Poetry about video games? You bet. It follows a fine tradition of ekphrastic poetry, or verse inspired by visual arts. Just as a poet might depict a painting in detail, you can portray the sights, sounds, and experiences of digital games through verse. The realm of video games contains its own cultures and subcultures, its own mythologies. It can be an exciting source of inspiration, one that doesn’t feel as saturated as other sources given its relative newness in the grand scheme of all media.

At the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Virtual 2021 Conference, the panel “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”: Pop Culture Ekphrasis (featuring Eleanor Boudreau, Tiana Clark, Dorsey Craft, and Alyssa Moore) described writing poetry inspired by pop culture as “an act of curation and archival work.” We poets who dabble in ekphrasis select what media to preserve in our verse and how to portray the implications and impacts of that art.

Intrigued? Ready to try your hand at composing some gaming poetry? I’d like to share an approach I’ve found useful. (You could apply these recommendations to other pop culture references, too.) I aim for each of my gaming poems to accomplish the following three criteria:

1. Stand on its own as a well-crafted poem

Yes, this is highly subjective and perhaps feels obvious, but I think it’s worth calling out. Ideally, a non-gamer or someone stumbling upon the poem without context can enjoy or at least appreciate it as a work of poetry. For example, does it endeavor to recreate an emotion in the reader? Does it appeal to the senses? Does it involve interesting language and arrangement on the page?

2. Satisfy gamers with its references

When you include gaming imagery or allusions to gamer culture, you have a range of options at your disposal. You can be as overt as a direct shoutout, perhaps with the whole poem or a large section dedicated to something instantly recognizable to the target audience, or more subtle, like Easter eggs for the most astute readers. You can also try a mix of approaches.

3. Invite interpretations

As a reader, I admire writing that I can enjoy at a surface level and that rewards deeper readings, inspiring me to return to it again and again. As a writer, if I can poetically describe an aspect of a game, that’s all fine and good, but why stop there? I want to make it mean something else, too, opening the experience up to reader interpretation.

When I first embarked on putting this approach into practice, I researched how others felt about the intersection between video games and poetry. I invite you to do the same. This list can serve as a jumping off point:

Still with me? Good; then here’s a secret: I often try to apply my three criteria to any type of writing—not just video game poetry—with a little creativity, rephrasing, and generalization. For example, you can easily swap out “gamers” in the second point with any target audience. In other words, (1) craft (2) that can appeal to a variety of readers (3) in a variety of ways. A cheat code, if you will.

In part two of this two-part essay, I’ll use a couple of my own video game poems as examples of this cheat code in action.

Read more of the Game Enjambment series.