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


One thought on “Machinima: Art or play?

  1. “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.”

    This is an interesting observation. My impulse is to think of machinima as a creative misuse that “breaks” the game in way (see the Quake speed runs). But I’m open to this idea that there’s a logical continuity between the game and making videos with the game. And, to your point, the history of the internet tells us that just about every form of media will be played with (not just played) once it exists online. (This is probably true from before the internet, but the accessibility of content on the internet makes it more visible.)


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