MEDIUM DIFFERENCES–ACTIVE PLAY OR PASSIVE SPECTATORSHIP?
RJ: I don’t want to say that machinima is better, but I do want to say that it certainly places more power over the medium in the fan’s hands than television. Essentially it comes down to tool sets. All these communities converge together on their need to tell stories, I’m not questioning that whatsoever. I’m simply suggesting that machinima requires a reexamination based on its tool sets that are made available to consumers exceeding previous media forms.
As to the transformative play of fan vids, I would absolutely agree that is what’s going on. Because at its basic level, transformative play is about playing by your own set of rules, thus permeating the magic circle. If we understand the traditional role of the viewer as one of passive consumption, fan communities flip that on its head and actively play with the medium (the whole poaching thing). I guess my point about the fundamental difference between video games and film/TV was that the nature of these two are quite different. I can easily see how machinima manifests out of video game culture because it is one rooted in the interactive playing with the text. In that sense, machinima is just a continuation of play, reconfiguring the the magic circle. Fan vids on the other hand, have no direct connection to the relationship to the medium. We were supposed to JUST watch and enjoy. The people in Hollywood didn’t foresee us really going beyond that, which is so very different from game design.
LS: On the point of film/TV as a passive medium I would definitely differ. Film and TV has had a long and bumpy road of imagining a spectator who is sometimes passive, sometimes active. To draw on Tom Gunning, the cinema of attractions certainly encouraged an active viewer, and while the development of the narrative code may have sent that active stance underground to some degree, it has never left cinema entirely–it has remained in the notion of engaging in the act of cinema going and the community of the audience, or in the confrontation of alternative cinema, or in the spectacle of big budget special effects films. This is even more so the case with TV; throughout its history people have been heralding the coming of interactive television, and images or sounds of studio audiences always highlighted audience engagement as somewhere in between passively watching and actively participating. Yes, how one could participate was limited, and perhaps doesn’t compare to video games (I certainly don’t mean to argue that the two are the same.)
This is just a long winded way of saying that film and television audiences have never been posited as strictly passive. But the active television viewer is now a highly contested subject, sought by some producers/networks and avoided by others, it seems. However the increasing cooptation of fannish culture (as we can see in shows on NBC, FX, Nickelodeon/The N, and The CW in the current moment, to name a few) suggests that TV producers and networks are not only soliciting active viewership but offering opportunities to supposedly influence the official source text itself. But, as Kristina Busse has discussed, this desire to go “pro” is not something that fan communities necessarily share equally, and is itself a contested and gendered issue.
RJ: I find this part particularly fascinating because I can fully see how this all plays out like a game for fans. I would just be cautious to clearify what we’re talking about. The explanation of the video game as an interactive medium versus TV as a more passive medium was based solely on the medium, which has a prescribed way to engage it. What you’re getting at here is what people do with that medium. In this instance, I would define that as a form of play, utilizing the TV medium. So the medium itself in this case does not take on the interactive or active qualities I want to reserve for games. However, that may be an unnecessary point to squabble over. The more important point to take from this, and a possible place where these two come together, is that there exists this need to “tinker” across gender.
LS: Yes, absolutely–but is the tinkering with the same purpose and to the same effect? I think that would be a fascinating question to explore more closely, looking at a comparison of machinima and vidding processes and texts.
RJ: I’ve always claimed that the engaging power of video games lies in the control it offers its audience. Fan vids represent a similar appetite for control over the narrative. Perhaps eagerly anticipating the next episode of a show only so that you can then take that content and use it as part of your own storytelling is no different than awaiting the next game engine to see what you can do with it. Both would constitute active engagements of play, the latter just happens to adhere to the relationship established from the outset by the medium. This is why the legal issues that often plague fan vids in the realm of IP suits has yet to really manifest in the machinima communities. Whereas TV and Film industries still cling to the need to control their properties, game developers have recognized the tremendous marketing potential that machinima offers (as indicated by the inclusion of machinima tool sets and filmmaking competitions just in the The Sims 2). The fact that they have not gone so far outside of the role that medium traditionally plays could be part of the explanation for this.
LS: I can see how the role imagined by the medium for the player/viewer might determine acceptable levels of interactivity, and how this separates TV/Film from video games–up to a point. But when TV and Film producers start to actively court fan involvement and fan authorship (which granted happens only marginally now but it does happen) this dichotomy gets muddier.
GENDER AND SCHOLARSHIP
RJ: Just trying to step back from all this, I can see that we both seem to come at this from a place that is close to us. Part of my argument seems to be privileging technology because I grew up as a technophile, playing games my whole life. And with your background in cinema I can see where your emphasis on narrative regardless of tool sets comes from.
LS: I wouldn’t say I would emphasize narrative regardless of tools–I think understanding rather than ignoring the role of technology and interface is absolutely crucial–but I do think it’s equally vital to understand the impact of those tools within the context of their cultural and social use.
RJ:So is the answer to this whole endeavor Jenkins is putting together just that simple? Men will continue researching video games because they spend more time there? And women will stick to fan vids and fan fiction based on TV because that’s where they spend their time?
LS: I think that gendered spaces and familiarity may definitely be a significant part of this divide we’re all noticing, combined with the gendered academic priorities that have shaped and continue to shape fan studies, as Jason and Karen discussed in their conversation this past week.
RJ: The shifting numbers I cite in my piece on the growing numbers of female gamers hopefully points towards a sea change that will take place. The Wii and the explosion of the casual gamer market are certainly good indications. This is where I can’t help but think that Jenkins was onto something about gendered play spaces. Even in 2007 women spend more time online, yet still pursue computer science degrees in far less numbers. This is certainly part of the master narrative young women are given as to their roles in technology. Some of the fan communities that you and Kristina write about point towards a change in direction in that, but there’s still a long way to go I think.
LS: Yes, but there are histories of women actively engaging with technologies that need to be written also… It’s not just all in the future. From the evolving history of vidding to the female modding and authorship surround The Sims 1 (pre- the more accessible storytelling tools). Yes, there are changes in the works, but the same gendered discourses that may overall shape how women perceive their own relationship with technology also shape what fan histories get told, recorded, and listened to.
WRAPPING UP ON INTERFACE, PRODUCTION VALUE, PLAY, AND ENGAGEMENT
RJ: To return to your earlier comments on interface: this is one of the areas that I feel really helps to understand machinima. One thing I have not mentioned about machinima as an area of fandom is that in many cases it does not function the same way I understand other fandoms. When the guys at Roosterteeth decided to use Halo and create the Red vs. Blue, that was clearly a traditional fannish endeavor because they spent all their time previously playing the game. However, as trained filmmakers the ability to make films from games seemed to supersede their love of Halo– because they proceeded to migrate to other games like The Sims 2 and F.E.A.R. I don’t want to say that they were not fans of these games, but I would say that for them and many other machinimators, the choice of game engine often depends on the power of that engine and what it can do.
LS: This notion of choosing a game engine depending on what the engine can do actually doesn’t sound that different from much of fan authorship practice. Once they are already paricipants in fandom, fans often seek out texts that will give them the elements to create a fantext of the sort that gives them pleasure/matches values already circulating within the fan community. Within the larger fan communities, you can see shifts as individuals and groups realize that a certain program or film has the elements they would look for–that reflect the values and goals of their fan engagement. And so we see large growth in fandoms like Supernatural which match well with fannish focus on masculinity, seriality, and the familial. Granted I’m talking about thematic content and narrative form (not to mention aesthetic quality as fans–and especially vidders–choose programs that offer rich visuals). This type of choosing of source text may be somewhat different from a machinima author choosing a game engine based on what it can do, but I’m not sure that difference is a radical one.
RJ: The Sims 2 offers a powerful 3D engine, but manipulation of that engine is limited due to the way the interface makes it so accessible (similar to how Mac makes useful interfaces that don’t really allow you to “get under the hood”). One of the residual effects of that has been the development of software tools used to work with TS2 to allow more control over design. I checked out one of the main sites for these tools and had trouble identifying many women as the creators of these tools.
There are many women participating in these sites, creating meshes and skins to customize their Sims, but the tools to do these things still seem to be something men are creating, which is part of the problem that I see with all this. Values are such an integral part of any design, and as long as men continue to design most games and most tools, they will continue to privilege those male values. I don’t want to discount Sadie Plant’s warning that we should not overlook that the history of technology DOES have women in key roles throughout its history; however, I would much rather see them in greater number both now and in the future. The hurdle that seems to stand tall against that, in my opinion, is the cultural discourses that engender a certain relationship to technology. For as many women how have tried creating machinima in TS2 and said “these tools are really limiting, I’m going to hack the code and create my own” I have to say they are far fewer than the many who felt the same way but did a google search to find a tool that does something similar to what they want to do.
This has nothing to do with intelligence or aptitude, but instead with power and permission. Modding breaks the rules, just as hacking. And by extension, so does machinima. Through a myriad of patriarchal structures, men/boys have been given greater liberties to play than women/girls. And since our relationship to technology has always been one of playing and tinkering, it makes sense why the power in that field would be so slanted toward males. The growing presence of women in machinima hopefully points this in the right direction, but until that presence manifests in the design side of the tools used to construct machinima there will always exist a substantive imbalance.
LS: Yes, there may be less women modding or hacking than men, and yes, this likely has to do with the gendered cultures that encourage or discourage technological expertise of different sorts. And of course it’s a necessary goal to change these patterns–to see more women getting advanced degrees in technology related fields and shaping the values that then emerge.
However, we can’t simply dismiss the female authorship that is occurring now because it’s not modding or hacking, nor can we devalue it because it doesn’t change larger official (commercial) systems. I would argue that fan investment and authorship is precisely about working within, through, and against external official structures. Media fan pleasure–at least of the female community sort –derives from an interplay with already existing realities. A fan wouldn’t want to change the original source text, but rather to render it in her own image and the image of her community through other tools which may offer their on sets of restrictions to creativity. Many fans argue that this type of creativity within restriction (for example the exploration of an already existing character rather than an original character) is more challenging (and thus for the fan more pleasurable) than starting with a blank canvas. I feel like you’re holding up a set of values to fannish authorship that doesn’t match up neatly with the goals, values, and investments of those creative communities.
RJ: Going back to production values, I wonder now if there may be a gender divide along those lines as well. When you talked about the use of Final Fantasy to simply tell a love story in contrast to producing a high production value work, I thought of the number of Sims videos I watched when doing that content analysis of the Sims movies sites. So many of them were completely unapologetic about not being perfect in editing and/or sound, which sounds like what you are getting at. In contrast, a site like machinima.com has such a greater number of men producing machinima and it has a similar feel to gaming forums where the hyper-competitive nature that derives from games sometimes manifests in talking about each others work. Can you think of a similar occurrence outside of machinima? In any of the communities you participate in. There could be something to that.
LS: There are some communities that indeed have a different set of production values and goals, and thus we can’t measure them against more “professional” (again I am hesitant to simply equate this with masculine) aesthetic systems. However–and perhaps I didn’t make this clear enough–there are also vidding communities which are very invested in what we would recognize as “high quality” production values–that is values rooted in professional/official aesthetic and editing codes (and we might or might not want to call these out as masculine codes…) What I’m trying to stress, then, is that there are multiple, shifting vidding communities with differing value systems, and these value systems are always in process and often influence each other.
For example, in the vidding-centered fan community, in which vidding itself is the object as well as the product of fandom, one could argue that vidders assess a vid’s success based at least partially on production values that we might associate with “professional” skill–detailed attention to rhythmic editing, matching motion with aural track, to name two central values that have emerged in vidding fandom over the past decade or more.
In contrast, other vidders with different aesthetic value sets are currently becoming more visible. Some of these vidders use elements of available interface in ways which may seem unorthodox in comparison to recognized vid aesthetics. However, these vids are becoming more and more visible and the aesthetics they offer do indeed seem to be gaining wider recognition within a range of vidding communities. I’ve gotten permission to link to a vid that, in its exploration of fan investment in the media text, offers a different vision of what a vid can be–or at least different than that outlined and familiar to media scholars from Textual Poachers. It’s absolutely worth checking out: Us.
While I personally love this vid and everything it achieves, I don’t mean to hold it up as a “good” vid as opposed to the romantic machinima slash vids I mentioned before or in comparison to the vid aesthetic that predominates in the vidding-centered fan community. These different vids all emerge out of different fan and authorship communities with different sets of aesthetic and thematic concerns and contexts. I would link to examples of all three, but the issue of bringing publicity to vids and vidding is still a highly contested one (and certainly we could talk about issues of gender here as well), and I don’t want to bring exposure to vidding communities or artists that may not want that type of attention.
RJ: The more we talk about this, I wonder how far apart the endeavors of machinima and vidding really are. The divide seems to fall along the relationship to the source text. Your point about the fans seeing the source text as a starting point for a multi-layered fan text across media seems to relate to the thing I said earlier about how machinimators understand their relationship to the source text. Often it is based on the engine’s power and usability, not a previous affinity for the story or characters. Or it can be something as simple as I want do a drama and don’t want people laughing because my protagonist is dwarf or a robot. So I choose TS2, not because I love the game, but because that tool allows me to do things other tools do not. In this instance, the notion of a multi-layer build off a source text collapses into an entirely new text that is only aesthetically derivative. And when you look at the work of Friedrick Kirschner and how he takes a powerful game engine like Unreal Tournament 2004 and completely strips away any semblance of the previous game, the notion of fandom for the game no longer applies.
LS: Not only does the notion of fandom for the game cease to apply–but what about the question of play? When fans create texts–be they fic, vids, Sims still-image and text storytelling, or fannish machinima–they offer their creations as part of the larger, ongoing play with the source text. So I’m actually finding myself wanting to flip on its head your initial framework that suggests that videogame machinima authorship is more active than media fan authorship; media fan authorship is simultaneously invested in the creation of and circulation of aesthetic texts and in the ongoing and ever-evolving group play of the fan community experience, perhaps (dare I say) more so than the mostly-male-authored machinima texts you’re describing.
RJ: Though the fandom for the game may be stripped away in Kirshner’s work, the element of play is very much alive. It simply lies within playing with the technology and what it can do rather than the narrative. He has subsequently developed a toolset that aims at making the creation of machinima with the Unreal engine more user friendly. And I’m not sure I ever claimed that machinima authorship is more active than media fan authorship (in fact I thought I suggested they were both forms of transformative play). Machinima offers more control to fans over the medium than Film or TV, which could lead to more control over the preexisting narratives or as in the case of Kirshner greater control over completely original storytelling. Again, the divide seems to fall along narrative and technology.
LS: I find myself frustrated that we seem to be trapped in this (gendered) world of dichotomization, where we’re seeking to differentiate rather than understand the complex gradations that make up media engagement. Of course gender shapes technological comfort-levels, media engagement, and all realms of our experience. There’s no escaping that–but I feel that one tangible way to change it would be to fully explore worlds outside of our sandboxes without necessarily labeling them as “similar” or “different” right off the bat. I feel this is something that we as media scholars can do. And ironically, maybe such a goal is somewhat impeded by our fan investments–our strong feelings, as you point out–but I think it’s something very worth striving for.
Louisa Ellen Stein is an assistant professor of Television, Film, and New Media at San
Diego State University. Her research explores viewer and participant engagement with
contemporary media culture, including film, television, the Internet and videogames. She
is co-editor of the forthcoming collection Watching Teen TV: Text and Subtext, and is also co-authoring a study of fan textual creativity in new media, with the working title
New Media and Fan Artifacts.
Robert Jones is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Culture & Communication,
NYU. His PhD work focuses on machinima and mods as instances of transformative play
within video game culture. He is also interested in digital cinema as participatory
culture, Hollywood’s convergence with the gaming industry, and the social and political
implications of video games.