BLERD: The Exploration of Blackness in gaming spaces, practice of fan-interpretations, and creation of counterpublics
Diamond E.B. Porter
University of Texas at Dallas
Citation: Porter, Diamond E.B.. “BLERD: The Exploration of Blackness in gaming spaces, practice of fan-interpretations, and creation of counterpublics.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 25, 2022. doi:10.20415/hyp/025.e02
Abstract: The politics of visibility is determined and impacted by existing physical and digital environments. In recent years, the focal point of game studies has shifted to the culture and impact that games have on everyday life in and out of virtual spaces, one of these spaces being fanfiction communities. Gaming spaces and counterpublics have historically been sites for critical intervention and play. Fanfiction is a unique landscape that culturally exists at the intersection of pop culture, politics of space and play. Black fanfiction communities and counter publics are an important source for understanding Black discourse in academia. As such it is important to consider how fanfiction communities add to existing narratives and create a collaborative individual experience. Fanfiction is an art form that centers Black cultural production. Drawing on the works such as of Mary Flanagan in Critical Play, Intersectional Tech by Kishonna Gray, and Black fanfiction authors, I argue that Fanfiction provides grounds for understanding and integrating Black discourse surrounding fandom and video games within academia. Including these interpretations of game media complicates the players understanding and interaction with the game as a technological artifact.
Keywords: Black Women Studies, fanfiction, game studies, community, fandoms.
Games continue to expand into our real-world conditions and way of living, pivoting from traditional transmedia story telling. counterpublics for gaming spaces and fanfiction communities have historically been sites for critical intervention and play. Video game research and critique has historically centered on the traditional visual interpretations of representation such as ethnicity, perceived gender and social roles that inform how the designer wants the player to read characters and sequences in the game world. Through game narratives the players grow new connections with and around technology leading to digital communities. Fanfiction is a type of play that reframes what it means to engage in a digital community. Through the creation of counterpublics and fan interpretations of game media, a space for critique and analysis is revealed for communities to play with the tensions between academia and alternative epistemologies. By modify the terms of engagement, the gaming experience goes from tactile interaction between player and game world to a viable unique community with rules and boundaries co-created by the fanfiction community members.
This paper will be divided into four parts. The first section, History and Visibility, will examine the histories of visibility and Blackness at the intersects of games and media. This section will introduce foundational research fundamental to the discourse surrounding Blackness and the historical presence of Blackness in gaming. Building on this understanding of Blackness, the second part will focus on fandoms and Black cultural production artifacts. Examining Black cultural production as a type of fan labor will tie into the larger discourse of play as being intrinsic to fanfiction and Black cultural production. The third section will explore contributions and current work in Blerd communities around the games Detroit: Become Human and Mass Effect. The section centers on how contribution in Blerd fanfictions communities center black subjectivity and unplaying as a critical framework for exploring identity. The final portion, Academia and alternative ways of knowing, will examine the tension between academia and fanfiction as a community centered art form. This section will elucidate how fanfiction is a rebellious art form that provides an alternative to knowledge curation outside of academia that centers Blackness and play.
History and Visibility
Many media forms group Black people as a monolith. However, the rich vibrancy of culture is expansive across the Black diaspora. Blackness in gaming has always been contested and sparse. Within the history of media and gaming we denote the invention of the first simulations, on mainframes, as the beginning of video game history. Simulations on mainframes eventually led to the first game on a video display being created in 1962. However, often left out are the contributions of Black people within the history of video games and video game studies. To further contextualize fanfiction as Black cultural production that intersects with game and media artifacts, it is pertinent to highlight the Black labor contributing to the modern medium today. The history of video games started between 1950 and 1960 with simple games created in mainframes; this eventually led to the first video game being created in 1962. The first game console was later created in the early 1970. A Black Engineer, Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, designed one of the earliest consoles and led the engineering team that invented the first video game cartridge. Lawson hoped to change the game industry and inspire more people of color to be hired. During the 1980s there was a rise in the popularity of video games and game designers. Muriel Tramis is credited as the first Black female video game designer in 1986. Tramis incorporated IT and literary creativity into video game design projects, and worked on integrating images and sound into the story with French developer Coktel vision. Later in 1987 Tramis created a video game combining literary creativity and history of the island of Martinique, located in the eastern Caribbean Sea. Trami’s combination of history and video games provided grounds for her to tell a history of Antilles that doesn’t center on colonization and slavery. As seen with both Tramis and Lawson, games as a media form offer people opportunities to explore, reinforce culture or play with multifaceted implications within and outside of the context of video games.
Black characters in video games play into stereotypes and harmful tropes that are paralleled film and television. Black people are not shown in traditional media forms or in pop culture, unless it is to highlight Black pain or further push problematic stereotypes. Negative media portrayals speak to an underlying structure of racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and systemic oppression present within the social economic set up of the United States. More recent portrayals of Black characters in media, such as Everybody Hates Chris, Bad Girls Club, and Tyler Perry movies, extend problematic portrayals of Black people. These films and television shows are then marketed towards Black people but ultimately reinforce negative stereotypes of Black women being angry and colorist ideals. Racist, sexist, and stereotypical portrayals of Black people in media are often repackaged and resold under the guise of being progressive in a new media form such as video games. Understanding Black history within video game history is to grapple with both the invisibility of erasure and hyper(in)visibility. Hyper(in)visibility is black people being present in films television and new media spaces but without black subjectivities (Petermon 5). Black people are more prevalent in pop culture than they have been before. Petermon states that the white gaze, or the knowledge that one is viewed through the lens of these stereotypes, further magnifies the issue of hyper(in)visibility for black people (1). Historically, oppressive systems of power extend into the history of media, video games, and fandoms. Hyper(in)visibility leads to the manifestation of historically racialized stereotypes and caricatures re-configured into media. These reconfigurations of racial caricatures simplify and erase the nuances of Black women’s experiences of relationships and womanhood, thus limiting their social engagement in digital and physical spaces. counterpublics within Black nerd (Blerd) communities offer an alternative space to explore identity, narratives, and black subjectivity at the intersects of Black culture and fan labor. Fan interpretations, reinforced by fan translations in community discords, as well as reading Blerd fanfiction, allow Black people to explore and make sense of their digital landscape and create a space for black cultural production. Games continue to expand into a transmedia story telling through game narratives and the players connections with and around Technology. An important intersect between pop culture and Black experiences within the cultural contexts of the United States, is the creation of the term Blerd. A Blerd is a slang term for Black nerd. The term became popularized through the TV show Scrubs when a character in the show refers to himself as a Blerd. The term, first used in 2006, has since then became a calling card for Black fans in gaming and fanfiction communities to identify similar individuals in a genre that centers white male consumers. The incorporation of Blerd into gaming and fanfiction spaces is a pivot from the original term of nerd. The term Blerd differs from nerd, as it highlights the different experience and way that African Americans engage with media forms, that then build on their Black experiences within the cultural context of the United States.
The politics of space is different when set within a digital environment. In this context the creation of counterpublics in digital spaces, under the term Blerd in many circumstances, are derived from publics created within a societal hierarchy. In the context of fandom, game, and Blerd communities, the term “counterpublic” (popularized by Michael Warner) functions as a public community centering around a shared Black cultural experience. Consumption of shared media and cultural labor productions in Blerd counterpublics diverge from the wider public sphere of fandom, and media and consumption of text, which can be further expanded to media and digital content. Fanfiction is fiction written by a fan of media content, that features characters from a TV series, movie, anime, books, or other media content. Play historically has been conceptualized as being an open-ended territory of world building within the constraints and parameter determined by one or multiple participants or parties. Games and the act of playing challenge the interpretation of confined areas while utilizing time and space within or sometimes outside of the agreed upon rules. Within the context of fanfiction Black fan laborers and fanfiction writers play with the constraints, boundaries, and interpretations of time within the digital space. Space is affected by social constrain and actions; it is malleable and affected by those with the most power in the physical or digital space. Fanfiction functions with play as an individual and collaborative world building exercise within and outside of the boundaries of a fantasy world. The characters utilized in the fanfiction content are not always just the characters written into the show. Often writers and readers create original characters, called OCs or reader insert characters, to feature as either a background character or as a central component within the boundaries of the media and fanfiction world. Original characters allow Blerds to explore identity in fictional universes and converse within a safe space. Sometimes classified as fan laborers, the authors of fanfictions, alternatively termed fanfics, uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from the original creator as a basis for their writing. Fanfiction, in this way, is often categorized as a type of fan labor, participatory art form and alternative publishing. counterpublics for gaming spaces and fanfiction communities have historically been sites for critical intervention and play. In recent years video game research has become more academically acceptable through critique focusing on mechanics, examinations of how the designer utilizes race as technology and the centering of traditional visual interpretations of representation such as ethnicity, perceived gender and social roles that draws on frameworks from film studies. However, the focal point of game studies has shifted to the culture and impact that games have on everyday life in and out of virtual spaces.
Some recent research surrounding gender, race, and Blackness in games and Black studies includes discourse by Mary Flangan, whose pivotal work Critical Play examines how norms in the gaming community are challenged by artist and activist made games that reshape game culture on the everyday scale. Building on that work, Tara Fickle in Race Card calls for a re-orientation of game studies away from games as identity tourism and toward a way to bridge the intellectual divide between game theory and game mechanics creation. Fickle examines the divide at the intersects of play to challenge game tropes and historical incorporation of game in the everyday life and into the present. Pivoting to Blackness in media, Distributed Blackness by André Brock examines social media, specifically Black Twitter, and Instagram, to examine how the meaning making and performances of African American identity in digital spaces are reconfigured. Each of these works in game studies and Black studies examines how digital space and play interact to challenge the status quo and allow for meaning and knowledge creation. Thus fanfiction as a digital space offers a new way to critique Black fan discourse in an around Accademia.
Fanfiction’s history is difficult to trace with origins spanning before the invention of the internet. Derived from 1920s and 1930s sci-fi fandoms, fanfiction started as a way for collective interpretation of shared media. Fanfiction was a marginalized underground activity that centered on popular text in fictional universes. Fanfiction in the modern context originated in the 1960s, originally being a response to the TV show Star Trek (1966-69). Fanfiction, which is sometimes referred to as fanfics, are stories written by fans that are based on media that includes the plot lines and characters from one or multiple media sources. These fan-created narratives or fan fictions often center around the existing media plotline settings and stories which are then adapted to fit new scenarios, setting, circumstances or introduce new fan-created characters. Fanfiction is inherently critical. Fan communities integrate narrative mechanics and creativity within a fictional universe to play with the politics of identity and game world settings. This is done by inserting new scenarios or remixing existing plot lines with reader inserted characters or original characters in the fanfiction universe. Before fanfiction became digitized in the late 1990s, fans of shows, games and movies participated in fan labor to create art, songs, and stories that they complied in fanzines which were covertly shipped across America and sold at conventions. The introduction of the internet disrupted the traditional showing of fan labor and instead introduced an alternative community focused around the fan labor of fanfiction writing. Fanfiction began to be shared via email in the 1990s, with fans conversing in chat rooms about their favorite fictional relationships popularly termed ships. The two biggest and most influential fanfiction sites are fanfiction.net, first started in 1998 and currently still up, and “Archive of Our Own,” first created in 2009 and currently still running as the top fanfiction site. As Kelly states, “these spaces can only exist with the enthusiastic support of readers and the general goodwill they exchange through positive ratings, reviews, recommendations, follows, etc.” (61). Fanfiction diverges from historical understandings of published literature as it is a media form that relies on community and engagement. Fanfiction, unlike traditional text forms, can call on fresh and often oppositional interpretations and readings of a text, while simultaneously blurring the lines between author and reader. This is where Fanfiction, as a growing literary genre, intersects with gaming counterpublics, and Blerds as a new site for discovery and play. The experience of playing a game differs based on our cultural understandings and our experiences scaffolded by race, gender, knowledge, and power within structural whiteness. Play is intrinsically tied to context. Blerd communities play with the established boundaries created by game developers to creates spaces for Black cultural production and subjectivity.
Black Cultural Production
The shifts in game studies centers on the idea that the experience of the player can never be reduced to the experience of a story. Fanfiction, popular culture, and technology converge to provide a special context in which Blerds can develop an identity and community through counterpublics. As Kelley states, the “economy of fandom only works well for those in positions of privilege, and/or who can be swallowed up within white, middle-class expectations of writing and responding” (79). As such, Blerd fanfiction spaces and the centering of Black fan created characters is one way that Black fans interact in fandom spaces. Black cultural production, in the form of fanfiction, turns away from hyper(in)visibility, and away from the white gaze, and instead utilizes fanfiction creation and curation as an alternative epistemology, subjectivity, and identity building within a digital community.
Within the context of Black Discourse, specifically Black feminist theory, digital infrastructures that function in a hybrid modality have been recent areas of interest in research for understanding Black discourse in and around academia. Digital spaces offer grounds for technological innovation and alternative ways of community building and curation of knowledge when acknowledging the histories and ramifications of white supremacy. Digital spaces alter the politics and terms of engagement and offer an extension to Blerds who would not be able to connect in a physical safe space into the digital realm. Blerds utilize play within fanfiction storytelling to resist and heal from the traumas of white supremacy and colonization by reconstructing and building counterpublics for intersectional Blerd identities in fandoms. Digital spaces offer Blerd a place to engage outside of structural barriers, systemic oppression and navigating the realities of being a Black person moving through different hostile environments.
Fanfiction is unique from previously discussed digital spaces. Communities surround media such as video game community forms, cinema cult followings and tv show tweeting events. Blerd communities have discord groups such as Black fanfiction connect, and fanfiction Facebook groups dedicated to Blerds. Blerd fanfiction spaces offer a place to showcase fanfictions and look for beta readers, and fan labor, specifically Black cultural production, done outside of these groups is community focused and centered on play. Fan Labor is intrinsically tied to fandom culture. Fan labor is a type of currency in fandom communities. The value of fan labor in a fandom is based on shared meaning making within the parameters of the fictional universe, commitment to the fandom, and promotion of the chosen media. Fan labor can take the form of art creation, research into media lore, character building, narrative exposition, fanfiction creation and fanfiction editing as a beta reader. Community is essential to fandoms and fanfiction. Often fan labor is extracted and exploited. Fan labor at the intersects of Black cultural productions highlights the ways in which digital spaces parallel the exploitation and appropriation of Black labor and creativity. Use of sites like Archive of our Own, Black fanfiction Discords, and having beta readers enables Blerd to have agency and power and instill collective action over creative works and fan creations.
The community space in which the individual and community identity can be formed is discursively constructed through the different cultural perspectives and literacies that Blerd and other fans from the United States bring to the spaces. By reframing fanfiction as a divergent literary medium, fanfictions are instrumental in challenging the rules of play, and are a vital part of Blerd counterpublics. I put works such as Intersectional Tech by Kishonna Gray, Distributed Blackness by André Brock, and Fanfiction writing and the construction of space by Rebecca Black in conversation to examine gaming and fanfiction counterpublics at the intersection of identity, politics of space and Blerds. These authors utilize play as a technology and intervention to critique the pressures from an authoritative process for capitalist notions of surveillance and mechanization.
Gray plays with the tensions of community, race, and identity, highlighting how a pivotal moment in game studies necessitated an intersectional approach in digital spaces. Gamergate was an incident that initially questioned video game journalism ethics and eventually resulted in an harassment campaign against women in the gaming industry that were calling for diversity in game narratives. Gray emphasizes how the experiences of white women were privileged over Black women’s calls for a more intersectional approach, which were minimized and erased as Black women faced misogynoir, harassment, and hostility online. In the digital space, with Gray’s work as grounding for my argument, fanfiction operates at the intersects of media interpretation, black cultural production, and self-publication. As Gray notes, the “racialized element inherent in mediated imagery further serves not only to limit agency but also to influence public perception of Black life” (62). Brock's exploration of digital practices on the internet, specifically pivoting towards the multiplicity of Black experiences and Blackness at the center of internet culture, provides an alternative lens for race within the context of digital culture in the United States. In her article Fanfiction Writing and the Construction of Space, Rebecca Black analyses how “popular online culture-based writing” can impact writers, specifically how youth writers feel about themselves and their position in social structures and against traditional publication. Fanfiction writers operating in a digital community space inherently play with the tensions of the structured authoritative process of academic publishing. This illuminates the tensions of legitimizing certain types of publication, in conjunction with self-publication as a rebellion against institutionalized epistemology. Black’s central argument asks the question of how self-publications, such as fanfiction writings, can be examined through a special lens to interrogate literacy practices and the design of virtual spaces. Through this lens, culture-based writing such as self-inserts in fanfiction and remixing character narrative and plot structures plays with the conceptualized narratives and Black subjectivity in the digital realm, while being grounded in English language pop culture discourse. Play is mediated by different platforms. As Gray illustrates, stories do not represent “the truthfulness of narratives” nor “reflect particular group’s reality, but it does reflect the hegemonic understanding of that particular group” (64). For example, in video game history most of Black representation of characters can be seen in sports titles. This racialized hyper(in)visibility reinforces the negative stereotypes that Black people are inherently better at sports. This is seen through only representing Black characters in video games in conjunction to basketball or sports games. As video games are complex systems of visual culture reinforced by the dominant class, they inherently uphold the value systems of institutionalized white supremacy. Murray states in her 2017 book The Visual Politics of Race, Gender, and Space, that complex characters should push outside of the bounds of the authoritative creator (Murray 52). Black fan labor in this way pushes past these constraints and plays with the boundaries and tensions of authorship by including Black characters that were either not present or in the background to the plot and narrative. Through fanfiction Blerds, at the intersect of video games and popular discourse, push back on the lack of representation by creating communities and building identity with the digital tools of games and fan labor, in the form of fanfiction creation, reader inserts, and original characters for fanfiction.
Fanfiction, as a retreat from physical constraints, moves into the digital space shaping the identity of a group and individual through participation in shared media fandoms. Discord groups like Black Fanfiction connect and sites like Archive of Our Own, Fanfiction.net, Tumblr, and Wattpad have enabled Blerds to take the problem of representation and make their own contributions to existing games, to reflect fictional and black subjectivity accurately. The communities and fan labor productions I focus on are Black women, the politics of language mediated through digital communities, and play amongst Blerd Fanfiction readers and writers based in the United States. These works can be examined through Black discourse surrounding fandom, specifically fanfiction. I am a part of these communities, and I choose these communities because the connection between gaming spaces and fanfiction communities plays with tensions of identity, Blackness, and emerging media forms. I chose these games because I have extensive knowledge on the game content as I have played both and as I inhabit some of the gaming and fanfiction communities for these games.
Individual writings of character scenarios transform into group themes and expressions that fans and fanfiction writers can incorporate into other fanfictions in the community. Bonding over fanfiction writing, tropes, and discussion of alternative scenarios in canon media aids in bonding fandom members. Original characters (OC) additionally offer Blerd fans another entry point to interpret narrative events within the canon media. Within the fandom world OC and reader inserts are historically characterized as blond haired blue eyed white women or of fair complexion. By focusing on Black fan labor in fanfiction authorship and community building, we may examine Black identity creation, and Black cultural production. Black fanfiction writers challenge this notion in fandoms like Detroit: Become Human and Mass Effect by writing in depictions of Black women as integral to the central plot. For Black fan laborers, reader inserts and OC provide a concrete way to introduce Black American culture and alternative plot points into a fictional universe. A fanfiction titled ‘lil bit’ by the fanfiction author Jahleesi, and published on Archive of Our Own, explores a Black woman reader insert character within the fictional Marvel universe. The reader inserted character is introduced to characters from the movie Black Panther, with the main romance lead being Erik Stevens or N’jadaka. As later seen in canon media, N’jadaka is revealed to be the cousin of T’Challa, king of Wakanda and the antagonist in Black Panther. Jahleesi’s fanfiction explores Black American culture, fan interpretations of romance, and character development of N’jadaka after the events of Black Panther while centering black subjectivity. Amassing 617 Kudos, receiving 424 comments and reaching over 20,000 people, Jahleesi’s fanfiction is both Black fan labor and a Black cultural production. Fanfiction extends past the consumption of text and continues when dialogues and other interpretation of narrative plots are introduced within the shared media to be discussed with other fans. Fanfictions exist beyond any one person's singular ownership within the digital space. Meaning in fanfiction is collectively agreed upon by fandom members and the boundaries set by the existing media. Game developers introduce one possible way to interact with the game. Fan communities have utilized various channels of communication to voice their discontent with game content and options; from shaming articles to interactions on Twitter, fans are now more involved in the process of game development and content than ever before. This extends to fanfiction. Fan made content contributes to the growth of mod gaming franchises.
The Mass Effect franchise, created by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts, originated in a trilogy of video games. Throughout each of the games the player is set within a third-person shooter role with role-playing elements. The first three games center on Commander Shepard, a human military officer who is the player character and can be customized in the character creator. Through a military infrastructure, commander Shepard is attempting to save the galaxy. Mass Effect is known for its character customizer and the complex character dialogue choice system mechanic in the trilogys. Mass Effect as a game is a military science fiction media franchise set within the 2183 Milky Way. In the game world, interstellar travel has been achieved through the usage of mass transit devices called Mass Relays, a technology believed to have been built by an extinct alien race known as the Protheans. The Mass Relay and Protheans species are central to all three games and act as a catalyst for the main conflict within the Mass Effect trilogy. BioWare originated the dialogue wheel within Mass Effect One, a mechanic like dialogue trees that enables players to dynamically steer conversations by selecting from several preset choices, which set the game apart from other games of the time. The feature has seen widespread use in other role-playing video games, such as the next game I will discuss in conjunction with Mass Effect, Detroit: Become Human. The success of the Mass Effect video game series spawned an extended universe, including novels and comics, which continues to add content for Blerds to expand within the fanfiction universe. The Mass Effect fanfiction universe has 20.3 thousand works on fanfiction.net and 22.5 thousand works on Archive of Our Own. The Mass Effect fandom, fanfiction creation differs from some games, as the character creator and variety of romance options allows fanfiction creators and readers more room to play with the tensions in the game world, with reader insert characters, and original fan created characters. Blerd fanfiction writers often utilize Mass Effect’s character creation built into the game to code Black characters as the central protagonist in the ‘canon’ context. Canon within the context of fanfiction encompasses both the media artifact of the fandom but can also expand to encompass game mods, interviews, and fan creations. Thus the Mass Effect game franchise and fanfiction allows Blerds to play with the bounds of Black culture within a fictional world. The fanfiction ‘Hannah's Suite’ by Knightqueen is a series of short fanfiction stories exploring prequel events of Commander Shepard during and before the Alliance in the Mass Effect Trilogy that affected the ending. On Archive of Our Own, fanfiction authors can leave beginning notes and ending notes in chapters. Knightqueen stated that “I want to know more about Shepard's life more than I wants to know about the outcome of all three games depending on what backstory you choose, for your dry bread protagonist” (Hannah’s Suite”). Commander Shepard, as a customizable character, was recreated in this fanfiction game world to be a Black woman navigating futuristic Earth and the beginnings of the space military named the Alliance that eventually leads to the events of Shepard becoming Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect games. Commander Shepard in Mass Effect has multiple romance options across all three of the games in the franchise and often fanfiction writers utilize dialogues from the Mass Effect dialogue wheel to create narratives and plots outside of the canon events. Thus Black fanfiction writers and reader collectively create art, fanfictions, and conduct discourse over head cannons and fanons. Black fan labor works to subvert the problematic representation of Shepard within the politics of the Canon game.
When creating and customizing the Commander Shepard character, the player is offered the option to choose different classes and backstories that influence the reaction of NPCs and game world later in the games. The fanfiction ‘2:27AM’ by MzRogueRaz (EggplantRed) expands upon the written back story of Commander Shepard with a Black woman Commander Shepard. ‘2:27AM’ functions as a short story offering context and expansion on some of the dialogue options in Mass Effect, providing significance to canon events through fan interpretation. As Gray states, “Black characters within media representations are coded in specific ways that reify and signify the meaning of Black racial identity” (63). Within the game’s context, the player can utilize the flow chart model of conversation and character creator to create a character that has darker complexion and curlier hair texture. However, Commander Shepard as a protagonist in the Mass Effect franchise is still coded as Black within a white narrative. This is seen through both the game narrative and the voicing of the commander Shepard character. Detroit: Become Human, released in 2018, is a narrative-based adventure video game published by Sony Interactive Entertainment and developed by Quantic Dream. Detroit: Become Human depicts a fictional near-future story about a world where humans are served by lifelike androids. The game follows three androids: Connor, whose job is to hunt down sentient androids; Kara, who escapes her owner to explore her newfound sentience and protect a young girl; and Markus, who devotes himself to releasing other androids from servitude. Building on the dialogue wheel first introduced by Bioware, Detroit: Become Human also became known for its focus on the flowchart of choices. The in-game choice affects the game world and the game narrative, leading to more than six game endings and multiple alternate story divergences. It shows us a future where human unemployment is high, and many people have become resentful of the androids. The sentient androids become discontent at being servants, and they launch their own rebellion. The game Detroit: Become Human was met with generally favorable reviews from white critics. The open-endedness of choices is reflected in fanfictions in and around the Detroit: Become Human universe. This praise was directed towards game mechanics such as the interactive setting, visuals, choice of voice actors, the impact choices had on the narrative, and flowchart features. The Detroit: Become Human fanfiction universe has 1.3 thousand works on fanfiction.net and 25.3 thousand works on Archive of Our Own. While accumulating less fanfiction than Mass Effect, released on November 16, 2007, Blerd fanfiction readers and writers engage with the Detroit: Become Human game world to create scenarios in which readers can interpret and react to game mechanics and narratives, while incorporating cultural Black experiences at the fore front of the narrative.
On Wattpad, the writer of ‘Rewrite the Stars’ xxneverxlosexhopxx explores interpersonal relationships and romance within the Detroit: Become Human universe with a Black coded reader insert character. Publishing ‘Rewrite the Stars’ on Wattpad allows readers to comment and add to the story through comments available on the left-hand side of each line of text. Comments include additional dialogue, expansion of fanfiction plots, and relating the fanfiction narrative to their own Blerd experiences. Similarly, The Fanfic ‘One and the Same’ by Tumblr writer WhatitMeanstobeHuman, explores events in the game franchise Detroit: Become Human with the addition of a POC reader insert character as a detective alongside one of the main characters, Connor. With the introduction of the reader insert character, Blerds are reintroduced to the world of Detroit: Become Human with the addition of social conscious and culturally relevant characters in the futuristic city of Detroit. Blerd fanfiction writers utilize the setting of Detroit: Become Human to critique the game's misunderstanding of race relations and analogy of humanoid androids, as repackaged chattel slavery, androids facing bigotry and prejudice in America. Gray gestures toward the way weaponization of race and othering in Black digital spaces is prevalent in fanon adaptations of the canon events. Gray alludes to “depictions of Blackness standing out prominently against a popular culture backdrop dominated by the primacy of whiteness and the secondary nature of Black existence and representation” (63). Blerd fanfiction writers do this by examining the game and plot through an intersectional lens of misogynoir and white supremacy in the fictional futuristic world of Detroit. Blerd fanfiction writers play with the game’s constraints and boundaries by questioning the cultural significance of having a darker complected Black woman android in place of Sara, a white, blond-haired blue-eyed android that is intrinsically tied to the games plot and welcomes the player on the title screen.
In this way fanfiction and gaming communities through different types of fan labor interrogate their relationship between authorized creator voice and the community engagement. The back and forth between blogs, Twitter, Discord, etc. where Blerds express personal concerns and Black subjectivity, alongside fan discourse, and fanfiction, naturally facilitates a sense of community, shared experience and close friendships between readers and writers. As seen in games like Mass Effect, fan narratives and interactions carry a specific type of capital that allows their contributions, fan labor and community to hold power and agency. On Archive of Our Own Blerds utilize tags such as Black-Female-Character or Black-in-fanfiction to curate fanfiction written with Black original characters inserted into the narrative as key figures and reader insert characters that are coded as Black. These tags and bookmarks make it more accessible for Blerds to filter and find representational content, as well as build counterpublics within fandoms as safe space to explore identity within Black culture and through fan labor. Interactivity within both video games and fanfiction are similar in engaging with an audience, however the narrative choices between them differ. Fan labor and Black cultural production in video games differs from fanfiction textual productions. Video games, as a medium, continue to have rigid constraints and boundaries for how much the player can engage with the game or edit with the game set parameters, outside of some fan created mods. Additionally, both Mass Effect and Detroit: Become Human are single player stories with an individualized experience. Fanfiction allows readers to participate in individual and collective story building. Fanfiction writers usually have a beta reader that reviews and suggest changes to the story before publishing a chapter. Sites like Archive of Our Own, fanfiction.net, Tumblr and Wattpad offer readers the opportunity to comment or give kudos to specific sections of the text, and allow these comments to be accessible to other readers as a collective reading experience. Fanfiction writing and discourse is inherently always in a constrained state of evolution and changes as canon tropes and fan created scenarios, referred to as ‘fanon,’ are contested through fan labor. Fan labor and video game narratives play with the boundaries of designer and player by creating a community with shared experiences and ethics. The illumination of the tensions in legitimizing certain types of publication is pivotal with self-publication of fanfiction being seen as a rebellion against institutionalized epistemology.
Academia and Alternative ways of knowing
In recent years, video game research has become more academically acceptable through critiques focusing on mechanics, examinations of how the designer utilizes race as technology, and the centering of traditional visual interpretations of representation such as ethnicity, perceived gender and social roles that draws on frameworks from film studies. However, the focal point of game studies has shifted to the culture and impact that games have on everyday life in and out of virtual spaces. This is where fanfiction, as a growing literary genre, intersects with gaming counterpublics as a new site for play. Games have historically intersected between culture, communication, and society. The way people interact with social technologies and play often changes to reflect current societal values. Because of this, content in games are often fixed in a distinct type of transmedia storytelling. Black characters have striven to break outside of their pixelated parameters to present a more autonomous and complex image of what race can be in the world of video games and in recent years fan interpretations in fanfiction. An important aspect in Blackmore’s analysis is how “fanfic demands that it be studied on its own terms—complete with context about what it means to its fans, attention to the communities it serves and comes out of, and nuanced views of how fans engage with the story worlds they have entered” (“Fanfic as academic discipline”). Blackmore uses impactful pop culture literature to examine the tensions of fanfiction as self-publication and community work that plays with the tensions of traditional notions of academic publication. Blackmore’s work informs my understanding of aesthetics, fan created projects, and exploration of publication within Blerd fanfiction. Fanfiction as an exercise in rebellion and explorative publishing directly opposes the historical tradition of including Black bodies as background characters or non-playable characters (NPC) within the context of games. The way that Black bodies are used as props in the game world with no importance to the game progression, echoes historical elements of the antebellum South, replicating systems of power and white hegemony. Black representation in mass media, as well as in digital games, has become monetized and used as a type of buzzword to do performative work, which negotiates an acceptable type of Black people portrayed in video games that continues to uphold white supremacy. This negotiation that legitimizes only certain types of media consumption, Fanfiction creation and experience under structural oppression, delegitimizes the wider experiences and portrayals of Blackness and Black cultural production.
Fan interpretations that are reinforced by fan translations in community Discords and reading fanfiction allows Black people to explore play within cultural context that subverts cultural script. Here I put Júlia Lorente’s article Appreciation or Abomination? A study of fanfiction as literature in conversation with Blackmore. Both authors call for fanfiction to be an artform and community-based writing practice diverging from traditional capitalistically oriented publication practices. Lorente’s central argument revolves around fanfiction and the attempt to mechanize our understanding of a self-publication community type of writing within the frameworks of academia, and plays with the boundary’s legitimization both within and outside of academia. This thesis informs the politics and exploration of fanfiction as a new literary genre informed by community experience and pop culture. Murdock’s Central argument in Making fanfic: The (academic) tensions of fan fiction as self-publication builds on the arguments of Blackmore and Lorente. Murdock does this by denoting the tension between academia and legitimizing certain types of publication. In this way self-publication enacts a type of rebellion against institutionalized epistemologies and pressures for an authoritative process. Playing with the idea of what is deemed ‘correct knowledge' deserving of being published will be vital in my discourse of fanfiction, community, and Black women. The flexibility and community ethics created in these Black fan and gaming counterpublics is unique to Blerd experience, and help make sense of their digital landscape and create a space for identity building. As such it is important to consider how fanfiction and gaming communities interpret and add to existing narratives and create a collaborative individual experience. Including these interpretations of game media complicates the players understanding and interaction with the game as a technological artifact. Black cultural production in fanfiction differs from academia production through the politics of publishing and capital exchanges. Fanfiction and fandom participation highlights Black digital innovation through creation networks. Blerd games are not neutral grounds for play. The player plays and interacts with a game while being informed by their own social and economic situations that alter the contexts of play. It is important to distinguish interacting with the game versus interpreting a text or game. Interaction with a game can follow the prescribed interaction in parameters set by the game designer and developer. However, interpretation of these events varies due to the context in which the player interacts with the game. As such there is more than one correct way to play a game. J.L. Sanchez’s definition of playability is outlined within the context of usability to broadening and deepening, to embrace further attributes and properties (Sanchez). Playability does not always directly correlate with playing a game ‘the right way.’ Building on this understanding of the right way to play a game fanfiction in the context is not meant to be concrete but rather malleable to the community. Fanfiction functions as a constant challenge and push-and-pull on boundaries set within the shared media context and fantasy world. Our perceived race and gender as well as our access to knowledge and power are fundamental in shaping our play practices in cultures. Play as tool for discovering knowledge-making in fanfiction relies on contesting community and alternative self-publishing practices.
Game narratives, as game developers design them, are only one point of contact to engage with the game artifact. Fan interpretations that are reinforced by fan translations in Blerd community Discords allow Black people to explore play within a cultural context that subverts cultural scripts and allows Blerds to make sense of their digital landscape, while also creating a space for identity exploration. It is important to study Blerd fanfiction and Black fan labor, through textual analysis and the creation of digital counterpublics, to interrogate how Black fan and gaming publics inform Black discourse and cultural production in and out of academia. Fanfiction is inherently critical and collaborative as fan communities creatively integrate narrative mechanics, and play with the politics of identity and game world settings, by remixing and unplaying existing plot lines with reader inserted characters and Black original characters. Play is mediated by different platforms, and the politics of space is different when set within a digital environment. Fanfiction, as an emerging media form, offers an alternative publishing and knowledge curation tool that highlights different experiences and the way that Blacks engage with media forms, building on their Black experiences within the cultural context of the United States. As such it is important to consider how fanfiction and gaming communities interpret and add to existing narratives and create a collaborative individual experience. Game narratives should not be relegated to the game creators’ voice as the authoritative figure. A collaborative approach including fan narratives is crucial as it allows digital Black communities to take up space, be heard and shown. Fanfiction is a community self-published art form that legitimizes itself through deconstructing traditional notions of authorship. By diverging from traditional publishing and authorship, fanfiction offers an alternative mode of knowing and cultural production through fandom and culture. At the intersections of Blackness and grounded in video game history and Black media consumption, fanfiction, in this way, offers an alternative way to explore and play with Black discourse in and around academia.
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