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discovering games as expressive media

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    FreePixel looks at video games as part of the moving image culture. Games are not movies. But games use moving image tradition in their presentation. That is why FreePixel offers a critical look at games and their expressive qualities that grow from the use of the moving image.


    [April 5th, 2012]

    What is machinima about?

    Posted by Michael

    It took a long while to come back to the blog. I was busy doing more physical computing things over here. However, I am not completely gone, yet. Recently, I was asked to write a short piece on machinima for a book and when I was thinking about a useful question the “what is machinima about?” stuck somehow with me.

    First of all, this is obviously an unfair question to ask. It is impossible to reduce any animation technique to a single “topic” or “message.” But as machinima has such a hard time to leave the gaming community, one might wonder whether this is really the confines it is restricted to.

    Mike Munson’s The Tyrant helps to clarify the question.

    The challenge is that there is a tendency in machinima to “not grow up” and remain in a state of “arrested development” as Katie Salen would say. With the exception of The French Democracy, very few machinima pieces have stepped beyond the dedicated community and into the wider audience field of regular film and TV viewers. There are obvious exceptions – but to my best knowledge this is true for political or socially critical machinima. Not that The French Democracy is the only political machinima, but it is the only one that ever generated mass appeal.

    So the question is whether machinima is bound to remain in the corner of games and gaming culture forever.

    But is this the fault of machinima?

    This is where I return to The Tyrant, which – in my humble opinion – does a great job in applying machinima techniques to present a political message. But how is one supposed to understand the critique of Munson’s The Tyrant, when he lip-synchs George W. Bush’s voice to a re-skinned version of the Half Life character of the G-man and presents him as commanding the oppressive force of the Combine, the antagonistic force in the video game Half Life 2? The body of the character is that of video gaming’s biggest dubious antagonists, the texture on its face that of the former American president, the voice a mashup of Bush sound bytes, as he directs the evil forces of a fictional oppressive police state to shoot down virtual civilians, and the music underlying the scene stems from a separate horror video game (Silent Hill). For a player, who has encountered many of these elements and figures as central to one’s long hours spent on playing this particular video game, these references work both as a metaphor and as technological implementation – whether one agrees with the political statement or not. They recognize the machinima specific argument of Munson’s critique through their experience in gaming. For someone unfamiliar with this cultural artifact, it remains a visual effect that lacks the crucial extra level.

    Neither games nor machinima are apolitical. Half Life 2 is not a value free work of fiction but contains all kinds of elements of a social parable. However, the ways games and machinima communicate their messages are not always accessible to all audiences. Insofar, machinima’s ties to games is not a limitation for their content but a sign for the specific quality that distinguishes them from other animation formats. Machinima has own codes, it seems, but few can read them.

    The question is whether the ways we communicate these messages (e.g. through re-skinning in this case) ever become as understandable as other visual cues (e.g. cinematic traditions like the reaction shot or three point lighting) – not whether machinima will ever grow up and away from such specific positions.

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