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Columbine Controversy Examined At Serious Games Symposium

In a panel from Georgia Tech's Living Game Worlds Symposium, USC's Tracey Fullerton, Persuasive Games' Ian Bogost, and Slamdance's Sam Roberts talked freedom of expression and new policy changes after the “shortsighted”
March 29, 2007
Speaking during a panel during the Georgia Tech's third annual Living Game Worlds Symposium, representatives from the serious games community sounded off on the recent controversial expulsion of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! from the 2007 event. The panel, titled “Playing with Controversy: The Case of Super Columbine Massacre” featured insight from USC Interactive Media Program's Tracey Fullerton and Georgia Institute of Technology assistant professor and Persuasive Games founding partner Ian Bogost, as well as Slamdance competition organizer Sam Roberts, all of whom seemed to agree that that the removal of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! for the event was “symbolic of a cultural misunderstanding of this medium.” The fact that Slamdance is held alongside the Slamdance Film Festival was voiced as a potential contributor to the controversial game's removal, as Roberts explained, “If we were a stand alone game event, this probably would not have happened, as opposed to being tied to an event that already has some sort of cultural significance. Films and independent film work went through this already... they have found ways to train media literacies and train audiences on films that explore edgy issues.” He added: “The chilling effect on a competition like Slamdance is that there is much less understanding, and less less advocates to support you when you want to make a risqué statement.” However, despite this, both Bogost and Fullerton called out the controversial removal of Danny Ledonne's game from the event as “shortsighted” and “hypocritical,” with Bogost commenting that “it made for a less involved festival... I was actually happy to see games like fl0w pull themselves out as a recognition of solidarity... It's a helpful gesture pushing forth the idea of media literacy.” Freedom of expression was recognized as the central issue on everyone's mind following the removal of Super Columbine Massacre, though the panelists each echoed concern that a game's potential motivations or agenda is also worth consideration. “That is very much what this is about,” stated Roberts. “As games being utilized as art, and with documentary games, people are going to be making games with an agenda... Every piece of art has assumptions associated with it, and we need to start dealing with these freedom of expression issues.” However, he balanced this by stating that sometimes there are going to be “moral concerns with showing a game,” asking the question, “If a game has an agenda, is it necessarily okay to be showing that in public?” Roberts also openly admitted that with regards to Ledonne's game, Slamdance was simply caught unprepared. “As a film festival, it was not something we were prepared for or expected... I don't we handled this very well, and on an organizational level we didn't have all of our ducks in a row. “ However, it seemed from Roberts' statements that the annual event is adjusting its policies to be better prepared for future similar event following this trial by fire. “This is our new policy... We'll send a [controversial] game to the judges, but being looked at wouldn't change its status. If [the judges] came back and really wanted to put in this game, we would be able to offer it at an exclusive private screening.” He continued: “We would still bring games selected by judges [to the festival], but those games that we would not be comfortable to showing -- either on legal or moral levels -- could still be looked at by media and artists as something we could learn from.” He also added that the event will have stricter legal guidelines as well. “Super Columbine Massacre didn't have any explicit legal issues we were concerned about... However, Danny didn't have all the rights to the audio, which was what brought the game's concerns to the surface.” “This is why we are cleaning up the guidelines for the whole festival,” commented the event's organizer. “We will never screen anything where people don't have all of their rights and clearances locked away.” Fullerton closed the panel by addressing the audience on some of the technical and “media literacy” issues faced by the serious games community. “We are entrenched in a world preexisting technology and engines. It's one of things that rarely mentioned... [Super Columbine Massacre] was created using a preexisting game engine and conventions. It's a mod essentially.” She continued: “Danny is not really a game maker, he used these tools to express himself as well as he could. It's an issue of with the way in which games are made today. I think there is a balance needed in creating more literate players and also creating more flexible game tools.”

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