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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Night of the Living Fandom

I've been in a very pro-fanfic mood lately, in part because I've been wrapping up work on an anthology of fanfiction based on the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. It's a pretty big project, so the actual production values have certainly occupied my mind, but I've also been thinking quite a bit about the larger picture of what this project means for the way we interact with media in the digital age.

I want to talk a little bit about that kind of changing field of production and consumption, what it means for fans, and how transformative works can be cultivated and encouraged, but first let me give a bit of background for the anthology itself. The anthology is part of a much larger and more complex project called the Magic: Expanded Multiverse, which I jumpstarted a few years ago on Wizards of the Coast's online forums. The idea was to take the setting of Magic and create a massive, internally consistent, fan-generated expanded canon that could exist alongside the main canon. Magic, despite being a card game, actually is perfect for this type of project because the game takes place in a massive multiverse of countless worlds, and stars characters who can travel between these worlds. My friend Jon of Everyday Abnormal has described the game as having a setting that is every setting. I think it's pretty obvious why that would be appealing to creatively-minded fans.

The anthology, Seasons of Dusk, takes place on the world called Innistrad, a dark world beset by monsters. It's basically a Gothic Horror world, and the design of the anthology, created by me and the current head of the M:EM, Barinellos, reflects that aesthetic:

But rather than talk about the setting, I want to talk about the fact that this anthology wasn't (just) posted on a message board or AO3, but actually produced in two different formats: a PDF book, and an ebook that is compatible with most e-readers. This format is significant because Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic, now only publish the novels for Magic in digital formats--there is no print novel line now. And while we do state openly that we're a fan project, at least a few of our social media followers assumed that this was one of those real virtual publications.

The fact that we were able to create something that as far as visuals and content are concerned at least can temporarily confuse someone as to the reality of what they're seeing suggests some interesting things about the way the tech we used to compose the anthology--largely open source tech--can disrupt the hierarchies of what is "legitimate" art. In the interests of furthering that disruption and helping to further similar projects, let's talk a bit about how we produced this anthology.
Frankenstein's Anthology

The construction of the anthology was done in a whole host of programs. I'll only talk a little bit about the writing and organizing aspect because that was something other M:EMbers were a little more involved with than I, and I only wrote one story for the anthology, proper, but it'd be silly to discuss the production of this collection without discussing the way in which social media allowed us to coordinate work. Now, social media is a thing I have conflicting feelings about. I'm sceptical of Web 2.0 in a lot of ways. And yet, it's undeniable that the presence of a sizeable forum community all interested in Magic's storyline in general and this plane in particular made the generation of a large number of works (39 in all! I still can't believe that on some level) possible.

But when it came to composing things, it's not social media per se that gave us the greatest advantage. Rather, it was Google Drive. We have a shared Drive account for the Expanded Multiverse that we used to gather and organize all the different works for the anthology. Our copy editor, Lord LunaEquie, was able to add individual, consistently formatted, and fully proofread documents that I could access. This was invaluable because it meant that when it came time for me to put all the texts into a single document, I didn't have to worry about the formatting. I could drop the text in and edit the overall page formatting to generate a consistent look and feel for the project.

The program I gathered all the documents in was LibreOffice. Now, LibreOffice is an open source word processing program analogous to, and largely compatible with, Microsoft Word. Of course, the major difference between them is that LibreOffice is totally free, and designed by users. Oh, and it looks like Word 2003 rather than the garbled hellmaze that is Windows 2007+.

The great thing about LibreOffice is that, besides it being free, it comes packed with all sorts of intriguing functionality. For this project, one of the most useful functions was the ability to set basic external styles for headers of various sizes and the text as a whole. This allowed me to quickly take the preformatted documents Luna had generated and alter them to have an aesthetic more consistent with the gothic horror content of the anthology. Anything labelled Header 1 would automatically receive the same font, the same size, the same page placement, &c. It wasn't exactly easy or painless, as I still had to manually check to see that everything was applied correctly, but it was certainly easier than it could have been.

And while this is functionality that I believe is present in Word, the important factor for me is that this functionality is available to anyone with internet access and the ability to download the .exe files that power LibreOffice. While Word isn't exactly hard to come by and doesn't cost a huge amount, for some folks this availability, paired with a generally helpful Open Source community, removes at least one minor barrier to entry.

This barrier to entry is reduced further by the two conversion functions available in LibreOffice. One, the conversion to PDF, speaks for itself. The word processor has, built into it, the ability to generate pdf documents with all sorts of cool functionality. In particular, I love the fact that in LibreOffice I can generate a whole table of contents automatically that dynamically updates as I shift things around. The built in export options allow me to generate a pdf with working links in the table of contents, so it's easy to click on the desired page and zip directly there.

LibreOffice, being open source, is set up to allow for heavy customization, and attracts people eager to introduce their own odd tools for generating a greater range of functionality. The second conversion function I made use of fell into this latter category of external plugins. Using the aptly if unimaginatively named writer2epub I was able to quickly generate a basic ebook file that I could then customize in more detail. While it wasn't ready for publishing right out of the box, I know a little bit of CSS and HTML, and that's ultimately what epub files largely run on. If you know a bit about setting up a web page (and considering how many people customize their blogs or tumblrs or whatnot, I'm guessing this is one area where a lot of people have a little knowledge)  you can create an ebook.

Of course, editing the ebook takes expensive proprietary software.

Naah, I'm just messing with you. Yet again, I was able to construct an entire book in an open source program: Sigil, an epub editor. Now, Sigil isn't as slick or user-friendly as LibreOffice, I'll say that up front. It's kind of a clunky system in a lot of ways and there's a number of things that could be done to streamline the production process.

But what Sigil provides is a totally free way for authors to create ebooks that can be read on a whole host of devices. Where webpages and pdfs might fail to function correctly on some devices, or demand a constant internet connection (depending on how you're reading them), or be prohibitively unportable, the simplicity of these files and their minimal cost to entry (free programs, and simply an input of time) means that fanfiction writers, in particular, can easily create whole collections of their work and make them available, as we have, for download via free services like Google Drive. This means that while fanworks can still be easily spread, they're decoupled from particular websites like and can be read in a way that more closely emulates the formats that actual publishers are using.

In the case of Magic, it means that as Wizards abandoned print entirely in favor of e-publication, we've been able to fairly easily and cheaply bring the standard of our own work up to the level at which this professional publisher now exclusively works.

The Final Hurdles

I list all this off partly as a way of providing information that might help others to produce similar works, but also as a way of demonstrating the way the technology that is now available to fans makes fairly high quality work more possible. To summarize:

While the cover was composed in Photoshop and has a few elements created in Illustrator, those functions are possible to replicate in GIMP (as I discovered recently after my computer had a meltdown and I had to wait till I got home from Canada to reinstall my Adobe software. Protip: just say no to Windows 8. Really. It's terrible). The actual production of the epub file and the PDF was made entirely possible through free programs. And we're talking powerful programs here. I can do stuff in LibreOffice certainly comparable to anything I could do in Microsoft Office, and frequently I can do even more, what with all the different plugins available to me. Furthermore, the files are hosted for free on Google Drive, making them widely accessible to anyone searching for Magic fanfiction.

This means that the cost to enter the realm of creative production is dramatically lower than it was in the past. It is possible to create an object professional enough to fool the unwary. And as I discussed last week, when fan works can pose as "real" fiction, the whole regimentation of art into castes of legitimacy is thrown into question. It's easier than ever to express a creative voice in a way that looks good.

It's important, of course, to put all this in perspective. After all, the mere presence of technology is not, in and of itself, an equalizing force. The miserable fact of the matter is that I came from a privileged enough background that I was able to get just enough training with HTML and CSS and Photoshop and Illustrator that I was well equipped to teach myself how to go beyond the basics. While there's certainly other areas of life where my lower economic class overall hindered me, I was in the right place at the right time to get enough of the basics down. I was also actively encouraged to explore this technology. Many of my female classmates probably were not, despite perhaps showing promise. And I had people surrounding me clever enough to figure out ways of sidestepping the system--I cut my teeth not on Photoshop but on the much cheaper Paint Shop Pro, I used a cracked version of Illustrator, and I was taught early on to seek out alternatives to shamelessly overpriced corporate software. That kind of arrogance and rogue craftiness is undeniably a skill that must be learned.

There is an entire network of resources, attitudes, cultural predispositions, and so on, all conspiring to turn me into the kind of person capable of overseeing the production of Seasons of Dusk. And on top of that, you have the collaborative nature of the project. Without a network of similarly driven and, frequently, similarly educated people Seasons of Dusk would not be possible. (Many of us, after all, come from writing backgrounds.)

So Open Source is not, in and of itself, actually a particularly significant disruptor of existing structures of communication. What still remains?
  • Access to training in the technologies that Open Source programs utilize and capitalize on
  • Support networks that encourage people to actually stick with their training
  • Access to hardware
  • Access to training in the arts in general
  • Support networks that will provide valuable feedback and help distribute materials
  • The absence of bigoted geeks eager to protect their cultural mancaves
And I'm sure this is just scratching the surface.

The Magic: Expanded Multiverse was possible because I was able to get a bunch of people who already existed within a supportive environment and who already had training in various creative disciplines interested in the project. The technology we had available to us made the project possible, but so did these existing knowledge structures.

But, all that said, it's worth putting these limitations in perspective.

The technology available to fans does not solve problems of distribution and training.

But it also does not cause them.

It still undeniably alleviates existing software access problems, and final product distribution problems. It makes possible as never before the creation of professional-seeming objects, parafictions and parafanfictions that, simply by existing, disrupt our perceptions of what "real" media is. And that's incredibly valuable, I think.

On top of that, I think it fosters a mindset that can account for some of the other problems and work towards solving them. Now, this might be a little controversial, but I don't see educational gatekeeping as inherently a bad thing. Or to put it another way, I don't see educating in a way that results in some people's efforts being treated as more successful than others as a negative form of gatekeeping. The democratization of knowledge should not and cannot mean a total democratization of perceived expertise and ability. Some people are just, at any given moment in time, going to be less knowledgeable than others, and put out work that isn't as good as it could be.

The response to that fact shouldn't be to treat all fanworks as equally good but to treat them as equally worthy of being worked on and treat fan creators as all worthy of being educated (within some basic limits of what people can be expected to put up with, of course).

This is the last component that I think makes Seasons of Dusk possible. The Expanded Multiverse is structured in such a way that all works have to be voted on to be accepted by a bunch of people who have already produced material for the project and have therefore proven themselves to be good judges of what works in fiction.

That is undeniably a gatekeeping strategy.

But that gatekeeping strategy allows us to do several things. It allows us to maintain a world that is internally self-consistent, because we can tell people to change stuff that dramatically conflicts existing material. It lets us keep track of what gets entered into the archive, which in turn allows us to create that archive that can be navigated by non-M:EMbers.

And most of all, it embeds the process of constructive critique within the flesh and blood of the project. If someone puts something up for vote and I want to vote against it, I MUST explain why. I am compelled explicitly by the rules of the Magic: Expanded Multiverse to justify my vote. This means that all of us who vote and participate in the project are compelled to read not just our own works but the works of others as well. We have to share our expertise. We have to educate newcomers who haven't had access to the kind of education we may have had. I think that demand for justification really shapes the entire dynamic of the group, resulting in positive attitudes towards collaboration and sharing of information, in the same way that Open Source projects shape an attitude towards shared technological expertise and resources.

So, what seems on the surface like a reintroduction of creative gatekeeping functionally solves a different, and in my opinion far more significant, gatekeeping problem: that of education and the need for practical feedback.

The ability to create communities with similar attitudes is, I'd say, the core technology that makes something like Seasons of Dusk possible. Teaching people how to use software technology is just half the battle. The other half is teaching people how to build powerful, inclusive, and education-oriented networks to support fan works. Without Barinellos's graphical elements to work from, I wouldn't have known how to create some of the effects I used on the cover page. Without the work of editors RavenoftheBlack, Tevish Szat, and Lord LunaEquie, as well as all the rest of the contributors who shared thoughts on how things should be put together, I wouldn't have known how to arrange the stories I had (and they'd probably be full of typos.) And, of course, without all the contributors writing we would have nothing to work with at all. Without both the belief in the project as a whole driving our actions, and without the sharing of knowledge and collaboration between us on all the different tasks that went into creating the finished product, Seasons of Dusk would have been utterly inconceivable.

I don't want this to be just a rote, triumphalist parable on the power of social media. I hope I've made it clear that there are still huge hurdles to overcome, as well as huge battles to be fought against media dinosaurs who still unscrupulously use legal clout to silence fanworks and terrorize their own god damn customers. We have a long way to go, folks, particular at a moment when the very freedom of the Net is being dramatically called into question in America.

If there's one thing I've learned with M:EM it's that social networks don't spring from the loam fully formed. They need to be built and cultivated, and they rules and governance that encourage collaboration and education. M:EM isn't done growing and changing, and there's probably a lot we could do to increase people's access to us as an educational resource.

Contemporary fandom technologies haven't magically solved everything overnight, and anyone who tries to tell you that social media is an automatic cure-all is probably trying to sell you something.

But there is potential here, and it's in the name of that potential that I continue to work on projects like Seasons of Dusk.

Follow the Expanded Multiverse on Tumblr and on the No Goblins Allowed ForumsFollow for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at Circle me on Google+ at you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

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