Smashing the Text: Gaming Fan Practices

[i]A short paper I wrote and got a 96% A on this semester for my grad school class. Considering it’s about SMYN, the Brawl community, and The Dojo, it might be of interest to some of you…[/i]

An audience’s passion for a work of media takes shape in many different forms. Some viewers show their devotion by taking in everything the work has to offer or creating their own works, based off of that text. In addition, it is also entirely common for these viewers to dress up as their favorite characters, while attending conventions where other fans meet up. Simply stated, fandom knows no limits. While the recent readings for class have echoed these sentiments, these analyses were primarily considered in a context based in television. My own personal media experience offers a unique insight, in that these types of fan practices extend to video games as well. The degree and duration in which I was ingrained in the Super Smash Bros. community allowed me to directly experience online fan practices for this type of interactive medium.

In 2007, one video game was anticipated more online than any other. The Nintendo Wii system was about to receive one of its must-have games in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008), where characters from Nintendo’s past and present would compete in combat. Most video game developers are typically very quiet during the months leading up to their product’s launch. A trailer might be released online, a gaming website might get a preview with the game, or perhaps the game might be shown publicly through a trade event or an online demo. However, Brawl’s director, Masahiro Sakurai, made the decision to reveal information about the game every weekday for nearly a year through the game’s website. From May 2007 to March 2008, every Monday through Friday, fans would wake up and check “The DOJO!!” to learn about the latest news on Super Smash Bros. Brawl (“Smash bros. dojo!!”). From playable characters and their special moves, to included stages, to details about the game’s story mode and more, little was held back during this slow information drip. While few games may have attempted this kind of website before, the amount of information leaked and the online community involvement with The Dojo greatly exceeded any previous effort.

The way in which The Dojo was unveiling all that Brawl had to offer was a brilliant public relations move, as the game continually generated a lot of buzz in online communities. The community that was the most enthralled was the “Smashboards” over at Smash World Forums, typically perceived as the go-to online community for Super Smash Bros. games (“Smash world forums”). My role in the Smashboards community became a rather interesting one when, in July 2007, I started a podcast under the online moniker of “Youko.” The podcast “Show Me Your News!” (SMYN) became the community’s weekly weekend recap of information from The Dojo, as Youko and SamuraiPanda discussed each website update from the previous week. The show’s discussion thread, while a few years out of date, accumulated more than 563,000 views, which speaks to the size of the niche that the podcast appealed to (Youko, 2007). Over time, SMYN evolved into a gaming industry news podcast that still continues to this day, but the lessons about online communities I learned from the early Brawl days continue to be rather valuable (“Show me your”). When a podcast emerges from a fan forum such as SMYN did, engaging with the community, gaining feedback from fans, and other skills become essential. However, while I was absorbed in the Brawl community, the most intriguing observations were not only the fandom’s craving for spoilers, but how fans went above and beyond to create videos, alterations, and a tournament scene with the game.

As initial interest in The Dojo turned into rapt fan attention, this supports the idea that a common fan practice involves searching out spoilers for the media they are interested in. When it comes to Brawl though, fans did not have to actively search for spoilers, as they popped up nearly every week on the website. For a Super Smash Bros. game, the list of playable characters is the most sought-after detail, yet this was parsed out over time with updates to the site. After Brawl released in March 2008, The Dojo continued for a couple weeks, with certain updates prompting readers that they were about to view spoiler content. This was hardly a deterrent, though, as fans had established a kind of habit to view content that had traditionally been kept secret from the pre-launch public eye. Ultimately, fans moved to forums like Smashboards in order to generate a collective intelligence, which is the “ability of virtual communities to leverage expertise of their members” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 27). Up until Brawl released, fans concocted many predictions of what the game would include, until The Dojo eventually revealed the truth to the community.

As my podcast continued past the launch of Brawl, I was able to directly witness what the community was able to do with the game, now that it was in their hands. The podcast’s success had very quickly turned me from someone with minimal clout in the community, into an opinion leader that was promoted to a Super Moderator. This was the position just below site administrator, so I was able to view a wide range of fan discussions and activities, and even take an active part in shaping and curtailing them. Aside from the moderation of inflammatory and spam posts, fans were doing tremendous things with Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Digital technology allowed for fans to capture, edit, and create their own videos of in-game footage. These could be full recordings of matches with their friends, play-throughs of the game’s story mode with commentary, and much more. In recent articles for class, the concept of “vidding” has been brought up, in which Jenkins describes how these videos are “constructed as part of a conversation which the fan artists were having with the original text, with its authors, with other fans, and with themselves” (2006). Similarly, Smash Bros. fans with the technological know-how tend to engage in similar practices with “combo videos.” These videos are compilations of in-game moments that display skill, which are edited to fit with music played alongside the footage (zTwiliz, 2011). While these do vary in quality based on the skill level of the production, the sharing of these videos with the community shows the commitment that fans go through, in order to make use of digital technologies and social networks.

Variations of fan practices continued further when fans were essentially poaching the text and changing it to better fit what they wanted out of the game. Within months after Brawl’s launch, fans had found ways to hack into and change the game’s code. This allowed for a wide range of things to be done, from changing settings and mechanics, to replacing in-game music, to remapping character models with fan-created variations and more. Fans could essentially create a new game based off of Brawl’s foundation, such as how a devoted group attempted to emulate the gameplay of the previous Super Smash Bros. title in Brawl with “Project M” (“Project m”). Furthermore, the Smash Bros. franchise was initially designed to be a light-hearted party game, yet fans have taken it upon themselves to play the game competitively. As a result, a community-driven tournament scene exists to this day on a regional, national, and global scale, where players travel to compete in person for cash prizes and bragging rights. My firsthand experience with this atmosphere ranges from competing as a tournament participant, to emceeing an online-broadcasted tournament with play-by-play match commentary. Simply put, the degree to which this tournament scene occurs would not be possible without an online community like Smashboards. Forum-goers promote tournaments and establish social bonds with other fans, as a select group of members establish the official rules for how tournaments should be run. The manipulation of the game through its code or competitive purpose is classic textual poaching, as players are “stretching its boundaries to incorporate their concerns, remolding its characters to better suit their desires” (Jenkins, p. 156). Essentially, my time spent in the Super Smash Bros. online community allowed for a wide range of experiences. I could not help but feel that the text samples from the past few weeks resonated so strongly with what I lived through first-hand.

WORKS CITED
Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. Routledge.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence cultures: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.
Jenkins, H. (2006, September 18). How to watch a fan-vid. Retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/2006/09/how_to_watch_a_fanvid.html
Project m. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://projectm.dantarion.com/
Show me your news – official site. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://showmeyournews.com/
Smash bros. dojo!!. Retrieved from http://www.smashbros.com/en_us/index.html
Smash world forums. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.smashboards.com/
Super Smash Bros. Brawl [Computer software]. (2008). Sora Ltd.
Youko. (2007, July 8). Show me your news! – smash world forums. Retrieved from http://www.smashboards.com/showthread.php?t=108829
zTwiliz. (2011, January 26). Unbalanced – an ssbb compilation. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_VSsUxZXvA

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