Recently, TAG’s (Concordia University’s game research center) Gina Hara asked me if I wanted to cover her brand new Minecraft documentary web-series, “Your Place or Minecraft?” (http://yourplaceorminecraft.com). I said yes, absolutely. My coverage of the series will be divided into three parts: the first two being a very interesting and lenghty interview with her, and the third will be about my own thoughts about the series.
You might think that the series is about Minecraft itself, or about TAG’s Minecraft server. That would’ve been interesting in its own right, but it instead focuses on the players and their interactions. In the first part of the interview, we talk about how the series got its start, how players have a tendency to mirror their real life in their virtual communities, and about how amazing glitches can be.
Who is Gina Hara?
Pierre-Olivier: Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
Gina: My name is Gina Hara and I’m a filmmaker, and an artist. I’m the creative director at TAG, which is Concordia University’s game research center. It stands for Technoculture, Art and Games. I’ve always been fascinated with the way people tell stories, and as a filmmaker I’ve always experimented with different ways of telling those stories. For me games are an extension of that, and with my background in interactive art it was just very obvious that I would work at TAG. I’m a very geeky person anyway, so I love playing games, but at the same time I do look at them with a very critical eye, similar to a lot of the other TAG members.
The start of it all.
Gina: So while I was working on this big documentary about geek women (http://ginaharaszti.com/new/geekgirlsfilm/), I was also playing on our Minecraft server and I accidentally sort of started making this thing (Your Place or Minecraft?) *laughs*. I just started interviewing my friends and co-workers. I really wanted to document this fascinating community, or society, that was evolving around the server. I’d never seen anything like it and I just wanted to document it. So I started shooting interviews, and it turned into a bigger thing, then a bigger thing, and then we had a screening last year. Just a very casual small thing with a few people, and I did not expect anything, but they loved it, SO much. Everyone was begging me to make more. I was like wow, this isn’t just interesting for me, but also to other people who don’t even know us! Like people who were academic guests at TAG at the time. And so I shot more interviews, polished it, made some nice sound effects for it and some nice motion graphics. Also, a beautiful website is coming out on August 1st along with the series. Now it’s a unit, it’s a piece of work.
PO: So you didn’t plan out this thing, it just happened.
Gina: Yeah! More than half of it was already shot when I realized that, okay, I need to make it into something that is available to everyone.
How people escape.
PO: I’ve never really played Minecraft, but I’m very interested with the subject of escapism in gaming. In the series there are a lot of ‘dreamy’ moments, a lot of floating around, the music is very soothing. It really hit me while I was watching the series that, wow, you could live there if you wanted.
Gina: This is the crazy stuff. There were a few months, maybe three to six months, when almost everyone at TAG spent, I’m gonna say three to six hours a day, on the server, playing together. We would be working together physically in the lab during the day, sometimes if we had a break we would play for an hour, and then we’d all go home and play until midnight or 3AM. Considering how we had this real life society where we are teachers, students, bosses, employees, friends, enemies, then we would go and play the game together and have those power dynamics appearing in the game in really weird ways. And so, in that sense, we were escaping something. We re-created, in this blank server offering endless possibilities, a version of our own society.
Creating your own space in a virtual world.
PO: You say that you were playing together a lot, but in most of the episodes there is mention of people trying to go as far away from others as possible. There was this strong feeling of loneliness throughout the series I found.
Gina: One of the most interesting things to me through the whole series is space. Not just the idea of an offline and online space, but space within the server as well. And also what that distance (between players) expresses, which according to Isaac (Isaac Lenhart, episode 8) in the last episode, expresses time itself. And this is also why the title is “Your Place or Minecraft?”, which is of course an innuendo *laughs*. It’s really funny, and for a web series you want to have a title like that! But really, it kind of touches on that idea of what ownership is in this context: what is mine, what is yours, what is shared. What does it mean to share spaces, share resources, which is a big question which comes up a lot in this show. And how people, when they’re friends they live next to each other, and then something happens in real life and they move away from each other. When there was a conflict in the TAG space, you could feel that in the server, people started to move away from each other. It was just fascinating to watch how space became en interesting entry point to examine the human side of what is happening.
But going back to what you said about loneliness, it’s definitely interesting how when you’re playing Minecraft, it can be very lonely. Especially when you’re doing a lot of grinding and mining. And I remember some nights when I would just be mining for hours and hours. It can be very meditative, of course, but it’s this interesting feeling that although you are alone, and you don’t see any other player for hours and hours and hours, you KNOW there are people playing on the server, and you can chat with each other. It’s almost like a form of lonely companionship. Like a better version of being alone, you know there are people around you. If you reach out, they are there.
PO: You kind of make it sound like Facebook, in some ways.
Gina: I dunno, I feel like on Facebook everyone is just showering me with pictures of, like “Look at my dog!” or whatever *laughs*.
Minecraft can be this very quiet, very meditative space. Knowing that your friends are also on there, and they’re also playing very quietly. You know they’re there, and if you send them a message they’ll answer. And in some cases I left those messages in the show! They’re such a big part of the way we play. There is a segment where they discuss whether they want to have a minimap or not on the HUD. And Joachim (Joachim Despland, episode 2) is like “No, Gina made all these beautiful maps, we shouldn’t have a minimap”. These kinds of conversation are always happening while people are in completely different parts of the world, doing their own business, and just chatting about.
Every Minecraft server is infinite.
PO: Speaking of the world, how big is it? In the episodes they keep talking about sailing in oceans, and leaving to parts unknown. How big is that thing!?
Gina: So, every Minecraft server is infinite.
PO: Ah, okay!
Gina: As long as your computer can handle it, it will automatically generate the land in chunks, as that is what the Minecraft world if made of: chunks. So as you’re walking the computer generates more and more chunks of the world.
PO: That’s amazing.
Gina: It is. Forest (Rainforest Scully-Blaker, episode 1) walked 50000 blocks to the south-west. Joachim made a copy of the world for me, as a memento of sorts. And when we looked at the map, which none of us had ever seen, it was huge. You can see those tiny maps in the show, but those are just your immediate area, or an island, or maybe a continent. But then the world is so much bigger. I’m planning to release the map in a few weeks to show people how big it is. But yeah, it’s immense. And so while we’re looking at the map, we could see this blob of land that we had more or less explored, and we could see Forest’s tiny little line, pointing down-left for a long good while *laughs*. For now the world looks like a popsicle, because everywhere else where nobody has ever went to doesn’t exist. It hasn’t been generated.
PO: Yeah you see that in the videos a lot; you’re flying around and you can see the world pop out of the horizon. So that’s the world being created right in front of your eyes?
Glitches, and more glitches.
Gina: Well actually, that’s kind of what it would look if it was generated at that moment, but in my case it’s just me exploring already existing land. See, my computer is very slow *laughs*. I embrace a lot of the technical difficulties we have had recording the show. My computer is this tiny Mac, so it has a hard time generating the world, especially as you’re flying, as it renders the world very quickly then. So my computer is making these weird, and for me really visually interesting effects of the world popping up in front of you. But yeah, it is kind of similar to how the world is automatically generated as you walk ahead.
PO: So when you are recording the episodes, I imagine that you are doing so on the computer of the person who is currently playing?
PO: You could see how some of the computers were obviously faster than the others, as sometimes everything was very fluid and fast, and other times it ran a bit slower. What are some of the issues that you can into while recording the series?
Gina: Oh yeah, tons of issues. I have never made a Machinima before, I don’t have a career in making Let’s Play videos for YouTube *laughs*. It wasn’t my first time recording screen captures but, I’m definitely not a veteran. And like I mentioned earlier, I started recording this kind of as an accident really, I wasn’t really paying too much attention to what I was doing. I just wanted to record the screen. And thus those are the episodes that are a bit more laggy and weird. But really, on almost every episode we use four or five different screen captures apps, and every episode is recorded on two computers: the player’s, and mine. Every interview was around an hour/hour and a half long. In the end I had around 20 hours of footage. And those are recorded with different software, different equipment, different computers.
Interviewing players on equal footing.
PO: Oh, so that’s why in the series you can sometimes see the character of the person who is currently talking; you’re recording them on your own machine!
Gina: Yeah, that was me! I was the cinematographer, following them around. And I also did most of the flying shots, all the cinematic stuff. I also shot the whole thing as a player! So at the beginning I really wanted to do flying shots, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t fly. So I had to level up my character to the point where I could fly around, and take beautiful flying shots.
PO: But couldn’t you have just used the ‘god’ mode, the one that allows you to do everything?
Gina: I didn’t want to do that, I really wanted to shoot everything as a player! The series is about the community you know, and they were talking to me. You rarely see me, but I’m definitely in there as a player. Like in the Isaac episode (episode 8), you can hear me scream “OMG we’re on Mars!” *laughs*. Everybody found that really funny so we left it in. But yeah, you can see what’s on my HUD, what’s in my inventory, and sometimes you even see me switching tools. I really wanted to leave that in there. The whole recording process was so organic, friendly and casual. I thought it important that my shooting point of view was not this perfectly objective camera that follows someone around. That I am another player. I’ve said this in another interview and I’m going to say it to you, and hopefully everybody quotes me on this, but I said “I have died several times shooting this show” *laughs*. It’s true! I died a bunch of times! I walked off ledges because I was trying to get the perfect shot, or I stepped in lava, also again to try and get that shot.
PO: That’s amazing, we didn’t see any of that in the show! You’ll have to make a bloopers video!
Gina: Yeah maybe I should do that *laughs*. I’m planning on making a glitch video. I’m really into the glitches, I think they’re beautiful.
PO: We see one in the last episode, the screen starts flashing early on in.
Gina: There are tons of glitches. I left two glitches in the trailer too. I’m really into the glitches now!
And that’s it for Part 1! Second half of the interview comes out next week, where we go deeper into the interpersonal relationships between the players, what she’s hoping the series will achieve, and if she’s planning a second season!
Your Place or Minecraft? is written and directed by Gina Hara, an award winning filmmaker and artist with a background in art & technology. She is interested in the experimental aspects and transmedial forms of visual culture. Gina is currently the creative director of the Technoculture, Art and Games Research Centre at Concordia University, while finishing her first feature film about women geeks. Gina had worked in different media with regard to film, video, new media, gaming and design.