Machinima, or films created using video game engines, has existed in some form or another ever since Doom (1992) included the ability for players to record demos of their own games. While these early films were short and usually bereft of narrative, things took a turn in 1996 with the rise of Quake and so called “Quake movies.” From there the genre blossomed, adopting the name machinima to apply to films made in any game engine and producing work as varied as Star Trek fan films made in Elite Force 2 and Rooster’s Teeth’s Red vs. Blue series, made in Halo.
Up until now most machinima were narrative-based, using the game engine as a shortcut to animating and designing an unrelated story. However, filmmaker Gina Hara has made the first in-game documentary series, called: Your Place or Minecraft. The series is an exploration of the people and places of the Concordia University mLab Minecraft server, touching on the often complicated and contradictory power dynamics at play on a server where teachers, students and staff all play together.
The mLab Minecraft server is one of the most modded servers currently operating, thanks to an intensive modpack created by mLab researcher and subject of Episode 2: A Tourist in His Own World, Joachim Despland. “He curated the modpack we use on the server,” says Hara, “carefully making sure that all mods work well together, which can be very finicky, and that the mods themselves create a world that is enjoyable and logical. He did such a fantastic job, every time I play with a different modpack now, I am just disappointed.”
The series is divided into 8 parts, each focusing on a single user of the mLab server. Hara uses her own avatar as her camera, and all of the interviews are conducted in-game.
“I‘ve always like animated documentaries,” says Hara, “like Good Grief by by Fiona Dalwood or Ryan by Chris Landreth and somehow I knew, Your Place Or Minecraft needed to be done like that. It was also interesting to eliminate the need for a camera and crew…[w]hich also allowed me to have a much more intimate conversation with the interviewees, whom I know well and without the camera it was almost like being alone and just playing and chatting, like we often do.”
The interviews are short, usually between 5 - 10 minutes and feature a lot of show and tell, lending the whole thing a sort of “MTV Cribs: Minecraft Edition” vibe. However, Hara also took advantage of the freedom filming in-game gave her.
“I shot everything as my character in the game,” she says, “using my avatar as the camera, and so I could only film things my avatar was capable of doing. When I developed enough to fly or hover the world really opened up. I died several times during filming, because I wanted that perfect shot. I walked into lava, or off a cliff or simply fell out of the sky.”
Populated almost exclusively by people who think critically about games for a living, the way that players interact with each other and with Minecraft is unique. Not to mention the strange dynamics of playing a game with your professor on a Friday night, regardless of whether it’s for an assignment or just as a way to unwind.
“I thought it was so interesting how the students and professors, bosses and employees were all playing together in this game,” says Hara, “where we are all ‘equal.’ but somehow we cannot entirely escape our real lives. Those real life power dynamics, friendships and arguments leaked into the game and our server became, to me, some kind of complex, virtual snapshot of our mini-society. So I had the urge to document it, to actually preserve this world.”
Using a film as a way of capturing this fabricated utopia makes sense, but Hara goes further in her documentary by really focusing on the players and how their lives outside of the game influence what they do (or don’t do) within the game. “[T]he fact that these people are all doing some sort of games research, they are all playing in a self-reflexive, critical way, which is not always a good thing… [T]his can lead to self-censoring, which I have felt as well. There is a line you just don’t cross when you play with your colleagues or your supervisor and sometimes that can be taken advantage of.”
One of my favourite examples of someone reacting against this dynamic is found in Episode 3: The Great Chicken Uprising, where student Gersande La Flèche discusses acts of “eco-terrorism” they committed when working on the assigned Big Fried Chicken project. While originally conceived of by instructor Darren Wershler as a collaborative project, La Flèche chose to rebel when they decided that things were going too smoothly, burning the establishment with lava and then freeing all of the chickens.
While attacking a fictional chicken chain inside a video game can seem pretty trivial, the destruction of common property can be incredibly frustrating, especially when that property may or may not be tied to your grade.
Your Place or Minecraft is available to stream (for free!!) from the official website or on YouTube. There are already plans for a second season of the series, featuring an all new modpack currently being compiled by Despland.