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By Annalee Newitz

ONE OF THE embarrassing things about being a human instead of a really sweet OpenBSD box is that sometimes you forget things. Last week I was talking with my pal Suzanne about something to do with juggernauts, when she suddenly paused and looked at me weirdly.

"Do you know what a juggernaut is?" she asked.

"Yeah, they're those big tiered pyramids with the sort of stair shape," I replied, drawing one in the air with my fingers.

"That's a ziggurat!" she laughed.

Holy crap, I thought to myself. For the past dozen years, I've completely elided the words juggernaut and ziggurat. And why not? Both are giant, unstoppable forces. Both are connected with religions that existed in the ancient world. And, let's face it: they sound really similar.

But the truly eerie thing was that my mistake had actually rewritten one of my favorite childhood vocabulary memories. Back in the sixth grade, I was playing a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. In one particularly memorable campaign, my party encountered an "inverted ziggurat," which was when I learned what a ziggurat was and how it was shaped.

For years afterward, I felt deeply superior knowing that I had learned the meaning of ziggurat from a geeky role-playing game. And yet before Suzanne corrected me, I was thinking smugly about how I knew what juggernaut meant because of that "inverted juggernaut" from way back when. Who the hell knows what else I've misremembered in this way.

Actually, there is a chance that I can use this particular mind trick to claim that I've always known about the machinima art movement. It's just that I elided the word fanfic with the word machinima and managed to forget that there was a difference between them. You, dear reader, with your fine and untroubled memory, will have no problem recalling that machinima is the art of making movies out of video games.

Although the machinima scholars on Wikipedia claim the practice can be dated back to the 1970s, it wasn't until the Quake-related machinima masterpieces of the late 1990s that most of the world came to know about the phenomenon. Like fanfic, which is short for fan fiction and refers to original stories that fans create about their favorite TV shows, movies, comic books or whatever, machinima are stories that take well-known video-game characters and situations in bizarre new directions. A machinima artist might stage a play or music video using characters from Halo, or simply use the rendering engine from Quake to create an amateur CGI action movie set in the Quake universe.

One of my favorite recent bits of machinima is called World of Warcraft: Shut Up and Dance. It begins with a typical battle scene from the game, with fantasy monsters and other characters blowing the crap out of each other. Then, abruptly, the scene shifts, and all the game avatars are dancing to a catchy song, waggling their hips and doing the green-demon boogie. What's truly amusing is that the machinima maker has managed to manipulate the game characters into dancing, even though all the moves they've been programmed to make are associated with fighting. It's a fun movie, as well as being a spot-on satire of the entire genre of first-person fantasy combat games.

Making machinima isn't the only way that fans pay tribute to their games, however. Sometimes they liberate bits of games that got edited out on the way to the shelves at Fry's.

A few weeks ago, the nerds who play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas discovered that a special code could unlock a hidden sequence where the main character has fairly graphic sex with his girlfriend after she invites him to her house for "coffee." Basically, these nerds had found something manufacturer Rockstar Games had edited out but didn't actually have time to remove from the code itself.

Tinker with the code, and voila, all edited scenes are restored! Dubbed the "hot coffee mod," the codes to unlock this bit of naughtiness zipped around the Internet like wildfire, inspiring Rockstar to recall hundreds of thousands of PC versions of the game.

These are my favorite moments in popular culture, when fans take control of mass media and transform it. Nobody will remember today's bad TV and video games in 50 years, but fanfic and machinima will never die.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who can't wait to read slash fiction about the machinima flick 'Red vs. Blue.'

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From the August 3-9, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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