I've mentioned my borderline unhealthy interest in Team Fortress 2 before. I'm also interested in the genres of video that have sprung up around the game – frag videos, griefing, machinima. And now an inspired and hilarious cartoon that I think you'll appreciate even if you've never played the game, but especially if you have:
This interesting article over at Edge discusses the idea of what the author Chris Dahlen calls UGMMC – User-generated, machine mediated content. His point is that user-generated content holds a lot of promise for outside the box thinking and diverse creativity. But the reality is that in games things often need to be smooth and streamlined, and throwing user-content in there willy-nilly doesn't work. His example of an ideal is the excellent Scribblenauts, a Nintendo DS game that lets you construct almost limitless ways to solve puzzles by, for example, writing "Burrito" on the screen, and watching a burrito appear for you to do something with in the game.
Anyway, I think Dahlen's got a great point. In fact, this is how many examples of user-generated content have worked from the beginning, especially if we step back from the idea of 'machine-mediated' to the more general 'system-mediated'.
In Aaron Swartz' now famous blog entry "Who Writes Wikipedia?", he shows that Wikipedia has always (or at least since 2006 when Swartz wrote this) followed the model of UGMMC. Swartz does a quick analysis showing that most of Wikipedia's content gets put into the system by a diverse array of users, many of them casual contributors. Those raw materials then get massaged and organized by a committed core of editors. This is system-mediated, and I would guess this model continues to be the thing that makes Wikipedia as good as it is.
Team Fortress 2
I'm thinking of two examples that speak to this issue here. The first is Valve's model for interacting with its community. Via its forums, Valve's developers are always asking for ideas about how to improve gameplay and add content to classes. It's hard to tell how much of the final product is actually user-generated, but I would imagine a good bit. We can think of this model in lots of places where companies solicit ideas from the community, and then polish them into something solid.
But Valve has sometimes gone even further than that with its UGMMC. Take for example the classic user-generated video, FYI I am a Spy (don't worry, it's only 7 seconds long):
When it updated the Spy class with new content, Valve added an achievement based on this video:
FYI - I am a Spy: Backstab a Medic who has healed you in the last 5 seconds.
One other feather in Team Fortress 2's cap: Valve has built a reputation on polished gameplay and clever content. But it has also left the door open to unrestrained user-generated content in intelligent places. Case in point: sprays. While you're in-game, TF2 allows you to "spray" a small picture (animation possible) on the wall inside any level. Restrictions – it can only live in one place, so spraying it again removes the last spray, and when levels restart the sprays go away. So, Valve left the door open for players to put anything they want in a level, but they've restricted users from really changing the look of the game by covering the walls in graffitti. Result: interesting and hilarious uses of sprays. Note, this video is much longer and potentially NSFW. The whole thing is pretty funny, but skip to 3:58 for creative use of sprays: