Fans As Investors: ‘Mass Effect 3,’ Fan Service, and the Integrity of Art

In our conversation yesterday about whether the rise of fan-funded projects mean that, if fans are putting up the money companies would normally provide to get projects into production, they should be rewarded like investors, a number of people wrote in with the same objection. If fans replace studios not just as a source of cash, but as a source of creative input, everything will be ruined forever.

Foster Kamer pinged me in response to the question “should we treat fans like investors,” to say “Hell no. See: The ‘Mass Effect 3 Ending’ debate. The moment art responds to audience demands it loses integrity of vision.” And Arturo Garcia wrote that we’re already seeing similar problems now: “But haven’t we ::always:: been investors? Once we start spending money on the comic, or the game, we become invested in the story. I’m not saying everything deserves a Mass Effect 3-like protest, but when companies and creators sell themselves as doing things “for the fans” and then pull the Entitlement card when somebody calls them out, that’s a problem our geek media isn’t willing to confront.”

This gets at a larger, and more uncomfortable question: are fans a deleterious influence on the artists they love? Joss Whedon has walked a line between embracing his extremely strong fan community and making decisions that ruffle their feathers, most notably killing off characters no matter how much pain it causes the folks watching at home. When he first made Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, he self-financed the project and distributed it online and through iTunes, a combination of methods that made fans feel like they were participating in the project to support it by stepping up after the fact, but that didn’t involve them in the production process. It remains to be seen if he’ll go the same route or stop by Kickstarter to fund the sequel, due out this summer. Dan Harmon, for whom fan service has become a matter of life or death for Community, may feed the gif machine, but it’s not particularly clear that he makes story decisions or selects pop culture to reference purely based on what makes the audience go squee!

In any case, while it’s true that trying to be responsive to every bit of shippery and every fan desire would break just about any piece of entertainment, it’s also true that there are costs to be paid when commercial artists—and that’s what most folks who make mainstream television shows, video games, and movies are—submit to edits from the businesses that finance them, too. While fans may want to see a pairing happen, a studio may want a character to be thinner, or blonder, or for a show or movie to kill off a black character first. Ultimately, corporate expectations probably have a more deleterious effect on our entertainment as a whole, while answering to legions of fans would take its toll in terms of the integrity and coherent of individual stories. It’s a neat corporate trick to make the latter more visible, and to suggest it’s worse.