Arriving at the Hinterland

10 August 2011 | 1 comment

This is a blog about the genesis of our poem you can play, Hinterland. For information on the project and how to play, please visit

With just a week to go before the Hinterland opens up at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh, I wanted to look back briefly¬†on the genesis of the project. The story begins at Hide&Seek’s very first event and my very first game, in 2007 at the BFI delegate’s centre, when it was called the London Poetry Game.

Some principles have run through all three versions of the game: 1. The game requires you to talk to strangers via a specially-created telephone hotline 2. Your reward for taking part is a poem. 3. The game is about cities and the languages spoken within them and 4. The game is not really that much of a game at all.

Looking back, it’s clear that my own insight into this particular form has developed over the four years I’ve been working with it. The way I work with technology (and the people who work with technology), the assumptions I make about people’s willingness to take action as part of the games I design, and my understanding of how (or if) a game can have a political perspective, have all progressed some distance in that time.

Back in 2007, it ran like this: I took some verses of September 1, 1939 by W.H.Auden and translated each line into a different language, and printed the new poem out with the rules on the back. Players had to go out and find bilingual speakers of those languages, and get them to phone in both a reading and an English translation of the line. Those lines were then compiled into a presentation of the poem at the end of the festival, which consisted of three parts: 1. a reading of the poem in the many languages; 2. a reading of the poem in the multiple translations and 3; a reading of the original poem, by me.

Except it didn’t work out that way, of course. Not really knowing what playtesting was, I encountered all my problems in the field. Players weren’t so interested in the task, describing it as ‘a bit stressful’ and ‘difficult to do’, and so we didn’t get anywhere near a complete poem. Also, I was (while running the festival at the same time) my own audio edit guy. We set up a phoneline with that automatically generated .wav files, which I then cut together using an open-source sound editor.

The performance at the end, therefore, consisted of me playing the short audio file I had managed to put together, and then manfully reading a rather long poem to a patient but disengaged audience.

The way I understood the problems with the game were primarily practical and functional – deriving from my assumption that if I could fix the way we communicated the game to players, and fix the way we created the audio file, then the project would work fine. I documented those problems in more detail in a post last year.

In 2010, we were able to fix all those things. We worked with technologist Chris Thorpe to create a dedicated website for the game, poet Ross Sutherland to create a more accessible poem for translation, and producer Sarah Ellis to create robust translations and a community engagement programme. Nick Ryan devised a sound editing process and created an audio realisation of the poem. We were embedded within the 2010 Weekender with a much greater pool of players to draw on. And Ross created a video document of the project which summed it up wonderfully.

Symphony (The London Poetry Game) from Ross Sutherland on Vimeo.

And yet… This smoother, more efficient, more effective execution of the game now yielded a different set of problems. Players still participated in the game more out of enthusiasm for the concept than out of any real sense of fun. And our attentions were turned more closely to the second set of participants in the game – the people who the players seek out in search of translations. What was in it for them?

I have always hoped that the London Poetry Game would ‘say something’ about our multicultural urban lives. That a game which brings speakers of different languages into proximity with one another was by definition a good thing, that it ‘created dialogue’ and ‘opened our ears to the different languages spoken in a single street’ (those two culled from various application texts for the project over the years). But maybe the noble aims were muddied by the framework in which the game operated. An English-speaking creative team, making a game and a poem in English, which gets English -speaking players to act on its behalf, by requiring (forcing) bilingual (‘native’) speakers of other languages to perform limited actions. Maybe there was something a bit colonial about all that…

(I think it’s worth noting how it was only possible to address these higher concerns once the basic problems with execution were fixed. I’d like to revisit this in a future post – maybe collaborative projects have a hierarchy of needs?)

In answering that challenge, I have been fortunate enough to continue the collaboration with Ross and Sarah, and draw the essential understanding and input of Tom Armitage, newly-minted game designer and technologist at Hide&Seek. Through a longer period of development, we’ve had a chance to reflect on the affordances of the hybrid form we have created, to work through (with a residency at BAC) the dramaturgy of the player-stranger dialogues that the game generates, and to examine how a poem could be generated from the actions of players in a more discursive and gamelike way. We’ve thought a lot about how a game for two players where one player speaks more languages than the other creates a very interesting power dynamic. We’ve prototyped, playtested and discussed, and in doing so come up with something that has travelled a very long way from its last iteration.

I don’t want to spoil the game for potential players by telling you what’s in the Hinterland. But I think it’s definitely true to say that there’s more game, more poem and more dialogue in there than there was before. I hope you’ll join us if you’re able…

1 comment on this post.

  • On 15 Aug 2011, Dan said:

    Interesting to see where it’s come from, and I’m looking forward to playing Hinterland up at the Fringe next week!

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