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Machinima and education

Diane Carr
CSCYM, London Knowledge Lab, IOE, University of London

During machinima production a computer game’s protagonists become actors, its dungeons or domestic interiors become virtual sets, and the player takes the role of director. Creating machinima can be as simple as logging into a game and recording the action as it unfolds in real time. Admittedly, the results of such an ad hoc approach might not be particularly inspiring. What is inspiring, however, is that machinima is this accessible. Programming skills are not a prerequisite. Modest machinima production does not demand a massive investment of time, expensive software or specialist equipment

As with computer games, teachers and practitioners are considering machinima’s relevance to education from a variety of perspectives. Media educators, for instance, look to machinima as a creative, expressive form, with its own requisite skills and associated social and cultural practices. Others working with machinima production in educational contexts focus on the development of new applications, or the evolving relationship of machinima to the film or games industries. Others, meanwhile, are interested in machinima as a teaching tool; one that can be adapted to subject areas ranging from drama or film-making, to management training.

According to ‘Machinima: Making Animated Movies in 3D Virtual Environments’ (Kelland, Morris and Lloyd 2005), the four most common machinima production techniques are: straight recording, the ‘puppetry’ approach, ‘recamming’ and scripting. For the first of these, a game’s characters are left to their own devices and the machinimator simply records their activities. For the puppetry approach, game characters are manipulated to perform actions on cue according to a screenplay, which is recorded in real time for later editing. Recamming builds on the puppet approach, and combines it with re-recording. Additional characters might be added, lighting changed, or cameras moved. Finally, there is the scripted technique. This involves programming the game’s characters to perform in particular and specific ways. Machinimators working with programming and scripting lose the live-action immediacy of the puppetry approach, but gain the capacity to bypass the game interface, to expand a character’s basic repertoire of moves, or precisely plot a virtual camera’s motion through space.

As this brief outline indicates, some machinima techniques call for advanced skills, while others are open to the complete beginner. Games provide a ready-made 3D world to work with, and that is one reason why the form is so accessible. Yet, inevitably, working with a game entails negotiating its particular physics, objects and characterisations. Some machinimators play within these limitations and ‘work around’ the game engine. Others concentrate on the development of tools that will enable them to escape such restrictions. Georgia Institute of Technology’s Michael Nitsche is presently co-editing a scholarly anthology on machinima. I asked him which of these approaches he regarded more highly. He pointed out that, actually, they are often connected: “You can trace a good learning curve between the two. First you battle with the existing engine – then you try to improve it, perhaps by developing a toolset for subsequent productions.”

Andreas Kirchhoff is working with media educators and artists to plan a 'creative gaming festival' in Germany in Autumn 2008. “Machinima is an important topic we want to cover,” Andreas explained. “One of the purposes of the festival is to look at emergent gaming practices in educational contexts. As part of this work, we designed and piloted a machinima workshop for teachers and pupils, which we plan to run at different schools in Hamburg this year.” Andreas argues:

“In linking film culture and gaming culture together, machinima is building bridges especially for older non-gamer-audiences (ie some teachers). The opportunity to create your own narrative content motivates an experimental approach to (or play with) technology, which in turn helps you to understand how games work.”

Machinimators use games from different genres, and inexpensive software such as Fraps to capture the events onscreen. Each game offers different scope for manipulation, as well as distinct locations and particular body types. In many cases, these later elements can be customised during pre-production using either 3D modelling or 2D graphics applications.

Educators working with machinima weigh the advantages posed by different games. Vincent Trundle runs short courses at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image aimed at secondary students (15-18 year-olds). Vincent uses a range of software and hardware, including Halo 2 on a set of networked Xboxes. Vincent finds this set-up effective for “showing how technology can be manipulated for unintended purpose, and for showing how the machinima series Red vs. Blue was made”.

David Cameron is a lecturer at Charles Sturt University (NSW) and practitioner (see an example of his work here) who has published research on education, narrative, drama and machinima (see Carroll and Cameron 2005). When I asked David what games he tends to use and why, he explained that:

“Half-Life is a great 'sandbox' environment because it has evocative and interesting locations, characters and objects to play with. The Sims is a good game for demonstrating some recognisable genres (eg sitcoms) and basic techniques (set design and dressing)… however the Sim actors do have a mind of their own at times. Second Life appeals to my tertiary level students, because they feel more in control of the performance and directorial processes.”

Joseph Farbrook uses machinima to teach film-making and to explore issues of representation, identity and narrative with students. When I asked Joseph about his choice of games, he pointed to a practical advantage posed by Second Life: “If students need to carry out project work outside of class, online worlds make it possible for to meet even though they are in physically remote locations.”

Producers of ‘serious games’ and training materials are also turning to machinima for practical and economic reasons. Anya Andrews, who is based at the Novonics Corporation Training Technology Lab (Florida), produces machinima intended to augment training simulations for the US defence sector. Anya has used the game Half-Life 2 “to create avatars, behaviours, and high-fidelity Navy environments. We can produce editable learning objects at a fraction of traditional audio/video production costs”.

Film and media educators cite similar advantages. Matt Kelland, Creative Director of Short Fuze has been running film-making workshops in schools. Matt argues that machinima offers educators:

“…sets, costumes, stunts and special effects that would be impractical or impossible on a student budget. You can very quickly film a scene many times over, reusing the dialogue and choreography, and see the effect of different styles and techniques. Plus a student can be simultaneously actor, director, writer, cameraman, set designer, lighting engineer, sound engineer, and editor, thus allowing them to appreciate the totality of the film-making process.”

Computer games, graphics and animation software continue to rapidly evolve. Future developments might alter the relationship of games to machinima, or result in new production techniques. Either way, innovative work in the area of machinima and education is already happening, and interest in this creative, adaptable and accessible medium looks set to grow.

References

Machinima channels, tutorials and information about forthcoming festivals and competitions are online at www.machinima.com

Carr, D (2007). Teaching Media and Machinima in Second Life: Interview with Britta Pollmuller. Available at learningfromsocialworlds.wordpress.com/interview-teaching-machinima-at-schome-park/#comment-455

Carroll, J and Cameron, D (2005). Machinima: digital performance and emergent authorship. A workshop presented at DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing Views - Worlds in Play, Vancouver 2005. Available at www.digra.org/dl/db/06276.32151.pdf

Kelland, M, Morris, D and Lloyd, D (2005). Machinima: Making Animated Movies in 3D Virtual Environments. Lewes, East Sussex: The ILEX Press Ltd

Acknowledgements

The author’s research into online worlds, teaching and learning is supported by the Eduserv Foundation. More information is at learningfromsocialworlds.wordpress.com.