Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 18, 2008

video games, performance, machinima.

At the risk of sounding like the sort of disciplinary colonizer that Markku Eskelinen so despises, there are some tantalizing clear resonances between video games and theatre–or at least I find the pairing compelling. Both take place within a sort of virtual reality that’s designated as other-than-real despite the fact that it requires the operation by actual bodies. Too, there’s an interesting relationship between avatars and gamers that, at least in some ways, mirrors an actor-character relationship (at least a conventional Western one): both can be seen as a sort of hybrid, provisional unit, a liminal figure composed of a corporeal self briefly lending her or his subjectivity to a shell, a subject temporarily inhabiting an object.

Of course, there are some clear differences, too. In gameworlds, the usual distinction between audience and actor is less clear; the gamer is both observer and actor, and any position involves spectatorship and participation. And though I believe that to be true of theatre, too–even in the most conventional performances, theatre audiences are more justly figured as participants than entirely passive spectators–the game model provides a particularly interesting and complex site to investigate action, agency and spectatorship, and the effects of either/both on narrative and drama.

We can often appreciate a sort of inverse proportionality between stable narrative and unrehearsed or randomized participation/interactivity. As Henry Lowood writes, quoting media artist Randall Packer, “computer games occupy a salient position in accepting the role of the player as co-producer of content:

‘While theater begins with the notion of the suspension of disbelief, interactive art picks up where theater (and film) leave off with branching, user-driven non-linear narrative. The letting go of authorial control has been the big dilemma of interactive works as an art and/or entertainment medium, games being the exception.’” (High-Performance Play: The Making of Machinima)

Although it may be dramatic or involve a kind of narrative-like trajectory, a random sample from World of Warcraft play probably doesn’t make a particularly good story or coherent drama.

Still, though, it seems impossible to divorce drama and narrative from games altogether. Lowood traces an genealogy of machinima, animated “movies” created with “footage” captured in-game, that begins with players’ desires to reference past achievements or analyze recorded play. Much of today’s machinima is a far cry from the replays, demos and cut scenes that presaged the genre: recent works include full length movies and recurring, TV-like episodics.

I’ll be talking about machinima tomorrow, both in my small presentation and about the project Jonathan and I are doing for the course. I haven’t yet settled on a work to focus on for Tuesday, but the sorts of ideas that interest me in this context involve games as complex sites of authoring and spectating, and a certain type of explicitly creative consumption. More to come.

Blog at