Not being deeply familiar with fan studies, my initial response to these provocations comes from my perspective on how to best do constructive criticism, which I believe resonates with the concept of acafan that Henry champions. I like to approach experiences as a fan, in that I want to like what I’m about to experience, and I’m looking forward to it. So whether it’s a movie, a show, a video game, etc, I hope I’m going to have a positive experience. Not to go into too much detail here, but I find it most useful to consider these experiences from an aesthetic perspective in order to best formulate an analysis and criticism of that experience. And to be as constructive as possible, I always start with what works well in an experience, and then follow with what could make it even better. This helps articulate how I think about the concept of acafan. It’s a way to do critical analysis that acknowledges appreciation as well. For me, it’s less about combining two different identities (that of academic and that of a fan) and more about the best way to be academic (having a passion for what one is studying). And I find that every experience we have is subjective and it’s best to address this in your criticism. Also, I believe that it is through stories that we make sense of the experiences we have, which lends itself to dialogic discussions as we perform critical conversations. This has become a guiding principle for the Well Played series of books (and nascent journal) in which academics, journalists, developers and players do close in-depth readings of the experience of playing video games. Throughout, the contributors share the stories of their gameplaying experiences in order to best analyze what makes a game work well, and what could make it even better. Editing these books and working with all the contributors has only helped illustrate for me that the act of critically sharing the stories of our experiences is an effective (and affective) method to do constructive criticism, and possibly the best way to be an acafan.
As someone who isn’t steeped in academic tradition, I must confess that I initially felt overwhelmed by the prospect of addressing these provocations. Yet they sparked a flood of passionate responses that, once I sifted through them, were very informative about my own process of consuming and discussing media, but my impression of academia and acafandamia.
I have come to believe that the academic pursuit of objective truth regarding intangibles like human culture is a mug’s game. It’s certainly a noble pursuit, and ultimately very instructive about our own nature, but the goal of true objectivity cannot be obtained. This is true of when we study dead cultures and it’s even more true when we study a living culture of which we’re an active participant. Any views we may have on the role of media in our culture are inherently subjective and to imagine that we can somehow transcend a lifetime of cultural immersion and take some lofty objection position is
However, on the other side of the coin we have fandom, which often embraces highly subjective views as absolute objective reality. This is hardly a constructive approach to life–and the distinction between life and fandom is often blurred for fans–emotionally or intellectually, serving to accentuate the social discomfort and feelings of isolation and false superiority. This approach has been propped up by commercial media critics, who strive to lock in ratings–and therefore corporate sponsorships–by passing their subjective taste off as academically objective truth.
So if this is the problem, what is the solution? I’d suggest that a middle ground is imperative. We must strive to acknowledge, embrace, and account for our own subjective experience while both taking a long view and accepting the validity of others’ subjective experiences. This, from what exposure I’ve had to it, is the foundation of acafandom–a bridge between two fundamentally flawed approaches to understanding media, culture, and ourselves.
The benefits of drawing upon the strengths of academia and fandom while, hopefully, minimizing their weaknesses is considerable. The primary benefit, as I see it, is the impact a more open-handed interaction has had on the fandom community has been stabilizing and elevating. For example, the even-tempered public discourse around video games and the social issues inherent in their portrayal of violence and sexuality has become far more prevalent over the last five years. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the maturation of the fan base, but a large part of it is due to the accessibility of critical theory in the fields of race, gender, and media. This serves to make the benefits of academic rigour immediately accessible to the culture it studies. And if academia doesn’t serve to elevate all aspects of our culture, it will continue to lose relevance as our increasingly-accelerating culture overtakes its intellectual market share.
Following on Drew’s impulse, I guess the issue of subjectivity in academic pursuit has always been suspicious to me. I grew up as an academic in Literature studying Derrida and not taking it that seriously. Are we really supposed to ignore the magic of the texts we read? Why did we start reading them in the first place? Similarly, I think every academic field starts with a genuine passion for the practitioner for that field, and trying to eliminate that love would be tantamount to removing all motivation from research and teaching.
That said, it’s not fandom. Fandom is passion for a particular instantiation of a medium or narrative. Fandom is about loving Harry Potter, not loving reading, and that leads to a different consumption pattern. I don’t think there’s any more subjectivity in fandom at least in terms of the choice of object of passion, but I do think there’s a lack of critical perspective. “Fankids” are most extreme version of this flaw — people who slavishly watch everything labelled Star Wars despite widely varying quality or people who argue that Wheel of Time is just as good at the end as it is at the beginning have lost an ability to see the work they are looking at and evaluate it either for merit, or more critically to this conversation, for its meaning or position in the medium.
It leads me to wonder is acafandom is oxymoronic, or whether (more likely)acafandom is an elitist position. It seems like taking a critical perspective on work and judging it on “objective” standards of the medium as a whole means that an acafan would only consider objects that have a requisite level of depth or quality as worthy of consumption. Is an acafan just a fan whose rarefied taste precludes certain work from consideration? Is it just a reconstitution of the high art debate for a new medium? As an academic of a former life, I have no problem with canons and gates on inferior work, but that makes it no less elitist.
And if the opening sentence here isn’t true, what does that mean? Do we have some masochistic desire to consume work we think is trashy or flawed? Are we doomed to be Doug complaining about how Scratchy’s rib plays two different notes?
We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.
Drew Davidson is a professor, producer and player of interactive media. His background spans academic, industry and professional worlds and he is interested in stories across texts, comics, games and other media. He is the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center – Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University and the Editor of ETC Press.
Corvus Elrod is a Semionaut and Narrative Designer. He is the co-founder of Zakelro! Story Studio and creator of The HoneyComb Engine, an upcoming open and extensible tabletop RPG framework. He has been designing participatory experiences for the better part of two decades, beginning with his exploration of improvisational theater. As he incorporated more and more game mechanics into his performances, he turned his attention to how video game mechanics communicate meaning and began formalizing a semiotic theory of game design. He has contracted for a broad spectrum of clients, from major game studios and publishers to installation artists, and has worked on several small game projects in collaboration with independent developers and artists.
Nick Fortugno is a game designer and entrepreneur of digital and real-world games based in New York City, and a founder of Playmatics, a NYC game development company. Playmatics has created a variety of games including the CableFAX award winning Breaking Bad: The Interrogation and the New York Public Library’s centennial game Find the Future with Jane McGonigal. For the past ten years, Fortugno has been a designer, writer and project manager on dozens of commercial and serious games, and served as lead designer on the downloadable blockbuster Diner Dash and the award-winning serious game Ayiti: The Cost of Life. Nick is also a co-founder of the Come Out and Play street games festival hosted in New York City and Amsterdam since 2006, and co-creator of the Big Urban Game for Minneapolis/St. Paul in 2003. Nick teaches game design and interactive narrative design at Parsons The New School of Design, and has participated in the construction of the school’s game design curriculum. Nick’s most recent writing about games can be found in the anthology Well-Played 1.0: Video Game, Value, and Meaning, published by ETC-Press.