It wasn’t always this complicated.
Being an eager, fresh-faced fan of videogaming during the birth pangs of the industry didn’t carry any particular connotations of fanaticism. People who liked Pac-Man just played it in the arcades until their pockets were empty. Likewise, home computer owners who found themselves enjoying the antics of Monty Mole or Sabreman simply made sure they owned the latest installment of their adventures. At most they may have chopped a poster out of a magazine to cover a bare patch on the bedroom wall, or written a letter to Ultimate to beg for some free stuff. Dizzy had his own collectible cards and a mug, but that was something of an exception. These early attempts at merchandising were closer to a mail-order sideline than a genuine business operation.
In the 1990s, all that changed. A huge marketing push would result in either a Nintendo or Sega system in a vast number of U.K. households. Other users trundled on with an Amstrad, Amiga or Atari ST, but it was the console generation who were the focus of the ad men’s eyes. The same executives who had ingeniously marketed toys in the 1980s by disguising lengthy adverts as cartoons needed a new outlet, and they found it in videogames. Sonic and Mario, as console figureheads, were perfectly placed to lay the groundwork for a carpet bombing campaign of commercialism. Branded clothing, comics, mugs and, umm, toothpaste were rolled out for every console-savvy child to spend their parent’s cash on, symbolizing a growing awareness in the industry that there was money to be made in ways beyond software and hardware. If little Jimmy wanted a Sonic letterman jacket to wear to school, now he could have one.
Prior to this era of commodification, fans were likely to distinguish themselves by defending a certain piece of hardware more than any individual character. Playground scuffles ran broadly along the lines of “my system is best.” Such adolescent forays into Orwellian Nationalism – “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests” – were ugly, but no more unusual than the concurrent clashes over sports, television or anything else school children argue about.
Of course, you can still witness Wii versus Xbox 360 versus PS3 conflicts in comments threads as well as playgrounds. Gaming may have grown up a little, but the arguments haven’t. However, a large sub-section of fans would emerge from the ’90s exhibiting new, character-/ game-specific loyalties.
It’s difficult to say whether this was due to increased character exposure, better graphics or the steady growth of gaming as a popular pastime. This character fandom is perhaps comparable to the explosion of interest in Premier League football around the same period. An answer to “what’s your favorite videogame character?” has never reached the same level of social necessity as “what team do you support?” but both pursuits went through comparable ’90s marketing blitzes that resulted in a surge of public self-identification. In the U.K., the decade which demanded everybody make a lot of noise about being a football fan was the same one which saw a growth in the number of people declaring just how much they love Sonic the Hedgehog.
This wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Indeed, few characters have suffered as much indignity at the hands of this phenomenon as our rapid blue chum.
Many of today’s Sonic fans were first introduced to the ring-collecting rodent on the Mega Drive in 1991. They were bombarded by the accompanying marketing and post-launch commercialism, which probably resulted in the purchase of at least one item of Sonic merchandise. A Dr. Robotnik duvet cover, perhaps. Or a complete selection of Knuckles steak knives. This isn’t necessarily a problem – unless the duvet cover is still in use twenty five years on and the steak knives have been embedded in family members. In some quarters, however, this milieu of character-themed products has had long-term consequences. There are people now in their 20s and 30s who are utterly obsessed with Sonic.
In relative isolation, those at risk of taking their fandom to extremes might have naturally defused themselves. Lacking a network of other like-minded individuals to reinforce their behavior, socialization through education and work should have prevented too many people trotting off towards wackyland. But from the mid ’90s onwards there was just such a network accessible to everyone with a telephone line. On the internet, these hyper-fans were (and still are) able to soothe and nurture each other’s obsessions in the secluded comfort of private forums. Simple, anonymous interaction has unplugged the stoppers of self-control and allowed the murky water to come gushing out. (In this metaphor, water represents serious, scholarly YouTube videos about Sonic’s love life.)
It’s pretty harmless for the most part. For every utterly bonkers woman who thinks she’s married to Sonic, there are hundreds of people who just find comfort in drawing pictures of Tails … err … starring in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. A few troubled souls are clearly mired in this stuff to an unhealthy degree; the rest are just unfortunates, trapped in a cycle of creating amateurish fan works in return for the meager boost of happiness a positive online response may bring.
Those familiar with the dark corners of the internet already know how far this malaise extends. Just in case though, here’s a brief refresher. There are over 10,000 Sonic the Hedgehog entries on fanfiction.net. Some of them are novella length. That’s thousands of hours of work, from thousands of people, pondering crucial issues like how Sonic would cope with being a parent. The writing is generally poor, full of horrible clichés, naive romance and blunt exposition: forgivable in the case of youngsters experimenting with narrative, but entries in excess of 250,000 words which reference Johnny Cash and John LeCarre suggest a somewhat older membership.
Meanwhile, over at deviantART there are scores of people, churning out weak facsimiles of characters that weren’t exactly rich with artistic value to begin with. Within their tight-knit communities, few receive genuine critiques of their work – instead they’re bolstered by empty platitudes which serve only to reinforce social niceties. It’s not impossible to imagine compelling works of art incorporating elements of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s just … extremely difficult.
Why should this matter? Nobody is forcing anyone to pay attention to hopeless webcomics stuffed with sardonic-eyed, anthropomorphic animals, or any other Sonic-inspired output. Yes, a Google image search for “Sonic and Sally” with the safety off is now a minefield of absurd erotica, but were this the only side effect of an increasingly bizarre fandom perhaps we could rest more easily.
In Sonic’s case, however, the unhinged fan-mania appears to have slowly fed back into the franchise itself. Looking at the ever-diminishing returns which have passed for the last few Sonic titles, it seems that Sega has latched onto the minority who shout the loudest and longest and actually started catering to their whims. Rather than distancing themselves from the more extreme elements, they happily court them (a financial decision, one must assume). It no longer matters whether it was a rabid fan base that guided Sega’s direction, or vice versa. At this juncture they are both to blame for their dysfunctional relationship.
Remember the charming, fast-paced platformer that engaged so many back in 1991? The current crop of the franchise is a long, long way from those days. Not just in terms of modern presentation and complexity, but in the ludicrous plots which pander to fan-fiction authors by serving up further helpings of ridiculous material about Chaos Emeralds. The latest Sonic game is an RPG-based affair, sub-titled The Dark Brotherhood, for heaven’s sake. In a couple more years Tails’ collection of My Chemical Romance albums and Shadow’s problems with self-harm will probably be canon.
Similarly, each release seems to introduce even more characters, who either express painfully outdated ’90s ‘tude or embody nightmarish, huge-eyed infantilism – again, pleasing both fan-author and fan-artist alike. Judging by some of the seedier online Sonic haunts, some fans now find it difficult to ascertain whether Cream the Rabbit is a character name or an imperative from the developers. Sonic has even acquired a human girlfriend of late. Let’s not dwell too long on the dynamics of that relationship.
It doesn’t stop there. There are larger groups in other gaming communities who are so entrenched in the world of their chosen obsession that they dedicate unnatural amounts of time attempting to shape their cherished games as they see fit. Where it is present, this implicit pressure will surely be to the detriment of a given series. Fans are capable of offering valid development suggestions, but game designers must avoid Sega’s fate and shun the tyranny of the vociferous. We can all name films which have been all but ruined by audience focus groups. Gaming must be careful if it wishes to avoid similar casualties.
You may not particularly care about Sonic, but the problem reaches beyond a solitary blue hedgehog. Visible pockets of fans can easily be mistaken for commercial opportunities, and developers are always under pressure to follow the money. Consider a future where Valve paid heed to the most unbalanced aspects of fandom. In this grim world, the Portal sequel is 12 hours of twee comedy songs played by a sexualized companion cube – where the end of every torturous utterance rhymes with “cake” or “triumph.” Half-Life 2: Episode 3 becomes an extended anime-style romance between Gordon and Alyx (while her creepy dad watches), and Left 4 Dead is a tale of four hardy neck-beards battling a legion of flying ninja-monkey-zombie-pirate-samurai.
Please, everybody, I’m begging you: Obsess responsibly. Don’t let Sonic’s death be in vain.
Peter Parrish is a freelance writer and Cure fan. His Robert Smith slash fiction can be read at … ha ha, no, of course it can’t.