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Soapbox: Why You Owe the Columbine RPG

Gamasutra contributor Patrick Dugan details the history of the controversy behind Danny Ledonne's Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, with interview quotes and personal anecdotes, in today's Gamasutra cover feature.

"It's weird being a "celebrity;" I get autograph requests and death threats... all for an 8-bit videogame."

-Danny Ledonne, possibly the second most famous game creator on Earth.

A Few Numbers That Don't Lie

  • Super Columbine Massacre RPG! has been downloaded over 400,000 times.
  • The game was made in six months, with a budget equal to the cost of an RPG Maker license.
  • The game's website comes up fifth on a Google seach of "columbine massacre," a search that generates 717,000 pages; a search of "columbine game" generates 1,130,000 pages.

SCMRPG! and the media surrounding it is affecting three positive trends for games, and in the long-term, the game industry:

  • It's challenging the mainstream and specialist gaming press to discuss games as an artistically potent medium.
  • It's introducing the notion of games as art to progressive non-gamers.
  • It's introducing game designers to new notions about what games can be.

Challenging the Media

I dropped the penny that rolled a can down a hill and into a pond called the Associated Press - creating the first wave of controversy over the game. It was April 2006, I happened to hear the game mentioned on Chatterbox radio after happening to meet its host at GDC, and that chain of coincidences led me to play the game.

After being deeply impressed by it, I blogged on it and sent a mail to Ian Bogost, who blogged on it as well, describing his concern with a "culture of ineffability" that deems some topics unfit for discussion, using the game as a focal reference. Brian Crecente of Kotaku and The Rocky Mountain times did an interview with Bogost about it, and the AP picked it up. The story exploded.

The resulting press was largely reactionary, and attempted to dismiss the game as exploitative and trivializing of the Columbine massacre. As the mainstream press thrives on sensationalized news, the game was brought to the attention of those who had lost family members in the shooting, by reporters, and the responses composed a thickly consistent mix of anger and somber disbelief.

The only survivor of the massacre questioned on the game, Richard Castaldo, noted that he was glad the game was made, because he felt it a useful vehicle for dealing with the event. When asked if the game trivialized the events, he responded, "I think that ultimately a videogame is just another medium for artistic expression." His opinion was cross-reported significantly less than those condemning the game. Brent Bozell of the Parent's Television council took the reactionary sentiment perhaps the farthest, calling game creator Danny Ledonne a "deeply disturbed jerk" and Ian Bogost an "idiot" that should be fired from his position at Georgia Tech. I was in college at the time, and my school paper ran an editorial called "Columbine game is no fun at all."

The second wave of controversy was triggered by a young man named Kimver Gill, who loved guns, combat knives, industrial music, and video games, including Super Columbine. He opened fire on the campus of Dawson College in Montreal, killing one young woman and injuring nineteen others.

Ledonne said of the incident, "as soon as I heard about it I called in to work and told them I'd need to take the next day off to handle press." He couldn't eat for two days, vomiting several times in reaction to the projection that he was somehow responsible for the violence in Montreal. The press' reaction was similarly dismissive and reactionary, but a significant thing happened in the resulting discourse: a forum was opened for people like Ledonne, Bogost, or former IGDA president Jason Della Rocca, to defend games in general.


Danny Ledonne (Photo: Emberwilde Productions)

On a three-way interview on Canoe Live, Mark Strobel of the Toronto Sun challenged Ledonne, saying: "I just wonder wether this guy maybe lost touch with reality with a little help from that game of yours." Ledonne responded, "I made my videogames because they've become one of those [marginal] scapegoats, and yes while some who go on to commit violence play videogames, most young men play video games, so I don't see the correlation."

He concluded the segments in response to the anchor woman asking if he'd take down the website (www.columbinegame.com), responding, "The website is available for people to discuss videogames as a medium and what can be done in the realm of social critique, that videogames are not just divergent means of entertaining yourself, but can be works of art that explore uncomfortable topics."

It was as if the incident of a lesser tragedy (in terms of casualties) rendered an example for the public, where the culpability, or otherwise cultural validity, of games was able to stand in contrast with the psychological profile of a recent shooter. Experts from the industry and academia were given an equal voice, an opportunity to point out where the correlations between games and violence stopped, and where the causal factors began - the opportunity was well seized.

In the wake of this second media frenzy, the deadline for submissions to the Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition loomed. Both myself and Ian Bogost encouraged Ledonne to enter the game, and his query into its eligibility lead Sam Roberts to "court" the game. The game was selected as a finalist, presumably because the other entries showcased a lot of promising mechanical (flOw, Cultivation) and dynamical innovation (Braid, Steam Brigade, Toribash), and Super Columbine's aesthetic innovations, not to mention social implications, complimented the rest of the selection.


For about six weeks, between the announcement of the finalists, there was a simmer of hope that the resulting discourse would set a benchmark of games being recognized as art, or at least capable of tackling tough subject matter. Then Slamgate happened, and those hopes were dashed, not once but twice.

What's significant about that third wave of press is the dissemination of the idea became more complete in the eyes of gaming culture and, to an extent, mainstream print media. Voices on the fence like N'gai Croal of Newsweek or Jen Gerson of The Toronto Star, writing for mainstream publications from a gaming culture perspective, cleanly separated the issue of the game's validity from the issue that it had raised. Should games be viewed as having the same validity as other media?

When Ledonne arrived in Park City, he had just finished speaking at the Canadian Universal Press Conference in Vancouver. He described an example of a newscast in which the reporter was explicitly equivocating games with drugs and tobacco. He pointed out to an audience that will be writing for Canada's mainstream press about games in two years and for decades on, the utter fallacy in those associations. He suggested a story could be more compelling if it played off the growing appreciation of games that exists in the popular culture, rather than sensationalizing games as an illicit substance in an attempt to excite a waning non-gamer audience.

Sifting of the complicated baggage surrounding Super Columbine resulted in a clear portrayal of an issue regarding not one's personal tastes about the game, but the entire present and future of the medium. The revolt followed. Kellee Santiago, President of That Game Company, said, "Removing it from the festival is discouraging, because it implies that games are still not to be taken seriously, that games are only for mindless fun. If we are trying to work against this stigma as artists, then we also have to fight against this stigma as entrants in the festival as well."

Six titles and one sponsor withdrew from the festival in protest. In the press, this solidarity move echoed with impressive temerity, and the tide of sympathy, or outright support, became more and more tilted towards games, and the game. It was as if the "game exploits columbine" headline had been inverted, replaced with more valiant headlines like that of Heather Chaplin's New York Times article: "Games Test The Limits, The Limits Win."

Well, not entirely.

In many ways, the stonewalling of Super Columbine Massacre did more to signify the cultural validity of games than a formal awarding possibly could have. Dozens of print articles, hundreds of blog posts and thousands of comments speak louder than any award - though if Brian Flemming (Slamdance Documentary Film Juror) weren't blocked from awarding the game for its documentary comment, that would have been significant.

The aftermath lead to two highly bifurcated positive effects, one of those was a new premium for gaming print publications to address the issue. Game Informer set the precedent in its March 2007 issue with a well laid-out, two page spread detailing the issue. The article includes a blown-up quote of Ledonne's, "This game, frankly, may be either a bit ahead of its time, or there may be no time for this game, depending on how our culture will view serious games in the next five or ten years."

Game Informer's benchmark of game-specialized print journalism may very well inspire other major publications to follow suit with their own coverage, and in the capacity of Game Informer's readership, paints a symbol of solidarity. The twelve year old kid who thinks Gears of War is the best thing going can take a look at these graphics, popular before his birth, and get a sense that his beloved past-time is part of something greater, something he can defend to non-gamers as being inherently valuable.

Presenting Games As Art To Non-Gamers

The other positive effect that has come out of the evolving media discourse surrounding the game has been an evangelization of the notion that games can be as meaningful and important as other media, even if the example is offensive to the sensibilities of most Americans. Heartland conservatives will probably never appreciate the game, but the kind of people who read Newsweek or the New York Times are a different story.

In comments of popular blogs like Joystiq, as well as the web editions of major newspapers, people have engaged in fervent discussion over the validity of the game. Like the average tenor of press regarding the game, public comments shifted from largely reactionary in April of 2006 to sympathetic and even interested by late January, 2007. In the context of Slamgate, the validity of games as a medium was also under discussion, and with considerably sympathy.

It has become more explicit that the public's aversion to the game isn't based on its content, but on the fact that its a game about Columbine. A "respectable" medium like film or literature imply a greater degree of removal of the audience from the subject matter, but a game is frighteningly visceral, and according to critics, "too interactive" - which is kind of like saying a film is "too lit" or a book is "too wordy." In New York and L.A. however, there is a growing interest in "New Media," and a growing understanding of the power of agency as something no other medium but games can employ.

Beyond sampling of publicly posted comments, this benefit is much more difficult to measure than the first; my strongest evidence to this effect are extrapolated from personal anecdotes.

On the first night of Slamdance, I spoke with a guy who'd never been interested in games, beyond the obligatory Tetris. He works as an audio engineer in television production, and claimed his aversion to gaming was the lack of emotional depth. But then he told me that Super Columbine was getting him interested in playing games for the first time.

When discussing the cultural problem of the Columbine massacre in contrast with the cultural problem of the game's reception, he said, "I think people are becoming increasingly fragmented and withdrawn into their own private realities; gaming may become a vital medium for our society, because it gives us a common frame of experience."

He had arrived at this notion after learning about the game, and considering that as tackling the cultural problem the Columbine massacre presented in a more important way than other media on the subject. His interpretation suggests that taking on the role of the anathema, the child killer of children, rather than merely being a spectator, allows us to actively understand that alienation. There are many millions of people like him across the world, and they are a vast and untapped market for games that explore difficult subjects.

Sipping wine with an experienced television and film producer, I was lectured on the responsibility of content creators by someone who was not only such a content creator, but also a mother. I conceded to that responsibility, even though there may be disagreements about what that responsibility entails. She then encouraged me to run game design workshops with school kids in my spare time. I said, "I am about to blow your mind. A guy made an RPG about Columbine, and in his day job he does just that."

Ledonne screens the game for children as young as twelve, but no younger. To them, the Columbine massacre itself is news, and they find the issue fascinating. To a young person growing up in schools today, life and society can be even more intimidating than when we were growing up, but its arguable that educating young people about such a nervous social issue may enable them to face reality, and divert future incidences of school violence.

Ledonne was commissioned to make a video due to the buzz of his game, though his employers didn't know what the game was about. When asked, Danny told the truth. The man, who had limited experience with games and lived in the country most of his life, thought about it a moment, then smiled and said: "that's pretty neat."


On my last night at Slamdance, I demoed the game for an actress with Tetris-threshold experience - we were being filmed for Ledonne's documentary on the controversy. Watching her play the game, I think I learned more about game design than any book or article could teach. She laughed at a few lines in the game, then gasped when told they were taken from real dialogue recorded as evidence. When it came time to pull the trigger, she felt demonstrable remorse for the act, but then wondered if she'd feel the same the second time.

The repetition lessoned the humanity of the action, until she reported feeling like she wasn't killing people but simply scoring points in a game. Eventually she got bored, went to the library, and "ended" the game. The representational 2D graphics melted away, and an image of the dead shooters, grainy and low-res, but photographic, emerged onto the screen, followed by a montage of traumatized survivors, and then photos of the shooters as they grew from boys to young men. She was moved.

Brain Flemming was standing behind us and was compelled to watch the entire play through. His impressions of the embedded content, and presumably the actress' reactions to the play, lead to him almost giving the game a special award for its documentary content.

Danny has been invited to submit the game to the GameWorld 2007 (March 31st-June 31st in Spain). SCMRPG is an official entry and will have its own installment there for two months. He was also invited to speak at Loyola-Marymount University on February 13th, where he'll be speaking on First Amendment rights and videogames, and then a subsequent panel at USC. Ledonne continues to receive and accept offers to speak, often with no compensation beyond a travel stipend.

According to Ledonne, of the game's hundreds of thousands of downloads "many are by non-gamers; I get emails from art teachers, social workers, etc." One of these non-gamers was Joseph A. Lieberman, author of The Shooting Game - The Making of School Shooters who engaged him in thoughtful debate.

Ledonne noted, "[SCMRPG!] has been the subject of several high school and college papers, [a] college sociology textbook, and a college-level persuasive speech. I know professor David Kociemba at Emerson College has integrated SCMRPG into his history of media arts curriculum. I think the genuine academic discourse the game has prompted is merely beginning in 2007."

An Alternate Take on Game Design

The game demonstrates, like other titles such as Disaffected!, Ayiti: The Cost Of Life, and Darfur Is Dying, how gameplay that is not fun can be very compelling. All of these titles have been free to play, and have no alternative monetization (except for ads, in Persuasive Game's case). In Super Columbine's case, the extremity of the public reaction, and the role it forces you to play, make it particularly important. Ironically, the introduction of play that is compelling but not fun to game designers has been the most marginal benefit the game has brought - so far - though its my hope that this article will inspire current and future designers to explore the medium more fully.

Part of the reason that non-gamer critics have had trouble parsing SCMRPG! is that half of the game is social commentary, but the other half is a satire of conventional gaming tropes. The power fantasy, a trope represented in at least 90% of games on the market, is subverted with gratuitous item text ("You got a .45 Carbine rifle complete with shoulder strap!") and leveling that comes at the expense of young lives.

The part of the game most pointed to as clearly lacking compassion, the Doom-monster ridden journey through hell, is where the game's emphasis shifts most dramatically. The school shooting is 65% social commentary, 35% critique of traditional game design, in hell this ratio flips, where the social commentary comes in the form of metaphysical critique (Mega Man is in hell because he's an Android, Nietszche is in hell for saying "God Is Dead") and the power fantasy is more strongly parodied.

Disparate voices have been saying we should move on to other psychological modes, that "fun" is a four letter word, but Super Columbine lays out the case implicitly, and may well be taught in future game design theory classes for this reason.

The school shooting itself presents the most condensed lessons for designers looking to push the limits of the medium. A player of the game put it best. "For me, this was one of the hardest games I've ever played," he said. "After twenty years of gaming, it's almost natural at this point to try and immerse myself in what I play, but doing so in this case was impossible.

"If anything, the constant cycle of playing the game versus thinking about playing the game - the association, then dissociation - helped to sharpen the line between game and reality, not blur it."

Jenova Chen noted in an e-mail regarding the USC panel, "[What] we learned is that there are two types of game makers in the room. One that wants to make extreme artistic games and the one that want to prepare the audience and societies to get ready for these artistic games."


Jenova Chen (Photo: Emberwilde Productions)

Chen is known for having design flOw, a game which tries to perfect and foreground traditional associative play, and Cloud, which as been hailed as having a positive message and being artistically bold. We need both the Jenova Chens and Danny Ledonnes of the world making games for this medium to advance, however the industry rewards designers like Chen with three-game deals and lavish press, while designers like Ledonne are forced to operate in ignominy with minimal funds. Perhaps academic support and discussion can aid the more extreme art-games, while industry funding and media can encourage the more moderate, but still progressive titles.

We like to bandy the work "challenge" around almost as much as the word "fun" when discussing game design. In SCMRPG!'s case, the challenge is ethical. The typical association we try to sustain, in order to "immerse" the player, encourage a steady "flow" to the experience, is itself challenged, laced with a cycle of haunting regret that is overcome in acts of violence, only to re-emerge stronger and more harrowing. The flow of the game becomes more profound because its so delicately mangled, we as Harris and Klebold are no longer optimizing toward a goal, but are faced with a wicked problem that has no clean solution.

To win is to lose, but to play is to experience an enrichment that cannot be scored.

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