Concept Analysis #4

Role-Playing

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As role-playing games become more technically advanced and more pervasive, one of the main questions scholars must ask is: What kind of learning or experiences can/do players take from these types of games? As John Tynes notes in his essay “Prismatic Play: Games as Windows on the Real World,” we understand how to learn from films, books, and music, but video gaming and organized role playing are still in their relative infancy, even if games, in general, are not. As these newer types change the conception of games and play in general, scholars have begun to tease apart the appeal of these games and what players can expect to understand after having participated; some thinkers claim that role-playing might be worthless unless it fits a range of criteria, while others maintain that role-playing is imbued with inherent worth.

At opposite ends of this spectrum we find the aforementioned Tynes and Torill Elvira Mortensen, author of the intriguing essay “Me, the Other.” The former insists that RPGs require a sea change to become worthwhile, a type of RPG he refers to as engaging, which are starkly contrasted against those he identifies as escapism. The latter author takes the opposite view and conveys how RPGs have much to tell us about society and human nature just by how they’re structured—no change needed. The former wants to change the genre, the latter to examine it as it is and take from it what can be taken. In this respect, one can’t help but liken Tyne to prescriptivism and Mortensen to descriptivism. Although disagreements are common over which is the best approach, for me, it’s nearly always the latter that makes sense, and this argument offers no exception.

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One way we could examine this is through Netflix’s popular show Stranger Things, which received critical acclaim and was renewed for a second season in 2016. The show opens with a quartet of young boys playing a Dungeons & Dragons-esque role-playing game that seems to come to life, as they soon find themselves embroiled in an adventure that follows the narrative of the RPG. But is the show and what the boys are supposed to learn from a strange mix of role-playing and real life merely nostalgic escapism? Or can we glean something deeper from it?

One of the running themes of Stranger Things is whether or not to believe. Are others telling the truth? Is a supernatural event real or just imagined? Is belief in oneself warranted? In the world of role-playing, according to Mortensen, players are able to navigate In Character and Out Of Character with little trouble; it’s reality where playing a variety of roles becomes troublesome. But allowing role play to help players navigate between roles is not necessarily a bad thing: “Once we have seen through the layers of play surrounding us, what happens is not that we lose our grip on reality, but that we see it more clearly” (304). Because the characters’ role-playing has left the confines of the board game, they are no longer able to move between roles in an uncomplicated manner, which means they will need to come to grips with how a subject perceives reality and how to react to that perception. The bounded world of role-playing is a place to try on new roles and work through these difficulties in a safe space.

If we were to follow Tynes in an examination of Stranger Things, however, we might be forced into a far less critical examination, since the main elements of the show are supernatural, and therefore, not real enough: telekinesis, monsters, secret and evil government experiments are not the stuff of life. Tynes writes:

We live in the real world, and our lives are full of real problems and real joys. When works of interactive storytelling can teach us how to solve those problems and discover those joys, while entertaining us just as novels, movies, and music do, these works become worthy of real cultural critique and join the great conversation of human thought. (227)

Tynes goes on to insist that “Endless regurgitations of dwarves and elves or action-packed recreations of Omaha Beach will not get us there” (227). Under Tynes’ formulation, Stranger Things, with its mysterious and supernatural elements, should not to be examined too heavily for meaning as it lacks enough “real world” substance to be worthy of “the great conversation of human thought,” making it a form of what he calls escapism. After all, it is pastiche, a variation on the themes elaborated by the horror greats: King, Romero, and Serling, among others.

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Which is it, then? Which conception of role-play do we accept? I suppose it depends on whether we accept that it’s possible to learn something concrete from products of the imagination (something that even Tynes himself must admit, since his “Puppetland” is apparently designed as imagination-slash-education). If not, then we might be forced to separate play and games from education entirely. Play, as Mortensen notes, is unbounded. It stands outside of rules and certainly does not have an educational message as its driving force. Can play be historically involved or situated, as Tynes wants to make it? Yes, certainly. But to exclude every other kind of role-play is to insist that games are not games and they should not be played: They should be learned. And here you have, by prescriptivism, removed the ludic. So, what Tynes argues for, in the end, is not a role-playing game, not play: he wants an educational experience; he wants to give the kid a bowl of broccoli and convince her that it’s broccoli she wants, not ice cream. For this reason I would agree with Mortensen’s descriptive approach. Let the play be play, let an RPG be an RPG, and let’s find what is contained therein and use it to an advantage. Sometimes ice cream isn’t bad; sometimes it’s the sweet release that helps make the healthier more enjoyable, too.

Works Cited:

Mortensen, Torill Elvira. “Me, the Other.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 297-305.

Tynes, John. “Prismatic Play: Games as Windows on the Real World.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 221-228.

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Concept Analysis #3

Exploring Narrative through Fandom

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Narrative, according to Azuma, is a “surplus item” (Azuma 41), just one of many different pieces that might fit into the database of a media creation, which includes characters, products, settings, themes, and more. In his analysis of otaku culture, he is able to show that each of these pieces isn’t necessarily connected in the database, although they are important parts of experiencing a media product; and (perhaps most importantly), no part of the database must be founded on a bottom-level narrative layer. As he writes, “there is no longer a narrative in the deep inner layer. . . .The consumer, knowing this, moves easily back and forth between projects with a narrative (comics, anime, novels) and projects without one (illustrations and figurines)” (Azuma 53). Media projects are enjoyable even when they don’t have a strong or grand narrative, in other words, and so users do not necessarily feel any compulsion to give them one.

One way we can see this is not necessarily by examining one work, since each work does have some type of narrative, but by examining the proliferation of products attached to a media franchise. A classic and ubiquitous example, the Star Trek universe has become particularly abundant with media products: as of 2017, there are 726 total episodes, over a dozen movies, seemingly countless games (from board to video), innumerable action figures, novels, and comic books, and such a sundry list of other products that it would be cumbersome to list them all. Although seeing this media world as transmedial could be tempting, the way stories are spread out would seem to go against Jenkins’ most basic definition of transmedia:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.” (Jenkins)

While there are themes and characters that repeat and tie each series and product together, there is not one, dominant narrative arc that viewers can only learn by watching and reading all of the elements in their entirety. Certain threads are best understood by interacting with all pieces that deal with them (for instance, the Borg are best understood after watching all Borg-related episodes), but nothing is so left out as to make the narrative unable to be understood by the casual viewer.

In this way, the Star Trek franchise has narrative pieces but it also has so many other elements, including characters, worlds, and even languages, that fans do not need to pursue, reconstruct, or create narratives as they explore connected media. Fans might, for example, collect action figures or dress as their favorite characters; they don’t necessarily need to act out any specific narrative as they engage in these ways — they can simply partake in the parts of the database that are most enjoyable to them.

This conception and analysis might not be agreeable to all, however. With a somewhat different view we find Paul Booth, who is unable to erase narrative completely from his conception of the database, fan communities, wikis, or any other media-franchise-related area. He writes not just of narrative, but of the narrative database:

“This narrative database is a reflection of a changed media environment, which reconceptualizes narrative from a ‘chrono-logic’ mode to an archival one. Instead of representing ‘plot’ through causality, fans represent it spatially, using the inherent hypertextuality of the web to create connections between narrative elements” (Booth 82).

Taking wikis as his example, he attempts to show that narrative is ordered “through communal interaction,” meaning that it’s never at the random, unconnected level asserted by Manovich or Azuma. Narrative, whether focused around characters, worlds, or fan interaction, is always part of the equation—there is always a story going on, somewhere, at some level.

Going back to Star Trek, it should be surprising to no one that there is a fan wiki, entitled Memory Alpha. Fans can use “portals” to explore the people, TV and films, society and culture, merchandise, and more. In this way, all of the wide and disparate parts of the Star Trek universe are pulled together and ordered. A fan can navigate the site and build the Star Trek narrative in her own way, moving from one page to the next in an exploration that reforms and recreates the ongoing narrative of this media franchise.

If the Star Trek universe can be adjusted to both perceptions, random non-narrative and narrative database, how is it then possible to decide which is the correct view of narrative in today’s modern media environment, especially taking into account the fact that the two viewpoints seem to be in opposition? Perhaps the answer is not one of quality but merely of difference; in other words, either is not necessarily better than the other, but perhaps the method of assessing narrative is dependent upon the way one chooses to view fan community.

Star Trek Convention

Overall, I believe these differing conceptions point to a basic difference in how Azuma and Booth see fans: for the former, they come together in groups but still have an intensely private connection to a media work, but for the latter, a piece of media is always experienced through the social, which deprivileges the isolated experience. This is perhaps why Azuma is able to talk about narrative while simultaneously erasing the need for it, a feat that Booth does not accomplish, as is seen in the fact that he continually refers to the “narrative database,” even though many scholars from Manovich on agree that a database does not need to have a narrative to tie it together.

One reason for this difference, perhaps, is that stories tend to be more socially leaning than the random elements of a franchise. Or, to be more general: Stories are about connections. There’s something in a story that demands we talk about it, share, find meaning in it. A character, though, can be experienced in a “relationship” that doesn’t require other people. A fan can experience (admittedly one-way) relationships with the characters they see, but constructing a story is often done best with others. Fans, then, are both narrative and non-narrative creatures.

Works Cited:

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 22 Mar. 2007, henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html.

Concept Analysis #2

Participating in the Apocalypse

Framing Participation

Participation seems like it should be easy to describe: you do something to join in, contribute, and you’re participating. According to Jenkins, Ford, and Green in Spreadable Media, however, participation, and its relation to consumption, is becoming more and more complicated, since audiences now have the means and skills not only to ingest media but also to change, contribute, and share those entertainments they love. The authors offer a range of competing frameworks that might explain how participation might be understood in our participatory media environment: “lurking versus legitimate peripheral participation; resistance versus participation; audiences versus publics; participation versus collaboration; hearing versus listening; [and] consumers versus co-creators” (155). In order to expand on just how complicated participation has become, I’d like to consider the fandom surrounding The Walking Dead (TWD) and a couple of these most salient frameworks, since fans of this series, passionate and opinionated, might be said to exemplify a few of these rubrics quite well.

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Lurking versus Legitimate Peripheral Participation

Audience members who are visible, who engage noticeably through creation and discussion, are considered to be the ones adding the most to a fandom or website; they are also considered to be a small portion of a user base or community. Traditionally, inactive members (lurkers), who make up the largest portion of the base, are viewed as not offering as much (if anything at all). This view becomes complicated when we consider that levels of engagement vary and are not an “on/off” binary; that audience members contribute to a greater or lesser degree in various parts of a community; and that even lurking contributes something, even though it’s seen as passive: “From this perspective, a ‘lurker’ provides value to people sharing commentary or producing multimedia content by expanding the audience and potentially motivating their work, while critics and curators generate value for those who are creating material and perhaps for one another” (Jenkins et al.157).

Although it’s difficult to see TWD lurkers, it is possible to detect their presence. YouTube measures views, giving us an idea about the popularity of TWD fan vids, for instance. Music videos featuring popular songs, character quotes, and show scenes are a particular favorite. Consider one titled “Darryl Dixon/Numb” that was posted in Dec. 2015: it has over 312,000 views. All of these viewers have most likely not posted vids of their own, yet viewing drives “active” members to continue to create these tributes.

Resistance versus Participation

As Jenkins et al. point out, we “are resistant to something: that is we are organized in opposition to a dominant power. We participate in something, that is, participation is organized in and through social collectivities and connectivities” (163; emphasis in original). While the push from companies and media properties to turn audiences from resistance to participation is not without benefits, we must be aware that enjoyment and collaboration are not all of what’s at stake; producers and companies are also seeking greater acceptance of a brand or show, which in turn equals bigger profits. Participation has become more than just a way to show appreciation for a show or product, in other words — it’s a tool companies can manipulate in hopes of gaining an ever-wider audiences and larger benefits: “the notion of audience ‘activity’ and ‘sovereignty’ has been absorbed into Web 2.0 business models, requiring us to develop a more refined vocabulary for thinking about the reality of power relations between companies and their audiences” (Jenkins et al. 165).

Thanks to this emphasis on being brand loyalty and a visible part of a community, some fans probably feel the pressure to invest in TWD fan gear, which will show their commitment to participating in the community. And they certainly have no dearth of options when it comes to choosing fan goods; in fact, the number of licensed and unlicensed products are staggering, from t-shirts to coffee mugs to knitting patterns. Participation, here, means buying items, which may or may not be a good thing depending on what’s inside your wallet.

Participation versus Collaboration

Of course, a company or media property’s coopting of audience efforts can also lead to other effects. Sometimes, audience members become positioned inside communities not to resist or accept, but to collaborate, in the hopes of encouraging change and redirecting the aims of the community and its “mother” company. By working from the “inside” and acting as contributing members and, in a way, decision-makers, audience-member-collaborators can drive a brand/media property’s actions into suiting their needs, which ultimately offers them more out of the experience, whether the end goal is social or personal. Do companies always welcome such collaboration? Certainly not, since audience action might run counter to overarching desires or interests; however, “networked participation also forces media companies and brands to be more responsive to their audiences” (Jenkins et al. 175), which is usually in their interests, overall. The company that listens is the one least likely to be called out on Twitter for all to see.

TWD itself has been called out many times, used in service of a range of agendas that the creators may or may not support. Consider just a few article titles: “The Model Minority in the Zombie Apocalypse: Asian-American Manhood on AMC’s The Walking Dead”; “Are We the Walking Dead? Zombie Apocalypse as Liberatory Art”; “The Walking Dead: Late Liberalism and Masculine Subjection in Apocalypse Fictions”; and “’The Walking Dead’ and the Rise of Donald Trump”. Do the creators of the show align with all viewpoints presented in these pieces? Probably not. But collaboratory audience members can take advantage of their familiarity with the show to voice their opinions on subjects that matter to them, which will ultimately influence how others, including the creators, view the work. They have made the show’s fandom a space “where participants can step outside of their fixed roles and engage in meaningful conversations, identifying shared interests, mutual desires, and collective identities” (174).

Conclusion

The frameworks elaborated above should not be seen as the only ways to view TWD fandom specifically or participation in general. It’s easy to place TWD fandom into almost any conception of participatory audienceship, since the number of artifacts created around it offer virtually unlimited exploration and because of its immense popularity. Bearing this in mind, then, how is it possible to choose which is the best view of participation, the one which most fully explains how audiences participate today and how they could have a stronger experience in the future? In short, none are probably better than the other, since all contribute to the success of a media property as spreadable. As Jenkins et al. write:

Through our arguments so far, we hope to have convinced readers that the spread of all forms of media relies as much (or more) on their circulation by the audience as it does on their commercial distribution, that spreadability is determined by processes of social appraisal rather than technical or creative wizardry and on the active participation of engaged audiences.” (196)

Media, and TWD, need a participating audience for their successes, and this leaves room for all types of participation, from lurking to collaborating to offering critiques. Although this means that both audiences and producers need to expand (perhaps painfully) their definition of the word, the benefits, including greater connection and enjoyment, make the growing process beneficial in the end.

Works Cited:

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, 2013.

Concept Analysis #1

The Objectionably Arbitrary

“Database and narrative are natural enemies,” writes Manovich: “As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events)” (222). Just as systematic progression and entropy cannot coexist, neither can database and narrative; the former will cannibalize the latter, even at times when they might be thought to be working in tandem. This occurs not only because the two cannot be present in one work or because new media favors database, but also because database works by fighting against one of the most important elements of narrative, the suspension of disbelief. Without this, even chronologically well-ordered narrative falls flat, leading to a vicious cycle wherein narrative is continually cast aside for database, since new narratives have been affected by disorder.

As one example, take the recent Netflix production The OA. Premiering in 2016, the show follows a young woman who has returned home after a lengthy absence; she tells her story to a diverse group of locals, who (much like the audience) are interested in but also skeptical of her tale, which is incredible, full of angels, miracles, astral projection, kidnapping, and more. I would argue that any audience inability to enter into the story, to believe any part of it (whether the details or the protagonist as a character), is due to the fact that database logic is the main driving force, not narrative, even though it seems to be a cause-and-effect story. This becomes apparent in an examination of the way that genre and artifacts are used within the show.

Genre, a crucial organizing force in narrative, is especially problematic in The OA. Supernatural elements suggest that the show falls under mystery, as does the underlying question of “what happened?” Thriller plays a large part, too, with chases, police, and clandestine conversations in a morgue. There’s also sci-fi, found in the “mad doctor/experimenter” and the bringing of the dead back to life, as well as horror, with individuals being kept in cages in a basement. Of course, many narratives do play with genre, but it’s almost as if, in this series, the creator dips into and out of all of them seemingly at random, with no one main genre as the controlling force. The pastiche quality here is hard to mistake, and a viewer might be forgiven for thinking that the creator has pulled various tropes from a grab bag blindly, letting the story go this way or that as it will – a certain randomness that follows the logic of the database.

The artifacts (elements) used in the story feel pulled from a random collection, as well. Objects loom and then recede, and all have varying levels of importance and recurrence: dance sequences, a check for $50,000, a guitar player, a cell phone, a gun. Where is the thematic linkage characteristic of narrative? Manovich writes that “if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all” (228). Perhaps the creator has taken this approach to providing “elements of access,” since artifacts are introduced and dropped quickly, often with only the barest of linkage.

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The show itself seems to confirm this database style of storytelling in a scene near the end of the series. One of the story’s auditors finds a box of books under the storyteller’s bed: Each book represents some main thread of the story, and the viewer is supposed to understand that this “database” of information is where the ideas originate. Although she is able to make a story, it’s as if the storyteller (and, by extension, the creator) is tossing in whatever is handy. The viewer never quite understands how everything should be causally linked, which means that accepting the ending is problematic because of a weak suspension of disbelief.

From this example, we are encouraged to come to the conclusion that database and the suspension of disbelief, and therefore narrative, are unable to coexist, as Manovich claims. We aren’t required to make any leaps of faith with a database because connections are what demand our belief, much more than mere things. Certainly, some things are more believable than others, as in pictures of Bigfoot versus pictures of someone’s grandmother; it isn’t until we locate these in a story, however, that we truly begin to test the bounds of our credulity. If I show you a picture of a UFO, you might question whether it’s real or a fake, but you would believe that it’s something: a light, a flying saucer, a digital mockery. If I spin you a yarn about being abducted by aliens, you would be inclined to think I’m making it up, unless I am able to provide convincing enough detail that makes sense.

Further, this cannibalizing of traditional narrative is in line with the anti-narrative logic of the internet, where “if new elements are being added over time, the result is a collection, not a story” (221). In The OA, for instance, nothing is wrapped up with any finality. Since there are so many potential artifacts for exploration, the story isn’t necessarily finished simply because the entertainment company hasn’t made any more (yet). Nearly anything at all could be connected at any point, much like a hodgepodge house that is addition after addition all in sundry styles.

In the end, then, we can accept the database logic of random access as an overall organizational theme in a work of new media, but when it’s applied to narrative, the resulting work will not have the same effect as traditional narrative. Why? Because cause and effect, and therefore suspension of disbelief, have not been properly addressed. Put simply, we just don’t engage with the story in the same manner. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyable to watch a database parading as narrative, but the effect is not striking in the same manner as traditional narrative. The viewer is firmly outside the story, not inside the narrative bubble with the characters. As narrative becomes less impactful, database takes its place on top, and having vanquished its foe, it retains its status as current cultural champion.

Works Cited:

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.