Guest Post: Knowledge communities: Information, interpretation, and the currency of the era
Ryan M. Milner’s post a couple of weeks ago highlighting some of his findings in the analysis of Bethesda’s Fallout Forum he did for his MA thesis at the University of Kansas generated a lot of interest on this blog and in the many Fallout forums out there. Today I’m happy to bring you a second post in which he talks about the importance of knowledge in the forum. Take it away, Ryan:
For a specialized community, Fallout fans are surprisingly international. The game series has struck a cord with fans across continents. This gives their interaction a diverse flair that would be impossible without the aid of mediated communication. From all over the world, Fallout fans gather to debate, discuss, and extend the mythos of the series.
Pierre Lévy called these gatherings “knowledge communities,” and they’re a sign of the times. Impromptu clusters of individuals with similar interests defining most of their social capital in terms of information and interpretation. These gatherings cover the internet. Whether they are fansites, industry sites, or gardening and auto repair sites, these communities are filled with voluntary participants who deal overwhelmingly in specialized information. Even forums I’ve read mocking fan interaction uphold the same cardinal value: knowledge.
If you need more proof, I offer fantasy football, the information-based simulation game played across espn.com, and by all my most masculine friends. Machismo archetypes you could never get near a session of Dungeons and Dragons will gladly trade emails for weeks about the stats, potential, and ability of a cast of thousands of characters. That is, as long as those characters are Randy Moss and Peyton Manning.
So there’s another counter-intuitive truth of the era. The interaction I found on the Fallout 3 forum was not too drastically different than the interaction I find in my fantasy football league — communities built on information and interpretation. These two categories of knowledge were first proposed by Nancy Baym in 2000. They fit in snug with Lévy’s propositions about knowledge communities and were all over the Fallout 3 forum. Most of the intense debates over the quality of Fallout 3 centered on the offer of information (such as a link to a screenshot or a quote from a producer) and the interpretation of that information. And in cases where there was no credible information to be proposed, speculation was a sufficient replacement. Even in the most heated moments of confrontation, information was a cardinal value. With very few exceptions, all the debates on the Fallout 3 forum were about knowledge.
An understanding of the Fallout universe was a paramount value on the forum. An understanding of digital-game culture in general wasn’t too far behind. And no matter how one felt about Fallout 3, being able to articulately and rationally discuss nuanced points was the only way to seriously enter into the conversation.
Now this last claim might be surprising to anyone who has visited the Bethesda Fallout 3 forum. At first glance, the site seems to be nothing but a flame war. Who would expect less from a space that sees interaction between Fallout fans, The Elder Scrolls fans, and Bethesda employees? But when arguments are presented, no matter how passionate, information and interpretation are their heart. When those arguments are challenged, they are challenged with conflicting information and interpretation. When flames crop up, they come from disagreements about those two values. And most tellingly, when the community strays from those values, it quickly self-corrects. Flames are tolerated, as long as they are intensely-worded claims based on knowledge. But when they get personal, the community steps in to calm the situation. And while the stringency of the moderators on the forum are a large part of that self-correction, the fans still generally keep the discourse in the realm of information and interpretation. They simply reject claims that do not uphold those values.
I think there’s something Bethesda, and producers of media texts in general, can learn from these observations. The Fallout fanbase (at least the majority of the vocal fanbase) has been wary of Bethesda’s handling of Fallout 3 for a while now. And time and exposure has only resulted in a stalemate, if not worsened relations. Part of me thinks that so many fans made up their mind so long ago that the only thing that would satisfy them was a Fallout 3 that looked just like Fallout 1 & 2, with no updates or changes. But another part of me wonders if the problem isn’t one of information and interpretation. Bethesda to date has released only a small number screenshots and one teaser trailer for a game that comes out in a few months. No beta test. No demo. No real glimpse into the process of creating the game. No invitations for input other than forum space and a character attribute contest where Bethesda picked the winner. All other information has been disseminated through third-party sources such as industry magazines. I think maybe Bethesda is ignoring the cardinal values of the Fallout community.
If fans thrive on knowledge, why not open up a bit? Maybe more disclosure about what Fallout 3 will look like would help. And maybe even more than content, openly discuss ideas. Ask for fan input, and give them detailed feedback about the process as you consider their suggestions and perspectives. I know that’s not the typical PR we see from most media companies, but helping fans feel like collaborators could do wonders. I understand why Bethesda might be skeptical about doing so. They’ve had to be on the defensive with the Fallout fan community since they got the rights to the game. But it seems like this wrong-foot start has been made worse by their guarded tone. When fans interpret this guardedness as disrespect, a vicious cycle ensues. Given how entrenched this pattern is between the two parties, I don’t see how a shift to an open exchange of knowledge could make the situation any worse.
Right now, it seems like Bethesda and many other media companies are operating under a traditional model of audience relations. Strictly controlling what information they put out and what information they receive. This model might be behind the times. I think it’s telling that the Fallout 3 forum has contained forty-some full threads called “Meet the Devs” where fans can ask producers about anything not related to Fallout 3. Compare that with the precious few controlled situations where fans have been allowed to directly interact with developers about the game on their terms. While fans and producers conversing about their favorite era in history or their favorite movie is relationally important, a little more open discussion about the game-development process might just speak to fan values and mitigate some of the tension.
It’s really just a matter of dealing in the currency of the era.