Not all personas belong to individuals, places, objects or organisations. Some personas are performed by a range of texts, images, and otherwise unconnected instances that are more than tropes and stereotypes.
In this video, I’m going to introduce you to Tomkinson and Elliott’s account of the gamer persona, specifically as it is imagined and enacted by [G Fuel].
G Fuel is an energy drink manufactured in various formats and advertised by a range of social media influencers and entertainers typically associated with ‘gaming’.
Tomkinson and Elliot argue that the result is more than just marketing and branding, but a persona that has actively reimagined the gamer as an ‘athletic activity’ requiring mental and physical energy, connected to others in an exciting and glamorous lifestyle.
They argue that: [“The contemporary gamer persona signals that there has been a shift in the popular discourses surrounding the ‘gamer’ identity in specific gaming micro-publics.” (p. 22)].
In this context, [Gamma Labs], has been able to form partnerships with micro-celebrities to appeal to a large global audience, negotiating between a commitment to diversity and controversial influencer figures.
It’s important to note that this ‘contemporary gamer persona’ identified by Tomkinson and Elliot is a very successful marketing and PR operation that exists in a post [‘Gamergate’] media landscape.
I’m going to add some resources on Gamergate to the learning platform for your reading, and I want to point to it as another kind of gamer persona but I don’t want to go into detail in this video:
Braithwaite, Andrea 2016. ‘It’s About Ethics in Games Journalism?’. Gamergaters and Geek Masculinity. Social Media + Society. October-December 1-10.
Massanari, Adrienne 2017. #Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New Media & Society. Vol 19. No. 3 pp 329 – 346.
[G Fuel is a multimodal and transmedia brand.]
The product itself comes in different packaged forms – [a powder, a liquid and a candied ‘energy crystal]’ and these feature strongly in the mediatisation of the gamer persona and the trademarked slogan [“The Official Energy Drink of Esports.”]
Esports is a massive social media entertainment industry that prior to the global pandemic had a very popular physical presence but has maintained its interest online via sites like Twitch TV.
Tomkinson and Elliot argue that the contemporary gamer persona is a collective performance of G Fuel and its more than sixty partnerships with influencers, gamers and athletes.
G Fuel is not limited to Epsort and is also associated with a number of contentious ‘gamer’ micro-celebrities.
Tomkinson and Elliot point out the controversial nature of the game persona is more than #gamergate but a long history in which the label of ‘gamer’ is associated with an affluent cultural identity and capacity for social capital and leisure time. They argue that historically the gamer persona has been largely represented by the media as being aggressive, young, heterosexual, white and male – despite more than a decade of research that points to the average gamer as being middle-aged women of diverse backgrounds. As the authors note:
“Indeed, in the US, UK, and Australia, women comprise around half of all players, and the average age of gamers is increasing (ESA 2020; Brand et al. 2020; Borowiecki & Bakhshi 2017).” P23.
The authors argue that G Fuel’s persona construction is mediatised by both its corporate [web presence] and its network of prestigious and diverse sponsored influencers.
They provide a detailed textual analysis of the G Fuel website and the ways that Gamma Labs uses discourses of [health and athleticism] to frame their product in opposition to other energy drink brands.
Using the representation of esports as a professional lifestyle the site lists “UFC fighters, eSports athletes, bodybuilders, skateboarders, YouTube stars, fitness models, and even NFL players” as key consumers.
Gamma Labs then builds on the representational strategies of the website by making alliances with social media entertainers and influencers to present themselves publicly as part of an elite collective of G Fuel partners – as part of the Team Gamma.
These micro-celebrities operate across Twitch, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube and many other social media platforms.
Tomkinson and Elliot highlight G Fuels relationship with the esports organisation [FaZe Clan] – a team of professional gamers, with its own persona, brand and merchandising which they argue maintains: “… elements of the classic gamer in the sense that those who are male and highly dedicated to the hobby more easily gain legitimacy compared to women and minorities, as well as those who have a more relaxed attitude to gaming, play less often, or play so-called “casual” games.” (p.27)
Prestige is an important part of the FaZe clan contribution to the G Fuel contemporary gamer persona enabling a connection to a brand that is based on the representation of the individual as “competitive, high-performing, dedicated, and stylish gamers that distance themselves from geekery”.
Tomkinson and Elliot’s analysis takes a close look at the value and reputation of the [YouTuber Keemstar] (Daniel Keem) who is known for being inflammatory and aggressive confrontational content on his channel DramaAlert.
Keemstar’s own persona is highly controversial but arguably as successful as FaZe clan but it is a persona that seems to thrive on transgression and controversy to maximise his influence.
Despite damage to his reputation with ongoing incidents and transgressions, G Fuel did not officially terminate their association with Keemstar but they did remove his products and merchandise from their store.
FaZe, PewDiePie and Keemstar have all had controversies that seem to contribute to the rebellious and contentious characteristics that now express values associated with the contemporary gamer persona – however as [Tomkinson and Elliot] note:
“Gamma Labs presents itself as being aware of women’s underrepresentation and poor treatment in multiplayer spaces, esports, game development and publishing, journalism, and content creation.
G Fuel’s website contains a blog section that regularly publishes a “Women of G Fuel” series, consisting of interviews with female content creators.
These interviews offer insightful details into the history and lives of women streamers, specifically how and when they started gaming, and what obstacles linked to their gender they have faced in their journey.
The Twitch streamer [NoisyButters] – Hannah Bryan – joined the G Fuel collective in 2020 with an official flavour ‘Star Fruit’ which is an interesting way to see the relationship between brand, product and persona.
NoisyButter’s persona is associated with positivity and happiness, rather than the edgy humour of PewDiePie, the contentious drama of KeemStar and the esports higher competitiveness of FaZe clan:
[“By avoiding stigma and controversy, NoisyButters creates value for her persona through playing mainstream titles such as Call of Duty with great attention to game mechanics, and establishing a strong reputation through her consistent affirmance of personal values such as “positivity” and “happiness”.” ]
So to conclude, I recommend taking a look at the article and some of the other papers cited in it, to see the way the contemporary gamer persona has been largely legitimized by public male figures. And the way that it has become clear that the gamer persona is in a continuous flux because it is contributed to by a collective, which means a greater opportunity for further diversity and a range of representations that are starting to afford women and minorities better degrees of attention and respect.
The basic definition of agency is: acting with the intention of a particular result.
It is a remarkably simple and important idea, especially when we are dealing with any kind of communication and any type of media. It is important because it recognises the active role of the audience and their ability to make choices.
Platforms like [Netflix] are popular because they increase choice, but like social media, they can also influence choice. [Facebook] is particularly good at using the data from previous choices to influence future ones. But that does not detract from the reality that users still have a choice.
Games, whether it is the latest [mobile app], a pen-and-paper role player game, an indie game or the latest FPS – all provide the player with the opportunity to express different degrees of agency.
A game provides the player with opportunities to act. However, how much and what kinds of acts they enable cover an incredible range and so there are many accounts in the literature of game studies as to what constitutes agency in video games and what that agency means.
In this video, I’m going to draw on Stephanie Jennings’ meta-analysis of the ways Agency has been accounted for in Game Studies to give you a brief overview of the way agencies operate in digital games. I’m only going to very briefly summarise key points from this excellent resource and certainly not going to do the paper or the field of games studies justice in this brief account – but there are a few key points I want to focus on.
The classic starting point for agency in games is [Janet Marrays’ (1997)]description of agency as an aesthetic experience:
She defines agency as: “… the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” ( Murray 1997 p.126).]
Murray, Janey 1997 Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: The Free Press.
This seems like common sense but it’s often overlooked – particularly because games are enmeshed in woolly thinking about media effects – the idea that violent movies or games will make people more violent.
[Agency implies power and manipulation] but the ability to exert that power, or to seek to influence, lies with the player and it is a measure of good game design, that a game drives the player to explore, it supports and augments the desire to engage with the system of gameplay and to assist the player in becoming [“…active participants in the creation of their experience through interaction with code during gameplay…” ](Calleja 2011 p. 55).
But this opens up questions about agency that Jennings (2009, p.89) frames as the distinction between experience and vs action or the capacity to act:
“Is the “satisfying power” of agency an experience?”
“Is agency a capacity to create actual, concrete, observable changes, based on specific actions and choices?”
This is an important distinction to make when talking about agency – is agency in the capacity to give players meaningful choices, or is it the experience that players embody when playing?
This distinction also applies to all types of media: think about [advertising and influencer social marketing]. When someone you follow on Instagram advertises a product you can get a satisfying power from liking the image or even purchasing that product.
But what about the opposite – think about the experience of satisfying power in writing a negative comment, the choice not to like, not to purchase and to express yourself.
Compare that to the [design of the platform] that expresses users agency even in limited ways – remember it is the system that allows you to follow/unfollow, to like or ignore. These are the affordances of the platform. So think about how that satisfying power of agency might be diminished if that comment is moderated later or not allowed to be made at all.”
One way to think about agency is the way a game balances the [ludic] (rules, algorithms, mechanics) of play with its [narrative] (character, story, setting).
Dramatic agency or narrative agency is part of what Jennings calls the representational power of performing as a character within the game as part of its procedures and environments.
Although this is debated in game scholarship because of ideological resistance to what is described as hegemonic discourse, as Jennings reports:
“Mainstream game design overwhelmingly affirms agency as the exclusive purview of masculinity, whiteness, heterosexuality, and able-bodiedness.”
Do indie games then represent greater agency for game designers’ own agency as a site available to challenge these historical norms by enabling players to embody alternative characters, settings and experiences?
Brendan Keogh’s work (2018) has explored the cybernetic relationship between a player’s bodily affect and game design as the player becomes entangled between the world of the video game and the world of corporeal existence.
Keogh, B. (2018). A play of bodies: How we perceive video games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
The concept of cybernetics, and the machine-human network of actants, complicates the idea of agency as the player’s freedom, control and autonomy because it reveals that players are not free.
Even when they have choices, the players own mind and the hardware and software limitations of machines and humans including the players own mind put necessary limitations on the experience of choice. Does that mean, however, that the player’s choices are simply well-designed illusions?
Agency is often used synonymously as freedom, choice, control, autonomy and action and one of the most famous game designs which sought to reveal the illusion of player agency is the design of the game Bioshock.
No spoilers if you haven’t played BioShock and you have access to it on console or PC, I highly recommend it and there is a great quote in the Jenning’s analysis from Parker 2015.
[Bioshock is “… designed from the ground up to invite sustained reflection, debate and criticism, as evidenced by the countless forum discussions, blog posts, essays, articles, chapters, theses, and even academic monographs it has produced. This is not just a game with something to say but a game worth saying something about — a game that justifies the whole enterprise of game criticism and scholarship. (Parker 2015 p. 14).]
BioShock is designed to make you question the relationship between the experience of power and the necessary limitations on the ability to enact power in a given system.
It helps us ask if agency is actually possible, or is the very function of all media to manipulate, constrain and delineate choice in order to convey meaningful experiences. Is the act of experiencing satisfying power a result of systems that are designed to provide that affective sensations while in reality limiting our choices and our freedoms.
This is perhaps most elegantly summarised in the classic 1980s movie war games, in which an artificial intelligence comes to the realisation that sometimes the only agency actually afforded by any situation which limits choices in order to facilitate an experience is not to play at all.
I’ve really only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to thinking about agency and so I recommend digging into Jenning’s analysis and engaging in the further reading on agency that I will add to the resources on the learning site.
Although significantly delayed by the pandemic, I’m am very pleased to finally launch the special themed issue of the Persona Studies journal on Persona and Games.
This issue is one of the largest in the journal’s history, with seven articles that map a series of important intersections between games and persona across game play and development. The issue also includes new ways to consider the contribution of games and gamers to emerging televisual entertainment media via streaming content production.
The journal is entirely open access and we have an updated interface for the journal which refreshes the look while maintain its accessibility, however the new system does not support animated gifs, so I am including my animated cover here.
Image credits (images used under creative commence license)
Very happy that the following abstract has been accepted as part of a book proposal on the representation of birds to be called Avian Aesthetics:
Wingspan is a board game that involves collecting food resources to play bird cards into appropriate habitats, where the animals can lay eggs and generate points for the player by meeting randomised goals. The game was designed by Elizabeth Hargraves and published in 2019 by Stonemair Games, and it features 170 pencil colour illustrations of North American birds by Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel. In the global niche industry of board games, Wingspan is a bestseller and award winner, achieving the best ‘connoisseur’ game of the year at the Kennerspiel des Jahres, the prestigious and influential annual industry awards in Germany. The game’s enormous success has grown to include the European and Oceania expansion sets that increased the number of birds to play with and changed its mechanical dynamics to match the different settings.
The popularity of the game is such that it has an ecosystem of upgrades and additions that enable players to personalise their physical copies, including wooden ‘meeples’ of the birds and food resources. The digital version of the board game was released for Windows and macOS via the digital distribution platform, Steam in 2019 and a new book ‘Celebrating Birds: An Interactive Field Guide Featuring Art from Wingspan by Rojas and Martinez is due for publication in 2021. A few important factors contribute to the game’s success, including its high-quality production and its ‘euro’ style design that features a low degree of player competition but highly strategic gameplay. It is undeniable that the theme, art and attention to the birds and their environments captured the attention of board game fans worldwide, which introduced thousands of new players to the medium. Wingspan has helped revitalise attention to commonplace birds and introduce players to many species not previously encountered.
Hargraves says she was “sick of playing board games about castles and trains” (cited in Evans 2020) and wanted to make a game that featured something she cared about. The notion of care translated in the design to a correlation between the knowledge that humans have about birds and game mechanics that intrigue players to learn more. The Oceania expansion, which will be the focus of the analysis in this chapter, introduces players to the Australian ibis and its infamous reputation as a “bin chicken” that gives players the ability to select cards from the discard pile and the New Zealand pūkeko whose communally minded nest sharing gives the player ability to lay bird eggs on neighbouring birds. These mechanics suggest a way to analyse the ludic and thematic synthesis of birds’ representation in board games, through images and rules, in terms of what can be described as ludonarrative resonance.
The term ludonarrative dissonance was first used by Clint Hocking (2007) in a blog post that described the experience of detachment or “emersion” as the opposite of immersion that occurs in video games. Hocking’s concept has been used extensively in game studies to critique the gap between the ludic and narrative features. However, this chapter proposes to invert this concept to consider the affective resonance between representation and rules, and between theme and game mechanics, that works to invite players to invest interest and even care in avian species; if not on the birds’ terms and experiences, then through a system which causes the human player to enact a ‘frameshifting’.
Frameshifting is a Brechtian theatre concept that Mizer (2016) uses to celebrate the way players of board games must cognitively move between the game world and reality, shifting attention between theme, narrative, and events, as well as game rules and requirements and ludic mechanics, and a range of social interactions. Frameshifting in Wingspan causes new types of attention to birds, not merely as objects, but as characters and materials in a complex algorithmic interaction across the porous boundaries of what constitutes play. Furthermore, there are two other useful concepts from recent contributions to board game analysis that triangulate an analytical framework for exploring the ludonarrative resonance of Wingspan. The first comes from Wilson’s (2016) use of the Foucauldian concept of the heterotopia to explain how ‘euro’ styles games operate as sites of “constituting ourselves by way of what we see (or do not see) in their virtual spaces.” (43). The second draws from Altice’s (2016) model for analysing board games as physical platforms, which understands play experiences as being designed in a process that is dictated by form.
Wingspan’s heterotopic space is a distinctly utopian complex as the human [the player] is indirectly included in the representational game space into which birds are played. The human is inscribed in the representation of knowledge about birds through the Latin taxonomic names at the top of the cards and the bird trivia that includes folkloric and indigenous knowledges at the bottom of the cards. The human is framed as the knowledge that is connected but peripheral to the birds’ experience, which is occupied with food, habitat and their ‘bird powers’, that produce the strategic choices in the game. The human is present but decentred, as even the boards on which play occurs and represents diverse bird habitats have a portfolio print on their reverse. This works to frame what Begy (2017) calls the board games construction of cultural memory through materiality. By examining the five interleaved platform characteristics in Altice’s model – the planar, uniform, ordinal, spatial, and textural – we can better understand the representational elements of Wingspan and the heterotopic game space created by the relationship between the material, algorithmic and social experience of its play that requires the player – if only temporarily – to invest in the birds and their world.
Altice, Nathan 2016 “The playing card platform” Analog Game Studies (Volume 1), Aaron Trammell, Evan Torner, Emma Leigh Waldron eds. Catnegie Mellon: ETC Press: Pittsburg, PA, Pp.
Mizer Nick 2016. “Fun in a Different Way”: Rhythms of Engagement and Non-Immersive Play Agendas, Aaron Trammell, Evan Torner, Emma Leigh Waldron eds. Catnegie Mellon: ETC Press: Pittsburg, PA, Pp. 9-14.
Wilson, Devin (2016) The Eurogame as Heterotopia, Analog Game Studies (Volume 2), Aaron Trammell, Evan Torner, Emma Leigh Waldron eds. Catnegie Mellon: ETC Press: Pittsburg, PA, Pp. 43-50.
Square brackets represent transitions in the lecture slides:
Hello, in this lecture, I want to explore the various ways we can think about what audiences do, and how we might think of audiences as collaborating in the production of media experiences.
A [common misconception] is that audiences are simply consumers at the endpoint of a linear top-down production chain.
[Feedback] in this system is typically considered in terms of sales and popularity. Media producers know to make more of a thing because it sells well and makes a good return on investment.
Historically the audience is framed as being entirely [passive]. However, more recently, what we call the creative industries have been forced to take into consideration the collective agency of a type of audience that we call ‘fans’.
As you may know, the creative industries include a wide range of enterprises from film and fashion to the creative and performing arts, toys and games to photography, architecture and design. However these industries usually only considered fans in terms of further potential [consumption].
My aim for the [first part] of this lecture is to contribute to your understanding of the critical language and theoretical frameworks that have changed the way we think about audiences over time. I also want to give you a range of ways to think about audiences as participants and potential [collaborators] in future projects that you will work on in your careers and professional lives. To complete this approach, I’m going to be focussing on what I call the niche creative industries, and I’ll explain what that means in part two.
Part One: Audience Theory
Much of our understanding of what an audience is and what an audience does comes from attempts to understanding the concept of meaning. Although these ideas are often expressed in terms of meaning, it is not meaning that we are ultimately concerned with in this lecture, but rather what audiences are doing with meaning, and how that informs their role as audiences.
The [Frankfurt School], or the [Institute for Social Research], was established in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1918 and it featured several important theorists, including [Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse].
Together this group was using [Marxist-informed theory] as well as new ideas from sociology and psychology, to critique modernity, capitalism and mass culture.
They were interested in examining people, society and culture and attempting to figure out why the [working class] didn’t [overthrow] their [political and economic] masters.
Leader of the Frankfurt School, [Max Horkheimer] recognised that people don’t behave in [logical] ways and that we don’t [act] in our collective or individual best interests.
He argued that [capitalism] had successfully integrated the working class into its system, structuring a divide between those in long term employment and those under or non-employed.
According to Horkheimer [capitalism] is successful because of the way it convinces the working class to maintain the status quo and maintain what jobs, property, wealth and advantages they do have.
This has the effect of cementing the class division between the wealthy elite and middle class and between the middle-class and the working class.
Horkheimer and others like [Theodor Adorno] and examined economic, psychological, political, cultural and social forces, to shed light on the various ways that capitalism encourages conformity and this became known as [critical theory].
Critical theory serves as the first point on our trajectory for thinking about audiences. It argues that [audiences] make meaning according to the ways that the ruling class dictates. It views [audiences] as passive receivers of messages that convince them that the status quo is in their best interests.
In 1933 as the [National Socialist German Workers Party] took control of Germany, the Frankfurt School and its intellectuals went into exile and eventually moved to Columbia University in [New York.]
Horkheimer and Adorno would go on to write the [Dialectic of Enlightenment], in which they argue that modern totalitarianism originated during the enlightenment.
The argued the period of history known for the turn to reason and rationality laid the foundation for objectivism, conformity and standardisation applied to the whole of society, leading to the rise of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Capitalist America in which individuals are treated merely as parts of a giant machine.
This view led to a critique of what Adorno called the Culture Industries, and he said in its appeal to the masses: [“Culture today is infecting everything with sameness.”]
Critical theory saw popular culture as a system with the unanimous goal of making money. The culture industries simply sought to please as many people as much of the time as possible and therefore have no artistic, creative, social, educational, or indeed cultural merit.
Adorno and the Frankfurt School argued that the sameness of mass culture was depriving audiences and robbing them of individuality and self-expression that would assist in the resistance of totalitarianism. So it is unsurprising that these theories have been recently resurrected as can be seen in this [article] from Stuart Jefferies in the Guardian, responding to Trump’s victory in the US election in 2016.
Responding to how [Print, Radio and Screen] media had been so useful in establishing and maintaining the Nazi party through propaganda, Adorno viewed the culture industries as having a terrible effect on audiences’ ability to discern and think critically.
Adorno, for example, criticised audiences for liking popular music such as Jazz over more important culturally significant contributions like Classical music.
This is the same type of argument that is used against social media and platforms like YouTube.
Their view was that audiences didn’t know better and should not be encouraged to enjoy such unrefined taste, because this would further limit their ability to engage in opposing authoritarianism and capitalism.
The main problem with this theory is the view that audiences in this model have no [agency].
Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make choices. The idea is contrasted with structures that influence those choices, such as class, age, religion, gender, ethnicity, genes, education, culture and so on.
Communication and Cultural Models
Of course, there is much more to critical theory. However, I want to move on and start to plot out a [trajectory] for thinking about audiences and briefly discuss two models that originate in the 1960s and 1970s.
The first is Marshall McLuhan’s approach to understanding media in 1964 that proposed that a [communication] medium itself should be the attention of study, not the messages it carries. This has important implications for audiences in the internet era, which Ted Mitew unpacked for you in a previous lecture, so I’m going to move on to the cultural model of [communication] and media studies.
This model emerged from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). The Birmingham School, as it is known, was founded in 1964 by Richard Hoggart, and I’m going to focus on the work of Stuart Hall who led the school for ten years from 1969 and his model of understanding how audiences, called [encoding/decoding].
Hall was building on the foundation of the [dialectical model] and what’s known as the [structuralist model] of meaning, established by thinkers like [Louis Althusser] and [Roland Barthes], which inherited the Marxist understanding of how audiences were structured according to [Ideological State Apparatuses]. ISAs include schools, legal systems, media, banks, religions, corporations and governments, as well as other institutions that act both explicitly and unconsciously to reinforce the power of the ruling class through capitalist ideology, by producing systems in which audiences internalise and reproduce these ideologies.
ISAs employ a linguistic discourse approach to domination that is reproduced by institutional practice and structures: Television, for example, works for powerful interests, like nation-states, even when critical of individual governments.
The Marxist theory of [cultural hegemony] developed by Antonio Gramsci is the idea that the ruling class manipulates the value systems of society, in ways that convince its subjects to consent willingly.
An example of cultural hegemony operating in the ideological state apparatus of screen media is the notion of [professional codes].
Professional Codes in screen media can be recognised as the [technical competencies] which are called “production values”.
Barthes mentioned previously, argued that the media have become myth-makers, who are capable of producing rules and conventions through the construction of ideology embedded in professional codes. For example, before the internet, celebrities were constructed as mythical people with qualities that lifted them above ordinary folk. Of course, these qualities were all the just the result of the professional codes of institutions like Hollywood. We see this today with Social Media, particularly Instagram and the use of filters and photoshopping by media influences to construct the idea of their best selves.
Hall described these codes as having political and ideological order imprinted in them that have themselves become institutionalised, including [scripting, editing, camera operation, music arrangement, direction and acting, as well as stars and celebrities] among others.
Through these codes, media producers are able to ‘encode’ the preferred meanings and embedding ideology and specific values via notions like professionalism, scene selection, even narrative and information order, that are not objective but highly selective and deliberate.
The critical theorists were anxious that these codes create unthinking, obedient citizens who were slaves to capitalist ideology.
All media argues Hall, [encode] their products with the interests of the dominant hegemonic forces structurally bound in professional codes even when the meaning of texts themselves may be in direct opposition to those forces.
However, Stuart Hall’s approach is enormously important because he reworked the structuralist and critical theories of ideology into a systematic theory of media audiences, which recognised the broader and there social and cultural functions of texts that emphasised the [agency] of audiences.
Hall’s approach criticised Althusser and Gramsci, for assuming that the audience simply internalises ideology, and that mass media functions merely to reproduce capitalist values.
Hall recognised that audiences don’t just consume and replicate capitalist values but rather have much more agency and indeed even had the capacity for entirely subversive responses to products they regularly consumed and enjoy.
Audiences, argued Hall, can exert agency over the intended professional codes, as they actively [decoded] media messages.
Hall’s model assumes a direct correspondence between the meaning that is intended by a sender and how that meaning is received and understood by an audience/receiver but asserts that processes are not symmetrical.
Instead, Hall identified three broad categories of reading that audiences might engage in when decoding media messages: [the Dominant Reading, the Negotiated Reading and the Oppositional Reading].
A dominant reading is in line with the intended meaning of the professional codes of a text, and the audience members accept the preferred meaning encoded by the producer.
A negotiated reading occurs where the audience may accept some of the preferred meaning of a media production but opposes others.
An oppositional reading occurs when the audience member may completely disagree with the preferred meanings of media production, decoding the message in a contrary way (Hall 1980: 137).
For those interested in applying these ideas further, the recommended reading to accompany this lecture is Adrienne Shaw’s 2017 article “Encoding and Decoding affordances” Stuart Hall and Interactive Media Technologies.
Shaw, Adrienne (2017). Encoding and decoding affordances: Stuart Hall and interactive media technologies. Media, Culture & Society. Vol 39, (4).
The next point of the trajectory for thinking about what audiences do is the idea of participation, in which audiences are directly [contributing] to the encoding/decoding process involved with textual production, distribution and reception.
The core themes of [Participatory Culture] were proposed by Professor [Henry Jenkins], a fan scholar who popularised the notion that fan labor is a form of civic contribution. He argues that fans are rogue audiences, who go beyond standard decoding to actively “poach” popular culture in order to construct their own cultural framework through fan fiction, artwork, costumes and cosplay, music and video and other forms of participatory media.
All audiences, argues Jenkins, appropriate the media they consume to some degree in the construction of their personal identities and their social relations with others – this occurs naturally when in conversation with others using the phrase “Have you seen? Or “You should check out…”. Furthermore these participatory practices are magnified and accelerated by the internet, which expanded the creative industries by challenging the logic of media production under the industrial paradigm that only considered audiences as consumers.
Jenkin’s ideas are echoed by Australian media scholar, Graham Turner, who described culture as “…the site where meaning is generated and experience becomes a determining, productive field through which social realities are constructed, experienced and interpreted.” Turner, 1996, p14.
Two examples of this are the idea of audiences as the [prosumer] and the [produser].
Futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term ‘prosumer’, in 1980 to refer to the idea of an expert consumer, someone like a fan, although that term was not used at the time. Sociologists George Ritzer and Nathan Jurgenson, have argued that even the earliest forms of capitalism are characterised by the continuous cycle between production and consumption, and use the term to suggest how the internet has reclaimed and recognised this conceptual proximity.
Ritzer, however, is concerned with a type of exploitation that is common in prosumer capitalism, particularly unpaid labour and the offering of products at no cost, largely provided by fan communities. As the internet paradigm is marked by an abundance of content, not scarcity, the free provision of content means that prosumers are often not compensated for contribution. However, this approach is fundamentally problematised by this view of contribution as unpaid labour.
Axel Bruns (2008) concept “produsage” does not frame the audience’s contribution as unpaid labour but rather as a type of participation that occurs through networks of collaboration around which communities emerge and thrive. In its earliest days, Wikipedia was an excellent example of produsage, and the Wiki model still works as a good example of participatory media, especially within media fandoms.
Produsage occurs where a platform empowers users to build content from the ground up. Participants might not have equal skills or expertise but have equal ability to make a notable contribution to a project. It is here we start to see more nuance appearing in the participatory model, as Mirko Tobias Schafer identified the difference between [implicit and explicit] participation.
Implicit participation that can be as simple as [liking] a Facebook group or page, favoriting a Tweet or Instagram post, or upvoting or downvoting a post on a subReddit.
Explicit participation occurs where fans are creating art or fiction, producing YouTube videos discussing elements of a show, or organising community events via Facebook (where we might see all levels of Hall’s encoding and decoding in operation).
In his study of video game culture, Joost Raessens, identifies three types of audience participation: Interpretation, Reconfiguration, and Construction.
Interpretation occurs when the audience actively deconstructs the mean of a text. This is the primary level of participation and advances the idea of decoding. The audience is actively making meaning, deconstructing the ideas in the text beyond what is operating at the literal surface. Raessens describes this as “breaking through the cracks in the text to disrupt its superficial functioning” (Raessens 2005 : 376).
Reconfiguration is the act of making strategic choices, and this is where the participant goes outside the text to add meaning by liking a Facebook post, sharing an YouTube video or adding a video to a playlist, indeed playlists are long-stand form of media reconfiguration.
Construction is the third and most pronounced form of participation that makes modifications to a text or adds something that wasn’t present previously. This can be as a minor such as a making a meme or a gif, posting about adding comments to a video on YouTube or as major as a video game modification, an audiovisual mashup, or a work of fan fiction that remixes elements of the primary text.
Fandom is an obvious form of reconfiguration and constructions as it enables the participant to “… control the transformation of a body of information to meet its needs and interests. This transformation should include a capacity to create, change, and recover particular encounters with the body of knowledge, maintaining these encounters as versions of the material.” Joyce, 1995 p.41
Successful media operations now rely heavily on participatory fan cultures to market and advertise their products through social media, but largely fail to understand the true potential of the internet paradigm, often resulting in attempts to curtail and constrain fan activity through ideological state apparatuses, particularly the law and the use of intellectual property, notably trademark and copyright restrictions.
That brings us to the final part of our audience theory trajectory and the idea of collaborating with audiences in the production of media. In order to apply these ideas with examples in part two, I’m going to focus on a specific form of collaboration with audiences, that of conversation, which transforms the idea of producing media texts, into the idea of producing media experiences. This form of audience collaboration is made possible by the dialogic function of the internet paradigm, which collapses the distinction between encoding and decoding meaning making and implicit and explicit participation and increases the agency of audiences as a result. In part two I’m going to narrow the focus to the idea of producing media experiences in what can be called the Niche Creative Industries.
The Niche Creative Industries involve: Specialist Knowledge, Paratextual Media, Conversational Experiences and Speculative Content.
We are going to examine these concepts across four main platforms: [YouTube, Twitch, Patreon and Kickstarter], starting with [YouTube].
[YouTube] was created by three ex-Paypal employees in 2005, and Google purchased the platform for $1.5 billion USD in 2006. The most recent quarterly reports put the company’s annual revenue at around $15 billion USD. As of late 2019, more than 500 hours of video content are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Much of this content is specialist knowledge, such as fan-created reviews, discussion and critiques. Most of this content lacks the identifiable production codes associated with legacy media and the broadcast industries.
I can’t help but think Horkheimer and Adorno, would be horrified by the amateur nature of “shitty internet” videos and the platform as a whole. Adorno especially, I suspect would see the billions of hours of vlogs, reviews, how-to videos, Tik Tok collections, conspiracies theories and hobby videos as evidence of the mindlessness of popular culture leading us to replicate the status quo and sleepwalk into totalitarianism, fascism and worse.
The critical thing to remember is that YouTube was built by its users. It is one of the biggest examples of participatory media. Much like the introduction of the home , and the availability of video recording on [smart phones], YouTube introduced an unprecedented degree of agency for its users seeking to express themselves via the screen. The question of quality is largely irrelevant to the massive numbers of YouTube audiences because the platform has become a hub for experiencing specialist knowledge.
Many of the high-profile YouTube channels do replicate the production codes of broadcast media but adapt them for the interests of niche audiences. This makes the platform the ideal space for prosumer media, in the sense that Alvin Toffler imagined it – the professional consumer.
In May 2020, Linus Tech Tips was the 4th most-watched technology channel on the platform, with almost 11 million subscribers and 5 thousand videos. The channel has hundreds of millions of views each month, with a total number of views in the billions. It’s star persona, Linus Sebastian is a YouTube Micro-Celebrity. Micro, not in the sense of the size of the audience, but in terms of the highly focussed niche in which he operates, which is to showcase highly specialised products in the tech industry, skewing heavily towards the high-end PC user, crossing over in the gamer market.
Another example of prosumer media is the [Khan Academy]. Translated into several languages the channel has 5.7 million subscribers and 7.5 thousand videos, tens of millions of views and it has transformed the way mathematics and other fields are taught around the world.
It is interesting to note that this channel is criticised for the lack of professional codes associated with formal qualifications in teaching. It also lacks many of the professional codes associated with the educational content of broadcast media. Yet, the Khan Academy has been enormously important for those without access to formal education, and those struggling in traditional education experiences.
Given the hundreds of millions of comments on these channels, we can situate them on a graph ranging from [Active] users to [Collaborative] audiences.
With large scale success, YouTube has become a platform for much smaller, but equally successful channels engaging with audiences across a fantastic range of niche interests, including [Video Games, Fashion and Cosmetics, Health, Fitness and Lifestyle, Review and Criticism, Sport, Music and Dance, Travel, Technology, Cooking, Education, Pranks and Challenges, Design and Art and Animation. From entirely new genres unique to the platform emerge with their own hybridised production codes encoded in [Daily Vlogging and commentary, Let’s Play and Unboxing videos, Conspiracy theories, tutorials and how-to’s, ASMR and among many, many others].
The majority of these genres are paratextual.
Literary Theorist, [Gerrad Genette] wrote about paratexts as the liminal materials that accompany a printed text.
With a [book], for example, the paratexts include the cover, index, author name and publisher information. Paratexts for a [DVD] include the cover, but also the menu and more importantly the other materials like the special features; the director’s commentary, the behind-the-scenes materials, as well as bloopers and deleted scenes.
With the internet, however, paratexts are divorced from their physical containers, and text starts to stretch out across multiple platforms, and become entwined in the process of intercommunication.
“Intercommunication is an elaborate layering of types and forms of communication that are filtered and directed and engaged with by particular individuals in interpersonal ways.” (Marshall, 2010. p.4)
Marshall, P.D. (2010). The promotion and presentation of the self: celebrity as marker of presentational media. Celebrity Studies 1(1): 35-48.
This is not transmedia but rather the way that texts become enrolled in the presentation of on our online selves, our personas.
Intercommunication is a result of the interpretation and decoding process of participatory media, in which individuals are appropriating paratexts and reconfiguring them in order to then encode their personal expression of themselves online. Not just as fans, although fans might be described as experts in this process. But simply liking a Facebook page, tweeting about an episode, or commenting on Subreddit or YouTube video, you become active “participants”. Not only in terms of your agency of expression but also in terms of the algorithmic logic of capitalism that is expressed by those systems.
A [Netflix] series, for example, will have an ‘official’ Facebook page, a Subreddit, a twitter account, and all of its content creators including, producers, directors, actors and crews social media presences will become paratexts for that series, so too does fan activity. The show might have merchandise and associated products that also serve as paratexts for the primary text. The line between official and unofficial paratexts begins to blur through participation, that becomes so active it can be considered as a form of collaboration.
Fan groups on Facebook, moderators of the Subbreddit, YouTube channels analysing and discussing the series, fan-made wikis and so on, all of which is contributing their online persona, which builds the economic potential of the niche creative industries associated with that text.
All fandom is paratext, and this has become a large part of the niche creative industries. It used to be that derivative works were frowned on, as part of the elitist notions of cultural hegemony, but is now considered a marker of success.
Take, for example, Minecraft – the economic impact of this one game is so immense that it has its own ecology of paratextual media. This is a big rabbit hole that we could disappear down, so let’s keep it focussed on one example, Hermitcraft.
Hermitcraft is a collective of 27 Minecraft YouTubers and Twitch streamers, of which 23 uploaded Minecraft content regularly to the platform. These are audiences of the game, who have created their own massively successful derivative franchise from the paratext of the YouTube genre of Let’s Play videos.
The team’s Minecraft server acts as a shared world and is restarted for every season. First created in 2012, Hermit craft is now in its seventh season, has 30 million YouTube subscribers and episode one of that season currently has 5.4 million views. One the season is completed the audience can download the server to explore for themselves.
Current estimates, by Forbes, put 1million views at an advertising revenue of about USD5000, but then you can add sponsorship, Twitch streaming subscriptions, merchandise on top of that.
So this is a very lucrative paratext, but not all niche and paratextual media command such a high audience, and it’s not necessary to think that you have to have millions of participants to have a successful collaboration with your audiences.
One of the reasons for Hermitcraft’s success is the production costs are minimal, but that is not to say that the series or its streamers are without professional codes or various ideological positions associated with those codes. Still, those codes are not so much associated with what’s on the screen, but rather the [conversation experience] that is going on around and because of the screen.
I also want to point out that many YouTubers are having to respond and negotiate with the ISAs of the YouTube platform itself and its regulators. These channels and their participants have had to adapt to governmental and commercial regulatory mechanisms in the form of advertising and algorithmic recommendation systems, as well as the uncertain management of the advertising revenue system, and multiply iterations of the automated policing of intellectual property rights, censorship, de-platforming and most recently content aimed at younger audiences.
As the platform has responded to these challenges, YouTube has decreased the value of individual content creators and their participatory audiences, while increasing the value of content coming from the broadcast media industries, particularly large networks. As a company, YouTube is acting more and more like a cable company, and this has profound implications for participatory audiences.
While YouTube does has live streaming, and there are other platforms in this space like Mixer and even Facebook, Twitch is perhaps most responsible for establishing the new professional codes of live streaming as part of the niche creative industries.
Twitch was [created] in 2011, as a rebranding from Justin.TV, which was a general-interest streaming platform. Until recently Twitch was devoted entirely to video games, but it has now become a place to watch visual artists, graphic designers, musicians, cosplay creators, and other professional craftspeople practice, perform and produce their art.
Twitch was [purchased] by Amazon in 2014 for US$970 million, in the same year it went viral for a channel which used a command chat translation bot to enter player commands from the chat window. Called Twitch Plays Pokemon, this event has the Guinness World Record for the most participants in a single game with 1,165,140 users contributing commands to the stream.
This points to the most important feature of live-streaming, which is not the televisual content of the stream, but the experience that is produced by the relationship between the participants in the text chat and the streamer.
Streamers earn money on the platform through subscriptions. The key to this system is not always responding to every chat comment because this becomes impossible with large numbers of viewers, but rather the conversational experience emerges through collaboration with the audience community through chat, bots, memes, emotes and a range of other interactions.
These professional codes are still being worked out by companies that own these platforms, in negotiation with their users and their communities. The content and behaviour policies for Twitch streamers are an under constant revision as the company attempts to negotiate a space between other only conversational platforms like Omegle and more adult entertainment activities like web-camming.
The conversational experience is entirely participatory as the audience engages in real-time decoding and interpretation via the conversation occurring in the chat, which is then encoding as part of the experience which can be reviewed at a later time as a separate video.
Live streaming of games, but also other media is an example of what Raessens calls the reconfiguration of play. Still, through the paratextual layers of the interface, the conversational experience becomes an example of construction in the niche creative industries that is entirely a product of collaboration between the streamer, the platform and the audience.
This can be quite simple, as with the case of the Kiwi Te Arawa woodcarver whose stream went viral following this clip shared on social media:
Because the streamer, whose channel id is Broxh, is employed by New Zealand Tourism, his Twitch stream became a paratext to that industry. His goal is to get other carvers who are not employed during the pandemic lockdown to share their craft and their culture with the world.
The subscriptions he received however meant that he could then employ others to develop emotes and participate in moderation for the channel and his streams are a mix of viewer chat and responding to questions in between carving: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/627203709
A much more elaborate form of this conversational experience is the work of Twitch stream TheSushiDragon:
Unlike majorTwitch micro-celebrities, Stefan Li’s persona goes beyond text chat and response to include the contributions of his audience in the performance. )
Li began on YouTube in 2011, with some viral videos, but felt constrained by the professional codes of the platform. Many find the grind of the production cycle needed to maintain viral viewership on the platform unsustainable.
If you are reliant on views, rather than a community of engaged participants, that your revenue stream is going to be unreliable.
Li started as an Overwatch streamer on Twitch, but converted his apartment into a studio by painting the walls green and he created a personal rig to wear that he could program key bind commands for real-time visual effects, and got viewers to assign the music that he would dance and perform to. Paying tips puts your song to the top of the cue – this is a pretty ancient bardic tradition.
Speculative collaboration can be thought of as the culmination of specialist knowledge, paratextual media and the conversational experience, operating via user-driven platforms, like [Patreon] and [Discord].
The bigger picture here is Henry Jenkins’ anticipated this form of participatory media when he described internet-based audiences as migratory. When YouTube went through it’s first of four ‘adpocalypses’ back in 2017, and the platform cracked down on a range of different or content creators and began aggressive algorithmic tinkering to benefit legacy media content producers seeking ad revenue on the platform, those creators had to take their audiences away from the platform to maintain the conversational experience.
Both Patreon and Discord are providing alternatives and indeed centrepieces for dealing with the platforms responses to various ISAs, and this has lead to a much more vibrant and collaboratively drive niche creative media industry.
Patreon is a US-based platform, created by Jack Conte and Sam Yam in 2013 and currently has around 3 million active users, who are providing direct financial support for content creators producing videography, drawing and painting, comic artists and writers, podcasters, musicians, cosplayers, scientists and researchers. There is also a huge range of educational opportunities where you can learn to play the banjo or find out about architecture or even more specialist niches like sailing or 3D printing. Indeed membership sites like Patreon are only likely to be more successful in the future as they offer an entirely different learning experience that benefits from both the expert and the community of participants.
My area of interest is board games and tabletop games. I began collecting miniature-based games during my PhD, and painting them has become an essential part of my mental health, providing relaxation and thinking time, doing something creative with my hands. This is a niche interest that is widely supported by a range of Patreon experience that cross over between YouTube, Twitch and other social media platforms. The niche even has its own micro-celebrities from around the world, including Australians who produce content regularly.
By becoming a patron to these channels, I get access to the associated Discord server, which is where the real conversation happens.
Discord is a freeware voice and video chat application that was initially made for games, but has been embraced by a range of communities using the platform, for education, business, healthcare, and specialisations. With more than 250 million users around the world, Discord is both an old-style internet chat program and the new core for speculative collaboration and conversational experience online.
Of course, as these platforms become successful, they inevitably end up compromising with ideological forces and Patreon has been criticised by both sides of the left-right political spectrum for deplatforming content creators who fund projects which overt political content and that why some platforms like [Indiegogo] and now on the rise.
The more significant point is that as an audience member, I get to reconfigure my participation on that platform, into direct collaboration with these content providers. I am regularly chatting with them and the broader community of co-patrons and participants. Interpretation is welcome, and by being a patron I get to have a critical voice that exists beyond a downvote, dislike or negative YouTube comment. This shift the focus of encoding from discrete or even serialised content to an ongoing processual and experiential relationship based on conversation and collaboration is the reason for this models success
So to conclude, we can then fill in the details of our participatory matrix. Adding these platforms and others, including crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and of course, throwing social media into the mix. You might like to think about where you would place these and your favourite platforms in this matrix. Where would Spotify sit for example?
So there we have it, hopefully, part 1 gave you a series of conceptual tools for thinking critically about audiences, and part 2 might have provided some ideas for planning future potential collaborations with audiences, or at least planted the idea of thinking about your audiences as participants in your media work in the future.
With the move to online delivery for all courses in response to the pandemic, I have been rapidly redesigning subjects and producing video lectures for them. The plan was to create online lectures next year for BCM300 Game Experience Design, so this version doesn’t quite have the production values that I’m aspiring to, but it will do in a pinch!
Part one of my new video lecture series for BCM215 Game Media Industries is now fully edited and uploaded to YouTube. I’m learning new skills with Final Cut Pro and have access to better audio equipment this year so there is a good deal of improvement over previous video lectures. Part One of BCM215 is an introduction to the subject and an overview of the approach and learning assessment methods.