As an avid reader and writer and gamer respectively I found Marie-Laure Ryan’s article on digital fictional worlds “Fictional Worlds in the Digital Age” located here fascinating. She starts off by tackling the issue of fiction, as everyone’s idea is subjective, she explains what fiction means to her, stating that “a text of fiction invites its users to imagine a world, while a text of non-fiction conveys information, whether accurate or not, about reality.” As she is looking at fictional worlds within the digital realm, Ryan expresses her desire to not be limited just by literary fiction, as the digital arena gives so much more freedom, not just to fiction writers, but also poets and gamers.
As with all of these mediums (literature, poetry and gaming) there is a level of immersion which readers, spectators or gamers get, especially in fictional narratives. However, Ryan states that central to the idea of immersion is that of a world to be immersed in, presenting both a narrative and fictional dimension. She goes on to say that these are two pragmatic problems: you do not always have narratives in a fiction, it’s at the person’s digression; fiction is more about how the text is supposed to be used rather than what it is about.
Once she has broken down fiction for the reader to understand in how she understands it, Ryan goes on to break down her article into five distinct sections, which she then goes on to discuss.
Ryan starts from the beginning when she looks at digital fictional worlds, claiming that “through..creative activity, the sites of the internet become “worlds” to the imagination.” But then goes on to talk about text-based MOOs and MUDs. These were the earliest forms of digital fictional world building, in where commands were typed-in to explore and be active in the world, all created by professional programmers. Ryan goes on to talk about amateur-based worlds that sprung up known as micronations. Like science fiction and fantasy writing, they create a world, but they do not give it plot; their main differenciation. This highlights what Ryan spoke of in her opening; there does not need to be a narrative line within a fictional world. In micronations, the user takes on the role of the traveller, and explorers the world. Using two micronations as examples (Bergonia and Talossa) Ryan explores the diverse motivations for creating and maintaining micronations, as well as participating in them. She concludes this section on these fictional world-building examples by stating that, as micronations give little interaction and not much participation other than blog-posting, their numbers remained very small compared to what she goes on to talk about: MMOs.
Ryan moves on to talk about how the digital wave heralded the rise of the video game, which combines not only ‘paidia’; using toys as props in a game of make-believe, but also ‘ludus’; playing a game which already has pre-existing controlling rules/laws which the participant understands and abides by. In videogames Ryan explains that these two type of play (paidia and ludus) which had previously been separate, are finally brought together; they take place in a playfield, but it is a playfield in a fictional digital world created by programmers which has rules to be followed.
These ficitonal worlds that video games create are left open to modification and expansion, from outside and within. The volatility of digital texts means these digital worlds are constantly in flux, able to expand and grow, as the code is added to, whether it is an expansion by the creators or a modification by a user. This is even easier when the world resides in the internet and is not a downloaded computer game. These ‘modifications’ to the fictional worlds leads Ryan on to talk about modifications to literary fictional worlds, which, thanks to internet communities, has increased in popularity and is known as fan-fiction. Though non-specific to the digital age, fan-fiction has risen in popularity through online fan-fiction communities. Because of the community involvement, with comments and corrections posted on the text, they become interactive and participatory in their own right, just like other digital ‘worlds’ Ryan has mentioned previously in her article.
All of these versions of fictional digital worlds which Ryan describes have different aspects which, Ryan found, can all be seen in what are known as MMORPGs (Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games) which combine digital worlds, with interactivity, participation, volatility of text, multi-sensory dimensions, and networking both in game and out. However, online worlds such a s World of Warcraft or EverQuest differ from the literary narratives which inspired them in that that actions have no durable consequences; death is merely an inconveniences, for example. As Ryan puts it herself “here the principle of causality, which forms the basic mode of operation of both nature and narrative, is sacrificed to the need to give equal opportunities to all players.” However, this does not take away from the immersion of the game as a whole, and also leads to the most distinctive property of online worlds; the feedback between the user and the creator. Through networking with other users and with moderators or even creators, Ryan uses the example of players creating robot characters to sell items in a game, which promoted lagging within the game, causing the creators to change how the selling system within the game worked. Though this feedback can have some negative consequences which Ryan goes into, she still heralds this property as one that has been praised highly.
Ryan concludes by looking at the distinction between fiction and reality which these fictional digital worlds seem to blur. She uses the example of selling online merchandize for real-life money, questioning the boundaries between the real and the fictional in economic sense. Concluding, she stating that online worlds cannot be defined in a univocal answer; they are both real and unreal elements in them, it is at the digression of the immersed individual to deem the worlds. Giving my own understanding, readers of literary fiction can fall in love with a character; their emotions are real, but it is for an unreal character.
Ryan’s historical and analytical look at the idea of fictional worlds was an easy and enjoyable read for people who know, or want to know, about digital fictional worlds, and raises some interesting points and questions.