The power of machinima

I don’t understand all the flack machinima gets. Sure, it might be a type of storytelling aimed mainly towards amateur filmmakers, but so far it has had a huge social and cultural impact both online and in real life. I don’t think it’s fair to discount it as unsophisticated or treat it as if it is incapable of holding significance just because of its low budget or the fact that it is made using video game animations.

A prime example of a work of machinima that had a huge influence in facilitating discussion of a sociopolitical event is Koulamata’s “The French Democracy.” “The French Democracy” came about because a freelance industrial designer named Alex Chan decided to buy a game called The Movies and express his discontent with the riots that were going on in France at the time. It quickly became viral as it was distributed through forums, blogs, game websites, and movie download sites, and it was an effective medium for just an average citizen to share his thoughts and provoke conversation within the public.

Machinima is also relevant culturally; it has a huge presence on YouTube, with popular content creators such as YOGSCAST having over seven million subscribers and over 50 million views combined on their song “Diggy Diggy Hole.” Videos in which creators record themselves playing through a game  (aptly named “Let’s Plays”) in addition to machinima make up a very large percentage of videos on the site. There is no denying the influence that YouTube has, especially on millennials. An article from the Huffington Post states that “YouTube Is Crushing Cable TV” — it is currently “reaching more 18- to 49-year-olds in America than any U.S. cable network” (Ligato). And machinima is not only purely for entertainment; many channels are using machinima as an educational tool, such as the channel Wonder Quest, which uses a MineCraft cat named Stampy to teach kids about subjects such as chemistry.

Machinima not only is a powerful medium because it is an accessible tool, but also because it is an effective way to distribute a message as it is less intimidating, easily digestible, and easy to spread. The impact machinima has and can have on our culture and in shaping the way people, especially the younger generation, think should not be taken lightly.

That’s so meta.

Machinima is, as Henry Lowood said, a “found technology.” It is the perfect example of creative misuse. Video games were not meant to be used as a medium for storytelling, but somehow players created machinima and used games to tell stories. The stories are often comedic and not meant to be taken seriously, but there are some cases, such as “The French Democracy” that try to point out serious social issues.

I think one of the reasons machinima has become so popular is because it is so relatable to the younger generation. Nowadays, all kids play games. Boy or girl. Older or younger. Almost everybody has some experience with playing video games. And even if they do not, gaming has been so integrated into our culture that everybody at least knows the name of some famous games such as Minecraft. In addition, machinima is easy to create. All you need is to buy the video game because now companies are aware of machinima and have added recording features to many games including Grand Theft Auto and Sims. Even without a built-in recording feature, it is easy to download a screen recording application on your computer.

Another interesting thing about machinima is how creators often use the audience’s assumed knowledge of the game. For example, in Rooster Teeth’s “Red vs. Blue,” there are some references to Master Chief and the alien armada which are present in the original Halo 3 storyline. It is also fun how in machinima, characters are often very meta and self-aware of their situation. In the first episode of “Red vs. Blue,” two red team characters are talking to each other about their purpose. They discuss how the red team exists only because there is a blue team, and the blue team exists only because there is a red team.

The Holes and Patches in Machine Cinema

I would like to start by apologizing for the lateness of this blog post. I did not realize until far into the night that there was a blog post due this week. I understood that the status quo suggests that there would be one, but the chaos of the week threw me off. When I looked on Thursday morning for the assignment and the blog post was not assigned, I figured that it was because of recent events and the effort that we need to put into our Machinima. Speaking of which…

Machinima is a very odd type of entertainment. Its entire existence is a creative misuse of video games that were made for purposes unrelated to making stories. The great thing about this is that almost any game can be utilized to make a machinima. There isn’t one go to type of game that screams “make a movie out of me”. Of course some lend themselves to the task better than others but it isn’t taboo to use a new type of game to make a machinima. This gives machinima a huge affordance as a method for storytelling. Not only does it give you graphical elements for relatively little effort, but its stock of graphical content is nearly endless.

Of course, with affordances come constraints. Machinima in particular seems to scream out its constraints to the top of the world. The main constraint that I have found with machinima is the difficulty to make a smooth and seamless visual within most games. This constraint is obviously due to the fact that machinima is creative misuse and that the games were not designed to facilitate movie making. Because of its fundamental nature to the medium, the challenge of pacing can be seen in almost any machinima. For example, in Rooster Teeth’s Red vs Blue, the lack of freedom in the subtle actions of the characters made the show jarring to watch at first glance. The characters would bob their heads to indicate speech and do exaggerated actions to indicate emotion but Rooster Teeth tried their best to make it as naturally flowing as possible. However, the end result was that the audience just had to get used to the style and accept the limitations of the show. This broke some immersion but it really was the hardest thing to get over to start enjoying the show. Eventually, Rooster Teeth started animating certain scenes to give more options to a characters actions. However, these animations were sparse and only done when they were fairly necessary. This supplement allowed them to do bigger and better things for the show and in a way shows the potential for machinima without breaking out of the medium entirely.

Another major constraint of Machinima is being confined to the theme of the game that one chooses. There is of course the option to use many games, but this is jarring and can potentially hurt more than it helps. With these two major constraints in mind, our team decided that we should find a game with a desirable theme that could facilitate movie making (various camera angles, freedom of movement, etc.). We ended settling on a game that fulfills these criteria but also limits our storytelling options. I hope that we can make pull off a decent machinima with this game. (No, I am not telling you what that game is yet….)


Machinima – Saving us from a Single Story


Machinima is a recently developed technique in which video games are used to “act out” movie scenes. This “platform” for lack of a better term, is easily accessible with very low barriers to entry. As a result, movie making has been largely democratized, and can be used for a variety of purposes. This medium first got significant attention when “French Democracy” was released. This homemade movie drew the spotlight on the terribly unjust conditions in France. Machinima’s biggest affordances are its accessibility and versatility. By drawing from a wide variety of different games, creators are able to craft remarkably diverse stories. For better or for worse, this affordance is also machinima’s greatest weakness. The game based nature of this genre lends itself primarily to non serious works. There are countless seemingly trivial examples that highlight this point. “Diggy Diggy Hole” is a very popular example that is extremely silly. While these works do not discredit the genre or its power, it is important to recognize why this genre may not be taken as seriously as some of the other works we have evaluated in class. Despite this, I think the availability and accessibility of story telling platforms is vital to avoid a “Single Story”. Machinima empowers individuals to tell their own stories; stories which are then available in an easily accessible and distributable format. For the first time in history, nearly everyone is equally empowered to tell and share their stories. This incredible democratization may have profound impacts on social justice and equality.

Machinima: Art or play?

What is machinima, exactly?

Machinima seems to fall into two categories: works of art and works of play (Ryan touches on a similar idea in his post here). Machinima artworks are those that aim primarily to spread a message or craft a narrative. For these works, the technology is indeed “found,” as Lowood calls it: Artists stumbled upon the powerful 3D animation engines provided by games and put them to creative misuse. Examples include Koulamata’s “The French Democracy” (2005) and Bryn Oh’s work, including “format” (2010) and “Willow” (2011).

Machinima as play, however, is far more common. For these creators, the goal is not necessarily to create original artistic content but instead to engage even more deeply with the existing game universe. Artistic considerations, if present at all, take a back seat to play in the form of exploring and building the universe, competition among players, and community interaction. “Red VS Blue” takes a game characteristic—fighting other human players in multiplayer mode as opposed to fighting aliens in single player mode—and builds on it to develop a narrative. DOOM and Quake demos are play-like in that they can be thought of as competing demonstrations of different players’ skills. The community aspect is also hugely important for these works: The many incarnations of “Diggy Diggy Hole” (original video released in 2011) would surely not exist if there was not an active and deeply invested community surrounding both Minecraft and Yogscast specifically.

This conception of machinima harks back to my prior post about the story-game spectrum, but with an interesting twist: for creators who produce machinima as play, the act of moviemaking is more like playing a game than writing a story. Rather than appropriating game technology for a new use, I’d argue that what these players are doing is a logical extension of gameplay; they seek to engage with the game and enjoy its competitive and communal aspects in as many ways as possible.

There are certainly works that fall in between the pure extremes of art and play, and there may also be artistic merit to works of play even if they are heavily derivative (after all, everything is a remix), but attempting to justify machinima on the basis of artistry may be misguided. I have to agree with Lowood that “reducing a positive assessment of gameplay to its potential for leading to “more serious” forms of activity is neither the only nor the most compelling rationale for turning our attention to machinima” (168). Machinima need not be artistic to be interesting or culturally significant.

The advent of the Internet has led to a culture in which any piece of media—whether itself as mainstream as a Hollywood movie or as niche as the most obscure indie video game—can spawn a complex network of derivative media, created by nearly anyone, in the form of fan fiction, fan art, machinima as play, and more. These outgrowths raise interesting questions about how the way that we consume and interact with media is changing; machinima in particular is fascinating in how it extends gameplay beyond the game console. Additionally, these derivative works often become powerful cultural forces in their own right. Machinima and its cousins, whether artistic or not, are well worthy of study.

Referenced: Lowood, Henry. “Found Technology: Players as Innovators in the Making of Machinima.” Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected. Edited by Tara McPherson. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 165–196. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262633598.165

Maturity and Merit

Machinima is not classy. It’s a little immature. It does not add anything of artistic merit to our culture. This, however, does not mean machinima is not an important cultural movement worthy of study. Machinima is the dawn of players becoming creators.

When I was 12 or 13, machinima videos were almost all I watched on the internet. It was partially because I liked the video games, but also because I was enthralled by the power of remix culture and how polished yet mindless it was. Let’s Plays were very easy to watch, but had very little actual storytelling substance. The story was not the story within the game, but the journey of the player and content provider. References to these stories could then be expanded and remixed, adding a whole new dimension to the medium. The fan base could become an active participant in the story.

Perhaps as I grow older, I will completely lose interest in this medium. Already, some of the more popular Let’s Plays seem a little juvenile, which makes sense, as most of this content is aimed at kids.

Are people warranted then, to dismiss this medium of its importance? Perhaps the same way we dismiss a 4 year old’s drawings? Of course not. With machinima, there is an interesting cultural phenomenon at work. The pioneers of machinima created content that was never intended by the game developers. All they thought about was making a game with certain mechanics that would be fun for the player. What ended up happening, was that people created something entirely new. Footage of people playing games eventually became a unique form of storytelling.

In the text Found Technology: Players as Innovators in the Making of Machinima by Henry Lowood, Lowood discusses this occurrence at length. He calls this a “found technology.” No one made the tools explicitly for machinima, but rather they were discovered. Machinima content providers were amateurs, but they were able tell stories in a way no one had before. Despite how cringe-y these stories are sometimes, they are revolutionary.

When the Going Gets Rough, It’s Time to Get Creative

While reading Henry Lowood’s article “Found Technology: Players as Innovators in the Making of Machinima” I came to the conclusion that the basics of machinima movie making could be separated into two really broad categories. You have the game demos from games such as DOOM that show people how to play a game and then more storyline guided movies such as “The French Democracy” that seem like a traditional movie but come from playing a video game.

Reading about “The French Democracy” made me wonder; could a machinima story similar to the French Revolution help the USA with the racial, religious, and other tensions that are plaguing our society? So many things relating to the election that just happened and the rifts it exposed within our society draw parallels to the situation that brought “The French Democracy” to life in 2005. Often times a lack of communication and the inability (or unwillingness) to listen to other people is the root cause of most problems.

An additional parallel between the two situations is the “lack of diversity and minority representation in [the] media.” When he made the game, Alex Chan ended up filling “a gap not only in minority representation, but also by utilizing a new format that…offered a point of view that was different from what could be seen on established news outlets.” Thus the effect was twofold. Instead of simply hiring more minorities within the mainstream media system, which is what France did in reaction to these sentiments, the addition of a machinima story allows for ‘everyday’ people to put their voice into the conversation and also allows other people to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Currently, in the USA, we’ve been hearing calls for increased minority representation within the mainstream media and especially within Hollywood. Honestly, the lack within Hollywood might actually mean more than within other forms of media. Words often fall short when it comes to explaining one’s viewpoint; it’s much easier to show someone what you’re trying to say instead of telling them. The addition of machinima into our mainstream media system allows the creators of these movies to show people the world through their viewpoint instead of having to write a petition or spread their voice through words alone. Not only does watching a movie have a greater effect on someone, movies also last longer than spoken word.

Earlier this week I probably would have written on the game aspect of machinima because I have some experience with watching these videos. However, with the current circumstances that my society is under, I think this might be a time where new machinima works can provide the world with some of the communication necessary to start mending our exposed flaws.


Sandbox and Open World Games

Technology has provided authors and narrative creators with many different mediums to portray the story they have created. Recently, advancements in 3D modeling and video game design have allowed people removed from the cinematic world to instantly become involved. Initially, this idea known as machinima was used by those who were capable of altering the programming behind the game to create maps/worlds upon which their fictions could be based.

One creator, by the name of Alex Chan began machinima with no experience making movies. He simply decided to purchase The Movies and make his own cinematic statement about the French riots. As video game development becomes more advanced, the portion of the public that can use it greatly increases. For example, some of the first machinima came from the classic first-person shooter, Doom. However, since the field of machinima was developing, no in game components were added to allow the user to have control over cinematic aspects including camera angles and lighting. As a result of this, the sect of the public involved in creating movies/films from the video game was largely kept to those with capabilities in altering game files or with extreme skill as a player.

With time, however, game developers began implementing tools for players to instantly become creators without any knowledge of films and programming. Some of these games include Halo 3 and World of Warcraft. I see there to exist two different mechanics that allow players to become creators, and to inspire within the realm of machinima.

Firstly, there is the sandbox game. Halo 3 provides a good example of this. Within the game, there is a mode where the user is capable of altering maps and building structures as well as moving the camera in 3rd person perspectives which provides users with ample capabilities to quickly create a film. In sandbox games, the developers intentionally allow the user to have creative control, this very easily lends itself to the nature of machinima in that users would want to show off their creations, and could even use them to tell a story.

A second type of game that lends itself to machinima is open world games. These games provide the user with expansive space to explore and interact with in ways that permit the telling of a story. Two great examples of this type of game are Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft. These games provide the user with a world ready to be explored and interacted with, often times creating a situation on which a story of narrative could be based. The creation of new games and modes has greatly increased the public capable of using machinima to instantly become content creators. One can only wonder the next game/type of game that will easily and rapidly allow users to create stories at a reasonably high quality.

A steady uphill climb

Machinima has a lot of interesting affordances, most significantly its accessibility as a movie-making medium. The appeal of machinima is the idea of “player as creator”, as Lowood says. And, with the development of the Internet, creating and sharing machinima has become even more widespread. When Lowood talks about machinima made with Quake, he says “indeed, the demo format required access to the game even to play the movies.” And, even when gamers began converting their machinima creations into widely viewable formats, there wasn’t a place where these videos could be collected together and easily viewed. The game The Movies allowed users to post their machinima creations on a community website, as did Blizzard for World of Warcraft machinima, but there was no one common platform for sharing videogame-based movies at the time of Lowood’s article.

Now, YouTube is an Internet giant that exists for the sole purpose of video sharing, and machinima abounds. The videos that we saw in class are a sample of this bounty – we watched machinima videos created by The Movies, Minecraft, Overwatch, Grand Theft Auto, and HALO. The increased accessibility of machinima now provides for exposure to a wider audience, which leads to more impact on Internet culture. For example, the “Diggy Diggy Hole” video (meme? phenomenon?) could not have gained the popularity that it has if everyone who watched it had to be an active Minecraft player. Yet, because of the viral quality of YouTube videos, it has become an element of Internet gaming culture.

Another significant addition to machinima, post-Lowood, is the Sims franchise. Sims allows players to create characters and then basically manipulate their lives, and it seems like a perfect opportunity for people with little movie-making experience to create works of machinima. Indeed, a quick Google search for “Sims machinima” returns a wide selection of videos and articles about how to best create Sims machinima. Second Life, the game we’ve been using in class, is a pale imitation of the Sims universe, but even there we can see the potential for machinima in social games that give the user a god-like role in the lives of their characters. Machinima has come a long way since the early DOOM demos, and its accessibility will likely sustain its popularity and increase its sophistication in the future.