How playing Hearthstone made me better at writing poetry

Christian Patterson
Underground Mall

636489166813018518.pngI always think about writing poetry based on the types of media I consume. For example, if I watch a good pro wrestling match, or a good movie, etc, I will mentally try to construct a poem with that structure. Of course, it’s using a grammar that only makes sense to me, and is hard to explain, so it’s not like I watch a movie and write a poem about the movie.

Two of the experiences I think about while writing poetry is playing World of Warcraft or being in Las Vegas. In both of those things, you are plopped in an alien environment, where things lure you to different places: in WoW, you have quests, material, vendors, auction houses etc that guide you to different points of interest. In Vegas, you have sales, deals, slot machines, shows, low-minimum table games, buffets etc that guide you to different points of interest. In both, you don’t have to follow these threads, and/or you can follow them in whatever order you want, or you could walk off the Strip/go to an abandoned corner of Burning Steppes (an old, now rarely visited zone in WoW). If you “just wander off”, you won’t experience what you are “supposed to”, but you will experience something that was, at some point, purposefully placed there.

I use this mental frame when writing poems by thinking, “I want to plop the reader into this world and bombard them with details”. I want the reader to be in my world and I want it to feel alien. I want every line/image to be something luring you to a different thread.

The issue with the WoW/Vegas method, however, is poetry is a linear medium, but the essence of the WoW/Vegas experience is non-linear. In the book-length poem I’m currently working on, I’m trying to fix that problem a couple ways: first, I’m trying to draw a myriad of connections between everything, rather than a linear series of events. This leads to the second thing: I’m trying to make the book a big, convoluted web, that you can flip through to random pages, poke around, and dissect segments from many approaches.

But that doesn’t get to the root of the issue: simply, you can’t experience poetry the way you experience WoW or Vegas. And this is where Hearthstone comes in.

Hearthstone is, like WoW, a game by Blizzard. I’ll give a brief rundown of the game mechanics, then I will say how the mechanics can be cross-applied to poetry writing, and how that has improved my writing.


Hearthstone is a video card game. You collect a wide array of cards and then assemble a deck of 30 cards. Then, you challenge an opponent who also has 30 cards. Both players have 30 health, and the first to reach less than 0 health loses.

In Hearthstone, the main “currency” is mana crystals. Both players start with 1 crystal, and every turn you gain a crystal. This creates a game where the cycle is: something happens, but it’s answered/responded to, yielding something slightly bigger happening etc.

This dynamic, or method, or way of thinking might be familiar. For example, it’s very similar to Improv’s “Yes, and” — where Person A says something, and Person B plays along with what Person A said, while adding more, and they keep both affirming and adding.

This is also familiar to screenwriters. When I took a screenwriting class, we read Story by Robert McKee. McKee is the screenwriting guru in the movie Adaptation. He is, from my exposure, the person who has presented the most thorough, rigid, and structured picture of how to write a screenplay.

McKee’s idea about story is they’re a series of events escalating in size as they go back and forth, sound waves getting louder. Notice that this is the same basic cyclical loop of Hearthstone: Player 1 responds to Player 2 and a slightly stronger Player 1 responds to Player 2 and so on.

The difference between all of these things is that poetry doesn’t have a dual-nature built into its form inherently. Movies, and Hearthstone, both involve a hero/actor/protagonist vs an enemy/actor/antagonist. Poetry can have narrative conflicts, but it isn’t the defining place poetry has conflict.

The defining place poetry has conflict is between the text and the reader. So, when I write while considering Hearthstone, I think of my vocabulary like my game cards—vocabulary is the potential movements and abilities I can do. Then, I consider the best order to put my cards/words, that escalates to big poetic gestures, and wide meaningful swings/turns.

The reader is the other person playing the card game. Just as I play my words, they will attempt to respond with their own “words,” which is their hermeneutic analysis. As the writer, I want to stay one step ahead, so I’m not answering for the reader ‘s gestures, but the reader is answering mine.


The biggest way Hearthstone has improved my writing is it has allowed me to move past an “inventory”-based poetry model. Las Vegas represents a true inventory model. Materially, Vegas is a giant concentration of capital that people dump money into. So the sensory experience of Vegas is whatever encourages the most amount of people to dump the most amount of money. That means the sensory experiences of Vegas are only a rhizomatic inventory of traits.

For example, if you take the characteristics of Vegas: the Paris aesthetic at the Paris hotel, the circus aesthetic at Circus Circus, the Roman aesthetic, the Mardi Gras aesthetic, the pirate aesthetic etc. Any of these characteristics can be disassembled from the inventory of Las Vegas and have a different characteristic plugged in. Vegas would essentially stay the same. The system calls for replacing unprofitable elements, and so the Vegas system includes the characteristic of aesthetic characteristics being replaceable.

We can look to movies and book to provide a structure to the structureless, impression-based poetry. But a typical movie or book narrative, like the one McKee describes that I mentioned earlier, isn’t conducive to poetry either. Yes, there is narrative poetry, but at this point in the medium’s history, conventional narratives are much better suited for other media.

This is where Hearthstone comes in. As a game, it has the same progressing and compounding form as a narrative, but unlike narratives, the progressing elements are not dependent on each other in the form of a story. The story of a Hearthstone game comes from “oh, my opponent played X on turn Y, so I responded with Z on turn A”. The story comes from looking back on the game, and the types of archetypes used in the scheme of the game.

The “narrative” of the game comes from disparate elements within a broad system of mechanics interacting with each other. As these elements build off of each other, you can begin to guess what your opponent will do, based on patterns, and consequently, what you will do in order to win. The game is then understood in hindsight. You are able to recognize the big turns that result in a big game-winning swing, and determine the overall tone, pace, length etc.

This is the way to implement an element of narrative in a poem without having conventional story elements. First, I may have a poem written in the “Vegas”-style, where I present the reader with a long stream of imagery. However, it’s easy to get overwhelmed reading a rapid list of images, and this is often a desired effect for me. But, in order to give some shape, form, or direction to this stream of imagery, I look to Hearthstone. I can give the poem narrative features without adding story elements at all. I rearrange the imagery, so the image naturally both builds, but turns against the imagery before it, until the images build into the culmination of an entire stanza.

(An older version of this post was posted to my Medium blog in March of this year. This version is revised and elaborated on)

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