Thursday, October 11, 2007

Midterm or something like it.

So. I'm a geek. That's been made fairly clear through class discussion and through blogs and no one is surprised. My midterm project is going to exploit that geekitude, but I'm hoping it'll also justify my fascination with certain facets of geekdom in this… essayish thing. The problem is that I want it to be more than an essay. The thing that I'm going to be analyzing is a creative endeavor, but the analysis, so far, is mostly just an essay. And by essay, I mean argument, because if I don't justify my obsessions then I end up feeling really bad about them.

The subject is play-by-post role playing. This is done on a lot of forums and I think Lance brought up something like it once in class, though I'm not sure if he was really talking about what I'm talking about. I did "squee" a little on the inside, though, at the mention of ezboard and invisionfree, which are two mediums I am very familiar with. Anyway, I want to study the value of play-by-post role playing in terms of it being recognized as an art form or just a hackneyed excuse for taking someone else's ideas and running with them. This could also, in essence, be an argument for fan fiction, but my focus on the interactivity and community involved in play-by-post role playing makes the reference to fan fiction fluid at best.

Basically, there are message boards online that have themes. Most of them are set up in a fictional universe that already has its own characters and rules. I'm pretty sure most fandoms have at least one play-by-post board attached to them. There are a million X-men boards, Star Wars, Harry Potter. The Harry Potter boards are really interesting to me even though I'm not such a big fan of the books. Not only are there HP boards set during Harry's years at Hogwarts, but some of them are set during his parents' time, and there was just a huge boom of boards that are set after the last book in which the ending is either challenged or twisted in some way so that there is more to the story. That's one of the big things I want to touch on in my analysis as well. These message boards usually take a ready-made fictional universe and then make changes so that the story may be continued, or skewed.

Some boards go strictly by canon and refuse to bend the rules. Han shot first, yaddah yaddah. But some boards are completely based on breaking the rules, exploring "what-ifs." What if Carrie had stayed in Paris, or had never met Big (yes, this is a shout out to you, Joy, and there ARE play-by-post boards that are based on Sex in the City)? What if the Empire had never been defeated? What if Neville Longbottom was The Boy Who Lived and Harry Potter was a nobody? In a setting where the universe is the same, but different in key ways, whole other stories are able to be written. It's like Borges's "Garden of the Forking Paths." There may indeed be enough play-by-post roleplaying boards that every single possibility for a given fictional universe has been, or can be, or will be explored in one form or another.

To play (though I'm not sure it should be referred to as "play") you usually have to create a completely original character of your own and fill out a character application that the administrators on the board have written. Once you've posted your application, it is reviewed and when your character is accepted (if your character is accepted, some admins are pretty picky and writing quality as well as creativity are judged heavily, depending on the board) then you're allowed to post on the board and get involved in plotlines (sometimes the admins create plots for people to be involved with, but most of the time you talk to people whose characters you think would interact best with yours and then go from there) and start… making a life for your character. A big part of most character applications is the history of your character. Your character has to have motivations and stuff, things to contribute to the board, but more readily, to the continuing narrative of the board as a whole.

Is this art, then? Could it be considered real literature? People from all over the world contribute to this sort of communal narrative. Is it less literary because it's riffing originally off of someone else's work? Is it more literary because it's adding to someone's work, and making it into something different? Does it count as publicity without recognition to people like JK Rowling or the Marvel company (thank Adam for that Marxist facet of my argument) And how is this different from any other collaboration between writers?

Here are some links to a board I (used to, but haven't really recently because of school and work) play on, which I hope will make things more clear. It's based on X-Men movie canon (because I know absolutely nothing about the comics) and set after the third movie. At this point, Mutant Registration is a requirement and there are even mutant concentration camps. Also, the Cure (not the band) has been proven not to be permanent.

The board
The description
The character application form
One of my characters (you have to log in to see any of the filled-out character applications. If you wanna, log in as "Naratech" with the password "midterm")
A thread (to demonstrate how this all comes together to form a narrative)

I didn't have a hand in the creation of any of the above links, btw. I filled out the character application and have been posting like people post on message boards, but otherwise, the rights go to Marvel (kind of) and to the board admins.


Adam Johns said...

So, like, are you posting this as your draft or as an (interesting and articulate) prelude to it? A Prolegenomena?

Since this seems like a prelude, my comments are going to be kind of scattered.

1) It always weirds me out to see "canon" used that way, since I'm a bit of a bible nerd. Given the ways in which some fans can become, in a sense, devout (people proselytizing on behalf of Serenity, etc.), there's a way in which terms like "canon" become almost sincere. Why the devotion? What does this give you, or some abstract player, that other forms/genres don't?

2) You're asking yourself lots of great questions. Here's another one. "What is the difference between 'playing' and 'reading,' and what is the meaning of that difference." I mean, obviously when Cordelia and I sit down to play with her Ariel action figure, that's playing, and when I read her Dr. Seuss, that's reading. But play-by-post role playing seems like a stranger border case. What does that border mean to you?

3) Back to the beginning - your desire for it to be more than an essay. Of course, we should keep in mind that essays can be more than essays (think Borges here). Beyond that, though, I have a couple thoughts.

-- Go meta. Create a thread or something which has one of your characters discover her true nature, as an entity in a fan-fictional universe. The thread becomes the essay (or vice versa).

Or one of your characters could be involved in a play-by-post thread herself, where she creates a character named Nik who's taking this class...

-- Analyze one of your threads or posts: so the project becomes an annotated version of the forum.

4) My former office mate did her dissertation on fan fiction, believe it or not. You might be interested in it, or at least in the bibliography. If you're on campus (or connect to it via sslvpn href="") just do an author search for "Parrish, Juli". The title is Inventing a Universe

Nik said...


Ok Adam, you completely freak me out.

I am (or was) in the process of creating a character whose latent mutant ability was that the things she writes manifest themselves. She didn't know it, though, until she ran into a character she'd created. I got the idea after watching Stranger Than Fiction.

I'll have to talk to one of the admins about creating a character strictly for that purpose, or otherwise find the geekiest of my characters (I have 5 on that board) and have her do it. Ooo, Mac could do it! (you don't know who Mac is, that was just a thought for myself). That's an awesome idea for the project. Yay.

Not that that's what I'll do, but fuck yeah. If nothing else, I have pages upon pages of threads I could analyze instead. You r0x0r my s0x0rs.


Nik said...

And thanks for using a Kantian reference. I really need more Kant in my life.

*just finished a paper relating Kantian theological philosophy to Saxe's "The Blindmen and the Elephant"*

Ophelia said...

This is Ophelia, the player admin who is just enough of a geek to facilitate Nik's insanity. I created a preregistered account for use of Nik's class, Naratech. The password is "midterm", and is open for use on the board.

The character Francis Knouse (Matches) will be playing alongside Mac, Nik's character. We will also conduct realistic discussions in character about the character's "RL" or real-life events.

All of this reminds me of the concept of a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting a mirror and so on and so forth, and the psychological considerations of this are... interesting.