In 2007, at the very first Hide&Seek Weekender, I designed and ran something called the London Poetry Game. It was my first go at designing something on a grand scale… Basically, I wanted players to go out into London and find translators of a poem. A poem where each line had been translated into a different language… Translations were phoned in to a hotline, and then cut together to make the poem.
Unsurprisingly, the game had several flaws which were revealed in playtesting. And when I say playtesting, I mean the public running of the game – I didn’t know what playtesting was at the time… I’m running the London Poetry Game again this year, so I thought I’d share a little summary of all the things that went wrong. I hope to correct at least some of them this time around.
- We didn’t distribute the flyer or publish the pdf online, so access to the game was limited to a very small group of players at the BFI. I dropped some flyers off at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. They were bemused.
- The time available to the very small number of players was too brief to let them play as part of their daily lives, but too extended to capture their attention and interest.
- The challenge to players – figure out what language each line has been translated into, find a stranger who speaks that language, and get them to call a number to leave a translation – is really pretty hard. And there wasn’t a great deal of reward for players.
- The poem selected – W.H.Auden’s September 1, 1939, proved problematic for several reasons. It was full of archaic language that was hard to translate – and the lines themselves made little sense in isolation.
- I did the translations myself, using a mix of Google Translate, international friends, and loitering around the public library in Finsbury Park, asking strangers if they spoke any foreign languages and if so would they mind translating a line of a poem for me, in the name of interactive art. I had no means of checking the translations.
- Producing the translated poem required the graphic designer to install multiple foreign language sets, which introduced some errors into the translations, making them illegible even to foreign language speakers.
- The last two points meant that many players hit a confusing translation, which left them with a bewildered stranger telling them that the line that they were trying to translate made no sense. Most people quite rightly stopped playing at that point. I basically bullied my friends into completing one verse of translations..
- I was responsible for taking the MP3s and editing them together, which, I did, kind of, whilst also, you know, running the whole festival and getting drunk a lot. To think it was only three years ago… Anyway, that was terrifically inefficient.
- The final performance was very pretentious, as I insisted on reading out the whole of the poem, even though the players had only made a translation of one verse. Not as pretentious as going on to make a speech about how Pervasive Games were The New Punk Rock, but hey.
Despite all of these things, I think that the bit of poem that we did manage was rather beautiful, as you can hear for yourself.