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Machinima-to-Learn: From Salvation to Intervention

In the summer of 2009 a fourth installment of the popular Terminator movie franchise hit the theaters. The release of the film, Terminator Salvation, was accompanied by promotions and ancillary products ranging from Slurpee cups to action figures. Nothing was out of the ordinary or noteworthy about most of this material. However, there was one piece of support that marked an important milestone for a new medium. Terminator Salvation: The Machinima Series was released, first as for-purchase online episodes and later in a DVD compilation. This was the first time that a major studio (Warner Brothers) and film director (McG) had produced and endorsed an official machinima project. And while the significance of such an event may not be as initially obvious as television's first broadcast from the 1936 Olympic Games, it was no less important for the establishment of the new medium of machinima.

Machinima is, as many are still unaware, the use of videogames to make videos. The term "machinima" is a hybrid of "machine" and "cinema." The art form began when video recording features were built into some of the earliest first-person-shooter games in the mid-1990's. Players of these games were able to capture footage of their gameplay and share the clips with fellow players. Machinima has since evolved into a popular method of independent short-film and video making. Customizable platforms such as Second Life, The Sims, and World of Warcraft have made it possible to make relatively high-quality productions on little or no budget.

As of yet, machinimists have had little more than a web presence. And it can be expected that they will sooner find their way into other popular, mainstream media outlets (as seen with Terminator Salvation) than they will arrive in education. However, if educators properly identify the form's role, machinima can be used by students of communication, writing, or most any subject.

Many will find it bizarre that I am suggesting that an infant method of cartoon making born out of videogames will facilitate change in the academy. But, while I see machinima as a useful catalyst for such change, what I suggest is not unique to machinima. New media are sure to play a large role in the ever-changing academic scene. This much we know. What remains unknown is what to do with new media as it emerges. How do we incorporate it into the classroom so that it benefits students across disciplines? This essay is an exploration into just that question. It answers why we would want to bring machinima into classrooms and how we can do so effectively. It is impossible to predict what other new media will come out of gaming in the future; however, by establishing a way of working with these media, we can be prepared to incorporate them as they emerge.


Classroom Intervention

"Intervention" is Stuart Moulthrop's idea for scholarship in the twenty-first century ("After the Last Generation"). Moulthrop speaks of an apocalypse in which the nature of academic employment is changing and new forms of assessment are needed to measure the production of professional scholars. He suggests intervention as a way to move beyond the traditional peer-reviewed article as the only quantifiable example of scholarship. Moulthrop loosely defines intervention as "a serious work of application intended to contribute to pragmatics as well as abstract understanding" ("After the Last Generation"). This definition allows for a wide range of possibilities, but Moulthrop specifically points to using new media, such as videogames, in ways that are innovative enough to change the way each medium is used and understood.

Machinima's epistemic potential makes it an ideal case for this new classification of scholarship. Further, it is selfish for the academy to consider new forms of professional scholarship without simultaneously offering such opportunities to the students. How can intervention work in the classroom? How can student production of machinima serve as an intervention?


Justification Education

Part of the problem with proponents of educational technology is that we feel such a need to justify the use of technology in the classroom that we fail to reach a point of understanding that allows for in-depth analysis and application. Upon reading Marc Prensky's Digital Game-Based Learning, one of my colleagues commented that she was "bored and mad" for having endured the lengthy piece. Her frustration did not come because she opposed Prensky’s claims – precisely the opposite. Her frustration arose because she completely understood them. For her, Prensky's book, illustrating that individuals learn better when teaching methods are fun, adaptable, and meet the needs of the modern learner, was overkill. But this student comes out of a progressive, transdisciplinary program that stresses the importance of multimodality in education. She is a member of the choir that the preacher, Prensky, knows is not yet large enough. Prensky knows that many traditional educators universally oppose technology in the classroom. He opens his book with the following part-sincere acknowledgement:

Congratulations! By opening this book you have already made it to the high scorers' list of those who "get it" (or at least who want to get it). Get what? You get that business learners have changed as their technology has changed. You get that workers raised on a steady multiyear diet of MTV and videogames, rather than books and filmstrips, just might not sit still for the old style of learning. You get that although learning methods and styles may vary among individuals, to be effective with today's learners, the "fun" component of all learning will have to go through the roof. And you get that Digital Game-Based Learning, in a variety of forms and price ranges, can be a big part of the solutions. (Prensky 2)

Such opposition to technology, especially play technology, has prevented adequate exploration of how technology can best be used and assessed in the classroom because theorists such as Prensky must first convince the academic establishment that technology should be used in the classroom. Naysayers see the computer as a crutch or incompetent replacement for good, human teaching. Educational technology is not intended to replace teachers. If it was, authors such as Prensky and I would be as out-of-touch as our critics claim because we would be digging our own graves. I consider myself, before anything else, to be an educator. I would not aim to be replaced by computer technology. Computer technology does not inherently make the classroom less human. James Paul Gee recognizes that it actually appeals to the human element of cognition ("Game-like Learning").

Gee points out that traditional education has treated learners like computers. They are taught very specific tasks and facts until they demonstrate a given level of proficiency with the material. For Gee, this is analogous to computer programming and he labels it a "content fetish" (Situated Language and Learning). Jacques Ranciere would label it "explication" (The Ignorant Schoolmaster). And Paulo Friere would call it the "pedagogy of the oppressed" (Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

Ranciere explained through the story of 18th-century French educator Joseph Jacotot in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation that explication stultifies the learner. By allowing his students to actually experience their material, Jacotot was able to teach them things he himself did not know. Such a phenomenon is impossible through explication:

The words the child learns best, those whose meaning he best fathoms, those he best makes his own through his own usage, are those he learns without a master explicator, well before any master explicator. According to the unequal returns of various intellectual apprenticeships, what all human children learn best is what no master can explain: the mother tongue. . . . To explain something to someone is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself. (Ranciere 5)

Freire too recognizes the constraints of mono-directional pedagogy:

A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness. (Friere 71)

Gee differentiates between learning and thinking. In the computer programming model of education, students do learn. They have for centuries. But through game-like learning, Gee argues, students actually think. Gaming, and its influenced technologies (machinima included), require reaction and critical cognition. Gee even goes outside the humanities, citing simulation examples from science and mathematics that bear a striking resemblance to videogames and machinima, such as MIT's use of the game Supercharged! to teach physics and Andy diSessa's use of the programming language Boxer to simulate mathematic models. This is not to say that traditional education is simple or easy. If it was, every student could sail through to an advanced degree. Education is difficult, but for too many of the wrong reasons. Students do not always exercise the most useful parts of their brains. Prensky and Gee realize that the minds (and bodies as well, as Gee clarifies) of modern students have been exercised, shaped, and trained by modern mass culture. 


Educated Media Consumers

Steven Johnson's provocatively titled Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter has garnered a lot of attention (not surprisingly, more outside the academy than in). Johnson claims, like Prensky and Gee, that new generations of learners, thinkers, and consumers have developed cognitively in ways unmatched by previous generations. In making this claim, Johnson challenges what is commonly taken as fact: videogames and trashy television are rotting young minds.

Johnson asks us to examine the television we are so quick to trash. Look at a contemporary television drama, even a bad one, and count the number of storylines that are interweaved. Observe how little explication (to use Ranciere's term) is given. Recognize how much responsibility is placed on you, the viewer, to decipher the complexity of its narrative construction. We must stop and perform this exercise in order to witness it because we otherwise do it passively and unknowingly. The fact that we perceive this act as physically passive is evidence to the fact that our minds are, more than ever before, always active. Johnson asks that we juxtapose the contemporary viewing experience with that of previous decades (specifically pre-Hill Street Blues). Television of the 1960s and 1970s was decidedly one-dimensional. A basic, linear narrative was conveyed from beginning to end with figurative "flashing arrows" carefully guiding us by the hand. Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues introduced to primetime the idea of multiple storylines that progress across several episodes. This had been done previously in daytime soap operas, but primetime dramas and comedies tended to have a very simple single story that could be wrapped up within the self-contained episode each week. No knowledge of the previous episodes was necessary. This factor is more important for the cognition of those who did not see the previous episodes than for those who had. In the post-Hill Street Blues drama, a viewer who has not seen the previous episodes must infer much of the narrative from contextual clues and dialogue. 

And while the television viewer of the '60s and '70s was cognitively limited, the videogamer essentially did not even exist. Johnson explains that if we thought of traditional media in contrast to new media, as opposed to the reverse way we analyze now, we would see the traditional as insulting to our cognitive abilities. While videogames force us to simultaneously engage our minds in a multitude of sensory and cognitive activities, the novel, for example is (by McLuhan's distinction) a cool medium that explicates a clear linear narrative path. Prior to Johnson, Espen Aarseth recognized the potential of interactive or ergodic (work + path) narrative using hypertexts as examples in 1997's Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Now Johnson and Aarseth are careful, as I should be here, not to condemn the book. Johnson emphasizes the clear benefits of reading, such as the complexity of argument, the stretching of imagination, and the shared experience achieved when everyone is reading the same story. The book certainly offers many benefits that the videogame cannot, but that is precisely the point: different media offer different benefits to learners and consumers. States Johnson, "Games are not novels, and the ways in which they harbor novelistic aspirations are invariably the least interesting thing about them" (21). This is not to say that there is not overlap between the media. And certainly there is interest in the narrative dimensions of games, just as there is interest that lies within the interactive dimensions of books. The point is that each new medium should not be in direct competition with other, existing media. If new media technologies are rejected at mere mention as inferior to traditional media, we cannot achieve a full understanding of how new media are most beneficial.

Students are even conditioned in this way. While they experience new media throughout their daily lives and would hardly recognize life without it, they still expect education to be traditional. When I inform my students that they will be producing machinima, the typical response is at best apathetic and at worst highly resistant. This response may come as a surprise to my critics who think that I employ such technologies because students like to play games and do not like to write. While it is true that many students do not particularly enjoy the writing process, and many may play videogames on their own time, they remain very territorial when it comes to their educational culture. For them, school is the place where you perform tasks (like Gee's programmed computer) such as writing essays. They may not like what they have come to expect out of education, but they like that they can expect it. Their internal computers have been programmed. To ask them to think outside the (CPU) box not only takes them out of their comfort zones, but also asks them to see education (and learning) as something different from what they understand it to be.

Just as Prensky's first move, at book length, was to argue the merits of learning through new media, I must first, as an educator, convince my students of this. But unfortunately for us, Ranciere was correct: little is learned through explication. I could have my students read Prensky or recite his points to them, but they are not going to believe me until they have experienced this for themselves. This is where the academy's hesitation to recognize cultural capital becomes a real obstacle to our critical understanding. As educators, we cannot devote our entire courses to learning through new media. Each course, such as my Intercultural Communication class, has its own set of content that must be taught and objectives that must be met. Some of these objectives are best met through new media, while others, admittedly, are best met through traditional methods. In order to optimize the potential of new media learning, our students must enter into such courses with an understanding and acceptance of how new media can exist in education. Some progressive general education courses do their best to facilitate this change. Clemson's new multimodal freshman composition course, for example, gives students exposure to new media as composition tools so that they may be less resistant to my methods when they reach my course. The new curriculum was designed with the idea that composition is not limited to writing and that well-versed 21st-century students should be able to compose in other media such as graphic narrative and video in addition to traditional writing. Such courses are enormously beneficial. But, like racial sensitivity or anger management, student culture is not something likely to change through a single course of fixed duration. Exposure needs to occur across courses and across disciplines.

Writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) initiatives, common at many universities, provide a useful (though not always entirely parallel) model. What successful WAC programs have done is provide resources (where such resources exist and in what manner varies drastically from school to school) for teachers and students of all courses to utilize in order to improve student writing within and beyond the given course. While some WAC initiatives require or encourage courses to include a given amount of writing, WAC administrators can typically already count on most courses requiring some writing as a means of conveying an understanding of content. To this point, new media composition is not as commonplace. Innovators within the WAC community, such as Art Young and Todd Taylor, have admirably pushed that we look at technology and new media across the curriculum. After all, students cannot think differently without educators thinking differently.

The point I have been hammering home, hopefully not to a degree that bores or angers my colleagues or readers, is that the resistance to new media as educational technology has made it difficult to formulate methods of assessment. After all, how can we be overly critical of the work our students produce when many of our academic contemporaries defend their claims that what we are asking them to do runs counter to education’s goals and best practices? But let us do just that. Let us examine how new media technologies, returning to our machinima example, can best be implemented and assessed in the classroom.

First, I must clarify whether I am speaking of machinima as a student text or as a student product (along with the process that accompanies it). To use machinima as a student text would be similar to how films are used in film studies courses. We would analyze existing examples of machinima through existing theories of film, games, media, and (perhaps one day) machinima specifically.

To view machinima as student product, on the other hand, would be to ask students to use machinima as a communication or composition tool. This is the method I adopted when I asked students to create a machinima through Second Life that illustrated cultural conflict as we had discussed throughout the Intercultural Communication semester. Greg Ulmer, as evident in "The Object of Post-Criticism," would argue that these two academic uses of machinima need not be mutually exclusive. It is Ulmer's belief that a piece of media should be critiqued in the same medium as it was created (i.e. a film should be responded to with a film). Ulmer's inspiration comes from Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse (1986):

White suggests that historians of literature (or of any discipline, for that matter) should use contemporary scientific and artistic insights and methods as the basis for their work, pursuing “the possibility of using impressionistic, expressionistic, surrealistic, and (perhaps) even actionist modes of representation for dramatizing the significance of data which they have uncovered but which all too frequently they are prohibited from seriously contemplating as evidence.” (Ulmer 83)

Ulmer follows White's lead further, arguing "that 'post-criticism' (-modernist, -structuralist) is constituted precisely by the application of the devices of modernist art to critical representation" (83).

Such an idea of critiquing an object through its own medium is not entirely novel. This is, perhaps lacking a readily apparent alternative, the approach literature courses have always taken: "Write an essay on Moby-Dick." The task becomes logistically more difficult when we think of having students respond to Citizen Kane with a film of their own or craft a videogame to respond to Grand Theft Auto. If we are to take Ulmer literally, and I think we should here, a post-critical response to Citizen Kane cannot be created in iMovie, Final Cut, Windows MovieMaker or Adobe Premier. It must be made with light and celluloid like Orsen Welles used. Likewise, a two-dimensional Flash game could only mimic some of what needs to be addressed in a GTA critique.

Unbeknownst to Ulmer, machinima is actually the most optimal medium for the post-critical age. It is built on the ability to create products at home or in the classroom using essentially the same tools and techniques as those machinima examples available to the masses. One shortcoming may be that there are relatively few machinima examples (in comparison to books or films) to be seen and even fewer that seem to warrant critical reflection. Nevertheless, we will consider the Ulmerian post-critical response one of the many possible examples of a machinimatic student product. Such products, be they Ulmerian critiques or vehicles for other content, are what we must initially determine how to assess.

The first notion I need to dispel is the equation of assessment with quantification. We often take how to assess as what grade to give. Whether it is a percentage or a letter, a grade is a reflection on Gee's programmed computer of a student or, worse, Friere's oppressed students. Now I know that trying to eliminate grades from the academy would be like trying eliminate ice from the arctic, but there may be some insight to be gained from the progressive approach of schools such as Evergreen State University. Those of us at traditional universities downplay, even ridicule, ESU's implementation of comments over grades, but often there is truth to the school's claim that more care goes into, and more benefit comes out of, comments than grades.

The task of assigning a grade, or even assessing in the more liberal sense, becomes still more problematic (and borderline oppressive) when dealing with a new medium in an unestablished discourse. If, as educators, we project our own ideals of what the medium's discourse is or should be, we become the 'ignorant schoolmasters' Ranciere warns against. Machinima's lack of an established discourse is its blessing, not its curse. Think of the battle those such as Peter Elbow (2000) have fought to grant "minority" groups the right to write in their own languages, an argument heatedly opposed by a great number of conservative and liberal educators alike. David Bartholomae writes in 1985's "Inventing the University" of the student's unenviable task: "He has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community" (134). Since machinima's discourse is mostly unestablished (certainly from an academic standpoint), the educator is not necessarily at an advantage over the student. In many cases, the student may even have a greater technical understanding of the medium.


Classroom and Student Examples

Mager and Gronlund Objectives

Bazerman et al. point out in 2005's Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum that, even within the complexities of WAC student assessment, teachers share a similar set of expectations for a student's product, such as "compliance with specific instructions (i.e., page length, due dates, format), relevance to course material (i.e., choosing topics appropriate to the course), and use of standard written English" (122). There is, to this date, no existing "standard machinima" and thus machinima, as a language, cannot be assessed as English can. Yet some of that to which Bazerman and company point can, at least partially, be observed and measured if criteria are established.

The assignment I gave my Intercultural Communication students (see Appendix below) was very broad and open-ended. I like to grant my students the freedom to take the assignment in creative directions. I must, however, specify enough so that my expectations are clear. It is unfair to give students a poor assessment when they have no way of determining what the expectations of the assignment are.

In many ways, the internal conflict I experience at this stage has been approached in some of the more seminal works on instructional objectives. A consideration of such studies, specifically those of Robert Mager and Norman Gronlund, is helpful in my aim of achieving a successful learning exercise. 

Mager objectives, as introduced in 1962's Preparing Instructional Objectives, are designed for specific tangible application. They involve breaking down large, broad learning objectives into observable, measurable behavior objectives. This is infinitely helpful in assuring that the assignment has purpose and that it is possible (probable even) for students to achieve the purpose. These objectives must include the specific behaviors expected, the conditions under which the behaviors are achieved, and the standard by which the performance of the behaviors will be assessed. They generally read: Given A, B, and C, students will produce Z. This lends itself well to the multimedia objectives of machinima projects. The Mager objective for my Intercultural Communication machinima assignment read as follows:

Given a computer, virtual world gaming software (Second Life by Linden Labs), video capture software (Freez Video Capture by Small Video Soft), and video editing software (Windows MovieMaker by Microsoft or iMovie by Apple), students will produce a 5-10-minute video identifying course terms and concepts.

Gronlund, however, beginning with 1995's Writing Instructional Objectives, recognized that the conditions and assessment standards do not only make the objective excessively long and complex, but they also can limit the teacher's freedom. He advocated an approach that has since been adopted in many corporate and instructional training settings. Gronlund objectives state a general objective (GO) to be achieved by a course lesson and specific objectives (SO) to measure the achievement of the general objective. The Gronlund objectives for my assignment read as follows:

GO: Students should understand the major differences in how different cultures communicate, reasons for such differences, and how such differences can be overcome.

SO1: Students should properly define course concepts.

SO2: Students should showcase histories and backgrounds that shape thought processes.

SO3: Students should demonstrate creative and effective techniques for overcoming cultural differences in communication.

Even Gronlund's slightly less restrictive objectives can still be somewhat limiting. Epistemic processes such as writing, filmmaking, and machinima ideally create new knowledge which manifest in behavior that cannot be predicted by the instructor. Or if the outcomes can be predicted, it is not always beneficial to disclose them to the students. But the Mager and Gronlund objectives do not have to dictate or cap what knowledge students should have when exiting the assignment or course. They simply give them the behaviors they are expected to produce. Robert Gagne found the process of informing students of the learning objectives to be of foremost importance, and claimed in his equally influential The Conditions of Learning that they should be stated immediately after gaining the students' attention. Without knowledge of these objectives, students cannot adequately experience the assignment and thus cannot adequately attain its communicatory or epistemic benefits. The objectives are additionally helpful in giving structure for the assessment of innovative assignments.

After showing my students the basic tools of machinima, I gave them this assignment which asked them to create a machinima piece using Second Life (I chose Second Life because it is customizable and free) that depicted a scene of intercultural conflict. That is, they were to make a video in which conflict arises due to cultural communication differences. They had been reading, discussing, and viewing other materials about intercultural communication concepts throughout the semester. This assignment gave them the opportunity to perform some of what had been discussed. Because communication is dynamic, it is often better performed than it is explicated. Explication, though beneficial for some initial levels of explanation and understanding, can be problematic for dynamic and complex learning. Perhaps the greatest dilemma in intercultural communication studies over the years has been how to study, examine, and discuss cultural differences without being guilty of the stereotyping and overgeneralization that is criticized.

For instance, the oft-favored heuristic approach can be beneficial for introducing the idea of cultural difference to new learners. Thus E. T. Hall's Beyond Culture distinguishes high-context cultures from low-context cultures by the amount of meaning determined by context. By such a theory, cultures such as Japanese are classified as high-context – little is in the coded message and much understanding is based on history and previous understanding – while the culture of the United States is considered low-context – verbal messages are elaborate and highly specific.

But does every Japanese person and every American fall exactly into this categorization? And more importantly, how does this concept actually play out when individuals of high- and low-context cultures come into communicative contact with one another? If all I convey to my students is that Japanese and Americans are X amount different in Y ways, I have not given them any greater understanding of how communication can best function across cultures. With machinima, however, the students were able to perform the communication concepts.

Lost in Communication

One group did a particularly excellent job in a piece entitled Lost in Communication that depicted a scenario in which a Japanese student struggled to acclimate to an American university. My students imagined the scenario this way:

Ashley B: So who have you met so far?

Michelle Yu: Professor Toshiko.

Ashley B: He's the Japanese professor, right? Oh, I'm sure he's already enlisted you to help with the Japanese Club. What bogus. I wouldn't waste my time if I were you. Language clubs are worthless – any kind of club, really.

Michelle Yu: But being a part of the community is important, no? Who are you if you don't belong to something? Don't you belong to a group?

Ashley B: Oh, I do but I'm a dabbler. There doesn't seem to be much point in committing anymore.

Michelle Yu: But what of loyalty?

Ashley B: It's just a stupid academic group. It doesn't mean anything. It's just something to put on your résumé.

Michelle Yu: Have none of you any honor or respect for the proper ways?

A textbook may be able to explicate that "high-context cultures decrease the perception of self as separate from the group" (Jandt 63). But this scene really shows how such customs can affect communication. My layout of a snippet of the script here really does not do the piece proper justice. While it may read as only a small step up from the explication of concepts, it really comes to life through machinima. The students-turned-machinimists took full advantage of what machinima can offer.

They used existing spaces of the established game/virtual world. In traditional 2D and 3D animation, it is very difficult and time-consuming to design and model a background or set. In traditional filmmaking it is also very difficult and time-consuming (not to mention expensive) to design and build a set. It is equally difficult to gain permission to shoot on an existing location, and even if permission is granted, it is difficult to keep unwanted people and items out of shots in public locations. And certainly external factors, such as weather, are completely out of the control of the filmmakers.

The machinimists for this assignment, however, were able to go into Second Life and utilize a virtual Clemson University campus that had been commissioned by the graduate school for recruitment and classroom purposes.

Second Life image of Clemson U

Figure 1: Clemson Campus Pre-existing in Second Life

The machinimists also easily customized the appearance of their characters. Because much of what Second Life focuses on involves exploring and establishing identity, there is a wealth of options for customizing avatars. Because Second Life markets itself as a world, and not a game, these customizations are not difficult for the user. Many options come standard with a free membership, and many more accessories and skins (virtual changes in appearance) can be acquired for free. If one is willing to spend Second Life's currency (which is most easily obtained by spending "real life" currency), the options are essentially endless.

Custom characters in student work "Lost in Translation"

Figure 2: Custom Characters

And students used filmmaking conventions to tell a story unique to the medium. Just after the scene scripted above, they transition into a flashback using a stylized dissolve transition effect. I did not instruct them to use such techniques, and they had not produced films before. However, they were so accustomed to techniques such as this one, through years of consuming media, that it was intuitive for them to apply the effect in this way.

Transition shot from student machinima

Figure 3: Transition Effect

The move is so quick that I could barely capture it to show here, but it conveys to every viewer a shift in the chronology. 

Additionally, they used establishing shots (such as the Clemson campus frame above) and shot-reverse-shot for dialogue. Again, these are elements that the students picked up from consuming media. Their use of them demonstrates the differences between new media and traditional performance. This assignment could have asked the students to perform a play. That would have accomplished the performance element. However, in addition to the added difficulty of costumes and sets, the play would have existed in a different media language. It would have accomplished many goals, but the epistemic moments of film and video composition would have been lost, along with the epistemic moments of avatar creation.

Avatars from student machinima

Another avatar

Still another avatar from student machinima

Figures 4a, 4b, 4c: Created Avatars


By looking at the Mager and Gronlund objectives, I can further see that this group of students clearly accomplished the assignment's goals. When given the tools, they produced a five-to-ten-minute video as the Mager objective desired. The Mager objective further required that they identify course concepts. Here the assessment process becomes more complex because the group did not explicitly state and define many boldface textbook terms. They did, however, very clearly incorporate them and demonstrate an understanding of them. More beneficially than reciting a glossary definition, they applied the concepts. The dialogue list above (regarding whether or not to belong to a group) demonstrates a clear understanding of the individualism-collectivism dichotomy that is a major focus of most IC courses. And they did not only use the script to demonstrate concepts. They utilized the visuals of machinima by having the character Michelle move away abruptly when approached too close physically, thus demonstrating the course concept of contact avoidance.

So Gronlund Specific Objective Number 1 (students should properly define course concepts) was most definitely achieved. Likewise, SO2 (students should showcase histories and backgrounds that shape thought processes) was also achieved. The group's students made a point of mentioning the travel experience of characters (Ashley says to Michelle, "Only if you count Epcot," when asked if she has ever been to Japan), and Michelle often compares her experiences in the U.S. with those she has had in Japan. And this group really excelled in regard to SO3 (students should demonstrate creative and effective techniques for overcoming cultural differences in communication). Their entire narrative focuses on a fish out of water trying to find her place in a new space and on others reaching out to her. Ashley reaches out using a combination of humor and explaining U.S. cultural habits.

Altogether, the Gronlund General Objective (students should understand the major differences in how different cultures communicate, reasons for such differences, and how such differences can be overcome) is clearly achieved and it is easy for me, as an instructor, to recognize that this group is deserving of a top mark.

Unfortunately, the students are likely not overly concerned with an assessment that will help them further develop their machinimaking skills. With writing assignments, even the top-notch papers can be critiqued in a manner that helps the writer with future assignments. Here the students know, however, that they are unlikely to encounter another machinima assignment. While they may find, after completing the assignment, that machinima was a very applicable medium for the task at hand, they are mostly concerned with the quantifiable assessment: the grade.

Certainly, Lost in Communication is deserving of a top letter grade. It completed all of the specified goals and tasks of the assignment and even went beyond with a creatively stylized cinematic production. But what of other groups that do not produce quite the epic piece but still achieve the assignment's objectives?


Another group produced a piece they called Smoking. These students showed characters of different culture groups interacting over a common conflict: smoking in public.

Introductory shot from student machinima "Smoking"

Figure 5: Shot with chatbox feature

This piece was not as entertaining as Lost in Communication, nor did it optimize the machinimatic medium as effectively. Rather than record voice-over dialogue, the students used the chatbox and added music. Rather than use filmmaking conventions such as establishing shots and shot-reverse-shot, they relied on a mostly static point of view. However, advanced audio and mise-en-scene were not assignment requirements, but they were employed in this project. Should the Smoking group be ruled out for a high letter grade?

Consider what I asked of the students. Many of the students had never made a video or any multimedia beyond PowerPoint and I asked them to make machinima, a neologism I had just introduced to them. The technology that they had experienced in other courses was nothing like this. They had to learn how to navigate Second Life and edit in MovieMaker, all while incorporating course concepts and negotiating group dynamics. And this was not a semester-long term project. Rather, it was one of many assignments (some were mostly written; some were mostly oral). Here the Mager and Gronlund objectives provide a starting point for assessing such a product. I first must ask, just as I did with Lost in Communication, "Did the students achieve the Mager objective?"

They did indeed produce a 5-to-10-minute video using the tools provided. They did not, however, optimize any of those tools. An optimal production would have recorded audio with the computer, changed camera angle more often with the capture software, and incorporated some kind of montage or narrative editing using the video editing software. But the Mager objective as written does not include a continuum for assessing their use of these tools. It asks only if students were able to take these tools to produce the product requested. And the answer to that is, "yes, they did."

In this case, the specificity of the Gronlund objectives prove somewhat more helpful. Did the students properly define course concepts (SO1)? Yes, they did. They took the four different approaches to conflict (as specified in the course textbook) and created an individual scene for each approach. Did they showcase histories and backgrounds that shape thought processes? Not particularly. They showed through dialogue that different individuals have different sets of values, but they did not show what cultures the individuals came from or how those values might have been formed. Did they demonstrate creative and effective techniques for overcoming cultural differences in communication? Yes, they showed significant awareness of this. Their video was based on dealing with differences in situations of conflict.

As with the Mager objective, it is difficult to assess their achievement of the Gronlund General Objective as either "yes, they met it" or "no, they did not meet it." On a continuum, I could say that they met the general objective but there was room for improvement. I translate such an assessment into an "above average" to "very good" mark.

Males v. Females: Ethnocentrism in the Dance Club

One risk and fear in introducing complex, new assignments is that the course content will be lost or underemphasized with the focus on the new technology tools. Such might have been the case with a student project entitled Males v. Females: Ethnocentrism in the Dance Club.

Title card for student machinima "Males v. Females"

Figure 6: Ill-advised Titlecard of the Slightly Confused Student Machinimaking Group


The machinimaking of the piece was not brilliant, but it was not bad either. It had its faults, such as a mostly static camera angle, but it also had strong points such as voice-over narration, multiple scenes with title cards, and audio mixing. The large problem with the piece was not a style issue but rather a content issue. It can be spotted in the title and seen further in the video: a conflict between males and females is not an example of ethnocentrism; it is an example of sexism. While ethnocentrism was a course topic, sexism is a topic for another course. Like a cake made with salt instead of sugar, there was no way to hide this error in the product. Their entire narrative centered around stereotypes of males and females. In this difficult assessment, the Mager and Gronlund objectives prove helpful.

Given the tools, did the students produce a 5-to-10-minute video (Mager Objective)? Yes. They did this as well as the other groups discussed previously. Did the video identify course terms and concepts (Mager Objective continued)? It did. However, it did so inaccurately. This is different from not doing so. The difference is equivalent to the difference between not answering a test question and getting the question wrong. For assessment purposes, many teachers do not make a distinction between those two options: the right answer yields all possible points; the wrong answer and no answer both yield no points. Others allow for partial credit. If a math student makes a computation error in the first step of a complex, multiple-step problem, he or she can often still get many points for the problem if the rest of it is executed properly. My inclination is to lean toward such a philosophy: to acknowledge the initial error but assess the remainder of the piece as if the content were accurate. But I first analyze the Gronlund Objectives to get a better sense of the egregiousness of the initial error.

Shot from "Males v. Females" showing static camera angle

Figure 7: Example of the Mostly Static Camera Angle Used throughout Males v. Females


Did the students properly identify course concepts (SO1)? Um, no. Given the aforementioned major error, it would be impossible to say that these students properly identified course concepts. Did the students showcase histories and backgrounds that shape thought processes (SO2)? If I allow for a mulligan on the initial term, it is possible to say that they achieved this objective. Through their dialogue, they discussed specific qualities that differ between males and females and why one gender finds the habits and communication styles of the other off-putting. Did the students demonstrate creative and effective techniques for overcoming cultural differences in communication? Again, if I look past their misunderstanding, the answer can be yes. They do use their characters to demonstrate creative and effective techniques for overcoming differences in communication. It just so happens, however, that these differences are gender-based and not culture-based. I find it appropriate and necessary to grant the group leniency as a "partial credit" math instructor would. I translate this assessment as an "average" to "above average" mark.


Though I have spoken in terms of average, above-average, and excellent assessment values, I do not always (and did not in these cases) equate these with C, B, and A, respectively, as traditional grade scales would suggest. Though their point totals varied, each of these projects were in the A range by my determination.

How can the Lost in Communication group and the Smoking group each receive a top letter grade? Is that fair, considering that Lost in Communication was clearly superior to Smoking? And the Males vs. Females group made an elephant-sized error! By the "banking" model of education (Freire), it would not be fair. The Lost in Communication group likely invested more and created a seemingly more valuable product. But by a Deweyan concept of experiential education, it can be fair to give both groups high marks.

The measure of a machinima assignment cannot solely be in the perfection of the product. While I have used the term tools throughout, I do not give tools a wholly utilitarian appropriation. Metaphorically speaking, we do not build bridges only to walk across them, but also to know how bridges are made and how to make future bridges. More importantly we learn of things indirectly related to bridges that we can only learn through the building experience. We learn what concrete feels like when it is poured. We learn how high we can climb before experiencing vertigo or a nosebleed. We learn that those in charge do not always respect those doing the labor and vice-versa.

Through the machinima assignment, all groups learned things both directly and indirectly related to machinima and intercultural communication. They learned how to do a second take when a keystroke slips during filming. They learn how to arrange disparate shots into a single narrative. They learned that sometimes, often even, the technology fails the user. They learned possible ways to actually respond during a lengthy, complex encounter. They learned that some group project members contribute more than others.

It is impossible to fully measure, assess, or explicate all that the students could have learned through the assignment, just as it would have been impossible for the students to achieve the same learning without the medium. The Ulmerian thing to do, going back to Greg Ulmer's "The Object of Post-Criticism," would be to critique (i.e., assess) each project within its own medium. Imagine sending students, or parents, a machinima piece instead of a report card. Try averaging it into a GPA score. These thoughts are comical because our only experiences in assessment and learning seek to explicate and quantify educational value.

If I am proposing assignments that emphasize process, I must also propose formative assessment (assessment geared at helping the student move forward). All three groups can receive top letter grades without meaning that all groups received the same assessment. If the aim is to better our students, rather than score them, a valuable assessment can take place. To do this, however, requires crossing those disciplinary boundaries I allowed to remain. By this I mean that educators must feel free to assess based on elements that travel across the curriculum. The aforementioned communication assignment is naturally going to have an element of content in its assessment. However, that is not to say that it cannot be critiqued additionally based on compositional form and artistic style. To rigorously score undergraduate communication studies students on these elements may, however, be unfair. To give students a poor, or even average, mark because they do not perfect each of these elements could jeopardize their academic standings, scholarships, or a wide range of things these students depend upon. Given their limited pre-exposure to the technical and theoretical elements, and the limited time available for me to teach them, such punishment is unfair in my eyes. But I can offer advice for improvement, even if they may not immediately see a place to implement such suggestions.

I can give the Smoking group artistic direction on how they can utilize cinematic practice to make their piece more aesthetically appealing. Though theirs is a wonderfully constructed narrative, I can offer the Lost in Communication group compositional tips to refine their argumentation and storytelling. And I can certainly offer content correction to the Males v. Females group. Though it may seem at first like they cannot apply these skills because they may never create machinima again, they can, in fact, apply these skills infinitely throughout their educational and professional careers. What they are learning is how to compose and communicate multimodally. By getting past machinima as strictly writing, strictly communicating, strictly gaming, or strictly filmmaking, they can see how media overlap and intertwine. Bazerman et al. note that WAC "points to the active construction of learning and knowledge by the student in the course of writing, so that it is not appropriate to measure writing simply against a fixed standard" (120). Likewise, student machinima productions, as they take their place in newfound gaming and multimedia activities across disciplines, should not be held to a fixed standard (though such an approach does not make them standardless).


Return to the Intervention

Stuart Moulthrop's "intervention" is intended to fill the void left by print-based publication and peer-review requirements, but it can likewise be used in the classroom. States Moulthrop, "The term will have many resonances, but I chiefly mean a practical contribution to a media system (e.g., some product, tool, or method) intended to challenge underlying assumptions or reveal new ways of proceeding." Can we not apply similar standards to student work? We may not always be able to hold them to the media-changing level of criteria that we do the professional scholars. But we can allow them to intervene in Moulthrop's sense. If education is, at some level, still oppressive, explicative, and programmatic, as Freire, Ranciere, and Gee have respectively claimed, isn't an intervention entirely appropriate?

Students deserve to benefit from new media as it enters the scene. It is our job as educators to determine how to make that happen. Machinima is still gaining momentum. The most notable shortcomings regarding Terminator Salvation: The Machinima Series pertained to its still somewhat choppy, amateurish animation. As technology improves, machinima's popularity will increase. Now is the time to spread it across the disciplines where we see fit. The tools are there; we just have to be brave enough to use them. There is no fate but what you make.


Appendix: Intercultural Communication Machinima Assignment

Assignment 3: Machinima Intercultural  Videos

In your groups formed in class, you will create a video by screen-capturing and editing your action in Second Life. The video should be 5-10 minutes long and should depict a scenario in which conflict arises due to cultural communication differences.

Each group must turn in:

  1. A script or detailed outline of the scene
  2. The video itself

Each group must also present the video, giving a brief introduction, on the date assigned.

Every student in the group will receive the same grade. Notify the instructor of any irresolvable group problems.

Projects will be graded on creativity, incorporation of course concepts, and execution of the technology (including overcoming obstacles and difficulties).


Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Print.

Bartholomae, David. "Inventing the University." When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer's Block and Other Composing Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985. 134-165. Print.

Bazerman, Charles, et al. Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor, 2005. Print.

Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. London: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1970. London: Continuum, 2007. Print.

Gagne, Robert. The Conditions of Learning. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1965. Print.

Gee, James Paul. "Game-like Learning: An Example of Situated Learning and Implications for Opportunity to Learn." Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn. Ed. Pamela Moss, et al. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008. 200-21. Print.

---. Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Gronlund, Norman. Writing Instructional Objectives. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995. Print.

Hall, E.T. Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor, 1976. Print.

Jandt, Fred. An Introduction to Intercultural Communication: Identities in a Global Community. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2007. Print.

Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead, 2005. Print.

Mager, Robert. Preparing Instructional Objectives. Belmont, CA: Fearon, 1962. Print.

Moulthrop, Stuart. "After the Last Generation: Rethinking Scholarship in the Days of Serious Play." Proceedings of the 6th Digital Arts and Culture Conference (Copenhagen: December 2005). Online. Retrieved from <>.

Prensky, Mark. Digital Game-Based Learning. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2001. Print.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Trans. Kristin Ross. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory. "The Object of Post-Criticism." The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. 1983. New York: New Press, 2002. 83-110. Print.

White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986. Print.

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