Interview – Jason Nelson

On E-Lit, Games, & Fuzzy Boundaries

Jason Nelson creates interactive digital art and poetry and prose wonderments. He currently lives in Australia and is an academic at Griffith University in the Gold Coast, although he was born on the stormy farm filled plains of Oklahoma. You can play with his digital creatures here and here.


Part One: Electronic Literature

[You can read Jason’s wonderful, interactive version of his interview here ]

FPS: Your work has been embraced fully by the electronic literature crowd, specifically the Electronic Literature Organization. It seems as though the field of electronic literature is a rather large umbrella, encompassing many different instances of digital arts practice. Your website states that you work in net art and digital poetry. And then of course you have a work like “game, game, game, and again again.” Can you speak to the distinctions between literature, poetry, and games? How might these distinctions, often made in the name of disciplinary autonomy, inform your digital arts practice?

Nelson: It’s a strange thing, disciplinary lines, these institutional taxonomies. There is this heavy driven, fund wielding hammer that whap, whap, whaps us into following some approved past, some discussed and re-discussed and re-re-un-challenged arts/literature/games discourse. I get it. We humans evolved from placing objects and fears and food into categories, eat and don’t, flee and pet, screw and secretly screw. So here now, many thousands of years of progress-like activities later, we still feel that need to chunk creations into mason jars. Frankly (and you’ll find most creative creators will overtly or quietly agree), it’s all pretty damn silly. Having said that, I am as guilty or more than anyone else, I’ve done my share of empire/field building.

Maybe I should explain.

I began my working life, as a geographer and then a city planner. I jumped between half-jobs never being satisfied with the paperwork and policy prayers required by city governments. I’d been writing what I called poetry, but what others called experimental writing. And as my planning jobs had involved playing with GIS and ARCINFO, and I’d always toyed with programming and software on my self-built computers, I began merging my interest in tech play and word breaking.

Note: I did this knowing nothing about Electronic Literature, Digital Poetry or anything of the sort. The field was charging along by this time mind you, being reviewed in the NYT and the ELO was having all sorts of fancy fun.  But I was creating from a vague knowledge of various fields and interests, combining them to fit some nagging urge/desire/threat in the back of my brain. There was am alarmingly addictive freedom in creating whatever the hell I wanted to create, a digital naivety born from wanting to birth interactive textual creatures.

So do these fields inform my creations. I would be a creepy liar, watching neighbors through a spy glass, monitoring their movements for alien tendencies, if I said they didn’t influence me now. It’s hard to read a cruelly critical or blushingly glowing review/article/discussion of your work without it finding a home in the head grey. And the lure of free trips and an audience and good friends and a community also steer my work in certain directions. I am human and I need to be loved, just like anybody else does as the much hated/loved Morrissey once crooned.

But I still, I like to think at the core of my work is just a creator, a maverick without clear borders. Indeed I had always thought the grand agreement between the internet and its users, was that all these disciplinary lines would be crossed and broken, partially dissolved. We were supposed to enter some glorious age of creative wonderments, of creative play being the primary driver of net-based expression.  And while that has happened some, I’m still amazed at how these disciplinary lines control our fates and futures.

Half-coherent sermon over.

3rd Generation

FPS: Katherine Hayles has marked a rupture in the field of electronic literature, declaring a break between first-generation and second-generation works, with the break coming around 1995. It could be stated that the earlier works focused more on written textuality, while the second-generation took advantage of technological progress to include more audio-visual elements. How do you see this rupture as impacting the institutional foothold of the field of electronic literature? Has electronic literature, as diverse as that field is, found a proper home in academia?

Nelson: So, let’s pretend I didn’t slam the entire notion of contemporary academia in the previous question. I live here. So I’ll discuss my surroundings.

I’ve always seen myself as a third generation creator in this field. And what seems to mostly define our practice, aside from the obvious changes in technology and software, is our origin stories. I think the third generation e-lit writers often came from other fields, were largely and initially outsiders, writers/artists who created things and somehow were pulled into the ELO fold. And curiously this third generation is dominated by poetry/poetry-like writers.

Before I explain this third generation, let me address Kate’s comment (one others have echoed numerous times).  She is exactly right, but her’s and others’ notion is incredibly problematic. Because tech and the abilities and failings of that tech drive so much of what we create, we will always be defined, to some extent, by the possibilities offered by the software/code and devices/hardware we create with and for.  So, really, are we doomed to be continually defined by changes outside our control?

Historically, other art/writing/music/theory movements were defined not so much by technologic advancements, but by themes and politics and methods and styles. Are we to be defined by Flash versus JavaScript, Tablets versus Laptops, mobile versus installation?  Sure these tech changes offer new tools and toys (and eliminate others), but forever learning new tools either makes for a field filled with a series of experiments, or one littered with ex-creators unable to make the next technologic leap.

Going back to the third generation.  I think the initial promise of the internet and its anything goes mantra, from the late 90s and early 00s, spurred many creatives to exploring the intersection of art and text and tech. We created outside institutions and/or fields.  As to why we tended to be poets, I just feel poetry offered more room to play with form and content. It is easier for a poet to embrace non-linear and multi-media methods and texts. And we were more comfortable with creating shorter works, moving away from the lengthy CD based tomes of hypertext. Experimentation with language and the acceptance that the idea of text extends to more than just words, also spurred this third generation of digital poets.

So, then what is the 4th generation? We are seeing the first few crops of academically trained digital creators. Their work is polished and pretty. I sometimes cringe at the Ad-for-Apple appearance and super functionality and yet marvel at the craft and thought. Dare I say when one of these writers lets go of their polish, we might just see the first true masterpiece of E-Lit.

Oh crap, I forgot to answer the question. Are we accepted in academia?  Yes and no and yes and no. A few years ago, I was the finalist for a position in the English Department at the U of Wisconsin. They had thrown the net widely and it was between me, a digital poet, and a theorist writing about digital bits. I was excited, as they are one of the top English departments and creative writing programs in the world. In the end, the vote was 3-4, I lost the job. And evidently it was the creative writers who voted against me.

What that means is, the study of Electronic Literature, digital poetry, art-games etc….is growing fast and massively in academia. BUT, the practice of creating these works is lagging behind, and is often actively derided or disdained.  So universities might likely hire someone who writes about my work, but won’t consider hiring the actual creator. Hmmmm.

Play, Play, Play

FPS: Your poetry overtly contains ludic elements. Is this an advantage of the digital, or is all poetry inherently ludic? Why do you choose to use a ludic format to express your ideas/poetry?

Nelson: It’s been said by others, more revered than I, that play is critical to human anything/everything. Play invites curiosity and wonder. When you play you inhabit the experience, it reaches some deep synapses in your brain. I want the player/reader to live, however briefly, within the experience of my digital poems/artworks/games/creatures.

And while I feel the best poetry involves play with language and form, either darkly or fun…um…ly, funly, some contemporary print poetry is driven by tradition and craft, a dissection of poetic principles, the display of mastery and the inclusion of trendy notes and references. Instead, play is about error, it’s about breaking language and code, it’s about unexpected and unintentional outcomes and responses.  I am using “and” far too often here.

Additionally, I was raised on games, was never without a gaming console. Interfaces are a language and a grammar and the game engine, platform or shooter and on, is one my and all following generations deeply love and understand. Admittedly,  that does limit my audience somewhat. Older readers can struggle to even navigate through my work, however easy I try to make the interfaces or game play. In fact, nearly all of my works include arrows, a reference to the compromise between providing easy to use functionality and requiring the reader to play.


FPS: Joseph Tabbi argues that literature does something digital art and games do not. That is to say, literature always interrogates the constraints of language, is always “writing under constraint.” Your work, while always ludic in some way, contains a large amount of written text. How do you see the intersections between a certain form of “literary” writing and code? What are some of the unique limitations or constraints that come about in your digital arts practice?

Nelson: Sadly, many scholars limit the notion of texts to words. If someone suggested they could write a poem in sign language, you would, of course, immediately agree. Similarly I see the notion of text in digital poetry as extending to everything within the work, the interface and images, the sounds and movement, the words and interactivity. Sure, words still might be central to the poetic play snaking through my creations, but those words are attached to a larger grammar of media and code.

Up to this point, many writers have simply ported their print writing into an interface and complimented those words with soundtracks or background images. Or some writers program text(word) generators which ultimately spit out a print ready product. I prefer the work to only exist within its electric world, and I attempt to write with all the components.

This notion of text as everything is, I realize, incredibly problematic, nearly impossible to cleanly describe or teach. And yet it is the unclean, messy, and ill-fitting nature that charms.

As for the limitations. They seem to be largely self-induced. The only limitations I’ve encountered are the product of my poor coding skills or lack of cash. Given a team of coders and some cash, I shudder at all the glorious creatures I could send forth into the world.  So, I can’t disagree with Joe more. He’s a marvelously smart fella and a generous thinker and mentor. But anything I could imagine others would call a limitation, in literary, artistic or technical terms, is an opportunity for play and exploration. Given the fast evolving nature of tech and the relatively small numbers of artists and writers working with that tech, we’ve barely begun to explore the possibilities, and any supposed limitations are simply changes in grammar and translation (brain to tech to text).

Part Two: Games: Tools

FPS: What’s your take on Twine and its recent success? That success seems, in part, to stem from the accessibility of the Twine platform. Is there something similar for the more graphic games, such as “game, game, game and game again.” (other than Flash)?

Nelson: One of the barriers to writers/artists exploring the creation of e-lit/art-games/net-art/d-poetry is the lack of coding/software skills. They either perceive it to be too hard for a creative brain, or don’t have the time or resources to learn the tools and methods. So, software like Twine, much like Eastgate’s early hypertext tools, provides writers/artists with an easy (easier) entry point (as you’ve noted).  However, if you agree that interface and media etc are critical texts within digital works, then Twine would, inherently, limit the literature being created.

So, I think Twine is a great starting point for writers, and it certainly has generated an interesting community who play within its constraints. Ultimately though, I would want to break Twine, make it do things it wouldn’t feel comfortable doing. Yikes, that sounded creepy.

Ah yes, Flash. Sniff. Sniff. It’s like losing a beloved pet. The warm snout of a visual and coding environment, deep with furry layers, and soulful interactive eyes, I am going to miss Flash (while secretly holding out hope it may not yet, be dead).  So now, those of us addicted to using Flash, are searching for alternatives and rethinking how and where we create. This isn’t easy, mind you. Walk into a painter’s studio, break all their brushes, smash their canvasses and pour their paint down an environmentally responsible drain. Then tell them to create with forks and tanning fluid. Ok…that doesn’t exactly fit the situation, but you get the idea.

So, what are the alternatives? There are some visual programming playlands like GameSalad or GameMaker. There will always be hard-code engines, built in javascript or html5 or xcode etc. And occasionally I’ll find a soon-to-be abandoned project on Github, that once held the promise of being a semi-WYSIWYG alternative to Flash.  Unity is quickly becoming an engine of choice for those with 3-D leanings.  I’m currently dabbling with all of the above, like shopping for a new pet by borrowing dogs from the shelter for the weekend.  Perhaps I should get a cat.

Fuzzy Boundaries

FPS: A number of Kickstarter projects have embraced the return to written dialogue: is there something to be said about the relative resurgence of text in gaming? Does this speak to the fuzzy boundaries between literature and games? On a similar note, are there any recent mainstream games that have influenced your work?

Nelson: If you agree all elements of a work are texts, you would embrace the use of various media and interactivity in poetry just as you’d encourage more words within a game environment.  It’s the concept of “fuzzy boundaries” that strikes me as most interesting. Why should there be any boundaries?  There has always been a strong desire/interest for games with depth. Typically that depth comes across in the graphics and responsiveness of the game world. But increasingly people are yearning for a poetic or narrative depth, and the addition of words or visual poetry is one way of extending a game’s textual depth.

The most pressing boundary between games and literature seems to be an economic one. The larger scale games I’d love to develop require teams and resources beyond my financial reach. And games developers are hesitant to fully embrace poetic or literary forms because of their perceived financial downsides. They see poetry books selling a few hundred copies at best, or collections of short stories losing money.  And yet, I want to bark through their open windows, late into the night, kicking at the aluminum siding, that if my crazy poetry games (all six of them) can garner hundreds of thousands or millions of players/readers, then more assessable literary games could reach far more.

This financial issue is being addressed, at least partially, by crowd funding. And some creators are building small-scale literary games for mobile devices to sell on the app store. However the fast pace of change in tech, the devices and interactive tools we use, will mean both exciting new opportunities for creative play, but also significant financial concerns.

Admittedly, I am a bit sad about how collectors and institutions see interactive digital art as something that either should be free or only worthy of small commissions. The perception is that being a digital work there can be no original, no uniquely singular creation, and thus they are bought and utilized as copies. I am firmly a proponent of open source sharing of code and techniques, but I pine for the day when the art/literary world values our interactive creatures in the same way it values paintings or bookstore tomes.

I should really stop complaining, as I will always choose hundreds of thousands of readers/players/explorers over a bit more cash.  Now, if someone offered me heaps more, well I just might start creating locked down, personalized, one-offs. Tsk, tsk dear Jason. Tsk, tsk.

Upper Limits?

FPS: What is the upper-limit on the role games can play in our lives? Are they largely for aesthetic enjoyment or escapsism? Or is there a larger social or political potential there? What do you strive for in your own digital arts practice?

Nelson: Games are admittedly saddled by the dominant presence of entertainment-centered creations. And this expectation can unfairly bias critics and players, keeping them from seeking out the more interesting and, in some ways, more powerful, politically/socially focused games. Unlike film or video, which begins as a blank canvas, games begin with an interactive engine or interface, and require plug-ins or consoles or other devices. This means that gaming must contend with both content and platforms and scale and playing location. And the public generally experience games through proprietary machines like X-Box or Playstation. So it can be difficult to convince curators and readers and others that a game can be a powerful force for change and artistic experience.

Having said that, games are an ideal vehicle for expression. They provide numerous ladders for the players/readers, various gateways or entry points into the artwork. As they are usually non-linear, multi-media and interactive, the experience will always be multi-dimensional, reaching the brain in curious and unique ways. So, as long as someone can overcome the economic and technical hurdles of game making, the possibilities for games are immense and largely unexplored.

I know some in the art-gaming world will disagree, but I don’t feel games have to be tied to complex puzzles or goals. A game can be anything that inspires play and discovery through interaction. If we substitute game with interactive play, there absolutely is no upper-limit. And I suppose that would make nearly all my digital poems/fictions/artworks some kind of game derivation.  As long as the results are unexpected and the content and play inspires exploration and changes perception, then interactive can almost be interchangeable with game. I can hear the bitter sighs and angry dismissals now, sadface.

As for my work, and what I strive for, I’m really not sure. Yes, I want to reach the back of people’s brains. Yes, I want to create experiences that are both poetic and absurd, that demand interaction and also remove you from the world, however briefly, transported into my imaginative playlands.  But then again, I feel as if I’ve only just begun exploring the possibilities of translating my imagination into and filtering through interactive interfaces and dynamic digital creatures.

And I want to stretch the borders between fields, between concepts, between disciplines and narratives. Most importantly, I want to create whatever the heck I want, to birth odd creations, whimsical and concerning, flashlights in the Wichita mountains, winter camping for the coldest of hands.