My student at the University of Kansas, Ryan M. Milner, recently finished an excellent Masters Thesis about fans of the game series Fallout and I’ve asked him to write up some of its many insights to share with you. Here’s his first of what I hope will be a short series of posts from him:
Geek, it seems, is in.
At least on some level. The very fact that another disc of Lost just arrived at my house via blockbuster.com indicates as much. I’m young but I’ve watched enough Nick at Nite to suspect that a show like Lost (or Heroes or Alias) is the product of a market that recognizes the value of fans. There’s no getting this show if you haven’t watched every other episode. You could pick up with Dragnet or Full House midstream and be fine. But Lost requires a more devoted viewership. One that rewards producers with a niche group to market DVDs and digital games to (or in the case of Heroes, sell Nissans to), and rewards consumers with a full universe to expand on and explore, and a deep story to enjoy, one full of self-referential mysteries and clues. Therefore, this enjoyment may be directly correlated to the knowledge one has of the universe.
But this puts producers in a touchy spot, and a tenuous relationship can often develop. Fans, by definition of their investment, are more active, and demand more from a media text than the standard channel-surfing consumer. A slip up in the style, narrative, or plot of The Office, and my friends are all over it. The next time we see each other the debate is on. Deep, nuanced views on character, story, or tone are discussed at length, often with as many unique perspectives as participants.
The popularization of internet has allowed these discussions to widen in voice and reach. This is where things can get especially touchy for producers. If enough fans are displeased enough, and are vocal enough, that’s negative buzz. And it can be cancerous in this cluttered media marketplace. So it’s up to producers to interact with fans and find a balance between diverse interests and goals. Even if producers choose not to engage with fans, that sends a message of its own. And the messages producers send to fans are increasingly consequential in a marketplace where geek is in.
So how do producers and fans of media texts relate in this era of sudden interactivity?
That was what I wanted to understand as I began to examine how a specific group of digital-game fans engaged with producers and each other during a period of tension over the next installment of the game series. Fans of the digital-game series Fallout were active in voicing concern for the upcoming title Fallout 3 (set to release this fall), and did so on the forums of the game’s production studio, Bethesda Softworks. The heart of the tension was that Bethesda wasn’t the developer of Fallout 1 & 2, and was making drastic gameplay and narrative changes to Fallout 3. Analyzing forum interactions made for great study, since I had never seen research document regular producer/fan interaction so deeply, never mind the bombastic beauty of the forum’s confrontations. I’ve never seen such eloquent flames.
A few things impressed me. One of the first things I noticed was that even in a marketplace where geek is in, the producers still seemed to hold all the cards. It was Bethesda’s game. It was Bethesda’s site. It was their vision of Fallout that, whether valid or invalid, would hit the shelves. Fans, recognizing a lack of official ownership or control, acted as lobbyists and watchdogs, attempting to indirectly influence the integrity of Fallout 3 through pleas and petitions spread across thousands of forum posts. Bethesda employees, fittingly, treated fans like outsiders in their responses. Whether cordial or hostile (and different producers interacted in different ways at different times), the undertone was clear: we are the organization, you are the public. We’ll let you suggest, but we will decide. The text is ours.
Even more impressive, fans seemed to happily accept their role in the process. Despite many scholarly concerns over the exploitative side of fan labor, when fans on the official Fallout 3 forum lobbied, suggested, and expanded they did so recognizing that this was their most effective way to influence the integrity of Fallout 3. Exploitation was trivial in the face of such purpose. One poster summed up the general fan perspective on their role in the game development process:
Fallout 3 MUST be like Fallout…the best answer for every question on this forum besides “I have the holy sacred duty to watch over my beloved game”
So the idea that geek is in may not be as empowering to the geeks as I had originally believed. Sure, the internet has afforded fans voice and reach in the development process of the texts they esteem. Sure, many producers are actually listening to the suggestions of fans, and others (especially in the digital-games industry) are incorporating fan feedback and production into the official text. But the tone on the Fallout 3 forum seems to mirror the tone of many media producers. Fans are a great niche market to sell things to, and a ready-made audience to focus-group and beta test. But they are not productive partners in the development of media texts. They are still a rung down on the production ladder. I have to wonder what the media market would look like if producers forgot the words “audience” and “consumer” and began to think of fans as co-laborers in a community of enthusiasts.
Then, I think we could definitively say geek would be in.