Intertextuality In The Enabling Age

Recently, I read an article in the December 18, 2016 issue of the New York Times Magazine by John Herrman titled Stage Craft (titled “Who’s Responsible When Extremists Get a Platform?” on the NY Times Magazine’s website). In this piece, Herrman gave a face (albeit a mercurial one, as fitting its nature) to a media phenomenon that the United States felt in its bones stronger than ever before last election – the platform. In particular, Herrman explores social media websites as “platforms,” habitats which allow individuals from all over the planet to share their values and perceptions online in what more cynical Internet dwellers might refer to as echo chambers.

“Platforms” – such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – act as “middlemen between users and other users” where “participants successfully contribute to the broader marketplace by inducing other participants to engage more.” In other words, platforms are where news stories are shared and woven into the fabric of public perception by their human readers. Herrman aptly points out that social media platforms allow users to conjure up new realities into being, as well as lift the burden of responsibility for empowering not-so-glamorous groups (such as white nationalist movements) from the shoulders of Mark Zuckerberg and other social media moguls.

Platforms are the emblems of what I now call the Enabling Age. This is a time period in which rapid, wide-ranging communications platforms on the Internet enable like-minded groups to come together and create “entire ecosystems” from their shared values. More accurately, this is a time period in which we have become more aware of our own human ability to create such ecosystems. We are also faced with the frightening responsibilities that come with managing those ecosystems, coping with ecosystems with which we may not agree, and the dreaded prospect of deciding which ecosystems we should let thrive and which we should curtail for the betterment of the societies we envision for ourselves.

Herrman’s analysis is thoughtful, as well as needed in a period where we’ve been left in existential disarray. But I feel as if Herrman has left out the lynchpin that ties the ideas of ecosystems, platforms, business, and human thought sharing together: intertextuality. As its name implies, intertextuality is the relationship between texts or bodies of knowledge. If we extend our understanding of “bodies of knowledge” to games, movies, TV shows, and other pieces of media, then we can begin to understand why media companies these days are so obsessed with ‘creating narratives’ and other enigmatic phrases you tend to see on entry-level job apps for tech companies.

Now let’s take a look at how intertextuality ties platforms together. Take Activision Blizzard, for example. We know Blizzard Entertainment that has brought us household name gaming titles like World of Warcraft, the Diablo series, StarCraft, and most recently, Overwatch. As a disclaimer, I’ve been playing Blizzard games for years. And for the most part, I’ve enjoyed them and continue to enjoy them. But I’ll also be the first to point out that while Blizzard games enchant players with what their fans call “polish” (visual/tactile/audio details that make their games incredibly immersive and addicting), their more recent titles have taken measures toward simplifying their gaming experiences. Overwatch combines First Person Shooter hallmarks like rocket jumping and map exploration, strips away most of the mechanical nuances of the shooter genre, and then condenses the playing space into small maps where the pace of a match is largely determined by the usage of Ultimates and by chokepoints which must be broken. World of Warcraft initially drew the ire of thousands of old-school MMORPG players for softening the penalties other titles in the genre imposed upon dead players, among other aspects.

Blizzard’s harshest critics often point fingers at these games for such simplification and accuse Activision Blizzard of watering down their games’ genres. I’m tempted to say that they have a point, and that if their more recent titles were produced by a no-name studio in China with far less ‘polish,’ these games might just well fall by the wayside. Yet Activision Blizzard games are huge. Overwatch alone drew in around 20 million players as of this October. So what keeps people going? Outside of the aforementioned ‘polish,’ what marks Blizzard as the emperor of addicting games?

The simple answer is intertextuality. Blizzard is widely known for re-using themes throughout its games: player abilities, artwork, icons, sound effects, characters, storylines. Whether you’re playing Diablo 3, World of Warcraft, or Overwatch, you’re likely to find references to another Blizzard game littered about the place. The Murloc ramen mascot in Overwatch’s Hanamura stage comes to mind, as does the nostalgic noise for the Warrior’s Charge ability in World of Warcraft (which is actually just a stock sound for a missile in flight) and the similarity between the nature-commanding abilities of Diablo II’s Druid class, the Keeper of the Grove’s abilities in Warcraft 3, and the Druid class’ spells in World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft, in fact, draws heavily upon the draught of nostalgia and reworking old plotlines for future expansion packs.

As a result, we see an intertextuality between Blizzard’s various games. Blizzard has been around for almost two decades, and many of its fans have been around that long as well. There’s a sense of communal evolution in Blizzard games, or the feeling that its games and characters have grown up alongside the players themselves. This creates a strong sense of cohesion among those players, who feel tied together by the nostalgic memories that Blizzard has stoked time and time again throughout its thematically interconnected universes. In short, Blizzard enables players to bond through nostalgia over its various platforms.

Activision Blizzard is not alone in drawing upon the forces of nostalgia, intertextuality, and platforms for its business models. Square Enix does the same with its Final Fantasy series of games. Nintendo employs similar methods with all of its titles, though they really only come together in the Smash Bros. series (perhaps the phenomenon of social ecosystems explains the appeal of “all-star games” like the Smash series?). Marvel Comics is without a doubt the most prominent purveyor of intertextuality today, since Marvel has embarked on erecting a massive empire composed of familiar comic book faces and repurposed plotlines over movies, TV shows, video games, and of course, comic books. But since my knowledge of Marvel is relatively limited, I have decided not to comment on the matter.

Going forward, how can we use our knowledge of how companies enable their fans to feel certain emotions and bond as dedicated consumers? I can’t say for certain. Herrman feels that it might be best not to view content producers as just content producers anymore. In an age where individuals share content they like within their communities and with other communities, creators – and the platforms where their work is shared – are also the enablers of experiences, of emotions, of memories, and of communities. It’s always been this way, and it will likely continue being this way as long as humans have some way of communicating with each other online and offline.

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