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Words

The History of Text Generation

Johann Beautiful: Equatorium of paper to represent the planetary orbit of Saturn (from Wikimedia Commons)

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a lot of people write interestingly about computer-generated text – partly as a result of National Novel Generation Month, which ran through November and prompted some really lovely generated texts.

And as I read, I started wondering about the history of text generation. Not the twentieth century stuff, the Dadaists and William Burroughs and all the later work that happened once computers came into the picture. The old stuff, from the nineteenth century and before. “This won’t take long,” I thought. “There can’t have been much going on.”

So hey, I was up till 3 last night reading and guess what: it turns out I was really really wrong. There’s been a ton of text generation going on over the past thousand years, and it’s fascinating stuff. Most of it comes from writers who really feel like they’d be making deeply confusing experimental games if only they hadn’t died back in the 1680s.

Essays, Events, Games, Words

Now Play This: #128CharGames

Leave a ball on a quiet pavement. Players take bets on whether each passer-by will kick it.

Take a glass of orange juice. Add a tsp. of salt each turn. Sip. First to spit out drink loses.

Back in 2013, an awful lot of people on Twitter made up games designed to fit in a single tweet. They shared them using the hashtag #128CharGames, in a project initiated by game designer and conceptual artist Zach Gage. Gage wrote up the results of his experiment here – dozens and dozens of minimal games and ideas, all folded down into just a sentence or two.

The project itself was pretty great, and so were a lot of the games that people designed. So as part of Now Play This, our September event at Somerset House, we got permission from Gage and the designers of our favourite contributions to print up their games on index cards and show as part of an exhibit of instructional games and artworks. And then we left a little pile of index cards on a table, thinking that a few people might want to add their own.