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A Pedegogy of Craft: Teaching culture analysis with machinima
Umeå University, Faculty of Arts, Humlab.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-3257-7328
University of York.
2013 (English)In: Understanding Machinima: Essays on Filmmaking in virtual worlds / [ed] Jenna Ng, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, First, 227-244 p.Chapter in book (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Machinima films are commonly associated with various other media forms such as games, television, cinema, theatre and music videos. Sprung from gameplay, machinima originated as gaming “demos” – data logs which can be played back on a game engine to re-live past events in a game world, typically used to re-play gamers’ high jinks or record performances (Lowood 2005; Lowood 2006; Nitsche 2007) – in a process already cinematic in its Lumiére Brothers-esque recording of game reality (Burke 2012). Such “high-performance play” (Lowood 2005, 11) morphed into narrative cinema with The Rangers’s hacking of Quake (id Games 1994) to make Diary of a Camper in October 1996 (Lowood 2006), as the gamers appropriated the game’s camera perspective (from FPS to an independent viewpoint), edited disparate shots and formulated visual narrative with its sequences. As machinima evolved, other media forms drove its format, language and aesthetics. Well-known machinima such as Red vs Blue and Bill and John, for example, adapt the episodic format of comedy television and rely on theatrical comic timing and voice acting, even to a certain Brechtian absurdism (Avers), for their success. Michael Nitsche directly links machinima with live performance “acted out inside the virtual world and presented in different formats to the audience.” (Nitsche, Film Live) Other scholars see works such as The Edge of Remorse (Hancock and Ingram 362) and Rise of the Living Dead (Pigott 2011) as particularly cinematic. Elements of older media are not only integrated, but are subverted: Jeffrey Bardzell discusses a “resistance stance” in machinima that “seeks to subvert the reality of the game or subordinate it to the vision or meanings that the machinimator seeks to express” (Bardzell 2011, 208).

There is thus already much scholarship in studying machinima with respect to screen media and performance. Yet, one aspect of machinima that has not been discussed as much so far is how machinima is also very much a made object, composed both as a technology and as a thing. In making machinima, game technologies are modified, subverted, adapted, even re-created.[i] However, that form of making is merely one part of the story – creating machinima also involves drawing up and building virtual objects, creating and dressing avatars (often with custom-made clothes, accessories and skins), designing or selecting sets, writing scripts and recording acting voices. In that respect, machinima is also a thing – an object – constructed through a series of processes and fashioned with a whole set of skills. This crafting of machinima, in the sense of it being formed as a complex digital artefact, is often overshadowed by its more dominating importance of it being a media object. We propose that prioritizing process over object not only presents an alternative perspective to understanding machinima, but also deflects attention onto the contingency of media and, by extension, new methods of making and extracting meaning. As Nicholas Thoburn argues, media is transformed as “they enter into new external relations, new ecologies – and traversed by a multiplicity of forces and struggles” (2012, 817). Shifting the theoretical focus to the making of media taps into this fluid placing of media in its flux of relations and ecologies so that we may further understand how the creating of media itself can become a space of political and social transformation.

At first glance, the connection between machinima and craft appears tenuous. As Oliver Morton, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine (Europe), first observed in 1995, computer technologies remove the aspect of “hands-on” making in craftwork. (Dormer 1997, 137) The common notion of craft involves a tangible object – “the thing made by human hands” (Paz) – such as a pottered water jug or a handwoven basket, invoking sensuality, physicality, and the organic. Craft also implies elements of physical skill, of “cumbersome manual techniques” (Turim, 51) which gives rise to a slow, tactile and responsive process of creation. Images from Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for example, depict craftsmen hunched at large tables, bent over their tools in workshop-like environments, hands busily working away at unfinished products. On the other hand, machinima, like all digital objects, is fundamentally immaterial. It may be contained in something tangible such as a DVD (indeed, the CD-ROM accompanying Machinima for Dummies contains, among others, some of the authors’ “top ten Machinima films”) or a thumb drive containing a demo file, both of which may, in different ways, provide access to the game movies they store. However, its basic ontology – as a film – is binary code, strings of zeros and ones, which as an artefact or object do not take any humanly recognizable material form. Furthermore, with so many computer processes in the making of machinima – moving avatars, recording onscreen captures, editing digitally, uploading and distributing online – there appears to be little “hands-on” making, save for perhaps the prodigious controlling of a computer mouse. How, then, might machinima be seen as craftwork?

Yet, we see this linkage as an important one. The connection between making and understanding is a close and well-known one, whereby it is acknowledged that we often understand something best by actually making it. Machinima as craft thus formulates also a means to the learning of knowledge and skills. As we will argue, the process of making imparts valuable skills and places learning in different frameworks, re-formulating concepts and ideas so as to make them more memorable and allowing for more effective analysis. In a wider scale, machinima thus also offers pedagogy the possibility of making – and learning – in numerous media contexts, such as film, music video, theatre, design, architecture and performance, and in relatively cheap and efficient ways, without the need for costly equipment, such as physical cameras, or complicated logistics of onset filming and recording.

This chapter proceeds as follows. We first discuss how machinima may be deemed to be craft through canvassing its definition, before examining the characteristics of making machinima and comparing them to those for traditional craftwork. The next section explicates the connection between craft and teaching, primarily as it is used in HUMlab, Umeå University. We then describe a case study from the lab which uses precisely those qualities of craft in machinima as a teaching method for a second-year media and culture course, Cultural Analysis. In the process, we also examine these questions: what were the motivations of using the aspect of “making” in machinima as part of the course? How was it done? What did it achieve?

[i] Although this is being increasingly qualified with machinima-specific software such as The Movies and Moviestorm, and with embedded machinima software in games such as Halo.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, First. 227-244 p.
Keyword [en]
Machinima, Digital Studies, Pedagogy, Game Studies, Film Studies
National Category
Literary Composition Other Humanities not elsewhere specified Pedagogy
Research subject
URN: urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-78616ISBN: 978-1-4411-4052-4OAI: diva2:637991
Available from: 2013-07-24 Created: 2013-07-24 Last updated: 2014-01-29Bibliographically approved

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