A surplus of fan fiction, cosplay, memes and other obsessions

April 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Television in its current shape, like newspapers, is crumbling and it is the kids who are chipping away at it. It is as Clay Shirky predicted and the evidence can be found studying The Hunger Games, in the multitude of online forums, cosplay videos and images, parody videos, photo-shopped memes and web pages of user generated fan fiction.

Shirky’s big idea is that the Internet is a ubiquitous, participatory medium that is having an unprecedented impact on human society and behaviour. One of its side effects is to usher in the end of television as we have known it. Everyone over the age of 25 grew up watching television as the dominant entertainment and information medium. It was our default time suck of choice – or no choice because the Internet had yet to exist.

By contrast, the world depicted in The Hunger Games is one without an Internet and where information is controlled and flows from a central point. There’s one government television channel that everyone is compelled to watch. It could be a metaphor for our pre-Internet world where television was the king of media.

In the post war era, when people had more hours of leisure to burn, incredibly, we spent more and more of it watching television. We passively consumed televised broadcast content because it was entertainment, a surrogate friend, a way to feel connected to everyone else by being able to join the water cooler conversations at work and also because, as Shirky describes in his book Cognitive Surplus, the threshold for doing it was very low. It took no effort to turn on a television and collapse on a couch.

Apparently, Americans cumulatively watch up to 200 billion hours of television every year. But that’s changing. Those hours are increasingly going online. The shift wrought by the Internet, mobile communications and faster broadband speeds means that young people under 25 are not satisfied with passively consuming media. They expect to be active and contributory participants. They expect the immediacy and interactivity of the World Wide Web because that is what they’ve grown up with. This burgeoning participatory ethos is what Shirky calls the cognitive surplus – the hours spent tuning out have become about turning on.

“Several population studies – of high school students, broadband users, YouTube users – have noticed the change, and their basic observation is always the same; young populations with fast interactive media are shifting their behaviour away from media that presupposes pure consumption. Even when they watch video online, seemingly a pure analogue to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate or rank it, and of course to discuss it with other viewers around the world.”

Shirky says the cumulative effect is revolutionary.

“The choices leading to reduced TV consumption are at once tiny and enormous. The tiny choices are individual; someone simply decides to spend the next hour talking to friends or playing a game or creating something instead of just watching. The enormous choices are collective ones, an accumulation of those tiny choices by the millions; the cumulative shift toward participation across a whole population enables the creation of a Wikipedia.”

Armed with the theory, I went looking for the cognitive surplus as it might apply to The Hunger Games. Others had observed that the all this extra brain cell activity not wasted on watching TV, had been disappearing into a morass of Angry Birds but we can guess that it flows on to what ever the next big Internet thing is. Right now, the next big thing to millions of kids is The Hunger Games. Warning: if you haven’t seen the film or read the book there are spoilers ahead.

Take for example, fan fiction, a sub culture where fans are so into a story, series or book, that they make up their own plots, subplots and parallel narratives. They fill in where they see gaps in the authorised narrative or characters. The Hunger Games fans who write fan fiction (called fanfic for short) are extremely dedicated and motivated. They have gone beyond consuming the books and the film and they’ve ‘occupied’ The Hunger Games world, bringing with them their own spin.

Many have run with the romantic intrigue between the main character Katniss Everdeen and the other two points of her love triangle – Peeta and Gale. They’ve been extrapolated by fans in love with the book but dissatisfied with its chasteness. Are you on Team Peeta or Team Gale for Katniss?

Foxface illustration by CarlyFriendsRock

Foxface illustration by CarlyFriendsRock

Fans also love Katniss’ mysterious redheaded rival, Foxface. She’s even become the focal point of a fascinating controversy. Did Foxface commit suicide by deliberately eating nightlock berries or was her death accidental? This is hotly debated online by fans who feel passionate one way or the other. As much as I like the idea that Foxface decided to subvert the game, I am on the side of the ‘accidentalists’.

Check out also the Hunger Games wiki where fans write and edit a definitive resource on the books (and the film) according to the principles of Wikipedia.

There are also cosplay videos and images of fans dressing and acting out their favourite character roles. These kids script, video, edit and publish their own tributes to the books. The results are not always pretty but it’s kind of touching that fans do this out of love for the story.

Some recreate scenes from the book. And others make parodies, like this one of The Hipster Games. Some get the braids, bows, arrows and a flinty stare.

Needless to say, there are also photoshopped memes!

This explosion of fan love creativity is what the cognitive surplus looks like. There was a debate about race because some fans were outraged two of the game candidates, Thresh and Rue, are played by black actors in the film. The racist fans were quickly shot down – one, for making it an issue of having black actors and two, for their poor reading comprehension. The book clearly says:

“And most hauntingly, a twelve year old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanour.”

Someone appalled at the racism displayed towards the idea of having black characters started a Tumblr that aggregated the racist tweets and reactions to them. It became a rallying point for the anti-racist backlash.

Truth be told, I felt like objecting a little because the two Asian kids didn’t get much screen time. One dies in a highlights reel of an earlier games and the other kid doesn’t even get going, just one of those immediately slaughtered at the Cornucopia. But hey, at least Asians got represented, even if they were arrow and spear fodder.

I am just scratching the surplus here. This obsessive mania over The Hunger Games may seem frivolous and trivial but to me, it represents something much bigger – a rowdy, clamouring, gorgeous din of voices, all busy creating, sharing, debating, trolling and celebrating with a zeal that goes with being a true fan. That noise you hear is the sound of an accumulation of surplus creativity finding its outlet on the World Wide Web. That has got to be more interesting than watching people watch television.

What’s your cognitive surplus doing?

Catching The Hunger Games virus

March 31, 2012 § 2 Comments

Put the success of The Hunger Games down to the girl with the bow and arrows. She is the heartbeat of the 26 million copy selling trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins that has also been adapted into a Hollywood juggernaut.

The film roared into the cinemas in its first weekend. It made $NZ260 million in cinemas around the world. In North America, the film had the most successful first weekend for a non-sequel film and had the third biggest opening weekend of all time (surpassed only by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Dark Knight).

The Hunger Games has also become the most successful film at midnight screenings, the opening day trend that is becoming so important to defining an event film. It too kicked off in New Zealand with midnight screenings, making $NZ1.6 million in its first weekend. Bridget Jones captured the ‘red eye’ scene in this Auckland Now post.

Meanwhile, the deafening buzz on social media has been building for months. The film’s launch has been underpinned by a well executed social media campaign on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. You can read more about it herehere and here.

If there was ever any doubt, we now know The Hunger Games is going to break all kinds of box office records in the months ahead. If you must single out any one individual, blame Katniss Everdeen. She is a 16 year old girl with way fewer First World problems than your average American teenager, yet she has become a cultural touchstone for millions of young adults. Her predicament is an elemental one – how to stay alive in a lethal environment where the only choices are to die or kill other children as unlucky as yourself.

We pick up her story just before she volunteers in place of her younger sister Prim to join the ritual killing fields. It is the first demonstration of her circles of responsibility – to her sister, to her family, to her community and to her district. Lastly, she accepts the biggest burden of all – an obligation to all the districts enslaved by a totalitarian regime that rules this future dystopia from its morally bankrupt capital, Panem.

The name Panem even comes from the Latin phrase for bread and circuses – Panem et Circensus. It is a hat tip to when emperors used these two levers to massage public sentiment. The Hunger Games are an echo from a time when gladiators died while entertaining crowds at the Coliseum and across the Roman Empire.

The grimmer tragedy of these games is that it is children who are selected at random to kill or be killed. Think of a kind of lethal Big Brother where bitchiness and nastiness are emphasised with spears, knives and arrows, and where the backstabbing is not metaphorical.

The whole time, the gory spectacle – the slaughtering and teen angst – is televised live. The show is an unholy intermingling of entertainment and power politics. It is how the rulers of Panem say to the people that they have exclusive power over the life and death of their subjects.

By chapter two, our investment in Katniss is complete. We realise, like her, that her only way home is over the bodies of the other kids. We see her guided by her moral compass as she negotiates a way through the killing ground with skill, heart and intelligence. We applaud her choices and agonise over her dilemmas. Her angst makes her an emotional lightning rod for the story’s target audience. She is acutely conscious of the contradictions of her humanitarianism and the violence she has to inflict in the context of the system’s cruelty and ritualised barbarism.

When Katniss forms an alliance with Rue, the youngest participant, she learns that her new friend likes music more than anything else in the world.

“Music?” I say. In our world, I rank music somewhere between hair ribbons and rainbows in terms of usefulness. At least a rainbow gives you a tip about the weather.

There’s also this episode which could be interpreted as humour of the blackest kind.

There was a guy like that a few years ago from District 6 called Titus. He went completely savage and the Gamemakers had to have him stunned with electric guns to collect the bodies of the players he’d killed before he ate them. There are no rules in the arena, but cannibalism doesn’t play well with the Capitol audience, so they tried to head it off. There was some speculation that the avalanche that finally took Titus out was specifically engineered to ensure the victor was not a lunatic.

The three fingered salute that’s being adopted by The Hunger Games’ most passionate fans has become another signature of the book and film, in the same way the Vulcan live long and prosper sign was embraced by Trekkies everywhere.

Then something unexpected happens. At least, I don’t expect it because I don’t think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim’s place, and now it seems I have become someone precious. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.

When her success becomes a threat to Panem, she makes an implacable enemy. She has become the activist/dissident who strikes fear into all police states. Author Suzanne Collins says the inspiration for The Hunger Games came from switching channels between Survivor and the war in Iraq. But one could imagine the inspiration also being the regime in North Korea where people live in constant threat of famine, of Syria where agents of government torture and kill children with impunity, and China, Bahrain, Iran and others where human rights activists are routinely harassed and imprisoned.

The real conflict at the core of The Hunger Games is not the games themselves, but the struggle to bring down a system and to free a people from a ruthless dictatorial government. Katniss literally becomes the game changer and, I am guessing, the spark that ignites a revolution.

It’s a raging, bone shattering narrative, a squeaky bottom read, an extraordinary heroine and a monster at the box office. Collins herself worked on the screenplay with the filmmakers. Jennifer Lawrence is an excellent casting choice for Katniss. She plays haunted and hunted so exquisitely, just as she did in Winter’s Bone. The rest of the young cast – as well as veterans like Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson – serve up post apocalypse survivor chic eye candy for the PG13 audience.

It’s a case of so far, so good. The Hunger Games hits the bull’s eye on the first shot and there’s much more to come. But don’t wait for the movie sequels. Read the books – especially the brilliant first one. It’s titled The Hunger Games and it is how the world came to know Katniss Everdeen.

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