More than 500 people are roleplaying in the expanded universe of The Office by writing in-character reviews at the travel site TripAdvisor.com. Only they probably don’t know they’re roleplaying. Does that matter?

My background is in tabletop RPGs, and when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When it comes to finding a definition for virtual worlds and the things we do in them, I have more questions than answers, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Virtual worlds should be provocative, not conclusive. A good virtual world should prompt participants to expand the universe in which that virtual world turns.

Virtual worlds include those areas where people’s shared awareness overlaps. The more people that can agree on the details of their shared, imaginary universe – its unofficial subcultural canon, if you will – the bigger that universe gets along one axis. The more works that are absorbed into the subculture’s canon, the bigger that universe gets along another axis.

Not every overlap is perfect; not every intersection of ideas is as mathematically tight as the vesica piscis. Even fewer are so simple. Popular consensus isn’t that popular – the multitude of overlapping areas result in dozens of tiny virtual worlds.

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The universe in which The Office roleplaying takes place, for example, is not only different from the real world, it’s different from the world in which the real world’s Dunder-Mifflin Infinity marketing campaign takes place. You can tell them all apart by the number of Dunder-Mifflin paper-company offices set up across the country. In the universe of the television show, the company has just eight branch offices. In the universe of the Dunder-Mifflin Infinity game, the company has handfuls of offices in a single state. (In the real world, of course, Dunder-Mifflin does not exist.) Another major difference between the worlds is in the success of oddball employee Dwight Schrute’s beet-farm B&B: On the television show, the operation is not popular, but in the virtual world of the marketing game hundreds of happy customers are raving about the B&B online.

So, there are three different versions of Dunder-Mifflin Infinity:

  • The “real” marketing campaign with the same name that exists within the fictional world of the show (in which the campaign involves eight offices).
  • The fictional campaign that takes place within the virtual world of the Dunder-Mifflin Infinity “game” universe, wherein there are dozens of offices and its employees are tasked with writing reviews of Schrute’s B&B.
  • The marketing campaign that takes place in the real world, wherein real human beings log into the real Trip Advisor site and leave real fiction (not fictional) reviews of a fictional bed-and-breakfast in a real Pennsylvania town.

This is the show’s expanded universe, a pool of data you may choose to accept or reject in your view of the television series’ virtual world. Different virtual worlds accept different facts from the pool – in an Office universe you and your friends choose to inhabit, you might choose to import the Trip Advisor reviews as genuine but discard the larger number of Dunder-Mifflin branches supposed by the Infinity game. You contribute to that virtual world by, for example, writing a review of Schrute’s fictional B&B in which you abide by the facts of your virtual world.

Confused? Good. You should be.

This is part of the fun of expanded-universe experiences, spotting the things that slip from one into the other – like the Star Wars comic-book character Quinlan Vos who made it into Revenge of the Sith via name-drop, or the two-episode guest character on Star Trek who became prominent in the New Frontier series of spin-off novels. For the audience that caught the Millennium Falcon’s cameo in Revenge of the Sith, it’s the thrill of discovering “winning” data in a mess of background noise. It’s like finding Waldo.

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Alvin Toffler, the futurist, told us this would happen. He predicted that post-industrial societies would fragment into numerous subcultures based on their own niche lifestyles. He was right. Some of those subcultures’ lifestyles are lived on virtual worlds orbiting television series like suns.

These virtual worlds are facilitated by the internet, but they are not virtual in the sense that they are computer-rendered digital environments. These are analog networks, human networks, transmitting and receiving new stories and episodes that contribute to virtual worlds stored on multiple human servers and accessed through writing, play-acting, cosplay and other “prosumer” acts.

New content, some of it pretty and some of it nasty, is being created all the time. Someone just now has written new slash-fic about the cast of Bones. Someone else just self-published a really beautiful piece of poetry that you won’t take seriously because it’s written from the POV of some character on One Tree Hill. To the writers and fans of that material, it may widen the virtual world they share, in the shadow of the seminal work. Whether you absorb it into your instance of the show’s virtual world or not, it all goes into one vast cosmos of possible worlds – the show’s potential expanded universe.

This isn’t new. The same, millennia-old critical problems that Aristotle wrote about in Poetics are prime issues for the audiences of expanded universes and virtual worlds rendered in an audience’s pop consciousness. Aristotle wanted to measure and compare the values of poetry by gauging how well the poet represented the gods. Those gods were the seminal works, the cultural touchstones with which all the fans were assumed to be familiar. They were the official canon.

By addressing critical problems, Aristotle was, in a way, evaluating whether new works should be rejected or accepted into the expanded universe of the cosmology through popular consensus (driven by his expert opinion).

The most obvious of Aristotle’s critical problems – “The thing represented is impossible” – is the equator which divides the two hemispheres of any expanded universe: canon and what-if. This is the critical problem hunted by the encyclopedic nerd who cites episode and scene as chapter and verse. (“But Picard couldn’t have been there for that battle, ’cause in Episode 211 he said he’d never been to that planet!”) If a work in the expanded universe can’t agree with canon, it must be pushed across the equator, making it a what-if piece. Often, the only way for a piece to move from what-if into canon is through ret-conning.

If something is criticized for being untrue to the facts, Aristotle tells us you can support a work by arguing that it’s an idealized take on the facts – like how characters on The West Wing talk the way people ought to talk. The same argument that allows fictional characters to act unlike real people can be used to forgive fictional characters for acting unlike the versions of them portrayed in seminal works. “Professor X talks that way in the game,” a developer might say, “because he’s supposed to have lived in New England all this time, and we decided he picked up the accent.” You don’t have to like it, but Aristotle says it’s fair game.

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Even if your user-created content doesn’t jive with the facts put forth in seminal works or present some idealized view of the characters, that’s all right. Aristotle says it’s OK, as long as your work reflects popular consensus. In other words, it doesn’t matter that Wesley Crusher didn’t actually save the Enterprise every week, you can still mock him in your work for doing that because, you know, that’s what people say. Got a problem with that? Take it up with Aristotle.

The signal-to-noise friction created when virtual worlds rub up against each other creates a cognitive dissonance in the audience. It’s stimulating. It’s conflict, and conflict is compelling. It prompts debate (or, on the internet, screeds and flame wars). It’s a mental exercise, like a puzzle in which not all of the pieces fit and a thousand different pictures can be assembled from the same box of bits.

When virtual worlds and prosumer content become big enough, they’ll go meta, and we’ll know a given subculture has matured when it is subject to culture jamming. Once some marketing campaign’s virtual world gets subvertised, it can be sure it has arrived in the pop consciousness through pop consensus. At that point, enough people will be tapped into that virtual world that commentary on it and reaction to it in the real world can constitute art of its own.

The virtual world might, at that point, reach a degree of popular consensus that a revolution occurs, and the creators of the seminal work can no longer declare or decide official canon. The mass of the public notion outweighs the authority of the creator, and the virtual world explodes into its own star. It now provokes and inspires derivative art of its own, a fan series based on a fan series or fan fiction that boldly deviates from the facts put forth by other, popularly accepted fan fiction.

How long before a company’s viral marketing campaign spreads along live vectors so far outside the company’s reach that it can no longer be controlled? The uncertain notions of what canon is are like nebulas, and eventually the forces of popular consensus will compress some marketing campaign’s stellar gases into a volatile mass, sparking a new star that outshines the original. Some fan-produced spin-off will outsell the original. That virtual world – rendered only in the like minds of consensual fans – will be as real as any MMOG; it just won’t look exactly the same to all inhabitants, and it’ll be stored in the popular consciousness. Asteroids orbiting moons orbiting planets orbiting stars spinning around the axis of an idea in a virtual, expanding universe.

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