Machinima and This Spartan Life

Through the years, from Mario to Halo, game engines have evidently improved and become better understood. Inevitably, with this increased understanding comes a more nuanced appreciation and desire of manipulation for the games at hand. So-called mastery of a game can be seen in a variety of ways; be it skill, knowledge, efficiency, some combination of these, and/or others. In “Real-Time Performance: Machinima and Game Studies,” Henry Lowood introduces and elucidates some of these concepts. ‘Machinima,’ a portmanteau—blend, if you rather—of ‘machine’ and ‘cinema,’ is defined by Paul Marino as “visual narratives “created by recording events and performances (film-making) with artistically created characters moved over time (animation) within an adjustable virtual environment (3D game technology platform or engine).” Simplified, it is the use and manipulation of game software for the purpose of creating an animated movie, or something of the sort. What’s incredible is that the same software used to develop and play video games can now be utilized in the creation of cinematic narratives. As Lowood begins his article, “In computer and video games, the player resides at the interface of view and actor.” We are more than just a consumer or viewer; we are inherent to the unique experiences in themselves. With the continued advancement of machinima and other forms of created content, we—the gamer, the artist—have never had this much influence and control.

“This Spartan Life” is not only a great example of machinima as an innovative concept, but of how it can extend past the reach of the original game itself. Functioning as a talk show, it is produced and directed by Chris Burke who simultaneously hosts under the pseudonym Damian Lacedaemion (a throwback to Sparta’s other name, Lacedaemon). The show records video and audio from a multiplayer Xbox Live session of the popular first-person shooter Halo 2, and more recently, Halo 3. Each 30 minute episode is divided into five or six modules (think chapters), that offer entertainment in different forms; so they view can pick what they prefer, and do not have to sit through what they do not. Like with television talk shows, there are consistent segments from episode to episode, as well as bits that are unique to that episode. Damian begins every show with a monologue introducing the episode ahead, ending with a comedy bit. Similar, in a way, to how Ellen DeGeneres starts each episode of ‘ellen’ with a monologue, who then proceeds to dance through the audience and then curiously dance-straddles the common talk show table, before taking her seat. Yet, whereas Ellen’s purpose is purely entertainment, Burke attempts the same whilst utilizing Damian as a conductor for a higher level of discourse. Damian will interview different people each episode for a conversation on an important subject matter. For episode 7 Tiffiniy Cheng was the guest, who was an organizer of the very effective and paramount anti-SOPA internet blackout. While they discuss this subject which is indeed of an elevated nature—intellectually speaking—the avatars they control are running around, jumping off cliffs, and getting hit by rockets that cause explosions. Some may find that distracting, and be unable to focus and retain the important information being provided. I think that is totally fair. Personally, I found it enhanced the segment as a whole. The explosions, the interludes of comedy, the video game visuals inherently captivating; all helped me to stay engaged on the material at hand, and I think I learnt more about SOPA during those 14 minutes than I had known previously. There is a common ground inherently allowed by providing video game sounds and effects; in that, in the way that games can invite and swallow the gamer into their world, “This Spartan Life” and other machinima do the same while simultaneously altering the virtual world as we know it. After all, as Damian ends the episode, “And remember, it’s only a game.”

Works cited:

Lowood, Henry. “Real-Time Performance: Machinima and Game Studies.” iDMAa Journal. 2.1 (2013)

“This Spartan Life: Episode 7”

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