Passion Play

How did participatory culture of early internet fandom turn into the mob culture familiar today?

Full-text audio version of this essay.

On its official website, Nintendo Direct is described as “Exclusive Nintendo news — broadcast directly to you, the player.” They are, in essence, extended ads for Nintendo products. Much like Apple or Facebook events, the Direct streams consist of sales pitches, preview reels, and details of the many partnerships being formed. Products are unveiled. Release dates are confirmed. The next opportunity to purchase something involving your most-beloved fictional characters is teased: A new Metroid is upon us. Square Enix is making a Mario Kart clone with Final Fantasy characters. Disney Magical World 2: Enchanted Edition will once again allow you to interact with your favorite Mouse properties.

It’s not surprising that Nintendo would produce 40-minute ads for itself: Why rely on third parties, when you can skip the “press” part of “press release” entirely? Nintendo had for years already covered its own games and devices in its own magazine, Nintendo Power; the Direct videos, which began in 2011, updated that approach for new media channels, offering exclusive information thanks to Nintendo’s relentless dedication to controlling its image and catalog. (Like Disney, it vigilantly guards its intellectual property with litigation; it has hounded streamers, fan creators, various types of modders, competitive tournaments, and sites that housed emulation copies of older games.)

But what is surprising is Nintendo Direct’s popularity. According to YouTube’s statistics, with a bump from its 10-year-anniversary, the first English-language Direct video has racked up around 195,000 views. By comparison, the North American cut of Nintendo’s September’s show has already exceeded 5.2 million. The Wikipedia page that tracks these events has logged more than 150 entries, averaging more than one per month for a decade. The games press, despite being sidestepped by the videos, covers them as if they are news, posting on when the streams will happen and offering a post-show aggregation of noteworthy announcements. Beyond that, there’s a whole meta-genre of commentators and influencers filming themselves reacting to the Direct revelations: the equivalent of unboxing videos where the packages are stuffed with nothing but promotional flyers. A subsection of fans has begun to aggrievedly regard reporting on Nintendo’s activities before they are formally announced during a Direct as equivalent to spoilers.

At the “proper” level of fandom, one can enjoy commercials as content and enjoy hype as an experience rather than promotion for something else

This may seem like esoterica for Mario fans only, but you don’t need to be familiar with Nintendo Direct to recognize the atmosphere that has allowed it to flourish: Namely, that at the proper level of fandom, one can enjoy commercials as content and enjoy hype as an experience rather than promotion for something else. Whether we self-identify as fans or not, we all breathe that air at various concentrations; it shapes an ever-growing proportion of culture around us. It has abetted the extension of amusement universes like Marvel’s and fomented CEO metaverse fantasies, as well as underwriting emotional investment in identities and “communities” revolving around attachment to brands and products.

While these communities have undoubtedly enhanced the monetary and entertainment value of various franchises, they have also sustained a disturbing new emotional climate that extends beyond fortifying the power and profitability of corporations. In conflating consumption with politics, the passion of fandom has been stoked into a reservoir of entitlement and, at its extremes, incipient violence.

Nintendo is hardly the only company that has pulled off the trick of convincing people to treat commercials as content. In 2019, Sony started the State of Play series for disseminating PlayStation pronouncements. That same year, Disney began publicly webcasting their Investor Days, showcasing an empire that includes Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar for viewers with nothing but emotional investment in the company at stake. Warner Brothers and DC Comics recently launched their own joint FanDome broadcasts. And this tactic has not been limited to entertainment-media businesses. Apple still streams its “events” dating back to 2007, so fans of the brand can “relive revolutionary moments in the history of personal technology.”

While these tactics are not entirely novel, they are a part of a noticeable escalation. Industry conferences and trade publications have always involved promotion, but they were originally targeted not at consumers but at representatives of other businesses in related sectors. Awards shows and Super Bowl commercials too have long been positioned as entertainment in themselves, but they tend to be treated as exceptions that prove the rule of content that stands apart from ads. The Nintendo Directs and their analogues are a facet of something different, an approach to marketing that is less about persuasion and more a form of audience administration, securing, among other things, a state of constant expectancy. At the same time, they’re also a form of ministration, sermons to fervent congregations that provide first-to-know insider info and help articulate a hierarchy of commitment to the “cause.” Are you a true fan or casual pretender?

If you are a person who is into these sorts of things, these events absolutely can enhance your enjoyment of a brand’s products. But even to frame it like that presupposes a discernible boundary between ad and product that may no longer be relevant. What Nintendo and Tesla, Louis Vuitton and the NFL — every company that can — have all been cultivating for decades is an undifferentiated, endlessly overlapping experience in which such a distinction ceases to exist. This attempt to acclimate everyone to totalized brand relationships is, obviously, a troubling turn in the perpetual advance of consumerism. But as fandoms fill the vacuum that’s been left in the wake of neoliberal governance, they have also come to menace the concept of community itself.

In 2006, media scholar Henry Jenkins posited the idea of “convergence culture,” in which new media forms allowed content to move more freely across platforms and engaged more active, participatory audiences who collectively consumed and processed it. This proved prescient, though not exactly in the ways he expected.

With respect to “convergence,” his predictions were perceptive. Devices like mobile phones and the Nintendo Switch reflect how connectivity, consumption, and continuous communication have fused. Watching shows, playing games, talking to friends, broadcasting to anyone who’ll listen, and buying merchandise have all become interconnected activities, often occurring with some degree of simultaneity.

Jenkins, like many other optimistic observers of his era, thought that this sort of media integration and participation would facilitate a more egalitarian, democratized future. He described himself as a “critical utopian,” though his concern mostly pertained to dangers like media concentration and corporate copyright dominance, and not the possible exploitation of fandom itself. Adherents to this school of thought tended to assume that more participation is intrinsically good — an assumption also built into social media’s prioritization of “engagement” — and that collaboration among fans is fundamentally an expression of “collective intelligence,” conjuring up “smart mobs” who will drive the creation of richer, more immersive entertainment.

What Nintendo and Tesla, Louis Vuitton and the NFL have all been cultivating for decades is an endlessly overlapping experience where distinctions between ad and product cease to exist

These developments can certainly be positive. But the utopians, even the critical ones, gravely understated the context in which these trends were taking root. At the time, Jenkins chided his peers who had fallen into what he called “critical pessimism” — naming Mark Crispin Miller, Noam Chomsky, and Robert McChesney — for a “focus primarily on the obstacles to achieving a more democratic society.” He claimed these pessimists would “often exaggerate the power of big media” and relied on “melodramatic discourse about victimization and vulnerability, seduction and manipulation.” Jenkins even went so far as to argue that by underplaying the bottom-up power of fans, they were siding “with those opposed to a more diverse and participatory culture.”

But the convergence of platform-fluid media and participatory fan culture occurred within the context of a world run by capital, drenched with the rhetoric of consumerism, and oriented above all toward profit. These, like media concentration and corporate copyright dominance, aren’t potential caveats; they are material circumstances. The expansion of prospective avenues for fan influence was also accompanied by an increase in the sophistication of mechanisms for exploiting and inciting those fans. In such an environment, everything tends to converge toward selling you things, and in the long run few things are more profitable than selling fandom: the conflation of what you consume with who you are.

There’s nothing inherently empowering or democratic about communities fostered under these circumstances. They are oversaturated nodes in a vast network of content. To be sure, they’re still capable of effecting positive change or détourning the intended corporate messages, but these goals remain antithetical to those of the system overseeing them. Fans can just as easily be drafted to sustain a reactionary status quo, or be mobilized as forces of exclusion and demonization. The density of brand universes and their intricate interrelations with other franchises correlates to an emotional intensity of fan investment that can’t find sufficient outlet through simply consuming the products. On their About page charter, independent news site Nintendo Wire declares, “We want you, fellow gamers and our readers, to always know that gaming isn’t just a hobby in our eyes — it’s a way of living.” What more could a marketing department ask for?

Imagine someone who cares about video games and who has been habituated to Mario and company for their entire lives, possibly over generations, having it passed down by older family members. They are watching October’s Nintendo Direct, a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate–focused installment, or rather they are watching a streaming personality make theatrical faces while watching it. Ideally, for Nintendo’s purpose, they would be discussing the juiciest revelations with friends or publicly posting their own responses. The game’s director, Masahiro Sakurai — who after years of these updates has been fashioned into a personality himself — is announcing the identity of Ultimate’s final downloadable character: Sora from Kingdom Hearts, a game series that mashes up Square Enix and Disney holdings. According to Sakurai’s count (it’s complicated), the fifth title in the Super Smash Bros. franchise now contains 89 playable characters, references to 450 other games, and, all in all, appearances from more than 2,200 existing characters. In a shocking coincidence, Sakurai also announces that the Kingdom Hearts games will soon be available to buy on the Nintendo Switch.

These nesting dolls of intellectual property and marketing synergies have been intentionally fabricated over decades so that they can never be fully unpacked. Interest in any part of it, even, and especially, if it was instilled in childhood, is designed to tangle aspiring customers in the rest. They’re intricate, bottomless universes, offering something to everyone, and endless references and nuances to sift through for the most obsessive acolytes. What use is there in attempting to parse the promotion from the goods when the buying and selling and indoctrinating are intractable from what the product supposedly is itself?

Nintendo’s unsolvable puzzle box is just one of many. Epic Games, too, has cashed in on Fortnite’s popularity to expand the game into a one-stop platform-capitalism hub. Here you can shoot people, of course, but also hang out with friends, attend an Ariana Grande concert, buy outfits from Ghostbusters and weapons from John Wick, watch Inception, and learn about Martin Luther King Jr. while Master Chief from Halo flosses nearby. Disney’s footprint is so enormous and tangled that it’s easy for them to, for example, orchestrate having ESPN pundits opaquely shill on social media for their streaming service or hamfistedly crossmarket the Marvel Universe during an NBA game. (Both Marvel and Star Wars characters have appeared in Fortnite, as has Lebron James and a series of NBA skins.) It’s now all but impossible to be a fan of professional sports without having your enthusiasm for the game help soften the image of the image of billionaires, sweatshop shoe companies, and entire nations sovereign wealth funds. (Neymar, who plays soccer for Qatar Sports Investments–owned Paris Saint-Germain has also appeared in Fortnite.)

There’s nothing inherently empowering or democratic about communities fostered under these circumstances. They are oversaturated nodes in a vast network of content

The transition to the digital media and then social media eras certainly did bring new avenues for fandom and parasociality, but whatever agency this extended to fans has also served to make those channels even more urgent targets for corporate cooption. In the book Exploiting Fandom, Mel Stanfill uses a metaphor to describe this: fan domestication. “Just as livestock are bred to be bigger and more docile,” Stanfill writes, “industry’s invitations to fans seek to make them both more useful and more controllable, thus making fans a resource to exploit.”

This isn’t a matter of the audience being hapless dupes, however. As part of the deal, fans are supplied with, as Stanfill puts it, “mountains of additional content,” which they can consume as a member of a zealous approximation of a community and even build on safely as long as they stick within approved guidelines. So, for example, debating with your social media followers that “canonically Pikachu could put a beating on Sora” is encouraged; developing Metroid fan games, even non-commercial ones, is forbidden. “Indeed, fans do choose to participate, and they do benefit,” Stanfill writes, “although under conditions that they do not control or even always fully understand.” Even if only registered unconsciously, these differentials in power and agency for fans — who are often pursuing a distraction from those same deficits in other arenas of their lives — only add to the malign nature of the arrangement.

Among those conditions in this case is that in the 2020 fiscal year, Nintendo reported a record of close to $6 billion in profit in an industry that is, at the moment, ecologically untenable. Not only did that money enrich shareholders and C-suite executives (people like those in the Direct videos) rather than workers putting together components in factories and doing the grunt work it takes to turn out AAA games; none of it trickled down to fans doing the unpaid labor of circulating buzz and creating user generated content — sometimes explicitly, as in games like Mario Maker and Animal Crossing — being surveilled for data and always targeted with more advertising.

Weaponizing passion and loyalty for the purposes of commerce does not come without fallout. That energy can’t always be corralled into the mundane activities of buying and consuming, and it’s common for the fervor to spill over: It can manifest as rage toward critics who give anything less than pristine review. It might appear as harassment leveled at those colluding with the “competition,” even if that’s a small video game developer making a deal with the wrong digital distribution platform. Revanchist sub-cultures and cliques have mounted campaigns, sometimes overtly violent ones, against any perceived progressivism — the publicized bile of Gamergate in 2014 is the most frequent citation but there have been many, and they are often just uglier amplifications of existing dynamics. Sometimes the animus is even exhibited as indignant entitlement and ire at the people creating the hallowed products themselves, as with players of a Call of Duty title sending threats to a design director over balance patch adjustments to a handful of weapons. In those latter cases, companies may still see a chance to positively impact their bottom line and throw employees under the bus or use that fury as a cudgel against better labor conditions. But sometimes things fly free of the rails entirely. Workers at game developer Blue Box were recently subjected to death threats after fans of Hideo Kojima and the Silent Hill franchise determined that they were a part of a secret project, which did not exist and could not then be willed into being.

Despite any collateral damage, Nintendo and their peers will keep squeezing maximum profit from the biggest, most proselytized audiences they can assemble for however long they can. In practice, this is what “convergence culture” looks like. Playing games that cite other games that can be frictionlessly purchased on devices you can take everywhere, and then also preordering the next console, indoctrinating your kids into the eleventh title in a franchise, writing fan fiction about the Ice Climbers, watching trailers, subscribing to Switch Online, talking up the properties with your friends on social media, and always eagerly waiting to be fed the next morsel, all to the benefit of a bottom line. The goal is brand extension on into infinity, a hegemony of Mario Brothers coin-sound effects.

If these conclusions feel far-fetched, light years removed from the joy of catching Pokémon or battering your family in Mario Party Superstars, then the marketing’s been a resounding success. That dissonance — the raw reality butting up against the comforting calm of the Wii theme music or the sense of belonging that fans experience among the Nintendo faithful — helps grease the gears of commerce. The entertainment and camaraderie are not false, but they foster a community in service of a balance sheet whose energies may prove insatiable and uncontainable. To those who might be saying to themselves, “Did you not see that Sora has the Timeless River outfit and that he and Mario shook hands?” or “Look, I just want to hear Waluigi go ‘Waaah,’” we want to say in our politest voice that you are valid and we value your feedback. We are a bit afraid of what you might do if we don’t.

Josh Tucker is a writer based in the U.S. Midwest. His freelance work has appeared at various outlets that may or may not still exist.