Karin Wenz and one of her avatars Karin Wenz and one of her avatars Sacha Ruland

The science of fans

In Culture
Written by  Jolien Linssen Wednesday, 06 November 2013 14:52
Most people play computer games for fun. But for assistant professor Karin Wenz, gaming is serious business. At the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, she coordinates the project Narrative Fan Practices, funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The researchers scrutinise fans not only of computer games, but also of TV series, movies and other forms of popular culture. The content they generate constitutes more than just fun: it has an impact on our very culture.

"We investigate fans who are visible online – the people who make videos, write texts and are active on fan forums and websites", Wenz explains. The phenomenon of fandom itself, however, existed long before the advent of the internet. "As early as the end of the nineteenth century, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books dressed up as Sherlock Holmes and his friend Watson. People made drawings and wrote comics or stories based on their favourite works, which they distributed among their friends and the fan community. The same is happening today, yet with a much bigger audience."

Clicking the ‘like’ button on Facebook is as easy as pie, and for many of us a daily routine. In a time where virtually everyone is active online, have more people become fans? No, says Wenz: "There’s definitely been an increase in people who make user-generated content, and of publishing and sharing stuff on the web. But someone posting a video of their baby’s first steps is not a fan. We’re interested in those people who love a particular product of popular culture, like a movie or a game, and who actively use the internet to publish self-made content inspired by this."


Wenz and her colleagues are investigating how these fans, or active users, bring about cultural changes. "What we want to find out is how far they are developing a kind of new canon of relevant works", she explains. "Usually a canon is defined by institutions, schools, universities or ministries. For example, someone decides it’s of relevance for our culture to read Shakespeare in class – which of course I don’t deny. But this work is more or less forced upon us by the authorities, and is not necessarily intrinsically interesting for those who need to read it."

Fans, on the other hand, have their own kind of canon, made up of the works they themselves deem relevant for their culture. "Fans constantly refer to, re-use and remix popular works like Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. What’s more, they comment on, and hence improve, each other's work. This is very different from what happens at school, where the person claimed to be an authority – say, Shakespeare – sets a standard that amateurs are not able to reach."

The 'alternative' fan canon is thus a canon of amateurs which, given its nature, has a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the entertainment industry it was inspired by. "Creations by fans are actually free advertising, but the industry might not like everything they make. For instance, there are many parodies of Lord of the Rings which make fun of the movies." The popularity of amateur products like these has been problematic for professionals too: "On YouTube, the quality of the video doesn't matter – the audience is interested instead in something that is brilliant, funny or new."


Viewed from this perspective, fans seem to form a democratic and self-empowering movement within popular culture. Yet (virtual) reality proves to be a bit more complicated. "Potentially, everyone could produce user-generated content", says Wenz. "But in order to do so, you not only need a stable internet connection, but also have to be media literate. That excludes a lot of people."

When it comes to her own media skills, Wenz is modest. "I started gaming about 20 years ago. Initially I did it for fun, until it became a more serious research topic for me. Sometimes I produce game videos for myself and the few people I play with, but they’re not extraordinary", she admits. Publishing them online is out of the question – publication, says Wenz, is reserved for her academic work.

"What I’m fascinated by is the tension between escapism and control. Fans dive into the fantasy worlds of games, TV series and movies to escape reality. Yet at the same time, they actively try to have an impact on the communities they’re part of. Does escapism go hand in hand with developing a critical understanding of consumer culture? That’s what I find very interesting."

Karin Wenz (1962) studied languages and semiotics at the University of Freiburg. After obtaining her PhD in Kassel (Germany) in 1995, she was a visiting professor at Brown University, Rhode Island (USA) and postdoctoral researcher at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo (Brazil). Wenz is currently an assistant professor for Media Culture at Maastricht University, where she is director of the master's programme in Media Culture and coordinator of the NWO-funded project Narrative Fan Practices.

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