['World of Warcraft Exposed' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about the culture and experience of the globe's biggest online game phenomenon, the ten million subscriber-strong World of Warcraft. This week's column looks at the artform of machinima as it relates to the game and player culture.]

Boomkin!The stereotype of the online gamer is one of antisocial maladjustment. That gamers in general still bear some degree of negative stigma should be instructive on that stereotype’s accuracy. In fact, online game players – especially MMO players – are highly social creatures. Societal norms, language, and even art forms all evolve from the interaction of so many creative individuals in one ‘space.’ World of Warcraft is no exception to this rule, and in fact the artistic culture surrounding WoW may be the most deep and varied of any online society.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the wildly successful ‘machinima’ scene surrounding the game. Machinima, the art of creating a film entirely within a gamespace, has been popularized in general gaming culture by work in the Halo games. These works are primarily humorous in nature, typified by the wildly popular Red vs. Blue series. For World of Warcraft players, machinima has grown to fill many roles; humor is often a part of the experience, but drama, instruction, passion play, bragging, and a number of other motivations fill YouTube with a host of Azerothian films.

Today we’ll take a brief look at this aspect of Warcraft culture. We’ll examine some of the motivations for creating these movies, explore what they imply about World of Warcraft’s place in popular culture, and highlight a few of the best examples of the art form for your viewing pleasure.

Why Make Art Here?

Though making videogame movies is slightly less ambitious in scale, George Mallory’s famous quote about his Everest ascent (“Because it’s there.”) applies equally well to this art form. World of Warcraft players bring to their hobby a wide array of talents and gifts. While most players see only a place for entertainment, others see Azeroth as an opportunity for creation. It’s not a blank canvas, of course, but for the machinima-maker that’s almost certainly part of the charm. The constraints and challenges of working inside Blizzard’s creation allow for standout artists to really make their mark.

The most common type of WoW machinima is created entirely in-world on the live servers. That is, the video is shot purely inside World of Warcraft on the public servers paid users inhabit. Many of these works are very simple productions, simply showing gameplay overlaid with music. There is a great deal of talent required to make one of these work well, but many of this particular type of video can be seen as ‘bragging’.

Guilds will often create elaborate videos showing their completion of high-end game content, such as this well-known run through the ‘Blackwing Lair’ instance. Gamers who enjoy Player vs. Player combat are well known for this kind of activity, and their aggrandizing productions can become quite elaborate. The works of Akrios are a high-quality representation of this style of machinima.

ahnold.jpgWhile simple music overlays are very common, they don’t convey story very well. For that, many players employ character animations called ‘emotes’ to mimic the appearance of speech and physical interaction. This last is especially difficult, and takes careful planning to pull off; World of Warcraft characters are not physical objects, and may pass freely through one another.

This is done for game design reasons, but makes it extremely challenging to mimic even something as basic as a handshake or hug. Even despite their crude tools, artists can handily create the appearance of speech and conversation. The result is the complete gamut of emotional performance, with the only limiting factor being the quality of the artist-chosen voice-over actor. Humor is one of the most prevalent modes of performance, of course, with the ‘switcher’ videos being a fine example of both emote performances and in-context hilarity.

Some of the most talented machinima artists don’t bother staying within the confines of the game world, or the World of Warcraft live servers. The use of 3D manipulation software packages like Maya and simple tools that allow the viewing and animation of World of Warcraft art assets add a whole new layer of complexity to fan-made videos. These creations can have World of Warcraft characters acting in ways not possible on live servers, in-game.

The ‘Snacky’s Journal ‘series is a great example of in-game footage combined with 3D manipulation to create an engaging experience. The most dedicated of these artists go so far as to set up their own emulations of the World of Warcraft service on private servers. There, they can modify fundamental art assets in the world, change basic server rules, and spawn monsters in strange or unusual places.

While technically against Blizzard’s terms of service, the understanding in the community seems to be that they’re perfectly valid forms of artistic expression. Without private servers to work with, many of the most popular machinima artists would be denied a powerful and flexible tool.

Pop Culture Relevance

South_Park_machinima.jpgFans of the machinima art form have been thrilled to see that World of Warcraft’s explosive popularity has resulted in a pop culture relevance for World of Warcraft videos as well. You can’t get much more mainstream than a Toyota truck commercial.

A machinima featuring a Toyota Tundra slaying a dragon in may not seem very important, but it’s a ground-breaking sign of acceptance of MMOs in the public forum. Blizzard Entertainment itself has used in-game elements for a popular series of commercials. Public personas like Williams Shatner and Mr. T are shown as players of the game, with their characters and adventuring exploits a prominent selling point for the game.

Undoubtedly the most famous World of Warcraft machinima falls squarely in the realm of pop-culture relevance: the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”. That episode of the popular Comedy Central show sees the series protagonists confronting and defeating another player in World of Warcraft.

Large portions of the show are entirely machinima-based, with the normal voice actors overlaying their performances on specially-shot in-game footage. The basis for the episode was entirely rooted in the series creator’s appreciation of the game; this one episode (and the WoW trial discs that later shipped with that season of the series) firmly pushed the game into mainstream consciousness. With another expansion to the game slated for later this year, it’s likely there are several new examples of World of Warcraft in the mainstream to come.

The Best Of The Best

If you were previously unfamiliar with the genre of WoW machinima, the sheer amount of content can be overwhelming. There are several thousand in-game movies floating around out there, and the vast majority of them are not very good. Here are some reliable favorites, the greatest hits from World of Warcraft's varied and diverse society:

- The Internet is For Porn, a voice-over machinima using Avenue Q's well-known song.
iss_wallpaper02.jpg- Illegal Danish: Super Snacks and the sequel Escape From Orgrimaar are quite possibly two of the best-produced machinimas made in the genre. Likeable characters, hilarious dialogue, and a great deal of manipulated assets marks these as standout works.
- The Ballad of the Noob shows off original storytelling/songwriting within the World of Warcraft context. Plus, it's got a catchy tune.
- Ni Hao deals with the very real issue of gold farming in a non-serious but still culturally relevant fashion. The player's view of this cultural situation, both slamming the farmers while using their services, is very noteworthy.
- The very recent MMOvie uses foul-mouthed and humorous dialogue, private servers, 3D manipulation, and high quality voice acting to parody a number of popular commercial movies; pop culture will eat itself?
- If, instead of socially relevant works, you're looking for pure entertainment, you can do far worse than the works of Baron Soosden. Soosden is very best 'music video' artist in the field right now, possibly best known for his piece backing Flyleaf's "I'm So Sick."

For further viewing, I suggest the site Machinima.com, WarcraftMovies' Hall of Fame list, and the WoW Insider Column MovieWatch. Some of the best artists out there are still making their names, and won't show up in a hall of fame or top ten list. Make sure to try out anything that sounds interesting - the very worst you can expect is to be bored.