There will be few of you reading this who have never encountered Sonic The Hedgehog. The iconic blue hedgehog capable of running at high speeds has served as the mascot for the Japanese video game developer Sega since the early 1990s. Sonic is one of the most recognisable characters in video games, even amongst non-gamers, as the franchise has spawned many spin-offs including comic books and several animated series (and many, many toys). Created by Yuji Naka as a counterpoint to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic has become a staple of popular culture, both in Japan and in the West, with over 80 million games sold over a 25-year period.
While the early games in the series for the Mega Drive/Genesis were and are widely celebrated, more recent entries have not fared as well, either critically or commercially. Two games in particular, “Sonic The Hedgehog” (the 2006 multi-platform release) and “Sonic Boom: Rise Of Lyric” (for the Nintendo Wii U console) were met with a highly negative reception. This backlash hasn’t derailed plans for new Sonic games, however, with two new titles expected in 2017 and this, I think, is largely due to the active fan culture surrounding the character online.
Sega has made effective use of their social media accounts to showcase fans’ love of the character and keep public awareness of the brand high despite disappointing returns on the latter-day games. A recent discussion with my friend Miguel Olmedo Morell led me to consider the implications of these developments for people studying information science.
We spent our last “Foundation” session talking about the various ways documents may develop in the future and the consequences this will have for us as people providing access to information. It is thought that the public’s changing expectations of entertainment may lead to new kinds of documents evolving. One of the concepts we encountered was that of “participatory culture” which is where consumers of media take a more active role in its creation, dissemination and use. While this is not a new phenomenon, emerging technologies have enabled more people than ever before to take part in the production of media. Henry Jenkins is a leading scholar in the field of cultural studies, especially in areas relating to popular culture and fan involvement in it, and I would highly recommend his 2006 book “Fans, Bloggers & Gamers”. Henry’s official website defines “participatory culture” as one with the following features:
1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).
The official Sonic account on Twitter has nearly a million followers at the time of writing. The people working on the account, whatever their academic and professional backgrounds, could be described as information professionals in that they provide access to fan documents to promote understanding. I for one would certainly be interested in such a line of work! Sega has used this medium to share fan’s Sonic memes and showcase the community’s creativity. Their relatively lax interpretation of copyright laws has allowed fan participation to flourish and knowledge of the character to spread. I would imagine that fans enjoy Sega sharing their artwork with the wider public and feel that the large Japanese corporation appreciates the contribution fans are making to the Sonic brand. A perfect example of participatory culture!