I am not a violent person.  Yes, I grew up playing 007 Goldeneye on my N64, but I was never any good.  And I know nothing about the military that I didn’t learn from watching a bad movie or reading the Facebook rants of my USMC friends.

But I love PUBG.

A quick summation of PUBG, also known as “Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds,” is that it is one of many video games riding a wave of military-simulation popularity.  Players are grouped into games of 100 people, put on an airplane, forced to parachute down to an island littered with post-apocalyptic memorabilia, find weapons and armor and the occasional frying pan, and then kill each other before the ever-closing circle of death ensnares them.  The last player or team of players alive is treated to a Chicken Dinner, in the sense that the end screen title reads, in large yellow letters, “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.”  There are also in-game currencies and prizes, but the real celebration is that “Chicken Dinner,” which, I cannot stress enough, bears no resemblance to any kind of meal.

Let me be clear that I have never played this game myself.  If I did play, I would obviously get some sweet, sweet Chicken every game.  And so long as I never actually play the game, I can tell myself that.   To continue my head-canon kill-streak, I instead watch live-streams of other people playing PUBG.  Specifically, I watch Polygon’s weekly stream they’ve entitled “Awful Squad.”  Recurring players Russ, Griffin, Justin, Simone, Jenna, Travis, and others willingly televise their eternal struggles towards the elusive Chicken Dinner, and because they are not really any good at the game (thus the name of their squad) the focus is less on perfection of play and more on the comedy of errors that is, generally, online gaming.  The players get nicknames that last until long after anyone can remember where they came from.  The team gets its own stereotypes and tropes separate from any that exist outside of their stream.  Forbes-30-Under-30-Media-Luminary Griffin gets mad at Notoriously Terrible Russ for saying the phrase, “I really need a backpack” too many times in a span of five minutes, and for the rest of their lives the whole squad refers to backpacks as “beeps.”  Simone makes a custom game for the team to play with their fans, calls it “BEANS,” and then never lives it down when there are so many high-quality loot drops that everyone, except for the squad, has access to.  “Are the loot drops the beans, Simone?” Justin asks.  “That’s the beans!” and from then on into eternity, when a loot drop falls from the sky, everyone on the team lamentably calls out “Them’s the beans” and they watch together as someone else gets whatever is inside.

If you continued reading past that paragraph, it’s because of one of three things: 1) you’re my mother.  Hi mom! 2) you also watch Awful Squad and you also thought the beans thing was hilarious 3) you, like me, are intrigued by the concept of Fandom, and how amorphous and decentralized it has become in the age of the Internet.  Fandom is little more than a string of inside jokes that serve as social glue for a group of people who might not otherwise have anything holding them together.  When I think back to the early 2000s, when I was in high school and things like YouTube and Twitch were not yet extant, it seems to me that the practice of participating in fandom was entirely different from what it often is today.  When my friends were masking-taping their fingers and drawing in black sharpie on their nails to pay tribute to their favorite character on Lost, no one was imagining that the showrunners would see that and make some mention of it in a later episode of the show.  Fandom was for fans, but its trappings were dictated by the media itself.  Except for hyper-localized expressions of enthusiasm, those inside jokes were curated by the artists in charge.  There were gatekeepers that kept fans from gaining complete control over these things they loved.

As the visibility of fanfiction increased, as more and more franchises started participating in conventions, as enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints gained their own platform and voice, popular media started having to respond directly to its fans.  This meant that actors had to answer for the choices they made on and off screen, directors had to defend their casting, writers had to face the wrath of overwrought teenagers wearing handmade “I <3 Sirius Black” and “Long Live Matthew Crawley” t-shirts stained with tears.  There are a lot of negative repercussions for the authenticity of art that come when the artists can very tangibly anticipate the anger of those on whom their livelihood depends.  But there are also noticeable positive changes when people who have been systematically silenced finally get a chance to be heard.

But what interests me most are these newest forms of entertainment media, where a thirty-second delay is the only thing separating the creators from the consumers, where the line between audience and inspiration is blurred almost unrecognizably and the passion and group-think that has always been at the heart of fandom becomes a driving force of content.  Twitch Plays Pokémon has forever changed the way the world views Lord Helix.  Russ will never say the word Backpack again.  And whenever I see an airplane overhead, I whisper wistfully under my breath “Them’s the beans.”

It feels silly to talk about this, because how could the cultural zeitgeist of online gaming possibly matter in the world that we currently live in?  But to me, this feels like a phenomenon that, in fifty years, scholars will wonder why we didn’t notice it more.  It is yet another way technological advancement brings out the primal social habits of humanity.  It is yet another way we are forced to remember that the feedback loop between what we create and how those creations shape us has never been under our control.  We turned up the loot, it is dropping, but we don’t control where it lands.  Them’s the beans.

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