Harnessing the Dragon: A Middle Ground for Fanfiction

With Naomi Novik’s recent announcement about the Organization for Transformative Works there’s been a renewed energy in discussion of fanfiction and its impact on the specluative fiction community. I’m not really going to comment on the OTW — I tend to concur with John Scalzi on its feasibility and potential danger to the fanfiction community itself. But particularly given my involvement with the BetterEULA project and interactive elements in storytelling in general, the discussion got me thinking about the intersection of reader participation and speculative fiction, and, of course, virtual world and video game space. No, video games can’t solve all your problems. Just most of them.

I have to get this out of the way first: I don’t generally like fanfiction. I don’t read it, I don’t write it, and when someone promising devotes a disproportionate amount of their time to writing fanfiction rather than creating their own worlds (and especially characters) I tend to get a little bit sad.

Further, I could not write about Harry Potter. Harry Potter is not mine. I think that characters are almost always foils of their authors in some intrinsic way, and I would no sooner march around with someone else’s character — especially uninvited — than I would try on another person’s skin. It is creepy to me on that level and I can honestly say always has been. I must be a freak, but I have simply never had the inclination to puppet someone else’s creation.

I have, however, participated in shared worlds, in small doses. And I fully recognize that whether or not fanfiction tweaks my particular melon, its sheer proliferation indicates that there is a powerful human drive at work here, and smart authors and publishers are wise to ride that wave rather than trying to push it back in the bottle.

But here’s the thing. I do think that unbridled fanfiction is actually harmful to an IP. Here’s why.

1. Fictional worlds and fictional characters have themes and trajectories that fanfiction writers do not know about. Any author participating in even cursory worldbuilding has notes and copious information that doesn’t make it into the main stage — it is backstory in its simplest terms. By ignoring or operating without these background rules a derivative work is attempting to redefine a character or place in their own terms; they are inherently attempting to alter the IP without the owner’s knowledge or, often, express agreement.

2. The more you let someone do something illegal, the more they will start to feel entitled to do so. Turning a blind eye will only work for so long before you start getting major problems, and by then there’s no way to correct the situation without royally pissing off some of your most devoted fans. When you allow someone to spend a significant amount of time creating something, you are allowing them to invest, and if you spontaneously take away that investment, they are, pretty rightfully, going to be ticked off and never buy your work again.

3. Fanfiction dilutes an IP. It is not, as some have postulated, simply “expanding” a universe. It is not “transforming” anything. It is creating a myriad parallel universes in which things the original author did not intend happen all over the place. This is not immediately and inherently harmful, but when someone starts to invest in reading these parallel universes, they are storing up situations that did not happen. It’s very similar to using cheat codes in a video game. A little bit of it isn’t going to hurt anyone, but when it is systemic and sustained eventually you are going to lose the entire concept of what the original game was, because a game, like a world, is defined by its limitations or parameters, which fanfiction and cheat codes generally exist to remove.

All of these considerations are purely in terms of the integrity of the story itself, and don’t even take into consideration the potential and historic legal pitfalls that exist when you allow fans free rein over your world.

But I assert that by looking closely at what fans are getting out of the fanfiction experience — and it appears to be an awful lot (what do they want? A sandbox! when do they want it? Yesterday!) — it is possible to provide them those advantages and satisfactions without falling victim to the many dangerous pits surrounding the relinquishing of IP. Video games allow interactivity every day without surrendering their creative rights. If you play your cards right, with a little sensitive attention you can turn fanfiction energy into an engine that drives a fanbase, builds a community, and satisfies your readers when you’re not laying a book in front of them.

Containing fanfiction has already been attempted. In fact, a year ago someone caught on to monetizing it in a serious way. How it’s working out for them monetarily I have no idea, but I tend to concur with those on Making Light who said they would likely burn through their cash and then pop like a soap bubble. It looks like they’ve made a soldiering attempt to build some community there, but it looks like trying to build a community around a mall, which has never panned out very well.

Outside of video game territory, the primary shared world I participated in was Pern fandom. Anne McCaffrey, way ahead of the curve (because, like new models for online magazines, I believe that interactivity in fiction is ultimately the wave of the future, and that includes derivative work), saw what her fans were doing and gave them some guidelines to behave by if they were sharing her world. It wasn’t handled perfectly, through little fault of hers, but it was a hell of a lot better than anything else of its kind that I’ve seen.

Here are, in my opinion, the critical things that Pern fandom did:

1. It split the universe, deliberately creating a definably separate parallel universe for the Pern world where specific world-altering events did or did not happen. This separated the sandboxes of McCaffrey’s Pern and her fans’ Pern without changing major sensory features such as landscape, world mechanics, or environmental feel. This was a stroke of genius that prevented Pern from going the way of Darkover. Bulletproof? No, but close enough.

2. It gave fans rules by which to create their characters, even employing some basic random number generation. This is like pouring a nice fat dish of agar for your community. Using some very simple game mechanics, it ensured that participants had an even field and some baselines to play by — and also an achievement ladder that they could climb. The Pern fangroup also provided an entire system by which new fangroups, or “Weyrs”, could be created. This egalitarian mindset helped ensure that Pern was, for the most part, an amazingly peaceful, pleasant place to be.

3. It allowed participants a huge degree of freedom in their choice of expressive media, whether that was text storytelling, live (text) roleplay, craft-making, textile-art, or even game creation (MU*s). There was very little in terms of expression you could request permission for from the fandom and be told “no”. And resultingly some players created some amazing things — cookbooks, sculptures, costumes, and more.

4. It actually grew the world by requiring that players created their own characters rather than manipulating the characters of the author. “Canon” characters were off limits and could not be given dialogue or represented in more than a passing reference fashion. This kept McCaffrey’s novels further distinct and commoditized while presenting a very reasonable and accept
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le alternative for fans that encouraged them to have personal investment and engage creatively with the world.

The cohesiveness of this system meant that fans were provided a clear, sanctioned, fun playground to exercise their creativity in. Not only was McCaffrey protecting her IP, she was encouraging some amazing creativity amongst her fans. She was having them engage in some of the most compelling elements that would later feed the explosion of massively multiplayer online games — in a simple, clear way and in her own world, encouraging them to create characters to which they would form indelible lasting attachments.

Could players break the rules? Sure. And they did. There were a few major kerfluffles in the fandom that I was aware of, and all of them resulted in lack of maintenance from McCaffrey directly on the system. Fan systems do need to be maintained and at large capacities become organisms that need attention if they are to avoid going feral. Some Weyrs did go feral, and a few of them were even put down for it — all stemming from the groups engaging in activities for long periods of time (years) that the original creator did not know about. Once McCaffrey did know, she felt that her world theme was compromised, and felt compelled to take action to correct it. This drove away a not insignificant number of fans, as their investments were taken — and illustrates the importance of maintaining a communication line between the IP originator and the major arteries of the fan groups.

But despite these hiccups, relatively few people actually deliberately ignored McCaffrey’s wishes. Why would they? She’d given them the core of what they wanted. And if anyone did piss in the sandbox by defying her, the entire community would typically rise up and smite them down — McCaffrey didn’t even have to lift a finger. Fans generally have a great deal of respect for the creators of the works they wish to occupy; if they are treated with respect in return, they’ll do tremendous things for you.

Authors and owners of secondary worlds have started to crawl their way onto the Internet, some of them kicking and screaming. The next step is for them to give some focused, competent attention to their fans and the careful growth of community. I think it is no coincidence at all that some of the most prolific fangroups concern worlds created by women. Fan groups need to be nurtured and understood — while still treated with firmness when they go astray.

Would I build on McCaffrey’s foundation? Sure. In lots of ways. But that foundation does exist and, rather than allowing the fan community to run wild and untended, it behooves the owners of IP to take a proactive role in letting them into their worlds. Reader creativity and participation is here to stay, and, properly leveraged, it can be one way that books can effectively compete with live media. As usual, the solution exists in looking for potential rather than burying our heads in the sand until the explosion comes.

Contextualizing the social experience

Or “Let’s give ’em something to talk about”.

It’s lately been in vogue to trash World of Warcraft, and it’s no new thing that something popular should be heavily criticized. When you reach a certain level of visibility you draw fire from people who like to rage against The Man and from people who don’t dig the trend and therefore get irritated by being reminded of it. Similarly, WoW has been talked to death and it becomes difficult to put forth any analysis on something so heavily discussed. But I think there are still important things to talk about vis WoW’s insane success (and when a single game gets big enough to buy Activision, it is insanely successful), and it also reflects on the successes of major popular fiction titles as well.

Something that WoW did almost by accident — and I do think it was by accident because nothing in their engineering supports this specifically — was create a social context. Raiding parties do this naturally, but WoW did it particularly well. It actually brought people together, friends that I know who hadn’t talked to each other in years, who are suddenly now talking every day and engaging in a virtual environment. It strengthened old friendships and forged new ones. Online games have a history of connecting strangers, but WoW, unlike its predecessors, connected people who already knew each other, gave friends something to talk about and something to do together — questing in WoW became as much a staple as going out to a movie or restaurant. And for the interconnected but geographically separated populations now currently bridged by technology, that became even more important.

It did this for strangers, people applying for jobs, people in waiting rooms. WoW got so big that you could mention playing it in some non-game-context social environment and stand a good chance of someone, rather than looking at you like you were a space alien, asking what server you played on, what profession, and BAM, off you go into a detailed, often impassioned conversation with a total stranger.

This is part of a core purpose of entertainment media that isn’t frequently discussed. The form that did this so pervasively that it’s now a cliche (“So how ’bout them Padres?”) was baseball. I heard a story on NPR some weeks ago, a retrospective on the removal of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and how, in Brooklyn, it utterly removed a social context from the streets of New York — literally made the city a more unfriendly place.

And now MMOs are filling this purpose. But fiction did it too — Harry Potter operates on a similar level, and actually for similar reasons. Jordan’s Wheel of Time would have done something similar had it ever really broken out into the mainstream, which it nearly did, but not anywhere close to Rowling’s achievement.

What all of these have in common — and I have to waive the bias flag here just by disclaimer, in case you missed its obvious presence in my worldview — are game mechanics. They vary in things like their specificity of discussion — WoW discussions tend to be strategic or exploratory while Harry Potter discussions are mostly speculative, trying to guess a plot’s next movement (and therefore, I think, HP discussions are more limited) — but the connecting element between these hugely popular epic works is the very mechanical way that a viewer of the media is able to connect with the work. When we read, I believe we are subconsciously — or often consciously — slotting ourselves into the world. It is part of the immersion. And so if there is an easy character class for us to identify with, we have a hook of fascination that makes that immersion much more vivid. Games do this overtly, asking you to choose your poison right from the beginning — books are a little more subtle, though Wheel of Time certainly was about as subtle as a brick to the head with its character classes. Harry Potter was a bit moreso with its wands and various subtle breeds of wizards, though they all studied in the same place. The most overt class-generation there was in the House structure at Hogwarts. But it is certainly no coincidence that there was a huge flurry of marketing attention devoted to the concept of “What House would You Belong To?” It encourages the fantasy.

In essence when you are socially connecting via or over one of these media, you are expressing your personality. Personal expression is key in any kind of social gaming (and any personal interaction can be termed social gaming on some level). When I’m talking about speccing out my Hunter and what kind of pet I want to go after once I hit level 40, I am really talking about personal expression, elements of my personality that are not easily conveyed but take symbolic form in these game mechanics. Likewise for a kid who says they are certainly Ravenclaw and could never be anything else in the Harry Potter universe.

What this means in terms of world-building, for any media, is that completeness is important. Properties that have fallen short of the mega mark, but otherwise had that kind of potential, often lack completeness, something that they could have arrived at through theories applied in video game mechanic balancing. The D&D character class structure is a symbolic and evocative version of the same thing Myers-Brigg were trying to do with their type indicator — and if you go through and make sure that you have a character class for each personality type (and I’m not saying you should use Myers-Brigg — they’re not nearly creative enough, though it would be interesting to see someone try), you’re that much more likely not to lose parts of your audience by not giving them a place to slot themselves in the world. In Wheel of Time, if you were female, you were basically Aes Sedai, royalty, or boring — and I would bet that was a partial audience turnoff.

In essence, I believe the principles applied in game design to generating a complete player experience — which at its core is a meta-layer, a fictional world that is whole and satisfying, a full layer on the real world in which we exist that you then push one degree farther to see what happens — can be applied to any fictional work. And the great thing is that when you engage in this kind of elegance-focused worldbuilding (I say ‘elegance’ because that, in a computing sense, is what you are attempting to achieve when balancing character classes — you need to be complete without going overboard and having so many choices that the reader can’t connect), you’re also creating a more realistic world, because you are taking into account elements of fantasy not just sprung from your own mind, but ones that you might never consider a reader (or player) wanting to experience.

Souveniers du Montreal

And that is about as far as my French gets!

Like most, I don’t quite know what to think of this second sale of livejournal, but this discussion of the specifics on Slashdot was quite interesting. The future of Russia on the Internet is not something that has figured largely into projections for the cyber-future, but it certainly contains some most interesting potential… and certainly the intersection of non-English-speaking communities with the American-heavy majority is something we will see more and more.

The mention in this Wired article of the Pepsi assault on Barak Berkowitz’s gift account page is brilliant and so indicative of the uniqueness, intelligence, and passion of the LJ community. Full of drama, sure — but give me that any day over apathy. [info]illucian, you’re on the first page of gifts! You all are amazing. Keep on keepin’ on.

A busy week and Monday is barely over. But all of you magazine types looking to get into online marketing — you should have a Zazzle store. It is like CafePress on E. GoPets has one, and even more designs should be available soon.

Jeff Murray over at Fuel Industries posted this very kind writeup of my presentation at MIGS:

Later that day, Erin Hoffman blew my mind with her presentation ‘Plugged in: Why game developers make great parents’. With a title like that, I was expecting something all airy fairy and went along out of pure curiosity as to what it meant. To my absolute surprise, Hoffman spoke fast and meant every word. I found myself literally nodding throughout her whole presentation. There were times when it felt like I had stumbled into some kind of underground movement to overthrow the government; true revelations. The atmosphere was electric and my mind was racing at the possibilities – if we don’t try to change the way that the games industry is perceived in the media, it’s going to have huge implications further down the line.

Hoffman goes on to talk about how parents who build games are more in touch with their kids and their kids’ culture. Game developers know more about games, which means a more informed choice about what is suitable for their kids to play. Perhaps game developers are more likely to pick up the titles that reflect their family values, family ‘moral code’ or encourage mental or physical development in particular areas. That is opposed to the typical parent who would not make such informed decisions. In my book, that reads ‘people who allow their 3 year old to baseball bat old people in Grand Theft Auto when they’re off down the pub’.

It was difficult for the talk not to sidestep into a discussion on violence in videogames, which is a shame since there are so many more interesting things to talk about. Hoffman detailed the ‘good stuff’ and cited some fantastic examples; What good can games do? How are games being usedto help real world situations and problems? Well, I think that probably deserves a separate blog post from me as it’s a broader topic than I can do justice in my ‘highlights of MIGS’.

I can dig it. Jason DR also says that the whole event was “snowed under with awesomeness” over at RealityPanic and gives a quick, if briefer, rundown of the convention. The segues in my session into the subject of violence in video games, and its effect (or lack thereof) on fragile minds, did absorb much of the discussion, which is my fault — but I do maintain that the two concepts are irrevocably intertwined. We cannot talk about the role of parents in games without addressing the public image of games in the media sphere. But that, and censorship, will be the topic of this week’s column over at the Escapist, so I’ll shut up here. The discussion of parents and games is really just beginning.

Photos from Montreal are up here and I am caught a few times, least awkwardly in this one from the talk itself. Yay! There are other photos in that album from the event — again overall a very cool experience. Now if I could just catch up on my email…