Video Games as Modern Art and Poetry

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Poet B.J. Best beautifully captures the shared experience of childhood with prose poetry based on classic video games in his new book But Our Princess Is In Another Castle.

Video games were hardly new when I was growing up in the mid ’80s, but if you wanted to play the really cool games, you had to go to the shopping mall arcade. That all changed when the Nintendo Entertainment System came out in 1985. While the NES wasn’t the first home video game system, the 8-bit technology inside it marked the first time kids could enjoy video games that were close to arcade-quality in their own homes.

When my parents were able to afford a Nintendo in late 1986, my world changed. Until about high school, video games were the center of my universe, and looking back, I’m just now realizing how significant a space they occupy within the nostalgic fabric of my childhood. Some of my favorite memories growing up involve staying up all night with friends taking turns trying to beat a game. While we bonded through a TV, that shared experience carried over to our lives away from the TV in ways that I’ll always fondly remember.

It’s that magical weaving of technology with childhood reminiscence that makes B.J. Best’s prose poetry book, But Our Princess Is In Another Castle (Rose Metal Press, 2013), so engaging. I first caught wind of Best’s new book through a Q&A piece in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas. For anyone who questions the validity of categorizing video games as a contemporary art form, Best’s opinions are essential reading. He identifies the abstract and surrealist underpinnings of classic video games, and points out that he’s not the only one who considers them modern art; in late 2012, New York’s Museum of Modern Art announced a new initiative to collect and exhibit classic video games that it considered significant in terms of art and design.

While Best is certainly a fine advocate for categorizing video games as visual art, he excels at capturing the essence of adolescence in But Our Princess. Using video games as a jumping off point for his poignant memories of growing up in Wisconsin, Best masterfully blends the reality of those memories with the fantasy worlds from his favorite games. As someone who spent their formative years playing video games and chasing girls, my favorite poem was one in which Best accents the memory of a first kiss with skillfully-placed references to the game Mega Man:

But I didn’t care about that. There was Rebecca, dark hair and cottony eyes, who went to another school, who called me Buster and meant it. The evening was cool, so I offered her the sweatshirt from my Mexican vacation and my arms thick as viola strings. We rode the Tilt-a-Whirl. The bumper cars. The Gravitron to see if centrifugal force could make our heads stop spinning.

It was like sleeping on a platform suspended by nothing.

Of course there was the Ferris wheel, operated by a carny with Ice Man tattooed on his bicep like a cattle brand. “Let’s see if you have the guts,” he said as his cigarette winked, so I kissed her at the top the way I threw a ping-pong ball to win her a goldfish—lots of ricocheting followed by a soft splash.

Not surprisingly, the poems resonate most when the reader is familiar with the video game that inspired the memory. But it’s not essential; the references simply enhance what are already beautiful snapshots of growing up that anyone can connect with.

But Our Princess Is In Another Castle is available now on paperback through Rose Metal Press and as a Kindle e-book.

Christian Williams is editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at Follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.

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