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A few days ago, Jonathan posted an interview with Madeline over at Bleeding Play. She’s writing an article for Push 2 about online freeform roleplay, and the interview is pretty interesting—about which more in a bit.
First, because I need very little excuse to bring it up, let’s talk about slash.
I love slash.
While I was running a game a few days ago, one of my friends commented, “It’s a game Violet is in. There’s basically going to be slash.” Which is incisive, true, and made me spend the next five minutes trying to figure out how to have an NPC say, “why don’t you come into my tent?” without it sounding extremely, ah, subtextual.
Which is why I love slash, and why—I think—I am obviously not alone (bring one with the gay doesn’t hurt, either, but I suspect that most people writing slash are straight). Most online fandoms have a pretty sizable contingent of slashers and slashfic writers. This shouldn’t be surprising: fanfic is very much about pulling out threads in the fiction that aren’t developed in the canon, and expanding them into novel works. The whole enterprise is tilted towards reading between the lines and teasing out relationships, plot threads, and other fictional possibilities. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that gay pairings are so underrepresented in fiction that After Ellen has about three shows to track at any given time.)
Reading fiction with an eye towards developing and expanding it is a part of another activity, of course—story gaming. It oughtn’t be shocking that there are huge freeform online fanfiction games. That kind of collaboration is almost inevitable, given a community of people who write fiction on a foundation of other fiction. The only thing freeform games do is systemize the inevitable creative back and forth. “Systemize? I thought they were freeform?” They are, in a sense, but they certainly use a system.
It’s called Livejournal.
Or Wordpress, or IRC—and, as always, the choice of system matters. In addition, the fic community (as noted in the interview) has developed a large space of jargon to express the desires and limits of creators involved in the game. That jargon set is more universal, but it certainly develops localized variants within fic-writing subcommunities.
One of the nice things about online play—this is especially true of PBP or PBeM, but holds somewhat for chat play as well—is how little system is needed. That is, in tabletop play, the system often helps to convey vital but non-narrative information quickly—it increases the bandwidth of the player-to-player subchannels. In online play, very little of that is needed; there already exist a wealth of communication channels available to players, outside the fiction.
Almost paradoxically, online play is able to support extremely heavyweight systems—things that no tabletop designer would even think of foisting on the players. This is pretty clear from even a cursory glance at the software. Loading Flight Papers causes 23 SQL queries to execute on the server—if I had to do even one of those in a tabletop game, I’d go home.
Of course, that complexity is essentially hidden from the players, but it definitely serves to set up a particular writing environment. Something that would be really interesting to look at—and I hope Madeline touches on this in her article—is the degree to which players incorporate other rulesets in their writing. There are probably more writing exercises in existence than molecules in the universe, and certainly some of them can work in a collaborative environment, but I don’t know the degree to which this is practiced.
There’s another aspect of fanfiction in particular which the interview touches on, but doesn’t delve into a lot—canon. (This is a big enough field to power its own post—or possibly a paper—so I’m not going to be able to talk about everything here.) Fanfic requires the presence of an external canon, obviously—without it, you’re not writing fanfic, you’re just writing fiction. The canon seems, at the very least, to provide a wealth of potential stories and themes to riff off, and additionally grants legitimacy and an audience to the derived works that an original work* might not have. But if you riff too far, or outright contradict something that the original work has established, you risk losing that. This is where the canon/non-canon/semi-canon stuff comes in, and as Madeline points out, it’s a pretty complex issue. Some writers are happy as clams to ignore massive chunks of canon, some aren’t. What constitutes a massive chunk of canon is, similarly, somewhat undefined. The problem here isn’t unfamiliar from a design standpoint: there is another agent, the original author, and there is some question as to how much authority that agent has over the fiction. This is made more difficult by the fact that the author seems to have infinite authority over the fiction—but as the very existence of fanfic demonstrates, she clearly doesn’t (sound familiar?). The balancing act is the subject of a lot of fandom discussions and disputes, and I suspect turns up some really interesting results.
* Of course, what constitutes an original work is a pretty complex subject in itself.