In November 2005, days after France burned, a 27-year-old French industrial designer named Alex Chan created a media sensation with his machinima film "The French Democracy."

Made in about five days for zero cost (except the price of the engine, Activision's game The Movies), "Democracy" depicts three dark-skinned young men who endure daily discrimination in the Paris ghettos. When they hear about two teenagers who, while hiding from police, were electrocuted in a transformer station - the real-life flashpoint for the 2005 riots - the men join the violence in the streets. As told by the Associated Press - and The Washington Post - and MTV.com - and Business Week - the 13-minute film was Chan's attempt to correct what he saw as biased press coverage of three weeks of civil unrest in ghettos across France. "The main intention of this movie is to bring people to think about what really happened in my country," Chan told the Post, "by trying to show the starting point and some causes of these riots."

"The French Democracy" marked the popular news media's belated discovery of machinima. And, significantly, the film highlighted the issue that has troubled the young medium from its start.

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The media's acceptance of "The French Democracy," contrasted with their widespread hysteria about videogames, confirms a gaping cultural divide. Reporters treated machinima with automatic respect, because society has accepted film as a meaningful art form. But in the public mind, games are by definition frivolous; a game with a serious instructional or artistic purpose faces skepticism, even hostility. After the scandal at the Slamdance indie film festival's 2006 Guerrila Gamemaking Competition, Slamdance organizer Peter Baxter told The New York Times, "Absolutely, games should be judged by different criteria than film. I just don't accept a direct comparison."

The double standard has benefited "The French Democracy," because its impact is more conceptual than artistic. Quite roughly made, the film carries the passionate sincerity of a hand-lettered broadside. Its widespread recognition proves you don't need high-powered graphics cards and a team of hundreds to join the world's ongoing conversation. Ideas are not only cheap; they run on low-end hardware.

It's encouraging that everyone automatically treats "Democracy" as a film. In a way, it's also surprising, because, considered strictly as film, machinima can make you squirm in your seat. See, for instance, "A Few Good G-Men," award-winning machinima by Randall Glass that uses Valve's Half-Life 2 Source engine to render the climactic scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men. Glass' work is polished, even artful, yet it points up the painfully limited range of facial expressions available in this state-of-the-art engine. We are years away from game engines that offer figure models as rubber-faced as Jim Carrey, not that anyone looks forward to that exact possibility.

Fortunately, machinima has inherent virtues that film is hard-pressed to match. Aside from its uniquely fast production time and low cost, machinima also shares the advantages of other computer animation, such as visionary design and fluid camera work impossible on a practical set.

Even its artistic limitations are hardly deal-breakers. Like machinima, several other forms of drama permit little or no facial expression, yet have nonetheless produced major masterpieces. For instance, the actors in ancient Greek plays wore masks, as did the performers in Japanese Noh drama. And from the 1920s through the '40s, America's most popular dramatic form was not film, but radio.

In terms of the skills required and the effects produced, machinima somewhat resembles puppetry. Though puppet theater in the West has a reputation hardly more elevated than games, in Asia it's a respected art-form with a long and prestigious history. In Indonesia, puppeteers called dalang enjoy high status as masters of wayang drama. And the leading work of Japanese theater, the Chushingura (The 47 Ronin) - as revered there as we revere Shakespeare and Ibsen - was written for bunraku puppets.

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