Your book can also be understood as part of a new emphasis on materiality within fandom studies. You write, “Stuff – bodies, fabrics, plastic – allows us to tell stories.” What general claims might we make about the ways that fans make meaning and form affective relations with “stuff”? Are there specific sites which become more central to the field as we begin to take materiality seriously as part of our approach.
Very good question! Stuff, whether it’s merchandise or fabric, has meaning. This can show in multiple things – our relationships with our collections, our fashion and fan apparel, our archives. There’s a certain performativity to stuff – we want these archives and collections to be seen by others. They are closely connected to our fan identity and how we perform that in front of others.
Stuff is also related to creative practices and media. When a cosplayer chooses a certain fabric to represent a game character, that is an aesthetic choice. Something may seem a “thing” but it is also used as a medium by fans to express themselves. Furthermore, merchandise and stuff embodies the characters that we love. Again, it’s all about affective reception really, it allows us to form loving relationships with the characters that mean something to us.
Also, objects can tell stories long after a text is finished. They allow a story to linger or continue in some form. In this sense William’s “post-object fandom” comes to mind. The official object might have ended, but other objects and material will continue to remediate it long after. I personally have a large collection of things related to Saturday morning cartoons, and they bring back that feeling of safety, family and homeliness that I often miss in my life today.
As for where material culture is best studied, I think some sites do stand out. Theme parks, film sets, signings and fan conventions are highly suitable for a material analysis focusing on different things, from costumes to merchandise. Spaces of commerce are a valuable site too. Again, fandom is increasingly a market place, a space of business. To speak of it only as a gift economy neglects the many corporate practices that influence fandom today. Businesses, stores, and platforms sell fandom as a material culture quite heavily. It’s important to dive deep into what those Funko pops, Red Bubble T-shirts and idol photographs in Japan actually mean to people, what they represent. Objects can be keepsakes and toys, but also tell a wider personal or fannish story.
Materiality, by the way, is by no means exclusively offline. Even written texts and fan fiction have materiality, which is related to the platforms that they are posted on. It’s important to realize that even digital content has materiality, from pixels and bites to the algorithms that increasingly shape and filter fandom. You could even create an object-oriented ontology based entirely in virtual worlds, like Ian Bogost did. Objects are increasingly virtual, and the materiality of a like-button or an Instagram picture can also be analyzed.
Your book often blurs the boundaries between fans and gamers, boundaries that I have seen heavily enforced by gamers and game scholars. What do we gain by looking at fandom as a “ludic identity”? What happens to foundational ideas in games studies, such as the magic circle, if we incorporate fan practices into our understanding of role-playing games?
Yes, the first feedback I ever got at a games conference was that I could not call Firefly role-players “fans”. They were “players”. Scholars indeed police the boundaries of fields that in my experience could learn from each other and are adjacent to each other. Speaking from this specific case-study, not all Firefly role-players I investigated were fans, but the concept of “fan” allowed me to unpack their affective, social and creative relations to the story world. Calling them a player or a gamer seemed far too general for me, since they were working in an existing story world and remixing it heavily. In other words, their live-action role-play was analyzed a fan practice in my work and this interpretation led to new insights. I used “fan” as a concept to better understand what they do.
Ludic identity can be applied to many phenomena we see today – eSports, cosplay, live-streaming play. To some extent, fandom can even be read as a space that always requires play to come up with new versions of beloved texts and characters. Some forms of ludic identity today are highly complex ones. I would argue that we see different participatory cultures emerge that bridge fan/gamer identities, for instance, the audience of a Dungeons & Dragons live-stream on Twitch. They are an audience, some might be fans, some role-play in other groups themselves. Or consider fans of The Adventure Zone, a Dungeons & Dragons podcast with a massive following. Some listeners have started role-playing because they enjoyed the show so much, others got inspired to create a podcast themselves. Can we have a ludic identity without being a participant of the play, while being outside of the magic circle?
Game theory can learn a lot from fan studies and vice versa. The magic circle and ideas of transformative play map on to fandom, to some extent at least. A cosplay is a form of dress-up and pretend play that could be framed as part of the magic circle. But as you know, I am also very critical of magic circle as a concept. Within game studies, the concept of the magic circle has been heavily critiqued, and rightly so. Games and play are not separate from the everyday but are deeply embedded in other social contexts. The magic circle? There is no such thing, and if there is, it’s very porous. In reality, games affect everyday life and what happens in games can have lasting effects. Gaming can create loving communities, just like fandom, but marginalization is a fact. Speaking for myself, I haven’t outed myself as a woman in online games for ages, because some of these spaces are brutally toxic.
Game studies, similar to fan studies, made the objects that it studied look beautiful for a long time. It didn’t want to discuss games as addictive or toxic spaces, partly to justify the existence of the field. Through incidents like Gamergate and recent shootings in the USA, for instance, we have realized that we have come to terms with the fact that pop-culture can also mobilize people for the worst. This is something we need to study, and I think fan/game studies can draw a lot from each other when studying participatory cultures as they are, both the good and bad.
You stress “cosplay is less about developing or performing a character and more about constituting a visual resemblance with it.” What are the implications of stressing the visual in discussing cosplay as oppose to reading it through a performance studies lens?
Both go hand in hand in my work, but the attention to visual and material culture brings attention to the craft. It moves attention from the performance and scene to the fabrics, the creative process, the visual aspects of the hobby and the places.
This is needed, because cosplay is not just a performance. It has performative elements, certainly at the end, but it’s also a complex affective trajectory. For most of my informants, the enjoyment was in creating the outfit and living up to the moment of wearing the costume. The craft mattered as much as the performance at the end. Only using performance as a word neglects that cosplayer is highly creative – s/he often also recreates the outfit and models in it. This is a very personal fan creation.
Performativity is a part of that, but the process involves so much more than that. That’s why I call it an “affective process” – it constantly develops and it consists of different stages. From the costume creation to the performance in a masquerade to a photo shoot, we can ask about different affects: What’s the affective relationship with characters, the convention space, with parts of the outfit, and even with our sewing machine?
Cosplay is a network of different actors, and the individual performance is part of that. The recent book on cosplay by David Hancock and Garry Crawford dives deep into it as an art form and as design. That resonates with me as well. Cosplay is art, visual culture, storytelling, play and performance condensed in one hobby.
Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.