UC Irvine researcher Crystle Martin studies what pro wrestling fans can teach us about storytelling, education, and community. What she found is like “fantasy football meets Dungeons and Dragons.” Lissa Soep interviews Martin about the interactive theater of professional wrestling fandom.

"Fantasy football meets Dungeons and Dragons." That's how Crystle Martin, a post-doc at UC Irvine, describes a pro-wrestling fan community she explored as part of her academic research. Martin used to study library sciences. Now she studies professional wrestling fandom. Crystle insists that it's not that big of a leap. Though pro wrestling is easy to make light of, turns out the online communities young people form around this highly theatrical form of sports entertainment can be intellectual, rigorous, and obsessed with quality narrative.

Crystle and I are both part of a network of researchers exploring how digital and social media are transforming learning and civics. Our colleagues have investigated lots and lots of youth communities, from StarCraft II geekhood to Dream Activists (PDF) to e-textile makers. Crystle was drawn to studying pro wrestling fandom because of its low barriers to participation, the diversity and global scale of its base, and because of the sheer intensity of fans' online engagement. It helped that back in the eighties, Crystle was an Andre the Giant fan.

Pro-wrestling fandom as model learning community? Maybe the young wrestling enthusiasts have figured something out that teachers should pay attention to. I asked Crystle to elaborate. Below is our conversation, lightly edited. Crystle's full case study is here.

You acknowledge that professional wrestling is often seen as anti-intellectual. Why do you say to that?

Pro wrestling at its heart, it's like Greek melodrama. It has a very rich culture. I mean some form of professional wrestling has existed since late 1800s. It's existed in its current scripted state since the 1930s. So it's got a really long cultural heritage.

Because people engage in it in a very theater-like manner, it actually requires understanding the genre. So there's a lot of discourse-specific language that goes with it. So one of my participants had to explain to me, Oh a "face" is a good guy, from the term baby-face. And a "heel" is a bad guy. And then there's a tweener–in gaming terms, we call it a "chaotic neutral"–which means you don't know whether they're good or bad, and what they do in certain situations is relatively unpredictable. Watching people work through argumentation about different points and share resources and information shows me that this is a very intellectually active community.

Sounds like storytelling is a big deal in pro wrestling community. How do fans learn to tell compelling stories?

There are a couple of ways for fans to engage in storytelling. There's straight up wrestling fan fiction, where people create their own universe. People have done fan fiction with wrestling and anime characters, and there's a video version of that, where people use the WWE 13 game with character skins from other games, so you've got Pokemon wrestling Mario, that kind of thing.

And then there's fantasy wrestling. It's sort of a mix of fantasy football and Dungeons and Dragons. Everyone develops a character. The character has a back-story. They pick how the character's gonna look, if it's a face or a heel, the character's signature moves and finishing moves, the whole thing. They develop this whole character.

Then there's a booker—sorta like a game master. The booker puts a call out and asks for characters, and then he or she goes through and chooses which characters to hire for a season, and matches them up.

Then the players come in. They start feuding with each other in character. The term is "kayfabe." It means putting on the persona of a wrestler. Speaking in kayfabe is speaking in character. So they start feuding with each other, creating reasons for why the two characters have a feud. It goes on for days and days. Then the booker closes the thread.

And then the writers go to work. They work the feuding that's happened into storylines. They've got commentators giving you play-by-play. They've got promos beforehand, so it starts when the wrestler coming out onto ramp, the music they pick, what they say. The writers write huge pieces over three to four days. One was 85 pages! They post it up, and everyone gets to read it. And then they rate it. They give qualitative and quantitative ratings. They say, "Oh you know, the match between these two was good, but these didn't seem authentic to the story line." So they're bringing in their critical knowledge to evaluate these storylines and give it a rating on a one to five scale.

The writers take all that and incorporate the feedback into the next week's show. So everyone's constantly developing their skills.

If we're talking about pro wrestling fandom as a learning community, who are the teachers? Are there ways to "graduate" to higher levels?

The teachers—it's totally peer-to-peer. So everybody's putting in their expertise where they have it. People who don't happen to be as experienced in wrestling but are better at giving grammatical or genre-based writing critique get to put expertise there. Others put expertise when it comes to how wrestling storylines are developed, what elements go into that.

That's another thing about wrestling–a lot of people think it's very American-centric. It's very international. My fans were from the Philippines, India, all across Europe, South America, the US. It's a really wide fan base. So a lot of people who participate on these boards are English-as-a-second-language speakers. And so they get feedback on improving their written English. My participant from South America said he was able to not only get a community around his interest in wrestling, but they helped him to improve his English skills, which he took back and used in school. So the teaching kind of goes in multiple directions. Everybody's a teacher and learner, as the situation comes up.

One of my participants, she's 17 years old. She's in the Philippines. And she came to the community because when she told her local friends she was interested in wrestling, it was very socially stigmatizing for her. They started making fun of her for being a tomboy. So instead of giving up wrestling, she just stopped talking to them about it, and she found this community online. The fantasy wrestling federation part of the community really drew her in, and she got hooked. And then she started writing for the school newspaper as well. That led to a medical career, where she's gonna do a lot of technical writing. So her wrestling interest was an introduction to writing in a way that she found really engaging.

What's different about learning inside the pro wrestling online fan community versus, say, learning inside school?

Like most interest-driven communities, it's a much more low-stakes environment, so people are willing to try things that might not pan out. In a high-stakes learning environment, a lot of times what happens is, people feel so much pressure, they don't want to try things that they're not sure will work out exactly right, because they don't want to suffer consequences of that. So this allows people to role-play different kinds of characters, and a lot are experimenting with making videos about being in character as a wrestler, or best-of videos. They put them online and get feedback on how their video editing's going, so if it completely fails, they're like, "Well I tried this, it didn't work," and people give them suggestions on how to fix the problem. So they're willing to experiment in areas they might not be willing to try otherwise.

If we use fandom as a model for a learning community, it seems to me there's this tension. Fan communities can have low barriers to participation, as you describe. But sometimes, they can be very invested in weeding out posers, elevating people who know the most, and showing disdain for those who are new or don't get it.

That tension definitely exists. There are communities where it's about being able to display your expertise and show you know more than everyone. Having come from studying videogames, it's definitely out there, and can be extremely hostile. But one of the important things is to highlight communities that aren't like that, so people who have a bad experience know if they keep looking, there are other communities that are much more welcoming, and that can offer them a lot.

What often gets a lot of play are the communities that are super high-achieving, like, We're a community of Starcraft II that we train and compete at international competitions, so we have such a high level and high bar, it's hard for people to access it. Or if you're new, it's hard to get basic questions answered. Because those communities end up standing out so much, highlighting communities where there is an atmosphere that wants to offer help and support, it's important to show they exist and there's also really good learning going on.

The person who created the forum (I studied), he started it when he was 18. He was looking for a place to hang out with other people interested in wrestling. He's one of the main forces for why the community is so help- and feedback-driven. When he first created the forum, random people joined, he didn't know them, and they formed a strong core of community standards, based on helping others, helping people elevate their wrestling interests to the point where they can be critical fans.

All the interviews I did, that was such a core tenet for everybody. They call the "introduce yourself" forum "The Ramp." When someone new posts, there's always a bunch of people who are like, "Welcome to the community, do you need anything?" The people who function in the group very much feel connected to each other.

image from Wikimedia Commons: "Andre the Giant giving his size 15 boot to King Kong Bundy."