High-performance play: The making of machinima

Henry Lowood
2006 Journal of Media Practice  
Machinima is the making of animated movies in real time through the use of computer game technology. The projects that launched machinima embedded gameplay in practices of performance, spectatorship, subversion, modification, and community. This article is concerned primarily with the earliest machinima projects. In this phase, DOOM and especially Quake movie makers created practices of game performance and high-performance technology that yielded a new medium for linear storytelling and
more » ... ytelling and artistic expression. My aim is not to answer the question, "are games art?", but to suggest that game-based performance practices will influence work in artistic and narrative media. Biography: Henry Lowood is Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections at Stanford University and co-Principal Investigator for the How They Got Game Project in the Stanford Humanities Laboratory. A historian of science and technology, he teaches Stanford's annual course on the history of computer game design. With the collaboration of the Internet Archive and the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences, he is currently working on a project to develop The Machinima Archive, a permanent repository to document the history of Machinima moviemaking. A body of research on the social and cultural impacts of interactive entertainment is gradually replacing the dismissal of computer games and videogames as mindless amusement for young boys. There are many good reasons for taking computer games 1 seriously. Is the claim that computer games have emerged as an art form one of them? Henry Jenkins, for one, has suggested that it is indeed time to think about video games as the "art form for the digital age." Some will find this thought difficult to reconcile with Pong and Pokemon, or with images of children staring vacantly into a Game Boy. Jenkins observes that such reactions "tell us more about our contemporary notion of art-as arid and stuffy, as the property of an educated and economic elite, as cut off from everyday experience-than they tell us about games." 2 It is tempting to respond to the rejection of games as an artistic medium by citing the narrative and social aspirations, technical mastery, visual storytelling, strategic depth, or simulated reality found in the palette of game genres today. For computer games today do cover an astonishing range of entertainment, simulation, artistic, competitive, and narrative experiences. Tempting as it may be to tout the artistic status of games in this way, it says little about the direct impact on contemporary artistic practice -demonstrated and potential-of performance rooted in computer games. In this article, I will narrow the focus of this relationship even further to the history of Machinima, a new narrative medium that has sprung almost whole out of computer game technology and play. Machinima movies transform gameplay through performance, spectatorship, subversion, modification, and player communities. The ways in which early machinima projects defined the "convergence of filmmaking, animation and game development" that became machinima are instructive. 3 They certainly tell us something about the impact of improvements in computer graphics and game technology, but the history of machinima is more than a story about the rise of real-time animation techniques since the mid-1990s. Like the cell phone camera craze, we also learn from machinima how the dissemination of accessible tools-even if they are not necessarily easy-to-usecreates opportunities for the emergence of unexpected content in a postmodern environment that places playful experiments and throwaway pieces alongside startling and original instances of creative expression. 4 Machinima reminds us that the nature of computer games as software allows for an almost limitless flexibility of content, the potential of which has yet to be fully explored. This article will be concerned with machinima as an episode in the history of game performance, design, and technology. Depicting machinima as high-performance play stems from its emergence from inter-relationships of play, spectatorship, technical virtuosity, and storytelling in computer games. Each of these factors played a role in defining the practices of machinima as practices of game performance. Already in its early history (1996)(1997), we can identify elements of machinima that are particularly indicative of narrative and artistic performance generally: play as performance, modification of content, and community-based tools and content development. At the end of this article, I will visit the question of what machinima tells us about the appropriation of game performance (both play and technology) as an art form.
doi:10.1386/jmpr.7.1.25/1 fatcat:db52w5xbgfcthmu7iv2dnk6rhq