When I began my project, I was intending to continue exploring the world of creepypasta and Reddit, much like other digital folklorists such as Trevor Blank have discussed in their work. However, spending a portion of my personal time during the pandemic on TikTok opened new options to me in terms of how digital folklore might manifest online. If Reddit could be a space to share folklore and legends, certainly TikTok could be too? From there, my project began to form: an exploration of what makes TikTok a unique social media platform, and how it offers users the opportunity to create and interact with folklore online, forming communities and common practices.
My project called on me to do as much theoretical framing as it did case study research, which for me was some of the most challenging writing I’ve done in a long time; while writing a normal history paper has come to be second nature, this type of project was an entirely new challenge for me.
In the future, I would like to further my research into TikTok (and folklore more broadly) by considering how TikTok has offered spiritual communities a space to express and spread their beliefs, particularly through #Witchtok, which I believe opened up opportunities within TikTok as a whole for viral legendry like Randonautica.
Broadly, this class opened me to the gravity of studying and understanding history online. So much of our day-to-day experiences now live in the digital world, and the way we communicate, exhibit, and archive on the Internet is as profound as the considerations of historians who first used the print press.
The opportunity I was given in this class to explore folklore, rather than a more traditional history topic, speaks to the way digital history opens up the field to an interdisciplinary study that requires a large range of academics. I am so excited to share this work with my peers, congratulations to all my fellow students for finishing this challenging first year online!
Since my proposal, my print project has changed a good deal. As I did further research, and I realized that while there certainly is folklore on Reddit, much of my interests showed examples that seemed to limit the capacity of users to partake in folklore practices or create legends. For example, the r/nosleep subreddit has an extensive set of rules, which require viewers to only post original stories, never break character in the subreddit comments section, etc. which fundamentally limits the process of creating and sharing a legend. As a result, I aimed to find what I thought was an incredibly current, viral example of folklore in action: the Randonautica app and the subsequent TikTok trend that grew out of a gruesome Randonautica story.
For my project, I have been evaluating the user video creation and response to Randonautica on TikTok, placing this phenomenon as a case study for the theoretical concepts discussed in digital folklore and digital ethnography. I have tracked the most popular TikTok videos that follow the randonaut adventures of users, looking at views, likes, and comments, as well as mainstream responses through articles and other forms of social media, to understand the impact of User-Generated Content (UGC) on the capability for folklore to spread quickly, powerfully, and ultimately for a very short amount of time (as it seems to be for all TikTok trends).
Please find a draft of this paper attached below, and let me know your thoughts!
In our lifetimes, video games and play have become a fundamental piece of popular culture and, as a result, a powerful tool for learning. For this week’s practicum, I will be looking at examples of video games, game editors, and interactive applications, including the ARIS Editor, Smithsonian’s Will To Adorn, and the game Do I Have the Right?
ARIS Editor is a game creation site that, rather than requiring a software download, can be used on any device with Flash. The Editor is a part of the larger ARIS project, an open-source software project with source code fully available to the public.
There are three sections to the ARIS project: the Editor, the Server, and the Client. Essentially these are the places you create your game, the place your game “lives,” and the app through which users can play your game. The login and initial game creation (which simply requires a name) is easy. However, for users not used to the interface, the setup might be a little confusing.
The interface opens on a blank screen with a set of tabs at the top listing: Scenes, Locations, Quests, Conversations, Media, AR Targets, Notebook and Game Settings. In each tab there is a sidebar with “Game Objects.”
To start, you have to create a scene. While you can create multiple scenes, it is easiest to learn ARIS within a single scene. From here, the creator can add objects and triggers.
Objects are the items you want players to see and interact with inside the game, while Triggers are the avenue through which users access an object (i.e. most objects you create will require a trigger).
There are different trigger types that can be used in the ARIS editor: Location, QR Code, and Sequence. Two of these are rather obvious: location means when someone is at a certain location physically, and QR codes that require people to scan the codes to access the object (good for inside spaces or something more intricate, like a museum exhibit). Sequence triggers are triggers that allow an object to “appear” for a viewer once they have taken another specific action within the game that you choose as the catalyst for your object to appear. This type of trigger requires Locks (another type of game object).
Other objects include:
Plaques: a virtual plaque that offers information to the user
Locks: locks are “the logical glue you can use to give your games structure.” They allow any trigger or other items to be locked, giving your game a literal narrative and progression.
Conversations: Created conversations between your user and characters/places in the game
Items/Attributes: Objects your users can collect, or that you can give them after certain triggers.
Webpages: exactly what you would expect, webpages embedded into the game experience that open with a trigger
These objects can incorporate media, and a series of objects and triggers can be incorporated into different “quests” created in the editor.
While this editor certainly comes with a learning curve, it is a good entry point for people who have no experience creating a game or who have no coding skills. I do think that the website would pull in more users if they found a way to make the interface a little more tangible and user friendly. There is a lot of terminology that doesn’t explain itself within the interface at all, and it was difficult to visualize what something might look like in gameplay based on the interface experience.
The Will to Adorn:
Will to Adorn is a research and public presentation project created by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The project represents the work of scholars and cultural practitioners to explore the aesthetics of African American identities as represented through artistic expression of the body, dress, and adornment. While there have been various programs and papers associated with this project, the project primarily lives on the Will to Adorn website and app.
Unfortunately, the website itself has been stripped down to not include all of the items it previously held, including some of the Research Tools, Field Notes, Events, etc. However, it still offers some resources with their research guide and access to contacts users can reach out to for questions.
The app is also still running, and functions in two ways:
Users can tell their story. You offer the app basic information about your age, gender, etc. and then choose a question to answer. Once you have chosen a question, you create an audio recording of your answer that is submitted to the app.
Users can listen to stories from other users and from fieldwork about dress and adornment.
The website and app are great examples of how digital tools can expand the reach and impact of a project, but it does also offer a lesson in terms of the longevity of the project. Perhaps upkeep on the site, for example, would allow for users to continue the project.
Do I Have A Right?
iCivics, a nonprofit organization created by Sandra Day O’Connor, works to promote civics education and encourage youth involvement in active citizenship. To do so, they create lesson plans and educational video games like “Do I Have A Right?”
The game allows students to run their own firm, focused specifically on constitutional law. The more cases won for each client, the more your law firm grows.
In the game, users have the option to play either the “Full Edition” or the “Bill of Rights Edition,” i.e. the cases you receive are only about the original 10 amendments. For this practicum, I decided to play the Bill of Rights Edition.
The game then takes you to create your avatar; I would say there was general success in using inclusive practices by iCivics, including avatars of multiple races and genders, as well as add on options of glasses or a wheelchair.
You then pick a partner and open your firm, with the aim to match cases with lawyers who specialize in the relevant amendment. Each potential client that walks in must be evaluated by the user, who decides whether or not the case is an infringement on the person’s rights. The game should ultimately help students gain a better understanding of their rights, and how they are protected by the judicial system. Overall, I found this game very engaging, while also remaining simple enough in design to allow for learning. However, some of the time constraints that make the game feel “high stakes” does prevent users from fully reading into each amendment.
All to often, video game developers look to history to create a fascinating context, plotline, or side quest for their game. For years, games such as the Assassin’s Creed franchise or Ghost of Tsushima have remained wildly popular, in part for their impressive use of historical events and settings. Even games such as The Witcher, based on a book series later turned into a popular Netflix show, use aspects of history and culture (in this case, Slavic folklore) to enhance gameplay for their users.
All too often, however, some historic games end up missing the mark for accuracy or proper portrayal of the communities presented in their games. While many developers have managed to contract historians in the early phases of game development, what seems to be missing is inclusion of historians that follows through the testing of the video game.
As a result, my proposal calls for the creation of a website that allows for alpha and beta testing with historians in the field. Historians have the opportunity to test out new historical video games, and give their feedback on the representation of the history and peoples within the game, allowing developers to further enrich their video games and create a more immersive experience during gameplay.
While there are plenty of platforms available for alpha and beta testing video games, such as AlphaBetaGamer, who call themselves the “the world’s biggest beta testing site.” The site covers alpha and beta testing for all platforms, and for free, however, to have your game tested on the site it must be free itself.
In this case, not only would the site be specialized for a specific type of game development, it would also offer both free and paid options to expand the option for different developers making both free and paid games.
The audience for the platform would be both historians interested in gaming or the particular time period/plotline of the game, and gaming developers interested in finding an informed testing group. There could also be levels to the service; for example, a free version where anyone in the history field who has signed up as a tester can play your game, and paid versions where you can request individuals with specific background and research interests.
Publicity for this service would be twofold, to correctly build interest in both relevant audiences. Much of the contact with video game developers would include social media/web campaigns, as well as direct contact with manufacturers, distribution companies, etc. It would also be useful to have a physical presence at events such as the Game Developer’s Conference. For the academic outreach, larger national conferences (such as AHA) would be a good opportunity, as well as social media and platforms such as H-NET for reaching potential users. There could also be an opportunity to utilize graduate students in this process as well, and testing could be incorporated into a class syllabus.
Early iterations of the site would be tested by several selected developers and historians; ironically, the site itself would require it’s own alpha and beta testing to work out the logistics of the platform, which would need to have the ability to run a variety of video games for a large number of users at any given time.
Now, to find someone who can actually enact this idea, so I can play some video games and maybe get paid for it!
In the era of technology, modern medicine, and science, the concept that people still believe in, share, and adhere to folklore might sound absurd. Take, for instance, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story of a colorfully dressed rat catcher, hired by the town of Hamelin, who plays his flute, entrancing the pests and leading them out of the town. When the town refused to pay for his services, however, the Piper used his flute to lure a new set of victims: the town’s children. Lured by his tune, the children left town and vanished never to be seen again. By today’s standards, this story sounds more than a little odd, the type of tale that would be unlikely to pass the test of time as it once did. However, if you dig more deeply into that story, a truth unfolds.
While the rats were a later addition to the story, one common truth remained: a stranger came to town, and left with the children. In 1227, approximately 50 years prior to the story in Hamelin, the Holy Roman Empire and Denmark fought in a battle that pushed back Danish borders. Colorfully dressed Roman salesmen, often called “locators,” travelled the land to find skilled men and women to move north to protect the Empire’s new borders. For obvious reasons, this was a hard sell. For towns like Hamelin, losing skilled laborers could put the town at risk. As a result, it was common practice to sell or give away children to this cause when locators came into town. For Hamelin, the tracing of surnames to new towns proves the less savory version of this folktale: a town made the collective decision to sell their children to locators to ship off to new towns. From there a collective story was constructed as a way to cope with their actions for years to come, and the Pied Piper was born.
Much like those that came before us, humans still tell stories to make sense of the world. Most especially, we continue to be drawn in by stories of tragedy, of what hides in the dark, or what steals our children. Our modern legends can be traced in figures such as the Slender Man. Slender Man, an unnaturally thin and tall humanoid creature, is said to stalk, abduct, and traumatize it’s victims, usually children or young adults. His story began on the Something Awful forum, with a couple of doctored photos, but those on the forum (and on other forums, such as Reddit and 4chan) began adding narrative and visual art, building a mythos of Slender Man.
The legend increased in popularity, showing up first in video games, blending into traditional popular culture, and then movies. Unfortunately, much of this limelight was a result of a 2014 tragedy, when two 12 year old girls lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her as an “offering” to Slender Man. Their actions, as awful as it may seem, continue to show the pervasive power of folklore in the modern era.
While the original Slender Man story proliferated on a pre-Reddit site, there is little doubt that Reddit has become a breeding ground for modern day folkore. Subreddits such as r/creepypasta, r/nosleep, r/letsnotmeet, and more have acted as a space for entire communities built around the purpose of creating, sharing, and commenting on scary stories.
For now, my primary question remains: when we compare these stories against more traditional folklore, what role does a medium such as Reddit or TikTok play in the creation and proliferation of folklore? And in the era of science and technology, are we somehow more beholden to these stories than ever before?
In my project, I am hoping to explore some of the most popular subreddits and examples of modern folklore, examining how the medium of social media plays a part in the creation and proliferation of folklore. Without our knowledge, have these stories become even more important to our societies than the folktales we believe we have left behind?
For now, I will look at examples such as Slender Man (and other creepypasta figures) and trends such as Randonautica to track how they show up in social media (most likely using tools such as Voyant, Google n-gram, and topic modeling programs where possible). From there, I will attempt to assess the role these platforms play in the potency of the stories told, as well as assessing the lasting power of the legends in the context of “virality” and the fleeting nature of trends online.
Blank, Trevor J., and Lynne S. McNeill. “Introduction: Fear Has No Face: Creepypasta as Digital Legendry.” In Slender Man Is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet, edited by Blank Trevor J. and McNeill Lynne S., 3-24. Logan: University Press of Colorado, 2018. Accessed February 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv5jxq0m.4.
Manhke, Aaron hosts, “A Stranger Among Us,” Lore (podcast). December 28, 2015. Accessed February 24, 2021. https://www.lorepodcast.com/episodes/24