Understanding Machinima


By Henry Lowood

Machinima is a born-digital, adolescent medium. It is reasonable to affirm that the birth occurred in 1996 with the Rangers’s Quake (1996) movie, Diary of a Camper (1996), which means that the sixteenth birthday occurred this year. Paraphrasing the Stray Cats’ cover for the John Hughes’s film of the same name, “sixteen candles” make a lovely occasion for intensifying critical attention to this emerging medium in both retrospective and prognosticative modes. Indeed, the publication of Understanding Machinima adds to the growing scholarly literature on machinima, which includes recent publications such as The Machinima Reader (Lowood 2011) and the special issue of the Journal of Visual Culture (Rojo 2011) devoted to machinima.

My own perspective on machinima has been academic, historical and curatorial. I write about machinima, rather than making a lot of it, with a focus first on its history as a found technology developed almost entirely by its users (players and artists). Secondly, I have tried to identify the qualities of digital games and their players that create media for player expression. Players have made machinima alongside related activities such as high-performance play and participation in player cultures. A common element of these activities that has consistently fascinated me is that players find ways to extend a library of narrative elements of games and exploit technologies worked out of games to produce all kinds of game-based media artifacts, of which replays and machinima works are only two examples. This combination of technical mastery, high-level play, and performance is what I have called high-performance play in my writing about the early history of machinima. These activities – whether consciously or not – imply noteworthy modes of media capture, production, and preservation. It was thus almost the proverbial “no-brainer” to supplement my writing with curatorial activities such as the Machinima Archive and the Archiving Virtual Worlds collection, or the creation of “Game Capture: Archives of Multiplayer Game Worlds” for the Game-On exhibition at the Australian Center for the Moving Image in 2008. Put another way, I felt it was my duty to archivally capture activities based on gameplay capture.

I bring up these various activities to highlight one of the reasons that machinima is important. By virtue of its very nature, machinima compels attention to techniques of preservation of an interactive, performance-based digital medium. Why? The reason is that machinima is itself a “capture-based” medium. Whether made by players working from the inside out or by artists working from the outside in, the practice of machinima making has been heavily dependent on the deployment, discovery or creation of assets found in a game or virtual world, involving or followed by processes of extraction, capture, modification, compositing, editing and encoding that result in the creation of a new media object. Perhaps it is just me, but this relationship of machinima-making to the stuff found and things done in a virtual space offers new ways of thinking about historical, archival and preservation work pertaining to these same virtual environments and what people do in them. The methods of machinima, ranging from demo and replay production to P.O.V. video capture and then to asset capture and editing all can be repurposed with the intention of documenting virtual and game worlds. This potential is evidenced by projects such as Phil “Overman” Rice’s Thresh v. Billox demos; Douglas Gayeton’s Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator (originally titled My Second Life: The video diaries of Molotov Alva (2007)); Bernhard “Draxtor Despres” Drax’s reportage journalism in Second Life; or the Nogg-aholics’ efforts to document and preserve inaccessible spaces in World of Warcraft (2004), to name but a few historical examples. Performance theorists and historians have noticed. Gabriella Giannachi, for example, applied techniques inspired by game replays and machinima camera placement to her documentation efforts for Blast Theory’s mixed-reality work, Rider Spoke (2007), at Ars Electronica in 2009. So, it is clear to me that one reason why critical and historical studies of machinima are important is that they provide fertile ideas for other areas of work on new digital media and performance documentation.

Of course, there is a provocative side to any questioning of the importance of machinima, and by implication, the study of it. I suppose that the immediate negative answer to this question is to focus on the limitations of this form of expression – as a niche medium, as insider culture glorifying specific games, as a ragged performance platform, or as a medium deprived of narrative potential by its dependence on game experiences. Even if I accepted these objections – and I do not – there would remain a core possibility in machinima that would make the effort to understand it worthwhile. I shall describe this possibility as The Puppet Theater of the 21st Century. I do not mean the puppet theater as a specific entertainment but, rather, a line of thinking that was opened up by Heinrich von Kleist’s magnificent essay, “Über das Marionnettentheater” (1810) and continues today through proposals such as Jaron Lanier’s notion of “homuncular flexibility.” (2006) The basic idea connecting these writings is that machines give us visions of performance that are not just beautiful or even graceful but that are also, and just as importantly, not available to human performers. Human beings are restricted physically by the limits of our bodies and hindered by the constraints of consciousness and self-awareness. The intriguing idea here is that perhaps human performance can be enhanced if they can learn to work with machines. In Kleist’s essay, one of the interlocutors suggests “in no uncertain terms that any dancer who wished to improve his art might learn all sorts of things” from marionettes. Lanier some 200 years later has suggested that his work with virtual reality offered another path to a similar result, since “it turned out that people could quickly learn to inhabit strange and different bodies and still interact with the virtual world.” (np) This is where I believe that machinima might come into the picture as a platform for mediated performance. Of course, it is not uncommon for machinima makers to refer to their process as a form of virtual puppeteering or in similar terms. I am suggesting that this way of explaining machinima is more than a metaphor for explaining how it is made; rather, it goes to the heart of what makes machinima a unique and intriguing medium. It is human beings learning how to perform with virtual machines and game engines.

Machinima has been appreciated in many ways, whether as an unexpected outcome of game technology, as an economical and accessible alternative to frame-based animation or, following Henry Jenkins (2011), as a form of DIY media. Through its childhood, machinima has been characterized in terms of unanticipated innovation, subversion, modification, and hacking, as well as ideas about new narratives, forms of production, spectatorship, media consumption and fan communities. In other words, machinima offers plenty of opportunities for taking positions about the promise and potential of a new media format. As machinima moves through its adolescence into young adulthood, its many parents, students, and teachers look forward to the next sixteen years of innovation and creativity. On the cusp of this transition, the essays in this volume bear witness to the fruitful ways in which the effort to understand machinima as a maturing media form delivers the goods for critical studies of new media.


Giannachi, Gabriella, Duncan Rowland, Steve Benford, Jonathan Foster, Matt Adams and Alan Chamberlain. 2010. “Blast Theory’s Rider Spoke, its Documentation and the Making of its Replay Archive.” Contemporary Theatre Review 20(3): 353-367.

Giannachi, Gabriella, Henry Lowood, Glen Worthey, Dominic Price, Duncan Rowland and Steve Benford. 2012. “Documenting mixed reality performance: the case of CloudPad.” Digital Creativity: 1-17. DOI:10.1080/14626268.2012.656274.

von Kleist, Heinrich. 1810. “Über das Marionnettentheater” Berliner Abendblätter (12-15 December). Translated as “The Puppet Theater.” In Selected Writings, 1997, by Heinrich von Kleist, edited and translated David Constantine. Indianapolis: Hackett: 411-416.

Jenkins, Henry. 2011. “DIY Media 2010: Video and Gaming Culture (Part Three).” January 17. Accessed 26 November, 2012. http://henryjenkins.org/2011/01/your_curators_statement_sets_u.html

Lanier, Jaron. 2006. “Homuncular Flexibility.” Edge: The World Question Center. Accessed November 26, 2012. http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_7.html.

Lowood, Henry and Michael Nitsche (eds). 2011. The Machinima Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Rojo, Susan, Matteo Bittanti and Henry Lowood. 2011. Special issue on machinima in Journal of Visual Culture. 10(1).


Diary of a Camper. 1996. United Ranger Films.

My Second Life: The video diaries of Molotov Alva. 2007. Douglas Gayeton.


Sixteen Candles. 1984. Dir. John Hughes. USA.

Art and performances

Rider Spoke. 2007. Game play and technology. Blast Theory.


Quake. 1996. id Software.

World of Warcraft. 2004. Blizzard Entertainment.


Stray Cats. 1984. Sixteen Candles by The Crests, Sixteen Candles, MCA Records.