Dichotomies vs. Continuities (on machinima, fan authorship, and gender)

It’s perhaps ironic–now that I think about it, I realize that the paper I was going to give at MiT5 actually would have spoken to the debates that have emerged since the conference. I was going to look at the correlations (and differences) between fanvidding and machinima. Fanvidding is considered both in scholarly circles and among vidders themselves to be primarily a mode of female authorship, emerging out of female reception and authorship communities–not just slash/queer identified communities of course, but certainly many of the more high profile vidders are significant figures in slash fandoms. Machinima on the other hand emerges out of what scholars and video gamers perceive as primarily male spaces of engagement and male modes of interaction–coming out of first person shooter games and a hacking culture that celebrates transforming the system in tandem with creating new texts.

Robert Jones’ essay in _Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet_ offers valuable insight into machinima producers’ value set(s). However, while I am a proponent of being deeply familiar with and really identifying with the values of a community on which one writes (the acafan, scholar/fan, or autoethnographic perspective), one of the resulting pitfalls it that we run the risk of celebrating the values of one (our) community/mode of authorship over others. I feel this happens somewhat in Jones’ essay. In its attempt to delineate the differences between fan fiction and Machinima, the essay seems to set up a hierarchy: it celebrates machinima producers’ ability to change the system and influence future gameplay as being somehow a step beyond the authorship of female fan communities (in the form of fan fiction, art, and vidding.)

I find this delineation of machinima vs. fan fiction creativity somewhat problematic for multiple reasons. First, it upholds the value of transformation, assuming that the highest goal would be for fan authors to become akin to official producers–an assumption that has also underlain some of the scholarship on fanboy authors to which Kristina referred in her earlier post; indeed this is a value which does not necessarily hold true within different reception communities, especially not within fan fiction communities. Second, it assumes that the reading of fan fiction or viewing of fan vids does not fundamentally alter the engagement of viewers returning to a source text having been influenced by the fantext. And finally, I believe it still subtly upholds a dichotomy in which we must assume reception of an official source text through a medium like TV or film to be passive where videogames are active; but of course, engagement with TV and film, even before we enter into the realm of active fandom and fan author, is far from hypodermic needle passivity.

I don’t mean to single out Jones’s essay for critique here–if anything, as the sole male author in a book that stemmed out of the desire to bring together the work of a new generation of (mostly female) acafans, Jones’ essay—and its inclusion in the book—is a step in the right direction. But what we need now is engaged dialogue rather than side by side analyses.

While I certainly don’t want us to brush aside issues of gender and of amateur vs. Professional authorship, I feel we get caught in these dichotomies. In my MiT5-paper-that-wasn’t, I wanted to consider the similarities and differences in the modes of engagement and authorship in fan vidding and machinima. Building on the thesis of Kristina and my current book project, I’m interested in how both vidding and machinima emerge from and value the interplay between creativity and limitation, so that creativity is spurred precisely by the limitations of an original, already existing source text, the limitations of the intervening technologies and interfaces, and the limitations of specific cultural and community expectations. While the values may be different and the histories may be different, the dynamic of creating within limitations runs as a thread through each. And I think that such a perspective offers insight not only for tangible authorship, but perhaps for the very pleasures of fan engagement on a more personal level, and even the processes of spectatorship on a specific basis. That is, I’d venture to suggest that part of viewing pleasure is in our own private interplay between personal interpretation (influenced of course by subjectivity and cultural positioning) and the limitations of the text we’re watching.

What I’m trying to get at here (perhaps in too much of a tangent) is that I think it’s imperative that we break down another dichotomy that I’ve seen referenced in the fan studies vs. media studies part of the post MiT debate–that studying fan authorship is somehow a different beast than studying audience engagement and industrial context. I see them as all part of one complex and shifting whole, and at the least we can learn from each other.

But to return to my more specific Machinima vs. Vidding topic. Francesca Coppa pointed out a valuable critique to my abstract—and I was looking forward to our being able to continue the conversation at MiT. By my drawing attention/turning my focus to the similarities between machinima and vids, one might argue that I am in a sense lending validation to the machinima innovation while not giving due acknowledgment to the long and specific history of fan vidding. I also risk brushing aside gender as a significant factor in the conditions of authorship and reception. I’m thinking here of Tara McPherson’s use of the metaphor of “lenticular logic” to describe how we may celebrate the utopian dimensions of the web at the expense of recognizing the still highly potent social interrelations that determine internet and “real life” experience. Somehow, we need to do both–be aware of the continuing ramifications of social interrelations both in the subjects we study and in our disciplinary and interdisciplinary professional arenas, and yet not rush to dichotomize and ghettoize and miss the interconnections that could transform simultaneous yet separate conversations into multithreaded dialogues.

8 thoughts on “Dichotomies vs. Continuities (on machinima, fan authorship, and gender)

  1. khellekson says:

    One thing that’s always struck me about machinima is that it can be reproduced endlessly, and more importantly legally, on the Web. There are huge ramifications for this in terms of textual analysis. It’s impossible to publish about something when you can’t properly illustrate your exemplar text.

    Regarding Robert Jones’s essay: he was at MiT and I regret that I never was able to find him. Yet I’m not necessarily sure that he’s necessarily making a value judgment about machinima over, say, vidding. It’s really all about the tools. A good question to ask might be, how are vidders affected by their tools? Can they literally change their tools to make them easier to use, or to bring about some needed function? (An analysis of the politics of brush sharing might be interesting here. :-)) And is this kind of distinction really even important in the terms used to analyze the activity?

    I think one thing scholars tend to do is try to make things oppositional or confrontrational. It’s always more interesting if something works against the grain, or juxtaposes, or creates tension, or deconstructs, or flips the power structure. But not everything does this, and that’s okay. Sometimes it just…is, and the fact of its existence is interesting and leads us to draw conclusions.

    I think that for machinima versus vidding, the interesting opposition isn’t necessarily in the mode of creation, but in the gender divide of the authors and in the ability to get people to actually see the artwork.

    We missed you at the panel, btw! Hope things are going well for you.

  2. robin reid says:


    I’ve RSSed fed you to my LJ flist (I’m sure there’s a pun in there somewhere), so I can read you over there (my professional LJ, since I’m refusing to cross the Sea of Angst or whatever to the blogosphere).

    And fair warning: I’ll probably assign your blog (and Kristina’s) (and Henry Jenkins’) as supplemental reading to my New Media Literacies grad students (online in the fall)!

    I know zip about machinima (wasn’t even sure how to spell it, frankly, and think I blew it), but the title is great, and well, you know, I love your brain!

  3. lstein says:

    Hi Karen and Robin! Sorry not to reply earlier–the end of the semester has been… well, the end of the semester, and I’m only having a little online time now/break from meetings etc. now.

    Karen, I think these are wonderful questions:

    It’s really all about the tools. A good question to ask might be, how are vidders affected by their tools? Can they literally change their tools to make them easier to use, or to bring about some needed function? (An analysis of the politics of brush sharing might be interesting here. :-)) And is this kind of distinction really even important in the terms used to analyze the activity?

    and absolutely need to be asked! I still do think that there was a level in which the essay was looking for exploring a “new” mode of engagement that was somewhat celebratory, and making certain assumptions about the implications of machinima artists ability to change literal tools–where I feel that similar dynamics occur even in fanfic (not even vidding) where the fantext (and readings of individual fanfiction) change how people engage with the source text. That said, I think it’s crucial that we don’t overlook the differences between the two modes of engagement, either–I certainly don’t mean to suggest they’re one and the same. Looking closely about what vidders do with tools, coupled with considering how viewers engage with vidders and the source text, seems like a fascinating project to me.

    And absolutely, the gender divide in audience, attention, and framing discourses between vidding and machinima is key.

    I wish I had been at the conference! But I’m glad that it’s spurred so much conversation.

    Robin welcome to my new blog! You spelled machinima just right 🙂 And yes, the Sea of Angst is definitely a questionable travel route. I still feel somewhat ambivalent–but I always felt a bit strange about my aca-LJ too, which I will still be using as well. I think I’ll just always feel strangely posting professionally/academically online, because of the direct connection made betweek RL and virtual life; but perhaps that’s how it should be. I can feel a bit uncomfortable, and still post.

    Feel free to assign my blog–that’s very nice to hear! Your class sounds fascinating–I’m looking forward to hearing more about it!

  4. princess says:

    Glad that Henry Jenkins linked to you, and I need to RSS you, too!

    I was going to comment over there, but I can’t get through his spam filter.

    In any case, I love the way you and Jones are looking at all parts of the argument and trying to consider what it does in fact mean that the machinima people do “get” to “create a product” in some way that may or may not be different from vidding or fanfic.

    I’m wondering if the real gender divide might be in the competition/oneupmanship roots of machinima versus the non-game roots of vidding and The Sims?

    Anyway — thank you. Terrific summer reading.

  5. lstein says:

    Hi Princess! Thanks for coming over and commenting over here–it would seem that Henry’s spam filter is in overdrive today. I know you’re not the only person to have had problems posting a comment. It’s too bad, because I’d really love us to be able to have a conversation over there!

    But here is good too! I love what you say here:

    I’m wondering if the real gender divide might be in the competition/oneupmanship roots of machinima versus the non-game roots of vidding and The Sims?

    I think there’s a lot of truth to that. In a sense, maybe it comes back down to what we understand as game and play, and different traditions of thinking about games. So much of video game theory seems to have been caught up with the whole ludology vs. narrative debate–are games more about moving through space or creating narratives/characters etc. [And that debate has been gendered too, it seems, but I think it’s too simple to say male discourse = ludology/space, female discourse = narrative.]

    It seems like another way to think about different ways of understanding play and engagement would be competition/goal-oriented gameplay vs. imaginative world-building game play. The two aren’t mutually exclusive of course, and games don’t necessarily fall in one category rather than the other. For example, I’ve been fascinated to compare the different way people play the Sims. You can find Sims strategy guides that emphasize rules upon rules, even creating extra rules, with point limitations and such, to make The Sims a game you can “win.” And then of course you can find list after list of cheat code, so that accumulating $ etc. becomes meaningless, except as a tool to facilitate world building.

    But I don’t want to set up another artificial dichotomy there too, because imaginative play and storytelling both thrive within established extra limitations too. So for The Sims, you also have things like The Legacy Challenge (http://www.legacychallenge.com/), which is all about enforcing extra rules and keeping scoreboards etc., and yet produces immense imaginative play and storytelling.

    How these different modes of engagement play out in gendered communities and in gendered modes of authorship is a really fascinating question. On the one hand, I don’t think the answer is black and white; on the other hand, there do seem to be substantial differences in what the ultimate purpose and pleasures are in these different gendered modes of play and authorship.

    Hmm. Plenty of food for thought!

  6. robin reid says:

    I posted my comment (which would have been first, darn it, I’m pretty sure!) over at my LJ: here. Since no comment has been posted, and it’s been up for over 12 hours, I’m thinking spam is catching everybody (at least everybody I know has been denied posting).

    And I misspelled machinama all over the place, this time, alas.

    I’m hampered by the fact that I really do not what know what are, or what’s involved.

    However, the “shape” of Robert’s argument seems fairly familiar (I am getting older and more cynical over time), and I think there are some false binaries being set up around gender.

    Even with competition: it’s not that men are all competitive and woman collaborative, but (I would argue) competition and collaboration can look “different” among different groups (and not only based on m/f, but ethnicity, class, sexuality), and so (again) the need is for a spectrum or matrix. As an academic, I know I can be fairly competitive in ways that fit the academic (masculine? male academic) mold!

    I haven’t spent any time with game theory, so I don’t know how that might play into the assumptions either. But I do see there are definite issues of “amateur/professional” working here as well, in terms of which fans and how fans might want to move into ‘professional’ status which means being paid and paying taxes and being recognized in certain ways (not just the “quality” of their work, which is what so many default to, i.e. that professional is good, amateur bad), and those hierarchies are embedded in a gender matrix as well.

    Really, one cannot avoid talking about gender (but it’s amazing how many do)

  7. lstein says:

    Hey Robin! Yes, serious spam filter issues over at Henry’s blogs, plus a few missing links and all but hopefully all will be sorted out soon. The spam filter issues I’m not so sure about, and so we may need to find another forum for discussion. It’s frustrating when the whole point of this project was to foster discussion and then we can’t actually discuss due to interface issues!

    I absolultey agree with you regarding not simply assuming a gender dichotomization along the divide of competition vs. world-building play. After all, it’s not like competition isn’t something we see playing a significant role in (female) fandom, in both subtle and overt ways. But what type of recognition is being competed for (pro vs. amateur being one way to think of it) is certainly something to consider. And yes, all of those hierarchies are embedded in a gender matrix, although not one that necessarily plays out simply.

    So yes, I very much agree!

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