Gender and Fan Studies (Round Two, Part One): Louisa Stein and Robert Jones

This discussion emerges out of a conversation about new media authorship that had begun to take place in publication and online. Robert wrote an essay on machinima (film authorship through video game engines) and Louisa wrote an essay which discussed the use of video game interfaces in media fan authorship; the two essays appeared side by side in the recent book Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Internet Age. We've both been continuing to think about these ideas; Robert has a piece on gender in machinima production which will appear in a collection on Machinma. For the sake of this discussion, an abstract of this in-progress article is available here. Louisa continued the discussion on her blog, discussing Robert's first piece and questions of gender and fan investment. MACHINIMA VS. MEDIA FAN AUTHORSHIP

RJ: I'll be the first to admit that since "From Shooting Monsters to Shooting Movies" was the first piece I did on machinima, it definitely takes on a celebratory tone. I have since backtracked a little. In the Pink vs Blue piece I tried to tackle the gender divide head on. It's been met with mixed responses, interestingly along gender lines. So I'm very interested in your take on it as a female scholar. My intentions were to show a historical trajectory in technology and rhetoric around that technology that has culturally relegated women.

I want the piece to be a caution to the rhetoric around machinima as emancipatory when the reality is that it merely replicates the marginalization of women through technology. Feel free to let me know that I failed miserably at that.

LS: I don't think you failed miserably at all--it's an important warning, and I really like the history you trace out and the links you make. I did feel that it sidestepped some histories and contemporary examples of women engaging with technology.

I think it's important to look at not only what the interfaces offer but what people do with the interface. I hope we can explore that in this conversation.

RJ: As to your point about establishing a hierarchy in "From Shooting Monsters to Shooting Movies," I believe I do. Which in retrospect may not have been an ideal move in that context. But I was arguing that strictly from a technological standpoint and not the cultural point of view I believe you made your point about. Because to break it down to mere technology, machinima is an evolutionary step forward in the use of technology. When we talk about tool sets with fan vids (I'm assuming we're talking about the recutting of source materials and not things like Troops), we are talking about the basic tools sets of filmmaking, namely editing. Those same tool sets are part of machinima as well. So they both use that part of the production process: postproduction.

Machinima differentiates itself in its harnessing of game engines. So when we talk about the use of a source material in a fan vid (the television broadcast of a show) that is alterable only in the postproduction process. This is not the case for machinima. In fact, the control of these engines makes the transformation of the very source material possible, as we see in a derivative subculture of modding where the games become entirely new games.

This is why I adhere to the position that many video game scholars take on differentiating interactive media from more traditional media like film & TV. And I don't mean to adopt a hypodermic needle model of those media. I believe that audiences can engage them on creative and active levels. But the fundamental relationship to the medium is one of spectator-ship which in my mind is a "more" passive relationship than that of gaming. I can watch a film and stop watching the film and the film goes on with out me. It doesn't need me. When I play a game, the game only proceeds as long as I play. The moment I stop, so does the game. Therefore, I have to believe that when we talk about the active relationship between gamers and viewers they are not the same thing. And it is my conclusion that the interactive component that comprises the basis of the video game medium led to the development of machinima.

Again, I'm not saying that a fan vid has no larger impact of the source material; they certainly do. What I'm saying is that machinima is literally a transformation of the source material (not just playing with it). To do that with film or TV you'd have to be there on set, which is what makes the two so fundamentally different in my mind.

LS: I see the distinction you're getting at: transforming the actual source text for others to experience differently vs. reworking the source text in the creation of a new text. But I wonder at what level this distinction is significant in terms of how people experience/engage with media and technology. Fans making vids or even just writing fan fiction may not be able to actually change the source text (on set, as you say). But they also don't necessarily prioritize/centralize the source text above the fantext (that is, the shifting sets of texts that map out the fan understanding of the fictional universe with which they're engaging). So if fan-authorship transforms the fantext, and the fantext is the primary world-building text, then is that really different from the transformative play of machinima? It feels to me like a matter of perspective. Yes, machinima artists may alter the technology or the code, but fanfic writers alter if not the source text then the shared world of game play. Editing tools used for vids etc. are only the tools of post-production if we're centered in the official commercial production of the original text. If we're centered on the shifting production of the fantext, then the editing tools fans use are authorship tools plain and simple, and the productions alter the fantext that constitutes the creative space within which fans interpret and engage both "official" and "unofficial" texts.

For many fans, at least, their sense of the media text awaiting their participation is not that different from a videogame waiting to be played. Fans engage with the world of a media text as one would the world of a game. The comparison is easier to make with an Role Playing Game, but I think it extends to videogames as well. Media fans see that source text as elements available for their play, and as elements which set up rules to be followed or hacked or cheated or broken, depending on how they like to play. So while there may be more of a divide between gamers and an ephemeral sense of a generalized viewer, but I think that the relationship between media fans (especially those who participate within fan communities and author fan texts) and gamers is much closer.

RJ: What may be more interesting to us, per this conversation, would be the gender divide that happens. In "Pink vs. Blue" I make the case that this is an issue of accessibility. Women have historically been denied access to these more advance technologies based on cultural rhetorics that situate men as "masters" of technology while women merely use them once user friendly interfaces have been developed. That's why I cite the proliferation of The Sims machinima among women being a corollary to the development of user friendly tool sets shipped with that game, the same way Westinghouse made radio more user friendly when it needed to capture the housewives as its primary demographic. Some have read this as me saying that women are fundamentally not smart enough to utilize these technologies, which is so far from the case. The point I try to make is that the cultural rhetoric prescribed to women has created this assumption in many women's minds and thus stands as the barrier to them using them, NOT their own limitations.

LS: While I see this point and its validity, it overlooks a few things: first, the majority of women creating stories out of The Sims (either machinima or still images combined with text--the sort of narratives that circulate on Livejournal Sims storytelling communities) use the storytelling function offered by the game itself, yes, but must work around its limitations, as it is far from ideal for complex storytelling. These Sims-authors turn to additional interfaces as well for their authorship, from Photobucket to Livejournal to Premiere or Final Cut Pro. The same goes for vidding and all sorts of multimedia authorship happening in these female authorship communities. To a degree this experimentation is facilitated by the space of the community that encourages technological support. But this has been going on for decades, it's not a new development. Its history has been (as you point out) overlooked, and I fear may continue to be.

That's actually a concern I have underlying this fanboy/fan girl and videogame studies vs. fan studies gender divide that I've noticed at conferences over the years and that Kristina Busse blogged on (as did I ). Fan studies has been a place that looked at female authorship and innovation happening in female communities. Those communities used to be based on in person social networking through fan Conventions and such, yes, but they were always heavily technologically engaged, from the use of multiple VCRs to facilitate the complex process of pre-digitial vidding to the extremely belabored processes of putting out zines pre-internet, which were the lifeblood of female fan communities. Now that fandom has moved online, technological innovation and authorship within the context of female communities continues to expand, and yet its validity as a subject of study--not only cultural but also aesthetic, literary, and technological--still seems to be contested and unpopular, at least compared to the burgeoning field of videogame studies, which as you point out maps more easily onto traditionally masculine values of competition and innovation.


RJ: I'd be curious to hear what you mean about the uses of interfaces vs. what the interfaces offer. Seems really pertinent to the point I'm trying to make in Pink vs. Blue.

LS: Well--we can either look at the interface on its own terms: what options a given interface allows, what tools it provides, how it interpellates the player/viewer, etc. Or we can look at how social users come to an interface from a specific social/cultural context, and what work they do with that interface, and what texts they create out of that interface. I should not put it in terms of either/or, actually, as I think that both approaches are important and looking at only one without the other limits the conclusions we can draw.

So, for example, The Sims 2 (TS2) interface offers storytelling tools and thus encourages storytelling. It provides an easy route to take still shots or to take moving images. Media fans using The Sims 2 (or simply TS2 authors, not emerging from other media fandoms) make use of both of these functions. However, part of the storytelling tools on TS2 is the upload to the official storytelling board. If one uses this dimension of TS2 interface, one has the ability to accompany an image with text, to label a story with one of a set group of genres, and to then share with a specific community within the official rubric of TS2.

However, what many TS2 storytellers do (be they creating stories based within specific media fandoms or not) is use only part of the options of TS2 still image storytelling--if any at all. Many turn to more flexible image capture programs, and then use other operations and interfaces (turning to Photoshop and Livejournal, for example) to create the aesthetic that they desire (and that may have evolved within a specific fan community or the larger fan community). As you point out, many of these Sims storytellers (and I haven't been discussing machinima here, but I just as well could have been) are female and are sharing their stories within predominantly female communities. But since they're substantially bypassing the interface offered by TS2--can we really link this prolific authorship with gendered issues of access and technological comfort?

RJ: As to the transformation of the text, correct me if I'm wrong but there certainly seems to be a desire to continually up the ante in production value on fan vids. The meticulous rotoscoping that fans do just to get the light sabers right would be a testament to that. And this may not be the case for all (and perhaps there's a gender divide along these lines as well), but trying to uphold those production values seems to have its own cultural commodity within certain fan communities.

LS: This is a very interesting point, and something I've been giving a lot of thought to--in terms of the divergent aesthetic values and narrative values in fan authorship and in fan authorship communities. Some vidding communities (including those who think of themselves as Vidding fandom) certainly aspire to high production values--although what they see as high production values shifts over time. For a long time it was a very close attention to sophisticated and seemingly effortless rhythmic editing and matching of motion and sound. However, recently other vids have come to the fore which draw on different interface options, layering image upon image and incorporating text and special effects in innovative ways.

Vids that circulate in different fan communities aspire to different sets of values--for example (to return us to machinima) the many Final Fantasy vids that one can find on youtube (slash and het alike.) These vids certainly draw from many of the same traditions and values as do the "vidding" vids I was just discussing, but they are often more invested in using Final Fantasy and whatever editing program they're using (often Windows Movie Maker rather than Final Cult Pro or Premiere) to map out an emotional romantic connection between the two characters on whom the vid centers. Such vids would circulate in related but subtly different networks of fans/players.

While we might want to say that the former aesthetic is more rooted in "masculine" modes of aesthetic value, while the latter has evolved within cultural discourses linked to femininity, to make such a divide seems deeply problematic to me as both sets of communities have long histories of female authorship and involvement.

RJ: What positions machinima as uniquely different (and I hope this doesn't sound like I'm over-privileging machinima here) is the capacity to replicate those production values in kind, calling into question whether or not I'm watching a fan production or the actual source (cut scenes designed by the developers). This is usually NOT the case, even in the accomplished series Red vs Blue, one gets a distinct sense that we are witnessing some "guys" playing around. However, the Roosterteeth's Sims based series The Strangerhood can easily be seen as on par with anything that was developed in that game. As a result, Roosterteeth has since been commissioned for Xbox promotional videos and EA has used them to create a series of TV commercial for its monster franchise Madden football. So while I understand that so much of what fan communities are about is not trying to become the established media producer, I wonder how many of them would raise their hand if they were given the keys to the studio. If they could actually come in and shoot their own episode of Battlestar Galactica How many would see that as just a continuation as to what they strive for in their fan fiction and fan vids?

LS: Oh--interesting... I think that how much fans might desire to control the original source text and its inception would vary across fandom(s); but many authors are instead invested in disseminating their engagement with a film or TV or book text across different media, with creating a fantext that is not bound to a single medium but made manifest in a range of media. They see the TV or film source text as a starting ground for a multilayered authorship. Would they love to have the actors to order around? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly part of the thrill of fannish play with The Sims or vids is the fact that one can create audiovisual texts that represent ideas that previously have only existed in words or manipulated (still) images. But I don't think that fans necessarily see such authorship as the equivalent of being able to create the television show itself, except in as much as they're contributing to the larger fantext in a visceral way.

Louisa Ellen Stein is an assistant professor of Television, Film, and New Media at San

Diego State University. Her research explores viewer and participant engagement with

contemporary media culture, including film, television, the Internet and videogames. She

is co-editor of the forthcoming collection Watching Teen TV: Text and Subtext, and is also co-authoring a study of fan textual creativity in new media, with the working title

New Media and Fan Artifacts.

Robert Jones is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Culture & Communication,

NYU. His PhD work focuses on machinima and mods as instances of transformative play

within video game culture. He is also interested in digital cinema as participatory

culture, Hollywood's convergence with the gaming industry, and the social and political

implications of video games.