Science, Love, & Video Games: A Conversation with Keith S. Wilson

by    /  April 22, 2020  / Comments Off on Science, Love, & Video Games: A Conversation with Keith S. Wilson

Keith S. Wilson is a poet, Cave Canem fellow, and video game designer. Keith is originally from California, and spent his teen years and early twenties in Kentucky before settling in Chicago. His debut book Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love was recognized by the New York Times as a best new work of poetry. In February, Wilson came to Alphabet City and read some of his work at “Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at City of Asylum.” Wilson sat down with Sampsonia Way after to talk about some of the major themes of his poetry, and how he looks at game design similarly to and differently from his poetry.

You write a lot about pigeons. You talked with me before about the dichotomy of pigeons and doves. Could you talk about it again?

One reason I write about pigeons so often is because I just love them. That’s just going to show itself any time I write about them or talk about them. But the second reason is that they’re very, very closely related to doves. You wouldn’t be able to tell a pure white pigeon from a dove. I find it metaphorical that we treat doves as these symbols of purity and holiness and marriage and peace, essentially because they’re pure white. And then pigeons… are every other color. You’ll find brown ones, you’ll find beige ones, you’ll find green ones — all kinds of different colors. Those are the ones that we’re disgusted by because they’re “pests” and they live in the city and we try to get rid of them. To me, that is such a clear message that we are sending about things that thrive in the city, about our perception of what color means, and how that maps onto identity.

In many of your poems, you like to reference astronomy. How did you come to that theme?  

I grew up in a household where science was revered. It was sort of holy in my house. My dad was an electrical engineer, and we talked about science a lot. Every time I go home, it’s just a thing that comes up. We’ll talk about articles we had read about science. I use science a whole lot — astronomy and space in specific — to talk about love. One of the things that’s interesting to me about science is that it’s both inspiring and terrifying in how incomprehensible it is. You could spend your whole life studying it and only barely scratch the surface. As accomplished as we may feel one moment, when we consider the grand scheme of things, we know nothing. I think that sort of maps onto what love feels like to me. Not just romantic love, but all kinds of love — like familial love, for example. You spend your whole life feeling it, but at 20 and at 40 and even at 60, you’re not that much better at explaining why it matters. There are poets who spend their whole lives writing about it, but there’s just no way for them to pin it down, and I love that. It’s inspiring to me.

In Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, you explain the concept of “ordinary love” as something that’s apart from the stereotypical romantic story-book kind of love. Could you elaborate on this concept?

The “Fieldnotes” portion of the title was my way of  expressing how we think about science in the form of these extremely dramatic events: a rocket going off or a cure for a disease. But actually the ways in which science affects us is usually very ordinary: your cell phone, or your shoes, or your shirt.

That’s similar to how the vast majority of the love we experience is in the form of pretty normal behavior, like sitting in silence with someone. You’re driving somewhere and you know this person so well that you don’t feel like you need to have a conversation — you’re just comfortable with one another. That’s so much of the love that you feel in life. There are things like little casual conversations that don’t super matter. They do super matter, actually. And yet you don’t think about the casual conversations when you think of your relationship with someone. You’re not thinking of how many times you’ve talked about work. 

And if you’re going to sit down and write about them, you’re going to write about that big fight you had one time, that time you almost lost them, or the moment when you really did lose them. You tend not to think about the fact that for fifteen years, you had very regular conversations with them and how that was a core part of your relationship. Laying in bed with someone, waking up next to them, waiting for them to come home after work… Those are the little moments that add up to a full relationship.

Could you talk a little about the similarities and differences between video games and poetry?

Poetry and other artforms, which are often created by one person, are very driven by authorial intent. The way that we read them, the way that we teach them, the way that we write them has to do with the ideology that, “I’ve written this full thing, and for you to consume the full thing, you will experience it in a very particular order.” You come away with a sense of content of that thing. It’s very vague, but it just means that if you read a book and I read the same book, we’ve had the same experience. And then when you talk about something that’s interactive, two people consuming the same thing means radically different interpretations.

Skyrim, for example, is a game where if two people sat down and played it for eight hours then talked about it, they might have vastly different experiences. They might have gone to different towns, had different adventures, and played different characters. That’s one of the big things that makes writing poetry so different from writing games: you have to be fully okay with someone walking away from the thing you’ve created without experiencing the whole thing. There’s only so much you can do to make sure they get something if you want them to get it, because they’re interacting with it however they want to. This is something I think about when I’m writing poetry. Should I allow the same kind of experience that video games offer? And if I do, how do I do it? I don’t fully know what the answer to that question is, but sometimes I’ll experiment with it. I’ll try to write an interactive poem once in a while. This is the major difference between creating these two things. 

I think a similarity between the two is that, like poetry, video games are art. But a lot of people don’t see video games that way. So one way to help people understand is to bring up the fact that  video games have a tremendous amount of writing in them. In fact, it is not just writing, but writing by the same people who write novels and poetry. Yes, video games come from the minds of the people who write the books that you read, but for some reason you’re used to believing that only the latter is art. 

If you just choose any story-based video game where the developers have released the word count, you’ll find that it is often many times longer than the longest novels that anybody reads. Baldur’s Gate is longer than War and Peace. I’m sure that the text that exists in Skyrim is a huge amount of writing, and whether or not you think it’s good is in some ways immaterial, because it’s writing and like all writing, some of it’s going to be good and some of it’s going to move you and some of it won’t.

Depending on the moment of a video game, it’s going to really move you and stay with you. That’s something that a writer sat down and wrote. It’s wild to think  that some people don’t believe that you can experience the same emotions you get from reading a novel or a poem or a short story. Those experiences are there. I get that maybe you don’t want to invest 80 hours to find them, but that’s a different story about access, and how you have to learn to play video games, which is not what you have to do to read a book. You learn how to read once, and now you have access to all the books written in the language you learned. It’s a little different with video games. But that’s one of the reasons that people love them. A lot of the reading I’ve done in my life has been through video games.

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