The Origins and Evolution of Machinima

Although machinima is now very popular in virtual social worlds, it originated in the virtual game world. As early as the 1990s, the very first first-person shooter (FPS) games, including Disney Interactive Studio’s Stunt Island and specifically id Software’s Doom and Quake, developed game replays for gamers to learn from their actions and seek ways to improve their gaming skills.

As this new perspective developed in the gaming industry, game replays not only helped the individual player, but also later allowed other gamers to view a player’s performance, and gradually evolved into a learning tool for serious gamers.  These replays are called movies, as Henry Lowood states in The Machinima Reader:

Demonstrating skills through competitive player performance was the primary motivation for creating the first game movies, such as replays and speed runs; learning about gameplay by viewing these movies depended on the development of practices for spectatorship, witnessing, and certification. The result was the full utilization of this new game-based performance space.

I would consider these initial game replays more as documents than actual movies made in the game world, because at this point, they don’t include any creative factor on part of the filmmaker, or machinima maker, but do depart from the gaming world by the incorporation of a present camera lens. For FPS games, Lowood states that the “[first person] camera view might perhaps be seen as establishing a kind of emancipation from gameplay, perhaps even as a neutral or objective position from which to document gameplay.” It was not until the Quake movies that game movies arose as the first machinima. While these machinima were captured inside of the game itself, through coding. In such a case, in order to create a machinima, one must have needed to understand the very laws of the virtual game world in order to create any playback, not to mention an entire movie.

While the gaming industry does value game creators and programmers, we cannot deny that it survives on its fan base, and especially its fan commitment and dedication, serving both as contributing players to expanding game worlds, but also as word-of-mouth and self-motivated commercial machines to publicize games. Especially during the 1990s and early 2000s, the fan base exploded, and many made machinima in gaming and virtual worlds they enjoyed playing.  Thus, while machinima was formerly made in digital code, it became popular via screen capture and post-production through video editing software.The first company to transform gaming culture through this video capturing production style was, founded by Hugh Hanc0ck. They developed their strong platform through Youtube, and currently has over 18 million subscribers. Even as I explore their website today, they have a logo saying, “For fans. By fans.”

This is understandable considering the video capturing production style was more accessible to fans, many of whom are not as technologically advanced as game programers who created the laws of the game world but still want to make something interesting and fun in relation to their game worlds. Following this trend, Lowood states,

Instead of FPS games, popular console games and massively multiplayer online games became the dominant modes of machinima production based on screen capture rather than replay.

Popular production game spaces for machinima included World of Warcraft, The Movies, Second Life, and The Sims. In fact, Jones states that “early experiments in machinima […] were a purely fan phenomenon, pre-dating avant-garde video artists’ uses of the form by nearly a decade.” With the rise of the Internet was the rise of game culture, formulated by its fan base. Machinima especially boomed because it was widely accessible and fairly cheap to produce. The virtual worlds and spaces are already provided; all you need to do was capture the space with screen capturing systems, or make your own adjustments and/or additions to the world. You do not need to buy or carry any filming equipment, only need to complete a shot with the click of a mouse or a tap on the keyboard.

As machinima stands now, it is no longer a professional task in the sense of pure digital coding, but also creative one in the sense of entertainment content. In Enough of a World, Ian Jones presents three “strains” of machinima:

    1. The critical ironic strain, which wields the footage it steals with a sense of smug superiority, or at least a very keen eye for weirdness, often directed in service of cultural critique.
    2. The poetic strain,which promotes mystery over mastery, reveling in surreal ambiguities rather than being content landing blows against the triteness of consumer culture.
    3. Both of these strains, however, have an oft-unspoken relation to a third strain of found footage work: those practices that emerge from fan culture, including contemporary forms such as the YouTube “supercut.”

As machinima entered into the mainstream, it gave rise to the Machinima Film Festivals from 2002 to 2008, and also held nominations  and wins in the Emmy Awards, Sundance Film Festival, and New Media Film Festival. Furthermore, Machinima best reflects the changing nature of machinima over the years in terms of the third strain when just last year in 2016, Warner Bros. Digital Networks group bought Machinima for under $100 million. This move suggests that machinima is shifting towards entertainment, and is no longer its initial identity as of the 1990s or even the 2000s. Is machinima still machinima in its own sense, or do we allow its identity to branch out into so many different fields and still remain as “machinima”?

I am both fascinated and perturbed by machinima’s ever-changing identity. What defines machinima as still inherently digital code (technological science), and how has it evolved beyond its cinematic properties (new media)? This is the question I explore through the making of my own machinima, as I simultaneously experiment with Jones’ first two strains.

A Note on Technology and Entertainment as Fashion

By searching through Youtube and other commercial game platforms, I discovered that machinima today is not as “popular” as it used to be, in that it is no longer considered a novel art form. I see that people still make machinima, but it is no longer in the mainstream. It was considered novel in the 1990s not because cinema was anything new back then, but because game replay was a technological innovation and breakthrough for gaming, and became especially important for gamers. In our current technological state for gaming as a part of entertainment, or entertainment in general, I see the explosive popularity of live recordings. We must remember that machinima originated as recordings, or documents of something that did once happen in the game world. But, people nowadays are more interested in seeing things happen in the very moment it happens, hence the growing live streaming platform Twitch, the addition of live streaming on YouTube, the additional live video function on Facebook, and even the transition of to live stream capture practices via Twitch and YouTube. All of these media companies are gearing towards popular consumption. And as technology is becoming more interactive than ever, whatever is fresh and new on social media sets the fashion of the technological age.