"Parental Advisory: Copious Fragging."
These words, made up like a RIAA explicit lyrics warning on a rock CD, greet the viewer of the documentary Quakers. This remarkable little piece of work, put together by two first-time film-makers, is the first serious documentary about the growing pro gaming scene.
Produced by two computer science students in their final year at the University of Alberta, Noah Keen and Brandon Mitchell, Quakers documents the interplay of a group of Edmonton-area Quake players, and follows one of their number to last spring's Razer-CPL tourney in Dallas, the largest Quake tournament ever held. Put together on a shoestring budget, and almost not completed at all, the film's has received warm praise from other gamers for its realistic portrayal of the serious Quake-player's lifestyle.
The project itself dates back to last fall, when the two first-time film makers, who officially call themselves Pringo Video, decided to invest their money and spare time in a documentary about gaming. Keen says they wanted to counter existing stereotypes about computer game players and internet users. "For instance, someone once told me 'You should be calling it Dorkers," he says. "We've really got to get past those kind of misconceptions, that gamers are just a bunch of people without social skills. These people aren't social rejects."
Says Mitchell: "We always imagined that our audience would be gamers themselves. It didn't make sense to 'attack' stereotypes that would already be transparent to most of our audience. If there is any stigma attached to gaming it's that it's reclusive, isolating, impersonal or just plain geeky.
"I think Quakers shows the gaming community to be highly social, very human and, if at times geeky, then at least unrepentantly geeky."
The gamers they capture certainly seem capable of holding up their end of the conversation, at least a game-related one. Keen, who admires the work of Clerks and Mall Rats director Kevin Smith, says he wanted to capture the same sort of easy banter that made the dialogue in those movies seem so realistic. "This is how we talk. We hear it all the time, but no one takes it and puts it up on the screen."
Of course, semi-witty banter for 20 year-olds, especially gaming 20 year-olds, means a heavy dose of profanity. Viewers should be warned: Keen and Mitchell's Quakers use all the bad words, and one of their subjects' views on homosexuality in particular are right off the "generally acceptable social discourse" scale. (Albertans are known in Canada for their generally rather conservative views on the subject, mind you. Is it realistic? Yes. Is it acceptable for all audiences? No.)
All the talking is broken up by some remarkably interesting visual effects for a low-budget production, including an amusing visual joke on how incomprehensible first-person shooter designer John Carmack can sound to a layman at times. Neat little transitions, such as one between the Quake marine running through the maze to the cameraperson moving through the crowd at the Dallas tournament, help convey the filmmakers' own ironic distance from the events at hand, without being heavy-handed.
For their subjects, the makers relied on high school friends who were prominent in the local gaming scene. The film's dramatic center, the producers' quintessential Quaker as it were, is Christian "Lobot" Abele, a 24 year-old telephone repairman from Edmonton. We see him go from laid-back basement player with his friends, in episode one, to world champion hopeful in two ("If I have a name to be made it's going to be made there."), to his "blaze of glory" finish at the Razer CPL tournament in episode three.
"What struck us as interesting," says Mitchell, "is how we could go down into this dark little basement in Edmonton Alberta, Canada, and plug into a shared experience... a profound experience with a worldwide community. The thing about Quake is that because it's so spread out it's almost invisible, we wanted to get across what gamers already know that there is this beast out there, just below the surface."
In Lobot, the makers found a real gem, actually. As the stand-in for the typical Quaker, heís perfect. Possessed of a large physique and a winning smile, heís just a big lug, the kind of guy whose physical size seems to produce its own easy affability. Every gamer has a Lobot in their circle.
That easy-going nature is ever the more obvious in the company of his camera-mugging, deeply profane Alberta friends, particularly Mark "Wargasm" Shpuniarsky, he of the Spiderman t-shirt and Everquest addiction. Like many a shorter man, Wargasm is the group cut-up: more agile mentally than his companions, he appears to rely on his caustic wit and a modicum of eloquence to compensate for the differential in physical Lobot. Thin and frenzied, he too is almost an archetype: if this were a Disney cartoon, heíd be Timon to Lobotís Pumbaa.
Lobot and Wargasmís world is one of Star Wars references, and Colonel Sanders, of baseball caps and goatees, influences more peculiar to their age group than any geography. (Other than an occasional Edmonton Oilers motif, thereís nothing that tells you these are all Albertans.) A well-known Calgary gaming couple who actually met through Quake, "RakE" and "DeeAy" (of the QGirlZ clan), round out the local milieu that Lobot graduates from to go to Dallas.
There, he and the filmmakers embark on a so-familiar 'small town guys in the big city' romp, complete with a seemingly obligatory trip to Hooters. Apparently interviewing anyone he could get to stand still, cameraman Keen also got choice quotes from some of the leading figures in pro gaming: girl gamers Kornelia Takacs and Vangie Beal, and Swedenís Henrik "Blue" Bjork (the only person to beat Johnathan "Fatality" Wendel in a major tourney this year). Cyberathlete Professional League president Angel Munoz also gets to discuss at length the future prospects of pro gaming. And eventual second and third place finishers Victor "Makeveli" Cuadra and Koreaís Min-Woo "PowerK" Kim also took time out to give their thoughts.
Keen, who did all the camerawork in Dallas himself, says he just never stopped shooting. "I had a lot of blank tapes in my pocket, and just kept switching.'
A lot of that was due to the superb hosting done by CPL staff, says Keen. "Everything was really open, everyone was really great," he says. Surrounded on film by this international gaming elite, Lobot and the other gamers appear like small fish in a very large pond" but one that certainly seems worth swimming in.
Lobotís actual competition is, perhaps predictably short but sweet. Coming from behind to edge out fellow Canadian Matt "Qancer" Fudurich for a first-round birth, he then drops his first one-on-one match 14-9. On the upside, however, how many gamers get their losses immortalized on tape to a Jon Bon Jovi tune?
Music was actually a big problem, says Keen. Itís all pirated mp3s, of course... negotiating rights would have been too difficult, but failing to secure them automatically guaranteed Quakers could never be a for-profit venture for the team without risking substantial legal troubles. Itís too bad: the eclectic choice of tracks could have been a great gaming soundtrack album, with John Williams and Rimsky-Korsakov contrasting nicely with the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Without any real source of revenue, Mitchell and Keen had to come up with the funds themselves. All told, Quakers cost something over $8,000, Keen says, including the Macintosh G3 laptop he purchased. Other equipment included a separate Linux system for file storage, a Sony TRV digital-8 camera, and a copy of FinalCut Pro for editing.
After returning from Dallas, the two set to editing, releasing each of the four segments online as they were finished. In total, the documentary runs about 40 minutes, although Keen says now he might have liked to have cut that down, if they hadnít already committed to a four-episode format. Interestingly, the full documentary has never been screened in one piece, or even spliced together yet. The producersí post-graduation job search prevented that, but Keen doesnít feel that was so much of a loss.
"In a way, it may even go against the original nature," he muses now. "This was made for gamers, who primarily exist on line, in an appropriate format. For this culture [ten minute episodes] are their medium."
The editors made up their own rules as they went along, says Mitchell. "To this day we don't know the first thing about "real" film production and it probably shows. We worked by digitizing everything we shot. Once it's on the disk you can more or less spread the video around like it was paint. If you wanted to try a particular sequence it literally took a few minutes to set it up and see what it looks like.
"We had a general idea of what topic should follow what but when we sat down to put together a segment we had little to no idea what it would look like. We just started editing, and stopped when it made us laugh or gasp or whatever. If an infinite number of monkeys we're given iMacs..."
When you're making a labour of love, you have to cut costs where you can. But running things on the cheap almost spelled the end of the project at one point. The real crisis for the team came last July: ironically, the Pringo crew found themselves victims of their own success. Their rather modest arrangements for web hosting came crashing down when episode two was released online: the sheer volume of traffic proved unmanageable for their ISP, and for a while it looked like the documentary would never be viewed in its finished state without significant new funding.
"We never expected it to be quite as well-received as it was," says Keen. "We couldn't afford the $2,500 a month a dedicated server would have cost. After that we didn't touch it for two, maybe three weeks, while we considered pulling the plug."
What finally saved the project was other gaming sites on the net, including Shugashack, stepping in to host the video files on their sites, Keen says. "Basically they bankrolled us in terms of bandwidth," says Keen. "We got a lot of support." Since then, Mitchell estimates, around 50,000 web users have seen the documentary.
Lobot himself has received no small amount of notoriety in gaming circles for his star turn. He's received IRC fan mail from gamers in Turkey, Spain and elsewhere ("Yo, I just watched the Quakers documentary," reads a typical message, "and u OWN, man")
He was also been recognized and badgered for autographs at the local LAN events, including "Fragapalooza," the major Canadian tourney held in Edmonton for the fourth time this last August."A lot of people knew me from the video," he says. "These young kids kept asking me questions."
Both he and Wargasm say they were happy with how they were portrayed. "I was more than happy to goof off on camera," Wargasm said when I caught up with them both, ironically hanging out together and watching Titan A.E. "It showed a good chunk of the player perspective."
And the film-makers? Mitchell says their plans are still uncertain: Keen's recent move to Chicago to take a job there isn't helping either. "We're not the type of organization that can make long term plans. This is a guerilla operation." All they will say for sure is that filmmakers and their subjects are planning their own return to Dallas, for the CPL's Babbage's tournament this December. And they'll be filming again, although Keen suggests it won't be Quakers 2. Possibly be using Lobot and Wargasm as researchers and possibly interviewers, he says he'd like to reach past the usual issues to really get deeper into the authentic gaming culture.
"We're going to try not to rehash old ground. I'm hoping we can really catch the vibe of the tournament, because those two are better in tune with the pulse of the community."
Quakers may have been the first attempt at a documentary about the roots of pro gaming, but it won't be the last. Frag, which also shot footage at the Razer-CPL, is expected out in January: produced by newcomers Butterdish Studios, it features interviews with many of the industry's leading figures. And Fountainhead Entertainment president Katherine Anna Kang (the former Id Software exec) is working on Gamers. Both films made their trailers available on the web in September.
While these other productions may have their own venture beat in terms of production values, Mitchell says the other films are all good as far as they're concerned. "They [Fountainhead] have actual money behind them and their production values are going to be higher. We are going to be compared of course, and that's fine with us. There is lots of room on the internet.
"Anybody who sees and enjoys Gamers is going to be more receptive to Quakers. Any pioneering that they are able to do into the mainstream market is going to be good for us too, so I hope they are a smash."
Even larger-budget productions, however, will be hard pressed to challenge the verisimilitude, the realness, of Quakers. Even now, media coverage of the gaming scene tends to range a narrow continuum between outright and futuristic promotion of the cyber-lifestyle, and ominous warnings about a potentially violent counterculture.
Young people remain skeptical about these kinds of pigeonholes, Mitchell says. "That whole 'children of the future' construct of the baby-boomer media is a fiction anyway. There is this idea about what it means to be 'wired'. The modern computer conscious young person is supposed to have more control over his or her life because they are 'plugged in' to the system, the internet, whatever.
"It's all nonsense though. The experience of actually using technology doesn't hit you on the same level as advertised. I think gamers, who are actually using these technologies, don't feel like part of the movement as depicted by the media because they can't live up to the stylistic ideal. Quakers isn't trying to sell anything so we can afford to show people and technology in a more realistic light."
The flipside, the virtual violence motifs inherent in current pro gaming, is also dealt with intelligently, displaying all sides without getting preachy. Personally, my favourite interview subject remains the father of Qancer, the guy who Lobot knocks out of competition, and who obviously came down from Canada to Dallas to be with his son. (If every parent was as calmly enlightened as this guy sounds, the gaming world would be a much happier place.)
No, instead of focussing on the thrill of the future, or the potential for tragedy, Quakers shows the pastime for what it means to some relatively normal people, fun, time-consuming, even potentially addictive. As the viewers, we perceive the Edmonton gamers are living otherwise unrewarding lives: they're provincial and profane (in Wargasm's case, uncomfortably so), they disappoint their parents, they have predictable and adolescent reactions to gratuitous sex and violence. Their shared accomplishments, their friendships, seem all to take place in a virtual world (Note how Morpheus from The Matrix makes a particularly appropriate audio appearance at one point), which real-life people, such as Lobot's mother, lovingly disapprove. ("I've got my job, my career job... I love it, or whatever," says Lobot at one point, revealingly. "Now all my free time I can dedicate to Quake.")
These are flaws common among young people, of course. And to a degree, Lobot's love for Quake is even shown as elevating his existence, by exposing him to a wider world, and encouraging the sportsmanship, and gentlemanly behaviour we love to see in all youthful athletes. But in also focussing on moments like Wargasm's daydreams of quitting school and work to play Quake, it shows how uncomfortably close pro gaming risks becoming to more established sports like basketball, itself famous for luring young people into fruitless dreams of pro success shooting hoops instead of doing homework. As Mitchell says, "It is a documentary about the future all right, but it's more about the things that haven't changed."
The ambiguity in the documentary is also deliberate, he adds. "We made an effort not to guess at the 'value' of playing Quake all day either personally or culturally. Do I think there are better things a person could do with their time? Perhaps. I do think however that the serious Quaker accomplishes something real when his or her skill reaches professional level. When I see Fatality's demos I'm totally blown away.
"I don't even play enough to appreciate the subtleties of strategy. All I see are reactions so quick that they look out of place with normal time. When the great players play you can see genuine grace, the same type of grace that you see in ballet or kung fu movies. I think any endeavor which can express grace is worth undertaking -- and also worth making movies about."
So, what lessons did the filmmakers draw from the experience? For one thing, Mitchell says, it convinced him that this kind of "shared experience of grace" is at the core of all sports, and the future of cybergaming depends on successfully communicating its own. "When I was a kid I used to watch Wayne Gretzky play for the Oilers. He scored a lot of goals. His percentages, however, aren't what made me watch him play. There was just something about the way he played that made it feel good to watch. Where could this emotional response come from? I had nothing to lose or gain from the way he played. It felt good because whenever you watch somebody, on a very basic level, you put yourself in their place. When I saw Gretzky play it was as if his greatness was my greatness. This is what I mean by a shared experience of grace.
"At the moment we are just barely beginning to see this type of communion in Quake. In order for the casual player-slash-viewer to really get anything from watching a game the technology needs to be able to speak to him on a primal level. And it needs to be able to say 'there is a person behind this icon' and what's more it must say 'there is a person you know behind this icon.' This is a major technological problem, that won't be solved with better modeling."
It's true it's still an open question how big pro gaming will become, and how it will develop from here. But years from now, Quakers will no doubt be seen as an important archival document from the early years, and what they were like for the participants. But this unique documentary also sounds a warning: that while professionalizing computer sports is a natural and logical development, it is also one fraught with real-life consequences.