Quake! Doom! Sims!
Transforming Play: Family Albums and Monster Movies
Curated by Katie Salen
Presented at the Walker Art Center October 19, 2002
"I think one of the changes of our consciousness of how things come into being, of how things are made and how they work...is the change from an engineering paradigm, which is to say a design paradigm, to a biological paradigm, which is a cultural and evolutionary one. In lots and lots of areas now, people say, How do you create the conditions at the bottom to allow the growth of the things you want to happen?" --Brian Eno
In March 2001 at the ICA in London, musician Brian Eno gave a lecture linking his compositional process to John Conway's game of "Life". The game of "Life", like Eno's generative music, creates unexpected patterns of events out of a very simple rule system. In his discussion, Eno identified the difficulty of writing the rules of a system: "How do you create the conditions at the bottom to allow the growth of the things you want to happen?" Eno's question not only highlights the challenge of designing emergent systems but also points to a phenomenon known as transformative play. Because the creators of emergent systems, like generative music or games, can never fully anticipate how the rules will play out, they are limited to the design of the formal structures that go on to produce patterns of events. Sometimes the forms of play that emerge from these structures overwhelm and transform, generating rich and resistant outcomes. Sometimes, in fact, the force of play is so powerful that it can change the rule structure itself. A playful slang term can become an idiom, for example, and may eventually be adopted into a dictionary, becoming part of the larger cultural structures, which it originally playfully opposed.
In the case of digital games, transformative play emerges from the interaction between inventive players and the games they play, like Quake, Doom, or The Sims. Transformative play occurs when the free movement of play alters the more rigid rule structure in which it takes shape. The play doesn't just occupy the interstices of the system, but actually transforms the space as a whole. A cyberfeminist game patch that creates transsexual versions of Lara Croft is an example of transformative play, as is the use of the Quake game engine as a movie-making tool. It would make sense, then, to consider transformative play as a powerful creative strategy within digital culture.
FPS Monster Movies
"The role of play is not to work comfortably within its own structures but rather constantly to develop its structures through play." --James S. Hans
Almost as soon as Quake was released in 1996, gamers began to try and play through its levels as fast as possible and to share recordings of their feats with others, trying to beat each other's times. This type of competition, known as speedrunning, had been established in the early days of DOOM, a game that like Quake gave players the ability to visually record and save their game play. Like The Sims Family Album feature, players began to use the recording function to tell stories. Rather than creating narratives in a graphic novel form, as was the case with The Sims, players embraced the real-time editing capabilities of the robust 3D game engines upon which the games were based. It was only a matter of time before someone made the leap to film. Witness the birth of the Quake movie.
According to Quake lore, in August 1996 a clan known as The Rangers conceived the idea to record a demo (documenting their gameplay) that would exploit the built-in moviemaking capabilities of the game's software. Rather than restrict their demo recording to play within the game, The Rangers would use their Quake players as actors in a film. This decision transformed the game space of Quake into a virtual movie set replete with lights, camera, and action--lots and lots of action. The Rangers used their characters as virtual actors and recorded their movements around a deathmatch map; text messages represented speech. As short and simple as the movie appears to us today (characters appear to be walking around a map, pretending like they are in a movie), "Diary of a Camper" established a filmic genre known as machinima, which has spawned hundreds of movies to date. Quake players not only transformed the play of the game, but also extended the play into the realm of cultural production.
Part theater, part film, part computer game, machinima represents the kind of wild exchange between player and game that can result from thoroughly transformative play. The cultural play of machinima involves play across formal, experiential, and contextual levels. Players repurpose the formal structure of the game in order to play with it. Here the formal structure of the game code gave shape to a new form of storytelling born from the culture of the first person shooter.
Quake movies and other forms of machinima offer a unique space of culturally transformative play that merges the flexibility of digital code with traditionally rigid codes of creative production. Structurally, game engines invite modification along established parameters, a kind of systematized, rule-bound play. Machinima producers deconstruct the game in order to play with it. Instead of accepting the rules, they challenge and modify them. This creative practice is a form of rule-breaking, one occurring at the level of code. By bending and modifying the game's formal structure players affect their experience with the game by remolding its play into something with little resemblance to its former shape. Players not only affect the game's formal structure, but also invent new opportunities for transformative play.
The examples of transformative play found in The Sims Family Album feature and in the work of machinima artists calls attention to the fact that new media objects derive meaning from the contexts within which they are used. Consideration of these contexts allows us to see potential lines of cultural engagement. The open dissemination of the Doom source code, for example, was visionary in its recognition of a hacker mentality already present in an existing community of gamers. When given the right tools, players will transgress the frame of the game in pursuit of alternate forms of expression. As a result, it is important to consider how this process might be enhanced or slowed, modified or transformed, either by players or by the developers themselves. The idea of transformative play offers a rich model for a collaborative design practice between game and players, suggesting that the model of player-as-transformer changes the tired question of "who is the designer," to a glorious "who isn't?"
"We may have to know two sets of rules: the ideal ones and those by which the ideal rules are applied, misapplied, or subverted." --Kenneth Goldstein
Instances of transformative play can be found in the popular game The Sims, which includes a feature known as The Family Album. The Family Album tool was originally intended to let players take snapshots of particular moments in their Sims' lives and add the photos to a family album, which they could design and curate. Soon, however, the Family Album became a tool for the creation of fictive stories that often had nothing to do with actual game events. Sometimes these stories would be borrowed from popular culture (a story of a Sim appearing on Big Brother, for example). Other times players created narratives informed by their own life experiences (a story of a lesbian love affair or alcoholic father). Still other stories were used to parody the game world itself (a meta-Sims narrative or one set in a Star Wars universe, replete with tiny R2D2s and hoards of Stormtroopers). In any case, players transformed the play of the system as they sought out avenues for creative expression, making adjustments to the way they played the game. Players began to play The Sims in very unusual ways, in order to compose the exact "shots" they wanted for their storyboard-like narratives. Strategies for successful gameplay, such as keeping game characters happy, were superceded by strategies for positioning objects and characters in a scene.
The shift from player to player-as-transformer also expanded the contexts available for the exchange of meaning. The Family Album feature created a new context, just outside the game, where players could create and share meaning online. Family Album photos became ways to trade game-playing strategies, game-playing experiences, and (most commonly) to create original stories. The out-of-game context supported the creation of these meanings, and the community of players themselves became the social context where the story albums could be appreciated and shared.
Special thanks for their assistance to: Hugh Hancock, Paul Marino, Mike
Beery, Brian 'Buddy' Mayberry, Jan-Philipp 'Thefly' Reining, Peter
Rasmussen, Eric Zimmerman, Tommy Pallotta, Jake Huges
Katie Salen is an interactive designer and design educator interested in
connections between game design, interactivity, and play. She is
co-authoring a frightfully large textbook on game design with Eric
Zimmerman for MIT Press and serves as a contributing editor for RES
magazine, writing on games and digital culture. When she is not writing
about or playing games she works at gameLab as a game designer and
animator, making online games for clients such as Ragdoll (the people
from the Teletubbies!) and Lego.com. Katie is also co-creator of
Conduit, a forthcoming animated series on the Sci-Fi channel focusing on
videogame cinematics and continues to work as an animator on projects
that grew out of her work on the feature film Waking Life. She has
taught visual and interactive design at RISD, N.C. State University, and
the University of Texas and will teach a graduate course in game design
at Parsons School of Design this fall. Katie lives, plays, and works in
Brooklyn most days.