Why is Hermitcraft fanfiction uncomfortable? (or, the boundaries of fictional worlds)


I like watching Hermitcraft, a collaborative minecraft youtube series where a bunch of people all play on a minecraft server together and nonsense ensues. It's fun and comfy viewing and reminds me of the fun times I have playing minecraft with friends, except it happens to be that they're all really good at minecraft, unlike me and my friends. Hermitcraft is quite popular and has a large fan following, and like anything on the internet that has a fandom, Hermitcraft has fanfiction. And this makes me kinda uncomfortable. Why? Well I guess to answer that we have to explore what Hermitcraft really is.

A very immediate comparison that springs to mind is comparing Hermitcraft to tabletop RPGs and especially RPG podcasts, as being a group of players telling a story, or series of stories, through the medium of a game for an online audience. Hermitcraft is a collaboratively-told story that has worldbuilding (literally), plotlines, characters(?) (we'll get back to that), and so on. A conflicting, and equally obvious, take is that Hermitcraft is is a video game lets-play series, and talking of characters and fiction and narratives is overthinking it, it's just people playing a game. In a way, both are correct.

What is a "character" anyway?

The main difficulty I have with Hermitcraft fanfiction, and a difficulty in categorising Hermitcraft as a series, is how you view the question of what makes a character a character, and where the boundary lies between a player and their character. The typical RPG character obviously has influence from their player, as they are controlled by their player, but has their own personality, likes, dislikes, and traits. This is clearly also true of some of the hermits, like Science Zedaph, who is quite clearly a character in the conventional sense. But what about Mumbo or Grian? Or JoeHills? Are they characters?

For JoeHills, the answer seems to be fairly obviously "no", as Joe doesn't seem to be playing a character as much as just being a person playing minecraft. I couldn't point to any traits or personality features that JoeHills (in minecraft) has that Joe Hills (the person) doesn't. Does this mean that JoeHills isn't a character? Personally, I'd say that Joehills is a person playing a video game.

For Joe and Zedaph, these are both fairly clear-cut cases. The dividing line between Hermitcraft's fiction and our reality is understandable here - Science Zedaph exists in fiction, while JoeHills exists in reality (with a presence extended into the virtual world).

A figure like Mumbo, though, is a bit more difficult to place. In Hermitcraft Season 8, MumboJumbo is a character played by Oli. Mumbo has some traits that would clearly make him a character, especially in some of his personas throughout the series - Potatman, CEO of Boatem, Peace Love and Plants, and so on. Throughout the series, Mumbo (the character) is roleplaying different characters. But note I just said "Mumbo" there - all these characters are still Mumbo, played by Oli. Some things about Mumbo are specific to Mumbo-the-character, while others (like the love of redstone and end crystals) are things about Oli. So with Mumbo, where does the fiction start and end? Where is the line between Mumbo and Oli?

Roleplaying yourself

A possible response here is to say that all the hermits are characters, and those that are close to their real personalities are roleplaying a fictionalised version of themselves within the hermitcraft universe. This seems to be the approach taken by TV Tropes, who have on their page for hermitcraft characters this message:

Note: There is a distinction between the characters presented on the episodes of Hermitcraft, and the people who play them in real life. While they generally overlap in terms of personality and thus tropes, in role-playing cases it is just that: role-play. The tropes listed will, in most cases, be referring to the characters. Please specify otherwise or if unclear!!!

However, I question this position, because I don't think that all the hermits are truly role-playing themselves. For example JoeHills isn't roleplaying a fictional Joe within the Hermitcraft universe, in a "what would I do if I was actually in minecraft" type scenario. Joe is playing as a player, his decisions are being made and exist outside of the universe. Joe is not roleplaying a fictional Joe, Joe is making the decisions that real-world Joe is making, and I think that's an important distinction.

What does this mean for fanfiction?

This all has the effect of making fanfiction-writing, and the ethics of fanfiction, confusing. When it is difficult to draw the line between where a character ends and a real person starts, navigating what is and isn't OK to write in a fanfiction context becomes a minefield. When writing about MumboJumbo, when are you writing about a fictional character (which we largely see as fine) and when are you writing stories about a real person, which is creepy? This is especially a problem if you want to write about character relationships, but that's a whole other can of worms I'm not getting into.

Shows like Hermitcraft blur the lines between player and character, reality and fiction. At any point what you are watching can be read as either an extension of reality into a virtual world or as a work of fiction told through roleplay. This fun for a viewer, but raises many questions when looked at deeper. And I still don't know how best to navigate it in engagement with fan-created Hermitcraft media.