Toxic Fandom and the Importance of Knowing When to Let Go

Photo by Lena Orwig on Unsplash

ack in March of 2012, video game development studio Bioware released Mass Effect 3, the third and final chapter in the critically acclaimed sci-fi trilogy of the same name. At the time, I was in the throes of a years-long battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a condition which to this day still dominates far too many facets of my life. Science fiction — and the Mass Effect franchise, in particular — was my escape; my source of inspiration; my antidote to the self-destructive inclinations brought on by my affliction. I didn’t have much else to grab onto, so I decided to part ways with the outdated notion that video games are strictly for kids and dove headfirst into the Mass Effect universe. I played the games. I read the books. I joined the Bioware forums and routinely participated in discussions about which character I’d most like to grab a beer with (Garrus, obviously) and which fictional planets I’d like to visit in real life. Needless to say, I enjoyed every minute of the experience. It was one of the few things that brought me any real joy during that phase of my life.

As silly as it may sound to the non-gamer, role-playing games like Mass Effect can be intensely intimate and personal experiences. You can chalk that up to the genre’s emphasis on player autonomy; the main character in any RPG can be whoever and whatever you want them to be. For me, Commander Shepard, the main protagonist of the original Mass Effect trilogy, was a digital extension of myself, and that’s precisely why that experience felt as real and authentic as it did. His decisions were my decisions. His personality was my personality. Through him, I lived the life I’ve always dreamed of living. In that respect, RPGs aren’t just video games; they’re dream simulators, virtual tools that allow players to live out their fantasies on a television screen.

Unfortunately, the original conclusion to Mass Effect 3 ripped that autonomy away and replaced it with a brooding nihilism which shattered the illusion that the protagonist’s story was indeed your story. You see, none of the decisions the player made throughout the series had any meaningful impact on how the primary story arc concluded. And when fans of the franchise discovered this, the relationships that many of them had established with the Mass Effect universe were instantaneously severed. The ensuing controversy rocked the industry to its core and raised important questions regarding the dynamics between publishers, developers, fans, and game journalists.

While I happily refrained from participating in the backlash, I certainly wasn’t surprised by it. As my own experience with Mass Effect demonstrates, fandom has evolved into something far more substantial than a part-time distraction from the monotony of our daily stresses and humdrum routines. Once you’re plugged into it, it’s difficult to disconnect. You’re invested now. You’ve incorporated your fandom into your identity. They’re inseparable, and anything that threatens to disrupt that marriage must necessarily be confronted.

The increasingly interactive nature of fandom has only hastened that evolution. From the persistently popular tabletop role-playing games that first appeared in the 70s to the more recent emergence of self-governing online communities, there exist bountiful opportunities for like-minded fans to congregate and establish meaningful bonds with one another. Thanks in large part to that interactivity, various fandoms have birthed their very own subcultures replete with their very own customs, norms, rules, and values.

Is any of this healthy? I’m not certain. Growing up, I was always captivated by the sight of grown men and women boorishly screaming at their television sets and cursing at the sky on football Sundays. And to this day, I still find the whole experience just as enchanting as I did when I was a young boy. In most other contexts, such juvenile behaviors would never be tolerated, especially when it’s adults who are engaging in them. Football Sundays provide a reprieve from that suffocating restriction, a chance to let your inner child breathe and indulge itself in the pure joy of sport.

That said, I’m much less impressed with the darker side of sports fandom. When activists riot after a police shooting, we condemn it. When sports fans riot after a championship game, a lot of folks tend to shrug their shoulders and move on like nothing happened. When we witnessed Trump supporters and protesters fighting each other at campaign rallies during the 2016 election, many of us shook our heads in disbelief. But when we hear about rival sports fans getting into brawls at local bars or in stadium parking lots, we rarely give it a second thought. On the whole, society seems to have grown accustomed to the tribal nature of sports fandom and the brutish conduct it sometimes inspires.

Perhaps that tolerance is why we’ve seen a similar mentality emerge in other forms of fandom, a mentality that has yielded a sense of collective ownership of the games, books, and films that mean so much to us. As that sense of ownership has spread, more and more members of those fandoms have begun to mimic the most rotten behaviors of the most extreme sports fans, making demands of writers, artists, producers, and commentators that are borderline inappropriate and responding with harassment, threats of violence, and intense vitriol when those demands go unanswered or unfulfilled.

This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, but it is a phenomenon that has quickly worn out its welcome. Fandoms are fracturing and reorganizing themselves into power-hungry, politically-minded splinter groups obsessed with taking control of the franchises they claim to love. One of the more recent examples of this was the backlash that ensued after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Full disclosure: I did not like The Last Jedi. I thought it was much too preachy, much too predictable, and much too disrespectful to a large swath of the Star Wars fan base. Simply put, I wholeheartedly agree with many of the criticisms put forth by TLJ’s most vocal detractors. But when those criticisms turned into harassment of Kelly Tran, John Boyega, and other artists associated with the film, I parted ways with those detractors. It should not need to be said that harassment is never an acceptable reaction to a movie that did not meet your expectations. And while I’d like to think that all of that harassment came from immature teenagers who just didn’t realize the implications of their behavior, I know that’s not the case.

Some fans take a more calculating approach to dealing with the objects of their scorn. In lieu of the public harassment campaigns favored by their openly callous counterparts, they typically opt for smoke-and-mirror tactics when engaging their targets. That’s what they used against YouTube personality James Rolfe when he posted a video explaining to his audience why he would not be reviewing the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters.

“The real problem I have with it is the title,” Rolfe explains in the video. “Calling it Ghostbusters, but without having any connection to the original story or characters, is a shameless attempt to bank on the name to get fans to see it based on the title alone.”

Fair enough, I say. I skipped out on the Robocop reboot for similar reasons, and no one derided me for having done so. Rolfe, on the other hand, was not so lucky; his critics responded by deliberately conflating his nostalgic yearning for a proper Ghostbusters sequel with the blatantly misogynistic commentary that popped up online during the same time frame. It was a cheap and dishonest strategy, but an effective one nonetheless, thanks in large part to several major media outlets jumping on the bandwagon and publishing hit pieces on Rolfe.

The harassment directed at Tran and Boyega and the misrepresentation of Rolfe’s critique of Ghostbusters originated with two very different groups of people. The first group consists of longtime “fans” of Star Wars who are unhappy with the direction the franchise has taken under Disney. Some of them were deeply disappointed by the treatment of the iconic Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi — a sentiment shared by plenty of reasonable, rational critics of the film, myself included. But many of them have been spurred on by much more sinister motivations, most notably their manifest revulsion to the diversity of the new trilogy’s cast. That explains the ire directed at Kelly Tran, who, as a young woman of Vietnamese descent, is no stranger to racism and bigotry.

By comparison, most of the individuals who lashed out at Rolfe did so because, to them, the all-female Ghostbusters reboot was already a progressive milestone — a film that was made for women, that belonged to women, and that reaffirmed their right to participate in geek culture without being chased off by overtly hostile male gatekeepers. And to be fair, there are plenty of overtly hostile gatekeepers in geek culture, as evidenced by the harassment of Kelly Tran. James Rolfe, however, is most certainly not one of those hostile gatekeepers. The malicious attacks on his character — attacks which were based on blatant distortions of his actual opinion — were totally unwarranted.

The fans who targeted Tran and Rolfe may be vastly different in terms of their social, political, and cultural identities, but they share the same objective, which is to run the blasphemers out of church so that any other dissenters who may be thinking about voicing their opinions choose instead to bite their tongues, leaving the true believers with unobstructed access to the bully pulpit.

What makes this drama so aggravating is that fandom has long served as a sanctuary for those seeking a much-needed break from the politics of real life. Now those sanctuaries are being repurposed into exclusive social clubs with tightly guarded VIP entrances, and the only way you’re getting through those doors is if you know the right people. The question is, how exactly does one escape all this toxicity and drama without completely disengaging from the fandom in question?

Sadly, you usually can’t.

One of life’s most inconvenient truths is that, sometimes, letting go of something you love is the best thing you can do for yourself. Typically, that realization first dawns on a person after they’ve had their heart broken by their first real crush. However, a lesson once learned is like a nightmare once experienced; it tends to fade quickly from your mind with time. It’s only when that lesson is learned several times over that it becomes not just a vivid memory, but a dependable mentor.

That’s especially true when it comes to letting go. No matter how many times you’ve already done it, it’s never easy to part ways with something you love, even if that something is entirely fictional. I get that. I remember the disappointment that washed over me when I turned off Mass Effect 3 for the last time and gifted the entire trilogy to a friendly neighbor who shared my obsession for all things science fiction. Nevertheless, when the time came to move on to something new, that’s precisely what I did. Implicit in that decision was the understanding that Mass Effect did not belong to me. I was free to criticize it, free to express my frustration with its conclusion, free to rant about it to like-minded friends and fans, and free to divest myself from it. I was not free, however, to demand a new ending to a series I had no hand in creating. And I most definitely was not free to harass Bioware employees on social media when they collectively refused to forfeit control of their own creation to the hordes of understandably disappointed fans who failed to grasp the difference between thoughtful criticism and acrimonious rage.

The more toxic factions within fandom have a wildly different perspective on this matter. In their eyes, it’s all up for grabs; the stories, the characters, and even the fandoms themselves— they’re all territories begging to be annexed, and God bless any soul who dares to interfere with that conquest. You’re free to participate in the madness if you’d like. Conversely, you could choose, difficult as it may be, to simply let go. To walk away. To disconnect yourself from it and move on to something new, something different, and something more healthy. I’d suggest the latter. You’ll be better off for it.

Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.

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