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Visions from Dragon*Con 2013: on accessibility, belonging and communication in fan communities.

An account of digital games-related events that transpired at Dragon*Con 2013 in Atlanta, with particular focus on the issues of accessibility and belonging in the communities of fans.

 

About Dragon*Con

Dragon*Con ended last week in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. It was a brilliant, four-day long display of community’s love for all things fantastic. I will not quote the sheer numbers that were in attendance, nor will I mention all the different tracks, talks, panels and presentations that were available to be experienced… For those of you interested in those details, I recommend you take a look on their official website (www.dragoncon.org) and come to Atlanta next year! For now let me just say that there was plenty of those things at Dragon*Con – with such illustrious guests as Chris Avellone (creative director at Obsidian Entertainment), Graham McTavish (Dwalin from The Hobbit films) and Larry Niven (author of Ringworld) in attendance.

Researcher among fans, and a fan himself

In today’s article I will discuss my impressions of Dragon*Con fan communities – contrasting my observations of digital games fans with the ones of Tolkien aficionados. Since in our research at Manchester Business School we study co-creation of games by communities of players, I am very much interested in the general phenomena that underpin the customers’ engagement. Players’ willingness to devote time, resources and energy to improve games they love, at the same time doing so without any hope for financial remuneration or no guarantee of other measurable gains, has been discussed and described in media studies and psychology literature, identifying this phenomenon as resulting from the conflation of work and play characteristic to some digital games. Such terms as ‘playbour’, ‘prosumer’ and ‘users-creators’ have been proposed to describe it. But they do not encapsulate this phenomenon fully – hence other theories, on customers’ affect for the product, shadow markets (co-creating customers receive no monetary gains, but for example experience gains in reputation and work towards their goal of getting a job in the games industry). Hence, players’ motivations for co-creation can be classified in three broad types, namely intrinsic, extrinsic and internalized extrinsic (Füller, 2010), and as I promised, in one of the future articles we will turn to discuss them in detail. Today, nevertheless, let me just state that those motivations and ‘why players want to co-create’ are of critical importance to the occurrence of co-creation as a phenomenon. This passion and engagement are the fuel on which co-creation of games runs.

Nevertheless, not all fans are the same. Some of them like digital games, other ones follow their favourite literary saga, another group will love a particular television series. They all have their passion for the cultural work in common, but the way of communicating this passion and acting upon it, as well as structuring the community of fans that arises around it, are different. I started noticing that at Dragon*Con, where I had the opportunity to observe and engage with both digital games fan communities, as well as fans of Tolkien’s literature. This is not to say that those two groups are completely separate – I am sure that many of digital games fans also are very much into Lord of the Rings – but the mode of communication and the social dynamics between those groups varied noticeably. Today I will provide some vignettes of how events in both of these groups looked and felt like. Some of the observations touch upon the burning issues in digital games – such as accessibility of games to people with disabilities. They will be followed by some of my own (largely uninformed) commentary.

Of Tolkien and digital games

Digital games had a very strong presence this year at Dragon*Con – I have been told that much stronger than in the previous years. There was a dedicated video games track, plus another one on MMO games. Some sessions dedicated to digital games were also appearing as part of other tracks, such as Star Wars or tracks discussing art. In glacially cold hotel rooms (thanks, Atlanta Hilton) we had both existing games discussed (Dishonored, Diablo 3, Dragon Age), as well as those that are yet to be released (Elder Scrolls Online, Project Eternity, Star Citizen, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls). Not only that – those games were discussed by the people who make them. Dragon*Con was graced by the presence of Alex Mayberry, Aidan Scanlan and T. Eric Bakutis, just to name a few (there were really many more star designers, writers, artists and producers at the con, not mentioning all the voice actors breathing life in your favourite game characters). Majority of the events in digital games track were in the form of a panel, with guests sitting at a high table, talking to each other (or to a moderator), as well as answering the questions coming from the audience. The atmosphere was always very informal and relaxed, and many questions were asked from the attendees. To any con-goer, it will surely sound familiar, as this form is widely adopted in this kind of events. The audience in video game track was composed of overall the youngest participants of the Dragon*Con, with the majority of attendees being in their early twenties. There were slightly more men than women in the audience, but the proportion was not too far from the ideal ‘fifty-fifty’ distribution. Almost without an exception, there were all dressed in everyday clothes.

Tolkien track was very different. First of all, there was no ‘casual-looking’ audience there. There were no Johns, Kates, Toms or Barbaras sitting in those talks. Instead, we had Gandalfs next to Sarumans, standing next to four-people Smaug, crouched behind roughly ten Frodos and nine Thorins. There were also five regal-looking Thranduils there, and one half of Gollum (it was a small kid cosplaying Gollum, so roughly half the size of an adult), and many other well-beloved characters for whom I don’t have the room here to mention. In order to see everything what was happening on the stage, we had to ask the wizards, warriors and elves to lower their staves, swords, bows, scepters, hats and other paraphernalia, to get a clear line of sight. It wasn’t easy, but luckily there was no Sauron in the room (I guess he would have been quite unfriendly and would not lower his frightful mace, even when asked politely). The panels discussed the history of Middle-Earth, presented artists’ renderings of fans’ favourite moments from The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, as well as judged the costumes of the present cosplayers (for those of us who entered the costume contest). Not only that, there were bands (Emerald Rose) and live music, and unforgettable parties – one such event was An Evening at Bree, which was almost three-hours long party which actually made me believe I was in the Middle-Earth. There was a feeling in the air of common passion and love for Tolkien’s novels – which were not seen as literary works of fiction really, but more as a mechanism transporting the readers/audiences into the faraway lands, which do indeed exist somewhere out there, beyond the mists and curved seas. In the Tolkien track, the audience was significantly older than in video games track, resembling the age distribution that we normally see in the streets of any major city. Both men and women were represented in roughly equal numbers (some male characters from Middle-Earth were cosplayed by women, for example some dwarves or a dragon!). In the Tolkien track there was also more people with disabilities present, hinting at the inclusive and welcoming nature of this cultural artifact. Cosplay contest at Evening at Bree.

Things are different, things are ephemeral

The differences between community of fans of digital games, as opposed to those of Tolkien’s books, were to some extent observable during Dragon*Con. This is not to state that basing on those four days and my subjective perceptions it is possible to paint a complete picture of those communities – on the contrary, the purpose of my musings here is to only signal some points of divergence in the mode of communication of those groups, as well as present some general thoughts on their social composition in relation to the cultural artifact around which they are gathered. For those readers, who are interested in knowing more about communities of fans, I recommend the works of Henry Jenkins – an University of Southern California academic famous for his notions of ‘textual poaching’ and ‘participatory culture’, just to name a few.

I identify two main categories of divergence between the community of gamers and Tolkien’s fans. Those are accessibility, as well as belonging & communication. I will now discuss them in turn, as well as consider some of their implications for the nature of what ‘fan communities’ are. From them, some general remarks on the nature of those two different cultural artifacts will be also derived.

  1. Accessibility. For some time now, accessibility in digital games has become an increasingly visible issue. In order to play games, we require good eyesight, keen hearing, good hand-eye coordination, working arms (bones, muscles, joints), and more… We often take the functioning of those body systems for granted and we never think or question them when playing games. Nevertheless, for the people who experience problems (such as arthritis, colour blindness or epilepsy), playing games quickly becomes problematic, if not impossible at all. Some game developers as well as industry organizations are starting to notice and address the problem of people with disabilities also having the right to play games, but for the vast majority of the industry it still remains a song of the future. It is reflected by the fact that in Dragon*Con events falling under video games track as well as MMO track, there were not many handicapped people in the audience. If they were present, they also asked questions about making gameplay available for them. Overall, the attendees were young people, who enthusiastically welcomed any additional levels of challenge and difficulty added to their favourite games. For the ‘Tolkien track’ on the other hand, the case of accessibility was a much better one. First of all, in reading (or watching, or listening to) Tolkien’s works, all we need is just one sense (eyesight or hearing, with the exception of films), which immediately makes this cultural artifact far easily accessible than games by nature. Secondly, there is no difficulty level associated with books overall, no designed challenges to be overcome. Due to this, there were far more handicapped people in the Tolkien track audience than it was the case for digital games tracks. The age average was also much higher, with many attendees well over fifty – which is a testament not only to accessibility issues, but also wider social acceptance phenomena and still growing popularity of digital games with older demographics.
  2. Belonging & communication. There was a clear difference in the way that digital games and Tolkien tracks made me feel. The Tolkien one was all about sharing something special, about partaking in a very fragile and ephemeral dream – one in which everybody wanted to believe and nobody wanted to shatter the illusion of. With room lights dimmed, audience in silence punctuated only by quiet whispers admired artists’ images of Middle-Earth. When there was music and dancing, everyone was invited to join in on the festivities, and people formed circles holding hands. Conversations were sparked easily with strangers sitting next to you in the audience, and they could get genuinely interesting and personal. All of those phenomena relate to the nature of the cultural artifact in question – Middle-Earth is all about sharing, and the more people ‘believe’ in it, the stronger it becomes. It is non-excludable, non-rivalrous (it is not like a proverbial sandwich, for which consumption hungry people must compete, and which consumption by somebody else prevents another from eating it). What comes to mind to vaguely convey this feeling is religion – with its dimensions of communion and ritual. Hence, the meetings of Tolkien fans were all about building shared experiences and stories, respecting each other’s visions and perceptions of Middle-Earth. Everybody knew that the thing being shared was very personal, and in a way, private. On the other hand, digital games tracks were very much different. They were consumer-culture oriented, with attendees on the lookout for new and juicy bits about what to expect in their favourite upcoming releases. Despite being together in a single room, it seemed that each person looked out only for herself, hoping to have hers desires incorporated and seen in the game that they are waiting for. There was no sense of connection between people in the audience, despite the fact that they all enjoyed the same game, and even possibly played it together (via the multiplayer over internet functionality). Despite sharing more than just a novel, which is always read alone, and having partaken together in a cultural artifact, members of this community seemed to be further apart than it was the case for Tolkien track. Audience engaged in dialogue only with the panel guests, not witch each other. There seemed to be no in-depth communication about values, or shared identity, between members of the audience – despite the fact that the cultural artifact that they shared is more prevalent and ‘material’ in nature (by the virtue of heavy industrial and media presence) than Tolkien’s books. Members of the audience seemed to be mostly expecting to obtain new ‘fix’ of information about an upcoming game. What was also different, was the fact that Tolkien track was attended by roughly the same people throughout all four days of Dragon*Con – while digital games track’s audiences were changing more with every lecture and panel. This might be a testament to a culturally more popular phenomenon that digital games are as compared to relatively niche fandom of ‘serious’ Tolkien fans, but could also relate to those two different communities’ capacity to initiate and maintain dialogue, as well as to sustain the feelings of belonging and shared identity. A typical Star Wars panel.

Conclusions – consumerism?

The key difference between those two groups of fans is, in my opinion, the exposure to being penetrated by the consumerist culture. In digital games, there is a heavy pressure coming from the industrial complex to have potential customers buying new releases. There is clearly a profit-seeking agent involved in this essentially cultural and artistic endeavour. This is not to say that it is a bad thing – on the contrary, presence of large firms and industrial structures is the powerful engine that drives the development of new games, genres and play modes, just to name a few. A parallel mechanism can also be seen in the case of Tolkien’s fandom – the production of high-exposure and very expensive films has given a tremendous boost to this community, making it not only more culturally and medially visible, but also making it attractive for younger people (giving it a tool to compete with, for example, Harry Potter series). On the other hand, Tolkien’s works are not dependant to such a degree on commercial interests as digital games are (the production of Tolkien films remains fairly peripheral to the entirety of much older Middle-Earth fandom), which allows for more fan control over this cultural artifact. The interaction and community-building can occur between fans, without having to include commercial entities in the general communication loop (because of the lack of strict control over the IP and centralized mode of production, as seen in game development). This in turn provides higher-degree insulation from market forces, allowing more socio-cultural factors to dominate and drive the functioning and development of Tolkien community.

To sum up this very lengthy post (I will keep them shorter in the future): Dragon*Con was a tremendous experience and a great opportunity to observe fans and their communities as they gather and communicate without mediation of technology. Despite the critical perspective presented in this article, the dialogue and growth of fan communities are a refreshing and precious phenomena, without which creative industries of digital games, publishing and filmmaking could not exist today in their present form. Fan communities are the visible manifestation of people’s passion for the great tales that they love (steering clear here of ludology versus narratology debate), ultimately demonstrating the critical role that customers’ engagement has in production, and thus in co-creation, of digital games. 

Non-orc hordes at Dragon*Con - I was one of them!

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