Returning to the Campfire: Multifaceted Story Ownership Is a Must

Originally published as "Back to the Holodeck" on Medium/The Startup. This version has been revised for consistency, etc.

In short, he so buried himself in his books that he spent the night reading from twilight till daybreak and the days, from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits. He filled his mind with all that he read in them, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooing, loves, torments, and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that to his mind no history in the world was more authentic. — Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, pp. 20–21

When I first read Janet H. Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, I felt like it had spoken to a part of me that I didn’t know existed as a fiction and nonfiction storyteller. Murray’s wit and depth of knowledge made this academic treatise meets storytelling manifesto an instant classic in my mind. Murray’s text also forced me to reconsider the nature of the storytelling in the twenty-first century.

The future of storytelling, if we are to take Murray seriously, isn’t about simply telling stories. It’s about accessibility and being adaptive to the needs and wants of the audiences we serve as storytellers. It’s about telling stories that are immersive in their depth and richness. Moreover, to add to what Murray is saying in Hamlet on the Holodeck, the story becomes less about a single author, artist, and creator creating, but, instead, about collaboration between various individuals and technologies. In other words, a real world or universe is created in such a way that real ownership becomes shared between creator and consumer. The text is no longer the property of a singular entity, but, instead, the creation, the child, if you will, of several individuals. And, not to be forgotten, there is no end to the story. Instead, the story exists beyond the boundaries of a single medium, a single chapter.

If we are to create the future of storytelling, through interactive storytelling, we will need to embrace immersive, collaboration-oriented storytelling.

The thing about storytelling is that is hasn’t changed much. We still tell stories in a similar fashion that we were telling them centuries ago. However, that is changing with the rise of collaborative world-building projects like Orion’s Arm Universe, the hard-to-kill extended universe of Star Wars, and, of course, the prevalence of wikis and interactive stories circulating the Web, driven by like-minded individuals. In other words, storytelling has begun shifting to an new era, an era in which the story doesn’t necessarily belong to a single individual, but, rather, to a group of individuals with varied experiences, education levels, and varying personal interests and obsessions.

Screenshot taken of the Orion's Arm Universe Project

Despite changes in storytelling delivery methods, we are seeing something being renewed. Maybe I am shooting myself in the foot here by saying this, but here it goes. Maybe, just maybe, we are returning, in some ways, to an era of storytelling that once existed prior to our mass media-saturated entertainment ecosystem. In some respects, we are entering an era in which ownership over a given story isn’t as cut and dry as it might have been during the golden age of mass media. To complicate matters, we live in a media ecosystem that is dominated by media like video games, movies, television, graphic novels, magazines, newspapers, radio, podcasts, and, now, world-building projects, interactive storytelling media, and fanfiction. Thus, our storytelling landscape is quite rich and diverse.

It allows for a fictional universe like Star Wars to be experienced in a plethora of ways. You can watch Jedi fight Sith lords on the silver screen. You can then play out your favorite battles with the help of powerful game engines. You can become part of the Star Wars universe, immersed in its lore, its conflicts, and its depth. The dividing lines between reality and fiction become blurred, somewhat. Your need to return to the fictional universe grows stronger (and stronger). It is no longer a product you are simply buying to consume halfheartedly. Instead, it becomes something that is part of you, something where you have a stake in the ownership. That is, it becomes something more than mere storytelling.

What the diverse range of storytelling experiences tell us is that storytelling is no longer a single author, artist, or creator affair. Instead, it becomes the realm of collaboration between individuals, particularly creators and consumers, and creators, consumers, and technology. Further, a truly immersive experience can now exist, because of the richness, textures, and possibilities within a given universe are expanded upon in an infinite number of ways, with the help of a large number of stakeholders.

Instead of embracing this fact, many creators are resisting it. The prime examples being George R. R. Martin and his Game of Thrones universe. Martin has been a loud opponent of fanfiction and fan appropriation of his characters and his universe.

Another example would be Disney’s unspeakable crime against the extended universe of Stars Wars. Instead of embracing the rich, vibrant universe created over several decades, Disney has decided to prune the old EU, creating their own. This means they took a rather drastic and unilateral action that hurt fans, and, consequently, their bottom line. There is no doubt that Disney made back its investment; however, Disney could have created a unique opportunity by expanding the number of stakeholders in the Star Wars universe. Instead of making decisions beholden to stockholders, Disney should be making decisions that keep fans, particularly those loyal fans who have spent billions, in the loop of creation itself.

The greatest travesty against storytelling has been the lack of cooperation and collaboration with fans to create storytelling universe that not only immerse the fans in the fiction (or even nonfiction), but also offer them a chance at ownership.

Ownership is important in a world where the digital realm is eroding our traditional norms concerning what we own. We no longer own music. Instead, we own the access to play our music on X number of devices. The same goes for books and video games. Franchises could really attract fans by offering them an opportunity to have a stake in something that feels real to them. Failure to do so will likely result in the decline and slow rot of once-popular franchises like Star Wars.

More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium. The world is bigger than the film, bigger than the franchise — since fan speculations and elaborations also expand the world in a variety of ways. –Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture (2006), p. 114

The future of storytelling is already here—it’s just not fully acknowledged nor fully accepted. The future of storytelling, as I and other envision it, is one in which fans are co-creators and stakeholders. Think: Orion’s Arm Universe Project. Here everyone has an opportunity to push the story universe in unique directions. Moreover, the stakeholders aren’t worried, necessarily, about being pushed away in the name of propitiating stockholders. The other aspect of storytelling, which is already evidence in much of the media we already consume, is immersion. The immersion we will see in future franchises will blur the lines between reality in fiction. In other words, the very real boundaries between fictional worlds/universes will be pushed to their limits, creating a porous membrane from which fantastic storytelling opportunities for franchises and fans alike can arise.

Where do we go from here?

To answer this question, I am going to look back on my experiences within the Star Frontiers and Star Wars communities during the early 2000s. Back around 2006–2009, I began my journey into fandom and world-building (and storytelling for that matter). Although Star Frontiers had been long-abandoned by its original creators (i.e., TSR Inc.) and its new owners, Hasbro, the fans breathed new life into the universe and the game that created this universe. As fans of a dead universe, we were able to appropriate the universe for our own benefit, creating fanfiction, home-brew rules, a semi-monthly magazine, and even new worlds and new species to include in our very own fictions and games.

Around the same time, I participated in the Star Wars extended universe (EU) by playing around on Wookiepedia, a rather large wiki project at the time, with thousands of fans collaborating to catalog the farthest reaches of the Star Wars universe. During that time, Lucas Films had been independent entity, not owned by any large corporations. This gave a good deal of freedom to those of us who wanted to make the Star Wars universe our own.

The two universes provide important lessons in what companies and creators can do to engage fans (i.e., consumers) in unique ways. Hasbro’s initial hands-off approach to the Star Frontiers universe allowed people to explore their favorite fictional universe without bumping up against official canon restrictions or even strict fan creation policies of the original creators and owners of the franchise. Under Lucas Films, Star Wars’ EU had a lot of wiggle room, at least for fans. This would change when Disney took over the franchise. Yes, the original creator(s) held Star Wars close, but there was a sort of limited hands-off approach to the fan-favorite universe that just doesn’t compare to the impeccable walled-garden that Disney has created for Star Wars. To a younger me, I felt free to explore the boundaries of the Star Wars universe. The older me feels as if the franchise has tightened its grip and constrained fan-ownership.

Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, or predicting, of planning, and of explaining. Mark Turner

Those looking to create immersive, collaborative-driven universes should take note of the practices pushed by George R. R. Martin and Disney. Yes, these universes (i.e., Game of Thrones and Star Wars) are, technically speaking, the creations of their original creators. However, fans have latched onto these universes, not because they wish to profit from their fan-fiction or worldbuilding, but, rather, because they wish to explore their favorite worlds or universes beyond the confines of a given book series, television show, or the fully sanctioned portions of the universe itself doled out by license holders.

Thus, creators should offer their fans immersive, collaborative-driven universes, in order to allow fans to have a stake and to create a loyal fanbase that could be brought to bear when it comes time to pay the bills or keep the lights on or (maybe) secure tenure. Creators could offer fans opportunities to create wikis, world-building projects, and fan-fiction that could have a real impact on the universes or worlds they cherish. Moreover, the creators could offer fans the opportunities to truly explore their cherished universes and worlds without censor by offering inexpensive licensing for fan-created projects. (I credit Dungeons & Dragons for leading this charge with their own game’s multiverse, where fans have the opportunity to create original content within the game’s structure and share it without reprisal.) Creators could even offer their fanbases opportunities to fashion branching universes, allowing fans to explore different outcomes, different storytelling experiences, without the threat of legal action and verbal lashings.

We must go back to the days of the campfire, where people could claim ownership over the very stories they heard and told around the fire. We need the campfires again because we need to reestablish a sense of belonging that is missing from our world today. We need to go back to the golden years of fan-fiction, when fans could (without fear) contribute their own renditions, their own explorations, to their favorite worlds/universes. In other words, we need to push back against the entertainment monopolies, and we need to allow fans to have ownership again. If we are to build truly immersive and collaborative-driven worlds/universes, we will need to rethink ownership over story and the content within the story’s universe or world.

To do this is not to strip away the profitability of the franchises businesses already create. Instead, doing so will create a profitable and sustainable business model that cherishes fans and collaboration with fans and various technologies. It’s best to remember that fans are the heart and soul of any franchise. To walk away from this realization, to distance one’s self and business from this notion, would be akin to allowing a slow rotting disease to kill the body, the mind, and the soul.

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Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico