As I’ve written in this space before, Internet memes are a kind of communicative game in which users demonstrate their ability to manipulate the codes and symbols that circulate in a given subculture by creating and exchanging text and images.
Today I encountered a news story about the intersection of this bottom-up cultural game and the marketing efforts of a hugely profitable video game company. This story serves as an excellent introduction to the idea of “playbor” or the collapsing of play and labor into a single activity that simultaneously provides pleasure and fun to the player and surplus value (in one form or another) to the game maker. Playbor is becoming increasingly prevalent in our digital culture, where the currencies of attention and personal data are becoming increasingly important to a business’s success.
The trailer for Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XV is the subject of a new photoshop meme in which the game’s characters are depicted gawking from their car at a real world scene instead of the epic monster featured in the game.
Images from Know Your Meme
Kotaku recently noted that FFXV producer Hajime Tabata provided fans with high resolution images for use in creating the photoshop memes via Twitter.
According to the article, Tabata told reporters
“If people are going to have fun regardless, then we want them do so with the best looking images possible,” said Tabata in a recent Final Fantasy YouTube stream. “I also thought it would be fun mixing and matching these screens with various images.” Tabata, who seemed amused by the whole thing, even said the FFXV team would be checking out the creations online.
This framing positions Tabata as a generous participant in fan culture and the images themselves as a gift (for more on this, see Tisha Turk’s piece in the special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures that I co-edited with Mel Stanfill as well as the piece by Robert Moses Peaslee, Jessica El-Khoury, and Ashley Liles). He even holds out the promise that fans who engage with the meme might receive recognition from the creative team behind their favorite game series.
However, Tabata leaves out an important dimension of this gesture: by facilitating the spread of this particular meme, he, of course, is driving attention towards the release of his forthcoming game. The playful images created (for free) by the meme participants all serve as advertisements for FFXV. Furthermore, these advertisements work in ways that traditional print or tv ads cannot: they have a special imprimatur of authenticity and “realness” because they come from other trusted fans and not from a corporate headquarters somewhere, and they circulate in fannish spaces (various corners or Reddit and 4chan, small but dedicated message boards, fan blogs and tumblrs, etc) that are difficult (or at the very least, not cost effective) to reach via sponsored advertising.
Tabata is, essentially, trading the pleasure that comes from playing with the high-res images (and the increase of status within fannish circles that could result from the creation of an especially popular or clever iteration of the meme) for the labor of working as a hype man or woman for FFXV. This is a trade that many fans engage in willingly, even happily. But it is a trade none-the-less.