Different ways of enjoying fiction

In the realm of games, it is widely acknowledged that different people enjoy different aspects of games, and for different reasons. There are several theories that attempt to describe different kinds of fun or different player types. Marc LeBlanc has his theory of 8 kinds of fun: Sensation, Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Fellowship, Discovery, Expression, and Submission. Then there’s Bartle’s taxonomy, which classifies players of online multiplayer games into four types: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, or Killers. In Magic: The Gathering people commonly discuss Johnny, Timmy, and Spike, three archetypes of what people like about the game.

If we can recognize that different people enjoy different aspects of games, then we can also recognize that different people also enjoy different aspects of stories. This may seem like a trivial point, but one that we rarely think about directly.

I think the different ways of enjoying games are more obvious because they often result in different player behaviors, but the different ways of enjoying stories tend to be invisible.  Invisible… except in fandom. So, if you wanted to go looking for theories of how different people enjoy fiction for different reasons, I believe the place to look is in fandom. Unfortunately, I don’t actually involve myself in any fandoms, but I’m sure some of my readers do, so I’d be happy to hear from you.

For now, I’ll just toss a few preliminary ideas around.

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“Shipping” is a fandom term that refers to a desire to see two fictional characters in a relationship. Shipping includes many behaviors, such as…

  • Wanting canon to bring the characters together.
  • Wanting to interpret canon in such a way that it makes sense for the characters to be together, or that they’re already together.
  • Fantasizing about two characters being together, regardless of whether that would make sense.
  • Wanting to produce or consume fan works that portray the characters together.
  • Rooting for a particular relationship over the alternatives, similar to how sportsball fandoms root for teams.

As a person who has always been on the outside of fandoms, shipping doesn’t really make sense to me. That is, I have difficulty imagining ever feeling that way about characters. Sometimes I like romantic arcs in fiction, and I even enjoy stories in the romance genre, but I don’t fantasize about counterfactual relationships between characters.

But perhaps it’s something I can understand after all. Because you see, I have fantasies in the opposite direction.

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The books of Gene Wolfe

cn: no significant spoilers

Sci-fi/fantasy author Gene Wolfe died last week. A shame, because I read and liked many of his books. I read nine and a half of his books (about seven years ago, so cut me some slack if I get anything wrong), and I’d like to reflect on them.

Gene Wolfe is best known for his tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, and that is how I was introduced to him. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi universe, but society has regressed so much that most people only understand the world around them through the lens of fantasy. The narrator, Severian, grew up in a torturer’s guild, but he breaks the rules by allowing a prisoner to commit suicide. Rather than punishing him, the guild sends him off to take a position as executioner in another city. After a long string of adventures Severian eventually becomes the Autarch, the nation’s ruler (no spoiler here; Severian says so in the first chapter).

But I think that what makes these books special, is not the plot itself. Rather, what makes the books special is how they invite the reader to pay close attention, make connections, and ponder the nature of narrative.
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Race in Horizon: Zero Dawn

Content note: This will contain minor spoilers only.  No guarantees about the comment section.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a 2017 video game that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where robotic beasts roam the earth. The protagonist, Aloy, is an exile from the Nora, a tribe of hunter-gatherers. Aloy’s mission in life is to end her own exile, but as soon as she succeeds, she receives her call to adventure, and must venture out of Nora lands into Carja territory.

HZD has some genuinely interesting things to say about race, far surpassing my expectations for a big-budget video game. Here I will discuss how the game hits the mark on several issues. Then I’ll discuss how the game has been criticized for cultural appropriation of Native Americans. Finally, I will discuss my own criticism: Where the main game succeeds, the DLC pack The Frozen Wilds falls flat on its face.

Where Horizon: Zero Dawn succeeds

The first thing that stands out about HZD is its racially diverse cast. Behold:

A bunch of minor HZD characters

Credit: AbyssOfUnknowing. These are all minor characters, because the image was challenging people to name as many characters as they could remember.

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The “Santa is real” narrative

This is a repost of a short article I wrote in 2012.  Yes, at one time I wrote short articles.  Enjoy.

Last year, I talked about how lots of kids actually believe in Santa.  This was surprising to me, because I  previously thought Santa-belief was a just as much a myth as Santa.

In particular, I remember lots of Santa-related movies, where the kids believe in Santa but the adults do not, and it’s the kids who are right.  This is mostly a general impression, but to name a specific example, I watched The Santa Clause (starring Tim Allen) several times when I was young.  These movies did not strike me as strange at the time, but they strike me as strange now.

The moral of those movies was essentially, “Santa is real, and you kiddies should believe in him.”  It just seems like a rather wacky moral to me.  It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing which is appropriate to kids.

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Seeing Job from both sides

The interesting thing about the biblical story of Job is that it permits diametrically opposed interpretations. From an atheist point of view, it’s a terrible story about how terrible God is. From a Jewish or Christian point of view, they may have multiple ways of reading it, but they certainly wouldn’t see it as a terrible story about a terrible God.

But what I really want to talk about is A Serious Man, a 2009 black comedy by the Coen brothers.  A Serious Man is a retelling of Job, and just like Job it permits diametrically opposed interpretations.  But unlike the book of Job, people on both sides can enjoy A Serious Man.

The book of Job

The book of Job is about a man named Job who has had a very fortunate life.  Satan tells God that the only reason Job praises him, is because of Job’s good fortune and wealth. God accepts the challenge, and allows Satan to take away Job’s wealth, his children, and his health. But Job still remains faithful to God. Thus proceeds a TL;DR dialogue between Job and his friends, where they argue that Job must have sinned, and should repent. At the end, God speaks to Job, and he doesn’t need to explain himself, he laid the foundations of the earth! In the end, Job is blessed with twice as much wealth as he started with, and with new children.

The book of Job is a popular target among atheists, because it’s just so easy. God is obviously a jerkass, allowing Job to be punished for a petty bet. God’s defense is like an abusive parent saying “Who was it that brought you into this world?” And the happy ending seems to brush aside Job’s dead children. I have to strain to see this story from the other side, but we’re gonna try.

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Great classics

I consider myself very “anti-classics”. Which is to say that whenever someone praises the great “classics” of literature, such as Shakespeare, or Tolkien, or the Bible, I have a negative gut reaction. And it’s not so much that I think classics are bad, if only it were it so simple to explain. Some classics are good, some are bad–all as a matter of subjective preference–and to call something a “classic” is simply no recommendation in my eyes.

I have had difficulty translating these thoughts to ideas, and ideas to words. But it recently came up when I went with a group to see a small stage production of Hamlet, and we also had some conversations afterwards. So I’m sharing some of my thoughts on Hamlet and Shakespeare to illustrate my viewpoint.

To be clear, we all enjoyed the play. I hadn’t seen Hamlet since my high school put on a musical version of it themed on Queen, so it was nice to see it again, now with a more developed taste in literature. To the extent I complain about any aspects of the play, I have to say there’s a special appeal in having something to complain about, so it should not be taken as evidence of dislike.

By merit or by accident?

After we watched the play, someone in our group wondered aloud how Hamlet became so great a classic. In response, some of us speculated that it was a historical accident. These things happen! For example, the reason the Mona Lisa is so famous is because it was stolen (link is to video). For the two years it was missing, the media talked up the Mona Lisa as particularly great art–with textual descriptions rather than photos. After its recovery, its fame was self-perpetuating.

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