’ll rescue zelda / crinkled body full of colour’ (Weightman 2013)
Connor Weightman’s astonishing and moving poem, ‘garden pixels’ simultaneously sets itself within three worlds: the West Australian capital (‘central perth has these eyes’), the computer game landscape of The Legend of Zelda (‘the digital world of liminal hyrule’), and a body as it is diagnosed with and treated for cancer (‘the body, a moving tide of particles’ (lines 1, 6 and 26). It is a poem of self-mourning, made even more touching by its flatness of affect, its square-eyed, pixellated panoramas, and its constant disassembly and reassembly of the human.
The poem references The Legend of Zelda, a series of games created by renowned Japanese game designer Shigeru Miyamoto for the Nintendo system. Legend of Zelda games usually combine adventure, world exploration, battles and puzzle solving and are known for their gameplay innovations. For instance, the original Legend of the Zelda was the first console title to include a save game function. Miyamoto’s Zelda games are mostly set in the fictional world of Hyrule, which has meadows, dark forests, lakes and caves. The designer’s inspiration for this world came from his boyhood wanderings in the woods near his home in Sonobe, Japan. Zelda games typically have an overworld, some interactive spaces like shops and cities, and the underworld of dungeons. In almost every game the princess Zelda (named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife) gets captured by an evil power and it is the main character Link’s goal to rescue her (Thorpe et al 2013: 1-2).
Weightman offers ten stanzas (or scenes as they are called in the poem) which remind the reader of animated cut scenes in the game itself. This idea of cutting recurs throughout ‘garden pixels’. The scenes cut in and out abruptly. The lines are cut with slashes, echoing the programmers’ code that stands behind a computer game. The cancerous body is itself always in danger of being operated upon and cut away (‘please leave my organs as they are’ is one desperate plea, line 32). The poem, which begins with fairly regular tetrameter in stanzas one and two, lapses into fragments on various occasions including exhausted pairs of rhyming words in the penultimate stanza (e.g. ‘fight & night / ‘red & dead’ […] ‘birds & words’ / ‘cancer & easy answers’[i], lines 45 and 47). All this cutting and splitting applies to Perth’s mined landscape, the urban sprawl of the city, the body made up of cancerous cells, the ‘rods and cones’ (line 24) of vision, the ‘pixels’ of the gameworld and even the ‘particles of a story’ (line 56) in the poem’s final line. The poem’s appeal to the pixellated/cellular unit alongside infinite division could find its precursor in something like Leibniz’s ‘Monadology’ in which simple monads make up all things, so that:
Every portion of matter may be conceived as like a garden full of plants, and like a pond full of fish. But every branch of a plant, every member of an animal, and every drop of the fluids within it is also some such garden or pond’ (1902: 266 emphasis mine)
As noted above, important for this poem are the three realms or frameworks that the poet employs: the city of Perth with its links to mining, commerce, gardens and traffic; the cancer stricken body which is cellular, treated, invaded, divided, and aware of its own mortality; and the game world which is pixellated, artificial, controlled, repetitive and teleological. I think the brilliance of this poem can be seen in the various ways that the three systems interact with one another and transgress borders. Each becomes a lens through which the others can be viewed. This is explicit in the poem’s opening stanza, where the city of Perth is both embodied (it has ‘eyes’, line 1) and gamified (it has ‘mineshafts’ moving between overworlds and underworlds, as well as ‘a digital creep, not yet rendered’, lines 1 and 4). These slippages can also be seen in stanza three, where readers are drawn between the three realms through various similes and comparisons:
iodine fans out like water / or dungeon paths to take / traffic
moving through perth’s arteries / it ends up on glossy paper /
pixels all in place / the _ologist searches / & the gist of it is / each
cell shaded & transmutable / the screen as lighthouse beacon / the
morse-code transmission / in the end you’ll rescue zelda / stich
the story back together (lines 18-23)
Here we have the language of medicine, animation and city planning colliding and competing in beautiful confusion. The way that these discrete discourses burst their banks or colonise one another is striking because it mirrors what happens in a city sprawl, in cancerous cells, and even in the realm of Hyrule itself. As the poet reminds us repeatedly, the digital world of Hyrule is a liminal one (lines 7, 40) where overworlds and underworlds are explored. The protagonist’s name (Link) even testifies to this kind of connectivity (Thorpe et al 2013: 2). Furthermore, the constant sense of trespass and rupture is uncanny precisely because such boundary crossing is the ultimate fear for any self enclosed system. We are scared when the monster leaves the screen. We are scared when the city creeps out of its bounds or rises from the earth. We are scared by cancer drugs that invade the body (the ‘cis-platinum’ that ‘flattens everything’, line 37). So in some ways the poem is driven onwards by the constant breaches of those self-contained feedback loops that make up the body, the city and the video game.
Yet the complicated tragedy of Weightman’s poem occurs not only because these three grids are overlayed and constantly interpenetrating one another, but also because there is also a real sense that they cannot interact in useful or meaningful ways at all. You cannot use a save file on your body. You cannot defeat your cancer by importing it into an artificially animated landscape. Rescuing the princess actually has nothing to do with a Perth traffic jam or chemotherapy treatment. The certain teleology of a video game with its save points and ‘puzzles all / programmed solvable’ (line 41) won’t translate into bodies or cities that are predictable, where the outcomes can be known in advance. Thus, the ‘teleological gift made real’ (line 27) is ultimately a false hope. Later the poet also speaks about ‘finding it hard to hold the controller / fist weighed in by an iv line’ (lines 46-47), exemplifying the disjunction between the bodily and virtual worlds of the poem.
Thus the poem’s refrain, ‘in the end you will rescue zelda’ (lines 6, 22, 32-33, 41-42, 51), has an ambivalent resonance. On the one hand it becomes a weary and melancholy sigh. Saving the princess is the formulaic goal for every Zelda game. Whilst this represents something achievable, stable and secure, alongside those frameworks of the cancerous body and the consumerist city, it appears feeble and trivial, a mere distraction. On the other hand, such a distraction places Weightman’s poem within a genre of personal therapeutic game writing. For example, Five out of Ten: 1 New Horizons, contains a piece by Alan Williamson where his mastery of the game Ecco the Dolphin is contrasted with his parents’ divorce (‘While I never understood the breakdown of my parents’ relationship, I took solace in understanding this one game’, 2012). In the same issue Lana Polansky uses the surreal and impossible paternal expectations of ‘The King of All Cosmos’ in the game Katamari Damacy to reflect on a ‘cycle of abuse’ that involved her father’s ‘anger binges’ and violence (2012). Brendan Keogh writes about his own struggles with an eating disorder, which coincided with his deliberate non-feeding of his character in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas:
But when your own psyche is projected outwards, rendered into pixels on a television set linked to you via the umbilical cord of the PlayStation 2 controller, you can’t ignore it. CJ is too skinny. CJ is eating too little and exercising too much. CJ, my CJ, is anorexic. (2012)
Thus, the literature of computer game consolation provides a second background to Weightman’s refrain. Even though computer game worlds are not ‘real,’ they still offer comfort to those in distress, a means of working through difficult issues. Within this tradition, ‘In the end you’ll rescue zelda’ perhaps takes on a noble kind of pathos, helping the persona to bear his uncertain situation. The refrain also highlights the poem’s constant play on various meanings of the term ‘save’: the saved princess, the saved game, the soteriological burden of saving the patient who has cancer.
One can see, then, that the poem’s computer game allusions are anything but facile or simplistic. Furthermore, Weightman’s poem, in the tragic complexity of its depiction of colliding yet somehow non-overlapping worlds, seems to be a prime example of the very questions about embodiment that N. Katherine Hayles poses in her seminal work How We Became Posthuman (1999). Within her book, Hayles exhibits a certain level of disquiet at the ways that the twentieth century cybernetic revolution figured the human subject as only ‘a set of informational processes’ (4). She remarks:
Because information had lost its body, this construction implied that embodiment is no longer essential to human being. Embodiment has been systematically downplayed or erased in the cybernetic construction of the posthuman in ways that have not occurred in other critiques of the liberal humanist subject. (4)
Hayles’s attempt to recuperate the body and ideas of embodiment within the discourse of posthumanism or cybernetics is admirable and difficult. And Weightman’s poem is a noteworthy addition to this project precisely because it figures embodiment as complex and enmeshed in contemporary technological discourses. But ‘garden pixels’ does so without glorying in ironic posthuman play (on the one hand) or retreating to a more straightforward lyricism (on the other). In fact Weightman’s poem uses The Legend of Zelda in a very different way to the unbridled posthuman conceptualism that one sees in, say, Chris Sylvester’s Grid (2011) or Total Walkthrough (2011)[ii]. Sylvester’s books of conceptual poetry appropriate the text of amateur user-generated walkthroughs of Zelda games, rearranging their lines by game-map location (Grid) or alphabetical order (Total Walkthrough). The resulting volumes become intriguing assemblages which interrogate received ideas about authorial integrity and purpose, certain techniques of close reading, and the limits of the definition of ‘poetry’.
Weightman’s poem, by way of contrast, constantly reminds the reader of bodies and emotions, even as it ‘sees’ things through pixellated, commercial or cellular filters. This complex figuration of the body is especially evident in those moving lines in the penultimate stanza that I quoted above: ‘finding it hard to hold the controller / fist weighed in by an iv / line’ (lines 46-47). By focusing on the controller at this point, the poem focuses in on a site which places the total immersion of the game experience into question. As games scholar Graeme Kirkpatrick points out, the video game controller works best when it goes unnoticed. ‘The controller’s role […] is to keep the player physically attached to the game while remaining concealed from his or her attention’ (2009: 136). Thus, whenever a player is called upon to ‘look again at the controller’ there may be a ‘moment of alienation’ (2009: 135). For Kirkpatrick this exposes and ruptures what occurs in normal gameplay, where:
…what is being repressed is the controller itself and with it the world of objects, including our own bodies. They are being excluded from our conscious attention and we are distracted by the illusion that is the “game” and the range of feeling responses it excites. (2009: 137 emphasis mine)
Bjorn Nansen attempts to deal with the body-controller relationship slightly differently, by labelling the entire nexus as ‘the interface’ or ‘the seam’ (which he describes as ‘the material encounter between gamer and game’, 2009: 2)[iii]. Nansen (following organisational theorist Robert Cooper) emphasises the seam’s ‘double function’: ‘while the seam stitches together, it also undoes […] Thus the controller joins us to game yet remains an unstable encounter that can easily come undone’ (2009: 3). This dual purpose explanation seems almost post-structural or Derridean in shape[iv]. The very site of connection/total immersion is also the site of disconnection/distraction. Therefore when Weightman’s poem casts the reader’s gaze back onto the controller, we are presented with a moment in which ‘the seam’ is shown in all its complicated glory. It is a site of transhuman possibilities and limitations. For not only is there one ‘seam’ between the human body and the computer controller, but there is a second ‘seam’ between the human body and medical equipment (‘fist weighed in by an iv / line’, lines 46-47). This prosthetic dimension makes the moment even more poignant, as the persona loses control (of the game, of the body), teetering on the edge of what it means to be human.
Toby Davidson’s ‘Double Dragon’
‘Double Dragon’ takes its title from a 1987 beat-em-up side-scrolling arcade computer game created by Yoshihisa Kishimoto, who had designed an earlier successful game called Kunio-Kun in which a high schooler brawled in the streets. Double Dragon was created as follow up to Kunio Kun, including a second player so that the arcade machine could make twice the revenue. The game was designed to mimic the idea of American gang culture, mixing this with the kinds of fighting seen in Kung Fu films (for example, Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon of which Kishimoto was a fan). In the game’s opening animation a gang of thugs kidnaps the main character’s girlfriend, Marian. To get her back the main character (Billy Lee) teams up with his twin brother (Jimmy Lee) and the pair fight their way through swarms of Black Warrior gang members. The game was revolutionary not only because it was a continuous sidescroller (and thus highly immersive) but also because it introduced a certain game mechanic whereby a player could use weapons dropped by the computer controlled enemies.
Double Dragon was also noteworthy because of its large number of spin-offs (Davidson’s poem notes point out that the game ‘spawned several sequels,’ 79). These included Double Dragon Two (referenced in Davidson’s poem), Double Dragon Three, versions of Double Dragon for various consoles and systems, a Double Dragon animated cartoon series and a Double Dragon Movie that appeared in 1994 and which as recently as 2008 made Time Magazine’s ‘Top 10 Worst Video Game Movies’ list. Currently there are two versions of the game in the iTunes app store.
Davidson’s ‘Double Dragon’ creates its nostalgic tone by deploying a host of vernacular details in the poem’s first half, setting the scene within Australian childhood or adolescence in the 1980s. The reader hears about ‘boardshorted kids in a clamour of salt’, ‘twennies’, ‘tuck shop offerings’, ‘dead arms’, ‘lollies’, and the ‘clinging clear straps’ of the shop doorway (lines 2, 3, 4, 17, and 22). Thus the arcade machine becomes a consecrated object, receiving a certain aura by appearing alongside those typically ‘Australian’ childhood moments. This kind of nostalgia for the arcade machine is not new, but it does seem to be particularly concentrated in contemporary Australian culture as generations who grew up with game machines now begin to share their experiences. For example, a 2013 episode of the ABC series GoodGame saw the presenters Steven O’Donnell and Stephanie Bendicksen visiting a vintage game store in Japan. As Bendickson played one arcade machine, O’Donnell exclaimed, ‘This place… just, like, looking at these consoles, and… and the games and even Double Dragon over there just, like, floods nostalgia memories into my brain’ (2013). In the same year GoodGame also ran a television special on video gaming across the decades, which singled out the 1980s arcade machine with this description:
It was an era of high stakes, to say the least. ‘Perma-death’ was the norm, with home games matching the coin-guzzling fury of the arcades.
Ah yes, the arcades. They were dank, dark dungeons of delinquent deviants. But they also had the best gaming hardware, and the newest. When a new cabinet arrived, gamers would gawk like apes meeting a monolith.
The use of ‘ah yes’ and the hackneyed alliteration and similes sets this up as self aware nostalgia. In the same segment Mark Serrels, an editor of the video game website Kokatu, recreates the mystical moment where an arcade machine is first observed: ‘There’s that moment of walking into a room and seeing something [the arcade machine] that will just dazzle you for the first time’ (2013).
This nostalgia resonates strongly with the opening line of Davidson’s poem: ‘At Airlie Beach, Queensland, I first beheld it’ (line 1). The sense of awe is akin to something like John Keats’ ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ (‘Like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific’, lines 11-12) and this excitement comes to rest on the existential declaration at the end of the stanza: ‘This was the first Double Dragon’ (line 5). Davidson’s profound knowledge of Mysticism may be worth mentioning here (his first academic monograph was a study of Christian Mysticism and Australian poetry), giving another perspective on the overt sacralisation that occurs in this opening (2013). What we have here, then, is less poetry of speed or unfettered fluidity (those tropes that one might expect when considering computer games), but rather the nostalgic sanctification of the arcade machine alongside a host of typically Australian vernacular experiences.
But this is not to say that the poem eschews all of the kinds of things that we might expect from computer game poems. Subjectivity, for example, is explored in a number of ways[v]. For instance, the first person slips to the second person from stanza one to two. This is the experience of an early video game like Double Dragon, where the controlled character is a crude version of ‘you’. Moreover the poem includes parenthesised slippages that invert aphorisms on gaming, subjectivity and violence. These satirise the difficulty of formulating media-panic induced critiques of computer games, but they also decentre personhood by swapping subjects and their objects: ‘(games made people violent, violence game people made)’ and ‘(violence games of people made)’ (lines 14 and 49).
Personhood and game mechanics also intertwine when one considers the game world’s limits and freedoms. A computer game facilitates all kinds of ‘free’ behaviour and yet it contains restrictions as a piece of programmed simulation which corrals a player into various situations. So Davidson’s poem swings between the joyous freedom of the computer game and an acknowledgement of the boundaries a computer game sets up. Note for example, the ambivalence of the second stanza:
The first time—three buttons, and eight way
joystick!—you could beat red or blue
the Machine Gun man who stole your girl
as you hid in a garage with your martial twin. (lines 5-8)
Here the poet moves between ecstatically celebrating what can be done (e.g. using an expanded omni-directional controller, beating up the bad guy) and outlining those limitations placed upon gaming activity (e.g. the number of controller buttons or the act of hiding in a garage). Later in the poem the poet recalls marvelling at the mechanics of Double Dragon Two where a player could hang in the air from a gimp, helicopter kick through a combine harvester or jump moving walls ‘like it was legalised’ (line 31). All this, however, is framed by the recurring image of two coins, which become an ultimate limit to the game world.
Game Laws and Reflexivity
Perhaps the strangest and most outrageous take on freedom is exemplified by the game’s audacious moment of self-reflexivity. In stanza four Davidson describes an urban legend ‘where some shyster kid / had climbed the balcony, taken the gun / [and] become his own nemesis’ (lines 19-22). Breaking the set limits of a game and inverting the game paradigm is part of the self-reflexivity that N. Katherine Hayles sees in cybernetic literature and thinking. ‘Reflexivity’ as Hayles explains in How We Became Posthuman, ‘has subversive effects because it confuses and entangles the boundaries we impose on the world in order to make sense of that world (8-9)’. Moreover, as video game scholar Epsen Aarseth argues, this kind of ‘transgressive play’ explodes the notion of the ‘ideal’ or ‘implied player’ (which is itself an appropriation of Wolfgang Iser’s ‘implied reader’) (2007: 130). Aarseth opens his paper by quoting Gadamer on game playing: ‘…the game masters the players […] The real subject of the game […] is not the players but the game itself’ (130). Or as Davidson’s shuffled sentence remind us, ‘games of people make’. Yet for Aaresth, moments of player transgression actually allow glimpses of freedom from ‘the prison-house of regulated play’ (133). Examples of these transgressive moments include killing a gamer designer’s supposedly immortal avatar in Ultima Online or ‘warthog’ jumping in Halo to reach previously inaccessible sections of the game landscape (132). Thus, when a game player manages to achieve something that appears to be outside the game’s norms, Aarseth sees this kind of moment as ‘a symbolic gesture of rebellion against the tyranny of the game’ (132). Indeed, such incidents refigure game subjectivity from the instant of exception rather than the rule of set laws:
These marginal events and occurrences, these wondrous acts of transgression, are absolutely vital because they give us hope, true or false; they remind us that it is possible to regain control, however briefly, to dominate that which dominates us so completely. (133)
Therefore, when Davidson’s poem valorises the shyster kid who jumps on the balcony at the ‘wrong’ moment, stealing the Machine Gun Man’s weapon, it taps into this complex refiguring of game-subjectivity through a ludic act of transgression.
In fact, to turn to a more traditional literary precursor, Davidson’s urban legend can also be read as a strange inversion of Kafka’s parable ‘Before the Law.’ In Kafka’s famous story a man from the country waits patiently for entry to ‘the law’ but is told by the door-keeper he cannot enter at the present time. The door-keeper points out his own immense power and strength and seems to warn against unauthorised entry. So the man from the country waits and entreats the door-keeper, spending his entire life bribing, cajoling and working to be allowed inside the law. Finally, as he is dying, the man from the country asks the door-keeper one last question:
'[...] how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?’ The door-keeper perceives that the man is at the end of his strength and his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear: ‘No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.' (2008: 186-187)
Kakfa’s parable concerns limbo and stasis, the spectacular impotence of an individual before the law. Derrida reads Kafka’s work as relating a ‘conflict without encounter between law and singularity’ or demonstrating ‘the paradox or enigma of being-before-the-law’ (1992: 187). However Davidson’s urban legend depicts the opposite of this. Instead of patience, paradox and failure there is a dynamic activity: climbing the balcony and claiming the gun in defiance of the game’s pre-programmed ‘laws’ of level design. This transgression, involving the interchangeability of protagonist and antagonist, is precisely what does not occur in Kafka’s story. Thus, if Kafka’s piece shows ineffective patience ‘before the law’, Double Dragon’s scene operates ‘outside the law’. The scene in Double Dragon is an instinctual, violent, enigmatic action that somehow demonstrates both that there is no law (good and evil are reversible, the game mechanics are arbitrary) and that the law is breakable (the game is all about vigilantism, the level design is not watertight).
It should be obvious by now that Davidson’s computer game references are anything but disengaged or superficial. In fact, the richness of ‘Double Dragon’ as a poem depends upon its sources, for example, the material form of the arcade machine during a specific time period, or the particular content and modes of play within the video game itself. Furthermore, the poem’s brilliant preoccupation with doubling also stems from the world of computer games. The game’s title, of course, is Double Dragon. It is a two-player game in which the characters are twins. In the poem’s epigraph and in stanza three we are reminded that it costs 40 cents to play (made up of two 20 cent pieces). Each twenty cent piece has two sides. Therefore the pictures on each side (the queen and a platypus respectively) are also doubled. The game’s world is itself a doubling or version ‘of Eighties / gang flicks’. What’s more, the game as a commercial product, as mentioned earlier, keeps doubling itself with spin-offs like Double Dragon two (and three). This is like characters in the game, those enemies who keep replicating and reincarnating. ‘What happens / when you slay the machine?’ asks the Reverend in stanza five; ‘they just make another one’ is the young persona’s response (lines 23-25).
The notion of reincarnation frames the poem from the opening epigraph which is taken from ‘Like a Race’, the third section of Salom’s 1993 poem ‘Living in a Time-zone.’ Davidson quotes (and re-lineates) some of the final lines of ‘Like a Race’: ‘Reincarnation’s 40 cents too manic / to be tragic, too thin to be alive’ (lines 27-29). Naturally, reincarnation (becoming flesh again) looks strange in the world of the pixellated game. Salom’s own poem knows this, and offers a playfully ironic account of the computer game world from the perspective of a cantankerous baby boomer. The second section of Salom’s poem (‘Hands’) hearkens back to the days of billiards, table soccer and pinball (all physically tangible and thus inherently more trustworthy[vi]), contrasting these with what he sees as the inhuman, masturbatory, and adolescent world of the arcade game, exemplified by his descriptions of Double Dragon in ‘Like a Race.’ ‘Enter the Double Dragon’, he writes, ‘It’s Chinese Opera / without the backbone’ (lines 1-2). Salom’s poem is filled with similar comic criticisms of the game and its players (‘The singing’s / excruciating, the hero’s too / little’) (lines 14-16). Section three ends with, ‘Wait till they learn to drive’ (line 30).
Thus, when Davidson frames his poem with this epigraph from Salom he is offering ‘Double Dragon’ as a double or version of Salom’s earlier piece. Davidson’s poem, at 61 lines, is just over double the length of Salom’s ‘Like a Race’ (which is 30 lines long). Davidson’s poem, as we have seen, also differs markedly in tenor from Salom’s derision, recuperating the arcade machine as an object of veneration and its martial arts title as a means of exploring the richness of a game-playing self.
A complicated doubling also occurs ‘Double Dragon’s last stanza. Here we have the poet’s ‘private forty cents of coda’ in Geelong hospital as the Victorian bushfires lead to an electrical blackout. In this recursion, the poet’s bizarre experience in hospital becomes yet another ‘version’ of Double Dragon. The Slavic nurse’s name is Dragan, and a strange call and response system in the darkness replaces the usual electronic alert button. The nurse’s name is doubled to ‘Dragan Dragan’ as is the response (‘Okay Okay’) (lines 55 and 57). Thus the poem ends in the weird darkness of the ward, where the poet ‘passes’ (or one could say ‘doubles’) for two shallow coins (line 58). This ending is an example of N. Katherine Hayles’ definition of reflexivity as ‘the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates (1999: 8). This reflexivity doesn’t just concern the closed world of the game, but also ontological, monetary and even poetic ‘worlds’, inverting relationships of creation and control.
Lastly, one could cheekily advance the claim that the nostalgia of this poem can itself be read as an act of doubling. That is, one can conceptualise nostalgia precisely as a replication or recreation of a remembered time (as Jamieson points out, ‘we seem condemned to seek the historical past… which forever remains out of reach’ 1998: 10). One way of thinking about how nostalgia works then, is to consider the way that nostalgia attempts to double or replicate an inaccessibly originary or ‘primal’ moment before bringing this double to mind as a memory, reverie, or description. And so what Davidson’s poem does is to present this double in poetic form. This is the paradox of nostalgia: it is fundamentally driven by a desire for authenticity, but it works in a mode marked by replication.
It is my hope that this essay marks a modest beginning for the study of computer games and Australian poetry. These poems by Weightman and Davidson are rich and multilayered precisely because of their intertextual references to the games, The Legend of Zelda and Double Dragon, and thus it is obvious that exploring their connections to these computer games is a vital part of ‘reading’ them as complex artistic works. Up to this point, the lack of recognition of computer games testifies both to a critical reluctance to give games artistic credence and a critical unfamiliarity with games as citable texts. I am optimistic, however, that as more and more poems that reference computer games continue to be written and published, more work on them might be attempted, and indeed that this essay might be a ‘spawn point’ for future studies in the area.
[i] Fight Night (an Electronic Arts video game series) and Red Dead Revolver (a 2004 video game) seem to hover behind these words.
[ii] I am thankful to Professor Brian Reed for pointing this out to me.
[iii] This type of transhuman space is an example of something which N. Katherine Hayles returns to again and again in her work.
[iv] See, for example, Derrida’s treatment of ‘pharmakon’ in Plato’s Phaedrus as both ‘medicine’ and ‘poison’ (1981: 61-172).
[v] A consideration of subjectivity and personhood has been evident in the secondary literature on computer games and virtual worlds. For notable examples see Turkle (2005), De Mul (2005), and Tronstad (2008).
[vi] As Veli-Matti Karhulahti puts it in an article titled ‘A Kinesthetic Theory of Videogames: Time-Critical Challenge and Aporetic Rhematic’, ‘table hockey is an artefact, Face Off! [the 1989 Ice Hockey video game by Mindstar] is a code’ (2013).
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