Virtual World Fandom Quasi-Autoethnography

This post contains my reflections on trying to express my Star Wars fandom in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. These reflections are based on the Twitter thread I ran in the summer and fall of 2020, which can be found here. I tried to reconstruct it chronologically to show the progression of events and my thoughts on the experience. I wouldn’t call it a full autoethnography, since I haven’t really formalized the process, but perhaps it can become something more with additional work.

July 30, 2020: I decided to explore more this idea of fan re/creations in virtual worlds. So I created a sock puppet on the Switch to develop a new Animal Crossing: New Horizon resident that reflects the most impactful fandom in my life: Mara Jade from the first Star Wars expanded universe, as developed by Timothy Zahn (everyone focuses on his creation of Thrawn, but his Mara made such an impact on me growing up, and I told him so when I met him). Going to autoethnographically reflect on the experience.

I find it interesting to play as her so far because: first, she is just a resident and doesn’t have to work, whereas I feel like the “me” is the owner and has to work to make the island good; and second, she is definitely a woman but is more adventurous than me, if that makes sense. Like she’s more willing to go out and try new things than I am.

But now I am thinking I should create a Luke Skywalker puppet and then have them send love notes to each other. Have them live side by side, getting something like domestic bliss which they never got to have. Like an embodied fanfic, where I create an AU to the EU (which I guess is now an AU thanks to Disney?) and give them happiness.

July 31, 2020: With Mara, I feel like she would only want to wear black and green, or have those be her primary colors. For her house, it has to be pretty Spartan, and dark colors, but that she would love to do wood and iron working in her domestic bliss. Once her house is going, then I can start Luke, and I think he wants a comfy house and a lot of greenery and water works around him, given where he grew up. I go back and forth on calling them puppets and skins. I guess it depends on how I see them in the moment.

August 1, 2020: Also finding it interesting to think through their favorite clothes, food, décor. So far I just have Mara running around my island, but what does she like to wear? No skirts, I figure, and a lot of black and green colors, because that’s I remember reading her wearing. I figure she would be more Spartan in her décor, more focused on wood and iron, which she likes to build with.

Indeed, her pastime is more about woodworking and DIY than mine, as I like gardening more. She also doesn’t care much about critters, or the other residents. She really likes the idea of a self-reliant lifestyle — far more than me, as I am trying to get as many creature comforts as I can. And it’s weird, because of course this is all coming from me, but she does feel different from me at the same time.

I also got Luke started now. Set him up by some water. I figure he’d really be into water, fishing, swimming, and growing things. And just plain exploring. He also has to be nice to everyone and try to help them whenever he can.

And it is so much harder shopping for him! I don’t think he would be extravagant and would like low-key, comfy furniture and clothing. And red and black clothing, I feel. But I have no idea! I have never seen him clad in colors, and he seems as Spartan as Mara, but more fun?

August 2, 2020: It also feels weird to receive packages from Mother. Mara was taken from her parents, and Luke’s mom, well…

I think Luke’s appearance turned out very well, and I like Mara’s except for her eyes. I don’t know how to capture her eyes, whereas I have a lot of experience with Luke’s eyes…and staring into them dreamily…

Okay, I got Mara’s eyes better now, and Luke should have his home tomorrow. Going to try playing dolls with them and take some pictures. Use them like action figures, in a way, in dioramas. So they can be characters, avatars, puppets, dolls…all real in my imaginary virtual world.

I have also decided that they shall never attend any of the August ACNH fireworks, because as war veterans they have PTSD. So during these shows they seek comfort in each others arms. This shipping has hurt/comfort elements. Which, in a sense, lines up with the original EU, that’s now an AU…

Also thinking about identification while playing. Growing up, I both identified with and aspired to be them in various ways. I wanted to get out of my rural life like Luke. I wanted to be as strong as Mara. I wanted to find someone to love like they found each other.

I saw myself in both of them. I wanted to be more like them. I wanted to be Mara and have Luke, but I felt like the awkward farmboy Luke more than the extremely skilled Mara — yet I felt I had Mara’s stunted emotionality.

My parasocial relationship with each character, and their relationship, revealed and involved different aspects of myself. I see this as demonstrating the complex nature of both identification and fandom, how simultaneously contrasting characteristics of my sense of self can be highlighted by the different fandoms I have. These fandoms each reflect a part of me, and to best understand me they should be considered in relation to each other.

Now, playing as them, controlling their self-presentation and actions, I find I am again extending and performing different aspects of myself through them. Would have to be. The reason I identified with them in the first place was a perception of similarity and a desire for more.

I perform based on who I am. I write/perform/puppeteer what I know. They are parts of me because I have chosen to perceive them as such. They are my interpretations, as they can’t be anything but, given my subjective experience of them. That interpretation fuels my identification.

So Luke likes the water, gardening, and exploring because I do. I know from the stories that objectively the last is true (same with liking hot cocoa). But the first two — who knows? I just figure someone who grew up in a desert would love those things he couldn’t have.

Mara is harder. The main thing I connected with for her was her independence and self-reliance. So I figure she’d be more into DIY, and am building her island experience around that idea. And more pants than skirts. She always seemed to wear jumpsuits in the books.

August 3, 2020: And it’s weird because I look at this Luke I made and he really looks like Luke, but I don’t know how much that’s me convincing myself or if he objectively does, or which matters more.

Okay, images and vids to start the fanfic part of this. Luke and Mara before they meet. Here’s what they look like:

And here is the start of their story: Luke and Mara: the relationship begins?

August 6, 2020: Mara responds — trying to follow the books where her goal is to kill Luke per the Emperor’s orders…although no violence is allowed in ACNH.

August 8, 2020: I am thinking of having them meet next week, but only so Mara can confirm that her neighbor is indeed that Luke Skywalker. Of course, there is no killing in ACNH, and the game is all about kindness. So Luke will have to help her shed her guilt over letting the Emperor die.

Which, I mean, didn’t happen, really, because of all the damn clones Palpatine had, both in the original EU and now in this mangled Abrams trilogy.

One reason I created them is because I wanted more friends to play with. ACNH has been out long enough that many people have moved on. Which has me reflecting on my long struggle with making and keeping friends, people that I do things with. And on how I had an imaginary friend named — I kid you not — 7-up to play with until my brothers go old enough.

And given my penchant for parasocial relationships with fictional characters and celebrities, I wonder how much being a first child in a rural area with fewer opportunities to play with kids my own age impacted my imaginary literacy. Do I make up friends to fill that need?

Which then makes me think about uses and gratifications theory, and the common finding that people use media for socializing purposes. My imaginary friends and parasocial relationships definitely seem intended to gratify that need.

Also, how much can autoethnography devolve into self-therapy or, worse, navel-gazing? I will have to watch out for that.

August 12, 2020: Mara will not take this well…

Yeah…this is not going to go well…

Also, I swear, Mara runs faster than I do. So now I am jealous of her and myself in this game.

August 15, 2020: It’s hard buying presents for them. I feel I know Luke enough to get him a writing desk. He seems like the kinda fellow who like writing letters. I got Mara a Nintendo Switch. I could see her as a gamer, and a very competitive one.

September 3, 2020: Been away from this for a couple weeks because /motionsateverything, but starting to get back — and Mara is freaking out:

September 4, 2020: So, yeah, gotta have them meet soon:

Mara managed to be the first on our island to catch the sturgeon. It was hilarious! And it wasn’t me. I haven’t caught one yet. I also run slower than both Luke and Mara. I now cannot see it any other way. It’s mind over reality: I have come to believe it, and so it is real.

The reason why we get sucked into fictional realities is because the same interpretive interactivity is engaged as when we co-construct our “real” world.

That ability to perceive reality based on what we wish to see, or what we are told to see — potentially very dangerous, when it comes to populist manipulation or fanatical cults, but also very helpful as a coping mechanism, such as having a hopeful disposition.

Like, my therapist wants me to see myself and the world differently. It’s a common approach in cognitive-behavioral therapy: change how you perceive to change how you act. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But it does drive home the power of subjectivity and its relation to objective reality. How we will never truly be able to know objective reality because of our subjective experiences and appraisals of it.

But I digress. What I thought of yesterday, in writing Luke’s return message to Mara, was how asynchronous this fanfic writing experience is. When I’ve written fanfic in the past, it would usually be me sitting down and letting it pour out — and sure, that might be in spurts… But it wasn’t like writing one line of dialogue at a time. It would be dialogue, description, exposition, all of it just flowing out until I hit a wall. Here, it’s like I don’t have to write any of the description, because I have already created that through gameplay.

And I don’t have to write any exposition or inner monologue — the former because that’s all been done for me in the original EU, and the latter because, well, I can’t. There’s no place for it. It’s just in my head, and there isn’t much that isn’t in the dialogue.

So that flow in writing is missing. And I always found that flow to be enjoyable. Just sitting down with myself, telling myself a story, and getting into that story. I haven’t had that here because of how ACNH postal works. And I haven’t tried to bring them both on at once.

That is coming, where I actually bring them “face-to-face” but I’m not sure how to do it yet. Login as me and bring them to the place where I can pose them, like puppets, for pictures? And add dialogue after that? Like actually script out what to have them say and film that?

Or do I login as one of them, bring the other on to play together, and then try to control them both– still a puppetmaster, but unseen? I guess I’ll have to do both to truly experience this.

October 10, 2020: Getting back to #VWFandom.

October 30, 2020: I’m wrapping up this virtual world fandom experiment/autoethnography today and will migrate this thread, and my thoughts, to my blog. I’m finding it just too time consuming, compared to my other fanfic experiences.

Because I had legit forgotten what I wrote, as Luke, to Mara back on October 10. And with so much time passing between posts, and the inability to really “talk” to each other in ACNH when playing together, it’s just hard to construct a story:

So I decided to use the Call Resident function and bring Luke into the game while playing as Mara. I wanted to see what was possible when they were on screen together — and very happy Luke would just automatically teleport to Mara if she got too far away because trying to maneuver two characters simultaneously with separate Joy-Cons is definitely not joyful and barely controlled.

And no text chat comes up in the method I used, so I had to rely more on pantomime to convey thoughts and feelings, knowing I could use tweets to flesh out what was happening. The nice thing is that I could take video of their interactions, although that also took some coordination to figure out how to have them perform so I could record. I started with just a snapshot of Mara thinking.

My thought is that Mara, as a warrior, is figuring the smartest way to handle this situation, and that is to control the situation as much as possible. Which means making the first move and having confidence in herself to handle Luke and whatever he does:

Now, she doesn’t like that idea, but she also doesn’t like being confused, frustrated, and uncertain about what happened to Palpatine. So rather than let these feelings gnaw at her, she’s going to confront them head on by confronting Luke head on:

Of course, all of this is a massive departure from what happened in the original expanded universe (OEU), as Mara didn’t just go say “hi” to Luke:

In the OEU, Luke was surprised when he learned who Mara was, just like he is surprised here to see her coming to him and his house — although the space between their houses could be seen as neutral ground, as it is out in the open:

But Luke being the inherently sweet-natured, trusting soul that he is (or, at least, that I see him as), he’s more than happy to see Mara coming to him so that they can talk:

But that’s the weird thing: talk. They cannot really talk in ACNH. They can write letters. They can do Reactions. But if I wanted them to actually talk — to have a dialogue on what happened to understand each other (and, of course, fall in love) — then I would have to essentially treat this like a comic book: take a series of still images of them in different poses and then add dialogue through speech bubbles. While I may be saving time in terms of writing description, it takes longer, I think, to get them into positions for recording.

I essentially would need to storyboard the comic book — which, you know, is weird, since a storyboard is kinda already a comic book. And that pre-production is just the first step. Then I have the production of going in-world and manipulating them like puppets. And then there is the time needed for post-production, where I would add the dialogue, which I would have to write in pre-production. It’d be like ADR in films. But all these steps are not ones I have experienced before when doing fan fiction.

Maybe it’s because I have only ever written fan fiction as a solitary pursuit. I never engaged betas or shown the work to anyone before it was published. I would write, by myself, and publish — that’s how I’ve always written fiction.

My process for fan fiction has been idea, start writing idea, publish first chapters to see reaction, then keep building on original idea to finish the story. I haven’t had experiences where I get reactions that alter what I write. So I do this work by myself.

Idea. Sit down and write. Publish. Three steps. For this story, it would be: Idea. Write dialogue. Determine “shots.” Position characters. Record. Repeat until “shots” complete. Retrieve shots. Edit shots. Add speech bubbles. Publish. I just don’t have the time/energy…

So I am going to leave the process here and prepare to delete the characters and users from the Switch. Their “death” will then be the last reflections I make on this thread. I thought about doing it today, but I just couldn’t yet. I had to make certain I got what I needed first.

I haven’t thought about dressing myself up as a character, although I have been doing a lot of costumes for Halloween. I’ve also never done cosplay, as I worry I can never be faithful enough to the character, which may explain why I haven’t done it virtually.

Except I just discovered two previous pictures I forgot to transfer from the Switch, indicating another issue with this approach, as I now don’t remember when these pictures were taken — and one was very important for the story! I inserted the story one above, where it would have occurred, but I’m annoyed I don’t have a date to stamp on it.

This one was from Harv’s Island, where I was playing around with how to bring them there to take pictures of their interactions. So much labor goes into designing the spaces for such interactions, and then posing them, and then recording them, that I decided against it.

November 1, 2020: Deleting Mara and Luke from the Switch was easy. From ACNH is another story.

Tom Nook gives you this long spiel about what would happen if her registration is deleted. Everything, poof. Memories, poof. He even says someone could play as her again, which got me really jealous. No one but me can be Mara or Luke here. And you cannot guilt trip me into feeling different, Nook!

So many hoops to jump. So many “are you sure?” questions. So many points for a mistake. It’s kinda crazy how hard it is to “kill” someone in ACNH. Tho I guess it’s more than killing, as no one will remember them. I am erasing them from history! Just like Disney did to Mara!

And they are gone. Big empty space where they used to be. Felt like I’d had them around longer, but it was only a couple months. Probably felt that way since I play this game. Every. Single. Day. And just like any parent who has their children finally move out — I turned their space into a den for games!

I don’t regret any of this activity. I found it really interesting to learn about how I act as a fan and the affordances and constraints for expressing fandom within a virtual world. And it makes me curious to talk to more fans about how they see these affordances and constraints. Additionally, how do they work around those issues? How do they critically and creatively engage with this technology?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.