Brianna Dym is a Ph.D student in the University of Colorado Boulder’s information science department under Dr. Casey Fiesler. Brianna’s field of study is fanworks: the original creations, derivations, and reimaginings of existing brands and media, from movies to video games. LGBTQIA+ authors engage in this creative component of fandom to produce original stories and games that better represent marginalized groups.
In this podcast, Brianna and I discuss what makes for good source material, and why there’s more fanfic of Dragon Age and Mass Effect than of Call of Duty or Super Meat Boy; whether fandom is necessarily participatory; why Nintendo should be more supportive of derivative works; how fanworks can develop skills in groups historically excluded from STEM fields; and how communities migrate from platform to platform, and why LiveJournal and Tumblr may serve their needs better than a CMS like WordPress.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
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- Brianna Dym
- Participate in Brianna’s research! Fandom & Activism Interview Sign-Up
- Archive of Our Own (AO3)
- Jen Liu of Cornell University
- Jean Hardy of Michigan State University
- Red vs. Blue
- Sherlock Holmes copyright issues
- Extra Life
- Games Done Quick
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello, and welcome to the Polygamer podcast episode number 115 for Wednesday, July 21st, 2021. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. You’re listening to this podcast because you enjoy video games. Odds are you also enjoy TV shows, movies, comic books, graphic novels, novels, and the like. Our relationship with this media manifests in a variety of ways. For some people, they consume the media, they turn it on, they enjoy it, they turn it off and thus ends the relationship. Others engage with it more actively. They listen to podcasts, they read articles, magazines, et cetera. Some people additionally create that media. They create podcasts, YouTube videos, online essays, reviews, et cetera.
Ken: These are all forms of fan creations or fan works, and one subset of fan works is fan fiction, people who take the universes that these other companies, media brands or independent creators have provided to us and choose to extend it, expand it, explore it, and share those creations with other people. I thought it’d be a great idea to examine that phenomenon a little bit more closely today on today’s Polygamer podcast. So please join me in welcoming PhD candidate of information science at University of Colorado, Boulder, Brianna Dym. Hello, Brianna.
Brianna Dym: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Ken: Thank you so much for coming on the show. I have spent the week reading your work, your tweets, your research papers, your website, and it’s just so astonishing how much more there is a fan fiction than what I realize before I started looking into this world. I want to start with your story. As I said, you are a PhD candidate of information science. I’m familiar with information science as an academic field in the context of library science. I briefly pursued a master’s of MLIS, a master’s of library and information science. Your PhD is lacking the library component. So what is information science when it is its own discipline?
Brianna: Information science at its core is the study of the structuring, organization and categorization of information, that also includes data and knowledge. And there is no other overly ambitious attempt to structure and organize information than the internet itself. You have information sciences focusing on online communities, the technology that they interact with, how is the data that those communities generate impacting other spaces, how are the designs of those spaces, which are just very elaborate data structures and information architecture glued together with ones and zeros to make stuff happen. Like, how is all of that impacting people and how are people being impacted by it? Like a computer at its core, if you get down to the binary is just a series of ones and zeros that correlate with a cache of information that the string of binary means this command.
Brianna: And so, you abstract that to like people using social media platforms and sharing information on there and using these technologies to share information and you get information science, which my brand of information science can also be referred to as human centered computing or human computer interaction. It’s a sort of crossover with more traditional information studies with computer science.
Ken: It’s fascinating to hear, you mentioned HCI. My undergraduate offered a course in that, which I presumed would be a precursor to UI/UX design, user interface and user experience. Is that what somebody in information science does?
Brianna: So someone who got like a bachelor or master’s in information science would definitely go into UI/UX. There are people with PhDs in information science that go do UX and UI for major companies like Facebook, they become a researcher in those spaces. Like they would do research on really pioneering things there. And so yes, that is part of it. And user interfaces are part of knowledge systems and organizing those in a way that makes sense.
Ken: When you’re looking at how people use these information platforms, that also sounds like it may overlap a little bit with ethnography or sociology. Is there a component of that as well?
Brianna: Yeah, so information science is the study of the internet to some degree, which means that you’re basically studying human life because that is what the internet is, basically is a digital translation of everything people have going on in their offline lives. And so in order to study that you can use quantitative methods where you process big data models and do a regression analysis or topic modeling on the data that you have there. You can also do ethnographic work. You can do field work where you just sit and observe or you interview, or you collect survey data from people about their experiences in those communities, or just your own traditional observations of what people do in those communities. And that’s all a perfectly legitimate way to study it because at the end of the day, you are studying how people are interacting with an object, which is just basically anthropology, but online in some spaces.
Ken: I love that, online anthropology. What was your academic path that led you to pursue a PhD in information science? Like what was your undergraduate?
Brianna: So I have two English degrees.
Ken: I love it. I love it.
Brianna: Which doesn’t make sense. I started out at the University of Alaska going for a bachelor’s in journalism actually and realized that I wasn’t very comfortable writing stories the way that journalists were expected to write stories, but I loved being an editor and I loved talking to people and coaching them or talking through things. So I decided I’ll go be an English teacher. So I did my bachelor’s of English education. And then in Alaska you have to have a master’s in order to teach at high school level, and so I was like, “Okay, I’ll go get a master’s in teaching now.” But that was a very expensive program that didn’t have any funding to help pay for it, so I said, “Okay, I’ll do a master’s in English instead.” Because they had money for TAs. So I would teach two classes a semester and then take three graduate level courses each semester and then I got my master’s in English.
Brianna: While I was getting that master’s though I started doing a lot of work with a couple of linguists, one associate linguist, and then another one someone who had been trained in new media literacy studies. And so I did a lot of examining of how people socially communicate with one another especially in large groups or in specific settings and examining how people’s language changes from space to space or from person to person that they’re talking to. And I also started researching how people interact with each other online. And I actually took a class from someone about how to observe online communication and we used World of Warcraft as a test for that, and it was fun. I really enjoyed it.
Brianna: So I finished my master’s. I went and did nonprofit work for a while. I wrote grants for a municipal level nonprofit that was focused on doing advocacy work for Southwest Alaska. And I got tired of it that. It felt very volatile, like if the federal government decided not to fund these projects anymore, I suddenly wouldn’t have a paycheck anymore. So I decided to you go back and get a PhD and I started calling around at different universities and I would call the English and linguistics departments because that’s what I had trained in. And I told them that I wanted to study online spaces and people talking to each other digitally because when I was at that nonprofit, the biggest thing that people said that they desperately wanted was better internet so that they could connect with other people online and that made me just realize how important digital spaces are to people and I wanted to explore that further.
Brianna: And it wasn’t until I talked to a professor at Irvine who was friends with a professor I had learned from at University of Alaska and she said, “Well, your interests align perfectly with these people in information science. Why don’t you go talk to them instead?” And I was like, “What? This exists as a field?” And I talked to Dr. Casey Fiesler and 20 minutes later, she was like, “Oh yeah, you would be perfect for this. Here’s how you apply. I’ll see you in February.” Yeah, I went to the visit day and that was it. That’s how it started.
Ken: That is amazing. And you and I have very similar backgrounds, English, teaching, journalism, editing. Now you have me wishing that I knew about information science back then. So one question though, when you say people want better internet, does that mean like higher speeds, better broadband, more available in rural America or are you’re talking about the quality of the communities once they make the connection?
Brianna: For the people I was working with, it was better digital infrastructure, like better broadband, the ability to actually load pictures, the ability to not wait a day to download a song to listen to, because that’s the reality that most of those villages are living in right now in a majority of Alaska, in terms of geographical space. And it was just the end all be all to be able to connect on the internet and be a part of these communities. It was so important for them. And my current work doesn’t necessarily focus on rural communities and their struggles to get connections. That’s its own sub field that a lot of people really research well, like Jean Hardy is involved in that a lot, Jen Liu is involved in that a lot. Jean Hardy is actually a professor at Michigan State University, I think, the one in east Lansing. But I met him as a grad student and Jen Liu is a student at Cornell right now. And they do a lot in rural informatics research.
Ken: So what drew you to study not that, but instead specifically, which we haven’t gotten into yet, fandom and fan created works? Why is that aspect of online community of such interest to you?
Brianna: So when I got to my PhD program, I was my advisor’s second student ever. The program was very new. It had only been in existence for a few years. The founder had previously been a professor in computer science and then was approved to start this department. And my advisor had done her dissertation on fandom and had a bunch of old interviews from that and she said, “Brianna, until you decide what you want to do, I have all this data that could be analyzed in these different ways. Why don’t you go look at it and we can decide on something to do from there?” And so I started looking at all of this data from fan communities and by looking at it realized I had some of my own questions about the community. As someone who was involved in fan communities a lot growing up, I had an in with the community so I could reach out and talk to people very easily. I could solicit people for interviews very easily if that’s something I wanted to do.
Brianna: And so when the time came to start doing data collection on a couple of different projects it was decided mutually between myself and whoever I was collaborating with that fandom would be an interesting community to go into just because I had such a strong presence there. And that’s not something that a lot of people had. That was the benefit of an insider to get to do data collection, if that makes sense. And there was two different projects where the professors I was working for wanted someone to interview people in fandom about some different things and after I had done both of those projects, it basically cemented that, okay, this is what I am going to do for my dissertation, which is fine. I love the work that I’ve done and I love the feedback I’ve gotten on it from other people, but it’s not necessarily going to be everything I look at into the future, if that makes sense.
Ken: When you say you were an insider from growing up, what sort of role did you have?
Brianna: When I was in my very early twenties I was finishing my bachelor’s degree and I finished playing Mass Effect 3, I think, and was so upset at the ending. I was like, “I’m going to go write a new ending and it’s going to be better.” I know everyone their favorite thing is to hate on the Mass Effect 3 ending and now that I’m older it’s like, oh yeah, it was kind of a dumb ending, but I don’t burn as passionately over it anymore. I had been reading fan fiction since I was a young teenager, just because there was nowhere else to read about LGBTQ people and I was exploring my sexuality. I now identify as a lesbian. And that was where you went to read about people being gay on the internet in a way that didn’t feel exploitive or creepy.
Brianna: But I got really, really involved in like writing and commenting and talking with other people when Mass Effect 3 ended and I was like, “I still have a lot of feelings about this franchise. I want to go write about them.” And that’s how it started. I’ve been involved in a bunch of different fandoms since then. I’ve gone to conventions, I’ve spoken on panels. It’s just been a really fun ride since then, but that’s where it started.
Ken: That is awesome. I have a question about what constitutes fandom, because that’s a large part of what your studies are about, and you’ve certainly been an active, engaged, participatory member in a lot of fandoms, including, as you just said, Mass Effect. For a lot of people, their appreciation for media begins and with the experience that is fed to them, they go to the movies, they turn on the television to watch a show, they play a video game and when it’s done, it’s done. So is it necessary to engage or participate or be creative within a medium in order to be a fan or can you just be a passive observer and still be a part of fandom?
Brianna: If you identify as a fan of something, then I think you’re a fan. When I say fandom I’m colloquially referring to a specific subgroup, a subculture even, called transformative fandom in academic words. And transformative fandom is a type of fan community where people are specifically engaging with remixing elements of the original media content into something new. So that can look like fan fiction, fan art, fan videos, fan games, mods, like all of that is a kind of transformative fandom. You have sitting in contrast to that curative or curatorial fandom where people are concerned with organizing and detailing out the facts of what is within this universe, like they catalog and sort of like… They’re kind of like archeologists sort of exhuming all of these details and pinning them down. So that’s the two major types of fandom that people actively participate in.
Brianna: You can be in those fandoms as a lurker where you’re observing what other people are doing, and that still counts as being participatory in that space, because everyone needs someone to read or consume the content you’re generating because otherwise you’re sort of shouting into a void. And then people who don’t engage with those spaces at all, but are a fan of something like they can be a fan of something, but they’re not necessarily participating in the communities that are doing those kinds of activities.
Ken: Well, this is interesting because it’s commonly cited that the binary gender breakdown of gamers is roughly 50 50, but the last time I checked, which is, maybe it was a few years ago, if you look at who engages in online media about games, like who’s watching YouTube videos about games, for example, that falls predominantly more toward the stereotypical male gamer. It sounds like that’s not true with the transformative fandom that you’re talking about. Like, as you just said, it was one of the few places where you could see LGBTQIA characters in fiction. So what sort of demographic breakdown is there in transformative fandom?
Brianna: So transformative fandom is overwhelmingly dominated by women. I have some friends who are straight men in my transformative fan spaces, and the joke is typically like, “Oh, yes, there’s our token straight white man.” And they love that joke. They think it’s hysterical. I mean that genuinely like it’s just really interesting how the role is reversed there. We know based on many, many different surveys and censuses, both done academically and from within the community itself, that fandom is predominantly women, predominantly LGBTQ people and then the second highest gender demographic is non-binary and trans people with cisgender men coming in at the lowest percentage. And it’s usually between one and 5%, depending on the poll.
Brianna: Fandom, depending on which fandom you’re in has different racial breakdowns. So a transformative fandom community that is centered on a show that has a lot of white actors is going to be a very white fandom. And then if it’s K-pop fandom, you’re going to have more East Asian fans. Marvel cinematic universe actually has a lot of really active BIPOC fans, just because you’ve had movies like Black Panther and a few other diversity efforts on Marvel’s part to expand that which is good. And I’m in curatorial fandom and curative fandom that’s where you see most of the men, cisgendered straight white men hanging out. I know that a lot of the ways that curatorial fandom behaves tends to focus on like video analyses and essays on video games that get posted to YouTube, which might be where you’re seeing some of that demographic coming from, I don’t know, but…
Ken: When you say curatorial fandom, that is a content about the source material, as opposed to rewriting the source material?
Brianna: Yeah. It’s content that categorizes and discusses the source material and seeks to get to the truth of what the source material is saying, or the truth of what the source material is about. And that’s a very dramatic way to put it, but it’s people organizing facts, discussing character motivation, discussing all of these things. And that happens in transformative fandom too, to a degree, but it’s the primary focus in curatorial slash curative fandom. And that tends to be a more male dominated space. You have hobbies like collecting in that sort of space. So collecting comics, a lot of people in curatorial fandom often do fandom Wiki edits, stuff like that, where they keep track of an archive, a Wiki, and those are important things to do because when I’m doing research on a video game, I will often go read the Wiki to find like the [codec century 00:20:21] in the video game I’m writing about rather than replaying the video game until I get to that codec century. But the gender demographic happens to be more cis white men in that kind of fan work.
Ken: Well, I think as long as we’re talking about stereotypes, that seems to be the demographic that would be well-suited to mansplaining, so I can see why they might want to post some video essays on their favorite topics.
Brianna: Yeah, if you want to play into stereotypes, that can be how it is. I think the demographic breakdown happens more just from the… I think it has more to do with just the fact that most of the people making transformative fan works, especially fan fiction are writing in different possible worlds and different possible identities and versions of these characters that are not present in the original media, which is overwhelmingly people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, marginalized identities. And so that is why you see a majority of the people in transformative fandom coming from those marginalized backgrounds in my opinion.
Ken: No, I can see that. And it also seems quite, and I don’t mean this in a negative sense, subversive for them to take media that may not represent them or in which they don’t see themselves represented and rewrite those characters or insert those characters. They’re compensating for an oversight, a historical exclusion on the part of Hollywood or Silicon valley.
Brianna: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s a grand old time, like I love the stuff that comes out of fandom. There’s of course the stereotype, like really weird obsessive stuff, but there’s also some really beautiful things like I’ve read Novel Link fan works that are better than most published books I’ve read.
Ken: Wow. And of course we all know Fifty Shades of Gray started off as Twilight Fanfic or was it vice versa?
Brianna: So Fifty Shades of Gray did start off as Twilight Fanfic. And there’s actually a really excellent chapter in a book called the portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy by Mel Stanfill and Anastasia Salter that talks about how E. L. James was treated for making that fan work into an original media property versus some of her other counterparts in the world of auteurs. But that’s a tangent that I don’t need to get into.
Ken: Now, you talked about Marvel and how they’ve had some diversity efforts. Video games, I hope are also becoming more diverse, maybe not inclusive of all demographics, and maybe not at the pace we’d like to see, but I’m certainly seeing more diversity in games like Life is Strange, for example. I noticed in one of your papers you categorize what percentage of fanfiction was from which games and it seemed like Dragon Age and Mass Effect were way up there and inspiring a lot of fanfic. Is that accurate?
Brianna: Yeah. Dragon Age is up there just because it is one of the most popular fanfiction categories on Archive of Our Own, like full stop. So there’s an amount of fanfic just for that media franchise, so it is going to be overwhelmingly represented in the data no matter what. And Mass Effect has an overwhelming amount as well. Games like Overwatch are getting up there as well in terms of sheer numbers. Yeah. It’s interesting. That was my first paper I wrote. I’m impressed you read that.
Ken: I’m thorough. So it sounds like what makes for good source material for fanfic is it has to be a game with a strong narrative. So you’re probably not going to see, for example, Donkey Kong fan fiction, because there’s not a lot there.
Brianna: And not fanfic about Super Meat Boy, for example.
Ken: No. That doesn’t have a good narrative?
Brianna: Not good enough for fanfic.
Ken: Got you. And it has to have a diverse cast. And maybe not demographically diverse, but at least a lot of different characters that people can play around with as opposed to a silent protagonist. Is there a lot of Legend of Zelda fanfic? I imagine there is some, but Link never says anything and that is sort of a blank slate, which can be both good and bad for fanfic.
Brianna: Oh, I’m going and looking at the fandoms right now that you said that. I’m just curious. Control F, Zelda. Oh God, there’s 23 pings for Zelda.
Ken: Like 23 stories or?
Brianna: No, just categories because they… So Archive of Our Own is brilliant in terms of its categorization system, but it’s very thorough. So every time there’s an entry into the Legend of Zelda franchise, there is a sub category for it. The overarching category says there’s 20,000 fan fictions or 19,268 fanfictions for the legend of Zelda and related fandoms. So that would include like Wand of Gamelon and stuff like that as well as opposed to Mass Effect, the Mass Effect trilogy or Mass Effect all media types has 25,000 fan fictions-
Ken: Oh. That’s almost comparable to Zelda.
Brianna: Yeah. Overwatch has 36,000 fan fictions. That’s gone up a lot in recent years actually.
Brianna: Dragon Age… Whoops. I spelled that wrong. Dragon Age has 72,000 fan fiction entry.
Ken: 72,000. Wow.
Brianna: It is one of the most popular categories on the site. Detroit Become Human has 24,000, but that has an ensemble cast with a lot of characters. Like everything we’ve looked at that’s had that high of an amount does have an ensemble cast with a lot of really rich characters. Legend of Zelda is a classic and has a lot of really interesting characters in it, especially in Breath of the Wild where you had these voiced characters interacting with Link. So I think Breath of the Wild might’ve contributed to the popularity of that genre. I don’t know. You could do an analysis of like when fics were written about it and see when there was a spike. And that’s a cool analysis to do as well. Like the MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, saw a huge spike in fanfic every time there was like a new like DLC or new expansion with new romanceable characters. So people would just start writing new stories about the new romance options, if that makes sense.
Brianna: So if you have content and the characters are likable and you want to like write about them smooching, like people will write stories about it.
Ken: Smooching. I knew it. But with games getting more diverse and Mass Effect offers a lot of romance options. Is the motivation to correct an oversight of representation still there? I mean, why create fanfic if the source material’s already doing such a good job of representing people?
Brianna: Because it’s fun. Here’s an analogy that’s not a video game, but the cartoon show, RWBY, R-W-B-Y.
Ken: Oh yes.
Brianna: That has really incredible LGBTQ representation and myself and my friends are all really involved in the fandom for it just because it’s a fun universe to play in and it’s just a fun fan community to play around in. And it’s a really rich, detailed world that you can make iterative stories about. I mean, if you look at Dragon Age: Inquisition or Mass Effect: Andromeda, those were games that had arguably a very diverse cast of characters, but people still go in and write all sorts of different kinds of fanfic about it. And like sometimes that is to correct, like I will always be sad that Cassandra Pentaghast was not a romance option for the female player character.
Brianna: I feel like that was a mistake on their part to not design that in and I think that there’s a pattern that BioWare has of like designing these deuteragonists that support the main character that are often hot women that are independent and like go getters, like Miranda Lawson and Cora Harper in Mass Effect that are reserved just for the guy, women can’t romance them. And Cassandra Pentaghast kind of falls into that category as well and it’s weird. And so it’s nice to go in and sort of play around with what could have been possible here, not necessarily from the player romancing that character, but other characters interacting with each other and what if we didn’t make assumptions about the character this way, or what if the character wasn’t written to be like this and how would that play out in a story? So even if you do have the diversity there’s always more what ifs you could ask.
Ken: So I guess you really can’t ask the question of whether there’s a correlation between the diversity of the source material and the quantity of fanfic it produces because no matter the diversity of the source material, there’s going to be a reason to write fanfic about it.
Brianna: Yeah. And typically you see… it comes down to having a strong narrative and an ensemble cast. And typically when you have those two things present, you’re going to have more diverse representation anyways, because games that don’t have a strong narrative, whether told through environmental storytelling or told through actual dialogue, there’s not going to be diversity in there. Like Nidhogg, the game about fencers poking each other with sticks does not have diversity because you’re literally like these pixels on a screen doing twitch reflex stabs at each other. That’s not the point of the game, but if you have a narrative, then there’s opportunity to interact with diversity in ways that sort of just snowball.
Ken: Has there ever been a game that you were surprised to see fanfic exist of?
Brianna: No. I was surprised that there was… even just a couple hundred stories about Call of Duty-
Ken: Oh, wow.
Brianna: … franchise because there’s not a lot of… I guess maybe they’ve tried to add some characters to that in recent additions. I haven’t played Call of Duty since the original one that came out on the Xbox 360 that was set in World War II. There was a couple of hundred fanfics about that. And so everyone will write fanfic about something, but the quantity is always going to be less and less with if you just don’t have those really rich engaging narratives.
Ken: Right. So Dragon Age is a very popular game. Call of Duty is a very popular game. They both have large installed fan bases, but Call of Duty lacks those other criteria that we discussed. So not only, if I understand correctly are there fan fiction, which is written narrative, there are also fan created games, is that correct?
Brianna: Oh yeah. Fan [crosstalk 00:31:55].
Ken: And are those based on… just like fan fiction, are those based on existing brands or are they just like basically original indie games?
Brianna: So there’s multiple different types of fan games, like there’s fan games that use RPG Maker and then they pirate the source code and assets for whatever game they want using software packages. And I’m not going to give specific examples because I don’t want the poor people who make these games and make them available for free without any profit expectations to be served DMCA take down notices.
Brianna: So you have games like that. You also have people who make dating sims about original media properties. That’s a really popular form of fan game is to make a dating sim for a media property that would never make a dating sim.
Brianna: So they’re like filling a gap there. People love visual novels. They’re fun. I think they’re a really interesting way to do storytelling. And there’s really unique game mechanics that you can pull into a visual novel that aren’t present in like a static story. So it’s a really interesting area to explore with that. So I think those are the two kinds of fan games I’ve seen. There’s also like mods that do a full transformation of a game. So communities where moders have support, like in Bethesda games, you see like Tales of [Enderol 00:33:27], I think was a full transformation of Skyrim. And then there’s Fallout New London, which is going to be a total transformation mod of Fallout 4. There’s also been Dust and Frost release for the Fallout franchise, which are these total transformations and they tell new stories. They’re borrowing the setting to tell a new story and so… It’s a fan game. That’s what it is.
Ken: And since you’re mentioning those total transformations by name, are they not subjected to DMCA takedowns?
Brianna: So the ones that I mentioned are highly publicized and Bethesda cooperates with those modern communities a lot. There’s a lot of… Bethesda is a company that is happy to provide tools for these total transformative mods and let people do what they want with them. The way people can profit off of those is a little blurred. Bethesda has tried to do things with Creation Club and sanction, like selling mods through… But that would involve them taking a cut of the profit and there’s been backlash to it. But that’s the long way of saying Bethesda doesn’t traditionally serve DMCA takedown notices against its modding community.
Ken: Well, that’s nice. It kind of reminds me of, you mentioned RWBY earlier, which is made by Rooster Teeth, which also makes Red vs. Blue, which uses a lot of Halo animation and Microsoft fully supports them with doing that.
Brianna: No. Yeah, they do machinima of Halo which is cool. And there are beautiful moments where a fan project gets sanctioned and is allowed to exist by the original media property owners and that’s great. And you’re starting to see that a little bit more frequently out in the world, but companies like Nintendo-
Ken: Whoof. Yeah.
Brianna: … are still really, really anti fans doing anything. Like it wasn’t until very recently that you were allowed to do Let’s Play of Pokemon on a YouTube. I think that was just a few years ago that they okayed that.
Ken: And you still can’t monetize it, or you can, but Nintendo takes a cut.
Brianna: Yeah, no, they’re still extremely anti fan ish activity around their games, which is so bizarre to me because it’s not like they’re actually going to feasibly lose any profit.
Ken: Yeah. I mean, Nintendo was so big that at this point, what could possibly harm them unless… I mean, we’re not talking about releasing source code or piracy. We’re talking about fan created works. I mean, even Paramount and CBS, they cracked down on Star Trek fan shows. They’re still allowed to exist, but they have all these rules and regulations now whereas it used to just be… There were no rules. You could do whatever you wanted and it’s been so disheartening to see them say, you can’t do this anymore.
Brianna: Yeah, no, it’s sad. I think fan communities… I have never seen a fan product eclipse the profit margin of what it was based off of, except maybe like E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Gray weirdly enough. But even then Stephenie Meyer had to have made more off of the Twilight franchise in total, even then.
Ken: Right. And I know that you can’t live off publicity. We shouldn’t expect people to work for free just because they’re getting publicity, but at the same time, something like Red vs. Blue is not stealing profit from the original source material, which is Halo. Halo is already very profitable. It’s not living off publicity, but I got to imagine that some people saw Red vs. Blue and went back to the source material because of it.
Brianna: Yeah. Definitely. I think it’s a very symbiotic relationship 99% of the time. So I’m not a lawyer, but my advisor is, and she has explained copyright law to me a lot. And there’s this idea that in order for a fan work to be proven unlawful, there’s a few different criteria that it has to match, but one of them has to be you have to demonstrably prove that this fan work existing is directly impacting in a negative way the profit of the original media property, and Red vs. Blue would not do that because it’s a show, not a video game. So people aren’t going to choose to play Red vs. Blue and then… Because they can’t, they physically can’t. They just watch it. It’s a different kind of medium.
Ken: So just to make sure I understand this, machinima is fan fiction.
Brianna: I think machinima is a type of fan work. Yeah.
Ken: Awesome. I’d never really thought of it that way because I’ll be honest I’ve never actually played Halo. I’m not a huge first person shooter game, same with Call of Duty, but I love Red vs. Blue. Oh my God. It’s hilarious. And I knew that they were using Halo material, but for some reason I never made the connection this is fan fiction.
Brianna: Yeah, no. It’s a type of fan work. There’s a ton of fan works in the world. Like people remix old mythologies or old characters, like anything that uses sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters, Sherlock and Watson is essentially like a fan work. There’s just not a copyright on those characters. So people get to make money off of it and make like big box productions out of it without consequence.
Ken: Is that true now? Because I remember when I saw Professor Moriarty show up on the holodeck of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the credit said that he was appearing with permission from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate.
Brianna: Hmm. So I might not be entirely sure on that, but I’m fairly certain that Sherlock Holmes is a licensable character with more flexibility than say Mickey Mouse.
Ken: Yeah. And I don’t know off the top of my head, what the copyright date is on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works and if, and when they expired and also it could be that it has expired and it’s still just good decorum to reach out to the estate.
Brianna: Yeah. I’m not sure on the details on that, but I do know that there’s a lot more flexibility on using those characters than say like anything that Disney company has touched ever.
Ken: Well, as you said, you’re not a lawyer. Let me join you, I’m also not a lawyer. So we’re just making this up as we go. To all our listeners who are lawyers I know you’re grinding your teeth right now. I apologize.
Brianna: Yes. I’m sure I am mutilating my advisor’s words.
Ken: So one question I have that you have done some research into and continue to research is that people who create these fan works are often doing computational work. They are working with computers, they’re building websites for their favorite characters, they’re using content management systems to host this material, maybe even developing some rudimentary programming to have like online chats and interactions with their characters and sometimes they don’t see what they’re doing as being in the realm of computer science. They’re just like, “Oh, this is just fan fiction.” And also since you said that fan work is often created by historically excluded marginalized groups, is fan work a way to address the STEM pipeline that has these groups not represented in it feels like computer science?
Brianna: So, yeah. My dissertation is being funded by the National Science Foundation to basically investigate alternative paths to computing. And so some of the things that we were investigating is people creating these transformative works and looking at the skills they learn as they’re doing it. And the big finding we have so far is that people just don’t think of their hobbies and things they do for fun as rigorous work or a process of learning valuable skills in any way, shape or form. They’re like, “Yeah, I taught myself to do this code for this thing, but I don’t think of myself as a programmer.” When in reality being a programmer it means memorizing some of these syntaxes really rigorously, but it also you’re a more effective programmer if you’re able to efficiently look up and parse information that you find online to help you troubleshoot whatever problem it is you’re running into and thinking of creative solutions around whatever bug it is you’re trying to work out and code. Those are skills that you learned from doing creative projects that have sort of loose boundaries and loosely defined criteria sometimes.
Brianna: And that sounds a little like derogatory and put downy towards all the great computer science professors out there, but there is a problem where a lot of CS and intro to programming classes are taught in this way of like you must learn how to write this code that makes a calculator function and you cannot look up anything on the internet, you cannot talk to your friends for help. If we find out that you did that, you cheated and you fail. And that’s a horrible way to teach anyone a skill, I think. That just makes people absolutely afraid to try because that’s teaching you that failure is just inevitable and that it’s bad when you fail. And if you try to ask for help, then you’re bad.
Brianna: And so I’d like to see more computer science classrooms and more programming classes be taught with this sort of project model of like, “We’re going to give you a project, pick out this thing that you enjoy and scope a project around it. Here’s some of the things the project has to do. Here’s how you can collaborate with other people to do it.” Make it more of like a fun portfolio kind of building thing. And there are professors out there doing this kind of thing, but I’d like to see it more standardized across classrooms as like this is a legitimate way to learn programming.
Ken: There are a couple of things in there that I found interesting. One is that people don’t necessarily see their hobbies as teaching them valuable professional skills and yet at the same time, I think a lot of people want to make their hobbies be there living. Like how many people falsely or inaccurately look at Twitch streamers and be like, “Oh, they get to play video games for a living. I wish I could do that.”? Or how many of… There’s a lot more that goes into Twitch streaming than just playing video games. Like I grew up playing video games and I thought, “Well, this is what I want to do for a living. I want to make video games for a living.” And so I think a lot of us are inspired by our hobbies, but it sounds like you’re talking about a more orthogonal entry point into computer science where people are writing fan fiction and they love that, but you’re not suggesting that they make fan fiction their hobby. You’re saying that fan fiction is teaching them 10 gentle skills that they could develop into a career.
Brianna: Yeah. And not just fan fiction, but like fans making podcasts or pod fic, fan art, all these sorts of… And a lot of fan artists actually do have careers as like, you know, designers and artists like that pipeline is way more established. People in fandom who do data analytics for fun on their fan communities, because it’s just really fun to see what trends look like in the fandom space. You’re teaching yourself how to do these really basic things that are actually like a really strong foundation for understanding how to do more complex things in a different field. And so I don’t necessarily think that every single person should be a computer scientist, but I think everyone should have some level of literacy with computer programming and how the internet works that you see people sort of establishing as a baseline just to exist in fandom. And they’re learning those skills just to hang out with their friends and have fun.
Brianna: So if you could design classroom spaces to let people have fun and hang out in like projects that they’re passionate about, you might be able to teach a baseline of skills in a much more comfortable way that doesn’t have students crying, because they’re afraid that if they Google something they’ll be caught for cheating and kicked out.
Ken: Right. Yeah. I mean, when you go to work at a AAA studio, you’re going to be on a team with many other people, all collaborating. It’s not going to be you working in a silo unless you’re doing an indie game in which case I know co-working spaces that are themed around independent game development. So you have 20 different indie game developers, all working on their own thing, each sitting five feet from each other, all helping each other because in the end, we’re all trying to do the same thing here, so what is the point of creating this false competition. It’s really disappointing to hear that you can’t Google things or else you fail.
Brianna: Yeah. And not every classroom is designed like that, but there are a lot of CS classrooms I’ve seen that take that approach. Some of the professors just have the attitude that we’ve got a toughen up these kids. I think they forget that when you’re… between 18 and 22 you are learning how to be an adult and your life is kind of on fire, so having a collaborative environment where you can lean on each other for support is actually a really healthy and good thing.
Ken: Yes. Yeah. Especially if you are a demographic that is historically [00:48:28] to share emotions or ask for help.
Brianna: Yeah. So it creates a really toxic environment and so that’s why you see only a very specific kind of person typically getting through those programs. It’s typically people who work more effectively as loners. It’s typically people who have a special interest in computers that dates back to being a child, like it was their entire life and they carried that interest into college and that’s great for them, but I think we need to widen people’s ability to have a sustained interest in the subject, just for the sake of developing like these basic literacies with computers. Because it’s really important as technology gets more and more insipid in some ways like just citing issues with misinformation and disinformation campaigns and understanding how algorithmically curated content works and content moderation systems and all of these really complex intersections between the social and the technical. We need to be able to, as a society, understand how all of that works. And I think introductory courses are a place where we can establish that baseline for people.
Ken: Absolutely agree, as somebody who dropped out of a computer science program, I wished it had been more like what you are describing.
Brianna: Oh, cool. I’m glad it resonates with you.
Ken: It certainly does.
Brianna: I was in like the kumbaya hippie English program, so I feel kind of like a faker when I describe these spaces, just because it’s everything I’ve seen as an outside observer and just from talking to other people and interviewing other people and surveying other people. It’s not firsthand experience I have.
Ken: No, but it is accurate. You are accurately representing the people that you’re talking about. Trust me.
Brianna: Okay. Thank you. I appreciate that.
Ken: And I understand that currently you’re conducting interviews as part of this ongoing research into the intersection of activism and fandom. So tell me a little bit about what you’re hoping to find there.
Brianna: My broader dissertation is looking at these sort of participatory cycles we have in online spaces. What I mean by that… Hopefully, what I mean by that is this idea that most online communities have these mechanisms both socially and encouraged by the platform to participate in a sort of cyclical manner, kind of like gameplay loops. Like you have a satisfying gameplay loop, you like doing it over and over again. Online communities are designed with these satisfying gameplay loops so that you come back to them and keep participating in them. A lot of that engagement is structured in that way to keep people coming back and engaging, but I’m interested in these cycles in a more broad sense of like looking at, what is the overall outcome of people participating in this community, leveraging this technology, interacting with it, whether for good or bad over a long period of time?
Brianna: And so the activism and fandom piece comes in just sort of investigating what is another outcome of people interacting with a fan community and then doing activism within that fan community, what is the outcome of that activism? Are people encouraged to do activism as part of like this cyclical process and fandom and it’s interesting how people sort of organize… I interviewed 13 people so far, and what I’ve seen is a lot of people talking about how they tend to organize themselves around these events. Like, “Oh, we have this annual charity that I donate my fan fiction or fan art to and then people bid on it and then we give the money we earned to a charity.” Or like, “Oh, there’s these [Zenes 00:52:22] I submit to. And then we publish the Zene and all of the profits from the sales go to a charity we’ve picked out.” Or like, “Oh, there’s this hashtag campaign we want to do to draw attention to this issue. We’re going to go organize that on Twitter.”
Brianna: And so there is, like some of these… There is some kind of cyclical nature to it to some degree, but I think what’s more interesting right now with those interviews is just hearing people talk about how having a shared cultural touchstone, like a book or a movie or a TV show or a video game that they all love helps them get interested in and care about other things that are maybe not directly connected to them. And so that’s been an interesting finding from that so far.
Ken: Well, that’s interesting to me. I’m familiar with, of course Games Done Quick, which just happened and is a fundraiser and Extra Life, which is gaming marathons for raising money. But I haven’t really thought about it in any other context besides raising money, I guess, is what those common elements are. Like I’ve never gone… I’ve gone to rallies and marches, but never as part of a larger group that had some other common theme among them, like a video game or a book or a movie. Are people who are engaged in a specific fandom taking their activism offline?
Brianna: In some cases, yes. I don’t have a lot of data on this yet. I want to launch a broader survey to hopefully get input from thousands of people rather than tens. But you see colloquial examples of this, like last summer when K-pop fandom decided it was just going to troll Donald Trump and troll every single white supremacist hashtag to appear on Twitter by flooding them with fan cams. And that was a kind of activism they were doing that wasn’t tied to this fundraising sort of thing, but it was tied to manipulating social media in a way that favored them and made information access and organizing impossible for the people who are using those mechanisms which is powerful and interesting.
Brianna: But there’s a lot more going on than just that in fandom. I think my theory and I would like to talk to a lot more people and I would like to conduct a survey before I write up to anything official about this, but my theory is that fan communities have been operating in this space of really sophisticated information exchange since like the ’70s, when they were stapling Zenes together and operating mailing lists and shipping edited analog videos around the world for ages and now they’re online and they have like these more sophisticated instantaneous tools. And so there are some information practices in the community that help quickly enable different kinds of activism or disruptions that lend themselves well to that kind of work. But I’d like to talk to more people before I be more definitive about that.
Ken: And if people would like to talk to you on that topic, I believe you have a Google Form they can fill out.
Brianna: Yes. I would love for them to fill it out. I have 13 interviews. I would like to just… I would happily interview 17 more people. I told my institutional review board that I would not talk to more than 35 people, because typically if you talk to that many people or more, you start seeing vastly diminishing returns. Humans are surprisingly predictable once you’ve heard this story from like 30 different people around the same topic, the diversity of experiences is less and less and less and less. Like it’s a long tail curve after that.
Ken: Where can people find this survey?
Brianna: You can go to my Tumblr, which is… I’ll pull it up right now. It is my first and last name.tumblr.com, briannadym.tumblr.com. And then it is the second post. It’s under my pinned post and there’s a link to the Google Form. People can also check out my Twitter. It was recently retweeted or… I’ll retweet it again, it’s on my timeline. They can find it there. I’ll refresh that link just so that people can find it.
Ken: Awesome. And there’ll be links to those in the show notes as well. Now, for those for whom fan fiction and fan works are sort of new to them and having listened to this podcast they’re interested in consuming or producing that kind of content. Where can they go? It’s been a long time since LiveJournal has been the destination. You mentioned Archive of Our Own, which up until this week, I’d never heard of. Are there other places they should check out?
Brianna: I like Archive of Our Own the best. There’s other websites like fanfiction.net and oh, Wattpad. I think a lot of young people are on both of those spaces. So if you’re like a minor, if you’re like between 12 and 18, like sure, go check out those spaces. But for older folks AO3, Archive of Our Own is a very good website. It has a really sophisticated search function, so you can filter out stuff that you don’t want to see, so like, if you want to see general or teen rated fix only you can mark that and it will show them to you. So you don’t have to like filter through all of the mature and explicit stuff that might be dealing with things that you’re not ready to read about right away in fandom.
Brianna: That’s one of the things. Whenever I have to train a new researcher in looking at fan communities, I have to caution them. We’re like, “Okay, you’re going to go here. There’s going to be some really, really weird stuff that might make you feel uncomfortable, but I promise that there’s other really interesting and cool stuff on there. You just have to carefully read all of the tags and really constrain your search functions.”
Ken: There’s one other topic, which I don’t know if it’s too late to be bringing this up because it could probably be its own podcast. You wrote a paper called, Moving Across Lands about migrations from one online community to another, which I’ve done several times in my life. I went from CompuServe to GEnie to Delphi to [Cynicom 00:58:46] Online. And I got so tired of playing in other people’s sandboxes and watching them get shut down, but that’s when I moved to WordPress and create my own sandbox where I could publish my own content and not have to worry about somebody else taking it away. Your paper, Moving Across Lands mentioned Tumblr dozens of times. It didn’t mention WordPress by name and that’s just one of many CMSs. So do you recommend… like clearly there’s a collaborative function to this and we were just talking about that, especially in the classroom and that’s easier to do in a socially connected environment, like Archive of Our Own or Tumblr, but then there’s the trade-off that you’re playing in somebody else’s sandbox, WordPress tends to be more siloed, more isolated, but it’s your own space.
Ken: So where do you recommend people go? Like what makes a good fandom platform?
Brianna: I would first argue that WordPress is somebody else’s sandbox in that if WordPress goes under, you’re going to lose all of your content on WordPress.
Ken: No. WordPress is open source software.
Ken: You can host it anywhere you want.
Brianna: I stand corrected. Never mind.
Ken: Well, it is a little confusing because there is wordpress.com, which is a hosting platform, but you can always export your content from there and use the same software that they are using and you can put it on DreamHost, GoDaddy-
Brianna: Oh, okay.
Ken: [crosstalk 01:00:08] Mac Mini of your own, et cetera.
Brianna: Ah, okay. That makes sense. That’s where my confusion was coming from. Sorry, I am-
Ken: No worries.
Brianna: … uneducated in the ways of WordPress. You need that social connectivity for it to work, which is why I think WordPress isn’t as popular as a fan platform. WordPress has also stylized itself as this professional blogging tool. I think Tumblr was trying to stylize itself like that for a while and now I just don’t think they know what they’re doing with the property now that they… Whoever owns it right now, I think it’s Verizon.
Ken: They sold it to Automatic, which is the company that also makes wordpress.com.
Brianna: Okay. Interesting. So I have no idea what they want to do with Tumblr now. Probably not make a duplicate WordPress because they already have a WordPress, but you need these social spaces. Discord is really nice for fan communities. The thing about Discord is that it’s a very isolated space so that you have to know what communities to ask to get into in order to get into them and it’s typically through word of mouth, but it’s a very socially oriented space. And Tumblr had a lot of social features that people liked, like the ask feature built into the dashboard and the fact that you could have these micro blogs all in a feed like Twitter. But you could also have these long posts and you could have a lot of visual media, like art posts circulating around all at once. And people could reply to each other and there was a private chat function. All of those things sort of mixed together.
Brianna: Whereas WordPress is kind of like an independent blogging platform where you have your blog and it’s not necessarily connected to someone else’s blog or like 30 other people’s blogs in a way that’s easily accessible for other people in the community.
Ken: One compromise is always to do both is if you’re going to publish fanfic put it on Archive of Our Own and post a copy to your blog, whether that’s Drupal, Joomla, LiveJournal, WordPress or whatever.
Brianna: You could do that. Archive of Our Own is also a nonprofit.
Ken: Oh, I didn’t know. It’s actually a 501(c)(3)?
Brianna: Yeah, it is not for profit. If you go to their about page and you go to about us, the organization for Transformative Works is a nonprofit organization established by fans in 2007 to serve the interest of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fan works in culture in its myriad forms. So Transformative Works and Cultures is this non-profit that runs AO3 and they keep the servers running through donations. They also use donations to fund repairs to the website. The website is maintained by volunteers typically, unless they need to do a big overhaul and they’ll hire a consultant to help out with that, but it’s all volunteer run and organized and maintained. And it was actually started by LiveJournal deleting a bunch of people’s content, and everyone was so upset about that. They’re like we should build our own space and AO3 was born. And it’s incredible. It’s also an open source project.
Ken: So the organization for transformative works is a 501(c)(3) that was created from the result of exactly the kind of community migrations that led me to open up my own WordPress site.
Brianna: Yep. It’s really cool.
Ken: Oh, that’s great. As I said, I didn’t know anything about AO3 before this week and the things that you were teaching me are just delighting me. So thank you.
Brianna: Oh yeah. No, no problem. I love AO3. People get like angry at it sometimes because when they were putting the site together they decided that the only kind of content… the only kind of law they would have around what kind of content could be on the platform was that it had to be legal according to US law. And if it was legal according to US law, then they would never take it down from the website. And they had to tag it appropriately. If it wasn’t tagged appropriately, it would be hidden until the person had tagged it appropriately for like major warnings and stuff. So people get angry about some of the content that’s on AO3 because some of it can be fairly extreme, because US law gives you a lot of wiggle room about what you’re allowed to put on a website. But that was the line they drew and it allows people to explore things in a safe way that they would not be able to do on other platforms.
Ken: That’s fantastic. I will be happy to share a link to this in the show notes for this episode. Thank you. And as long as we’re talking about links, where can our listeners find you online besides your Tumblr?
Brianna: I’m on Twitter @BriannaDym. If your account looks like a bot, I will block you. I’m sorry. I also have a WordPress site myself. If you Google me, it’s like one of the first results to come up with. Yeah, it’s my top result, but it’s just briannadym.com and people can go on there and look at my CV. I’m on the job market right now.
Ken: Good to know.
Brianna: So if there’s anyone out there who’s hiring at a public university, I sound like a joy, don’t I? You should hire me.
Ken: So you’re looking to join the faculty of a college and teach information science?
Brianna: Information science, computer science, media studies, communication. I would be able to fit into a lot of different departments. Once I get a tenure track position, which is what I want, I would like to start doing more research into online communities and ways that people escape dangerous situations offline, like people escaping cults, people escaping domestic abuse situations, people escaping like unhealthy spaces in their offline life. And that actually has some overlap in fandom in that fan communities represent a safe space, a place of respite for people who are dealing with those problems in their everyday lives. So I’ve tangentially come across some of those problems in my research, but I want to make that the primary focus wherever I end up teaching and researching, moving forward.
Ken: Fantastic. Well, based on this conversation and everything else you’ve contributed to this dialogue both online and off, I think you have great things in store for you.
Brianna: Oh, well, thank you. That’s very kind of you to say.
Ken: Thank you so much for your time, Brianna and thank you to your advisor, Professor Casey Fiesler for connecting us in the first place. This has been a joy.
Brianna: Yeah. It has. It’s been great.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog or send feedback at polygamer.net.
Brianna: I’m going to apologize ahead of time my cats woke up and decided now is the time to bother me. So I might stop and have to like chuck a cat off my desk at different intervals.