Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fandoms and Gamers: Oil Reserves Lurking Just Beneath the Surface of the Web

Most people would probably scoff if I suggested to them that their profession had countless free hands at its disposal, willing to work for the sheer love of it.  Most people would probably scoff if I suggested that their are countless people out there willing to work together on complex projects, and they would do so with little more than a set of rules and a command to go play.  Yet both can be said truthfully more and more in this digital age, and we have to start paying attention or we'll be missing out on a lot of volunteer labor, including in the digital humanities.

But where, you are probably wondering, can I find such an invaluable pool of people?  Where can such a large group be hiding?  Many of them in plain sight, really: we tend to call it fandom.  These are groups of people severely devoted to a subject, and will spend countless hours collaborating, theorizing, discussing, number-crunching, and otherwise worshiping that subject simply for the love of it.  Granted, accepting such droves into the fold would take getting over elitist hurdles about the usefulness of incorporating such lay research.  We do like everyone to be properly vetted by exclusionary systems.  And yes, there is a lot of dreck out there to wade through.  But do not dismiss the products of fandom out-of-hand simply because they lack the proper rubber stamp.

As an example, I will showcase two resources I have used myself as part of a fandom I am proud to partake in: Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time.  (For those unfamiliar, it's an epic fantasy series that makes most other epic series look short, coming in at nearly 4 and a half million words.)  The first of these resources can be found at encyclopaedia-wot.org, a fan-driven site that provides incredibly rich reference for practically any person, place, or what-have-you in the series, as well as very detailed synopses of the works with embedded hyperlinks for reference, and invaluable foot-notes.  More specifically, I would like to point to the synopsis page given to each novel in the series, including a chapter breakdown and a map of the points-of-view each chapter is written from in that novel.  My favorite is probably that for book 6, Lord of Chaos, which handily visualizes the fragmented structure of the points-of view in this novel, especially in comparison to the preceding novels.  In other words, this map gives a macro view of how this novel's structure lives up to the chaos in its title.

The second resource I would like to point to is a wikia site devoted to the series, specifically A Wheel of Time Wiki.  If you go to any of the pages for a specific volume in the series (let's use Lord of Chaos again), near the bottom of that page you will find a statistical table with a link above that reads "See also the full statistical analysis for this book."  On that page you will then see a statistical analysis of the points of view in this book, including broken down chapter by chapter, done as percentages and as word counts.

With fandoms out there so willing to do such analyses and visualizations simply because they enjoy it, and in fashions that are much in keeping with the goals and methods of the digital humanities, we would be remiss as scholars not to tap into such resources.  Granted, some coaxing may be required to get the exact help you're looking for, such as setting up a wiki page of your own and posting to message boards to try and get people to help you out with that wiki page's goals, but fandoms are generally very ready to explore their objects of devotion.  And fandoms are hardly limited to contemporary popular culture; if something exists, there will be geeks for it.

And such methods need hardly be kept to more simple enterprises.  In addition to fandoms in general, we must not forget that there are more and more gamers online every day, and, as a gamer myself, I will fully attest to how much we like standing up to a challenge if presented as a game.  In the past couple years, gamers were used to unlock the structure of an enzyme crucial to our understanding of AIDS.  My girlfriend has recently been entranced by a game called EteRNA, which happens to be developed by Carnegie Mellon and Stanford to learn more about folding and synthesizing RNA.

Why pay people to do work they don't want to do, when you can just get people to do it because they love to do it?

No comments:

Post a Comment