Have games gone too far? (Super Columbine Massacre RPG)

Guns_LotsOfGuns

Moderator/Games Reviewer
A long but very good feature from Eurogamer

Squeeze the R-trigger and you peer around the seat in front. On either side of a sweet-wrapper-strewn gangway passengers yawn at in-flight movies or snore from beneath grey blankets. Stewardesses giggle huddled and preoccupied ten metres behind you. Tick tock and Carpe Diem: the moment has arrived. You tap A and the seat belt and adrenaline unclasp.

Easing the analogue stick forward inconspicuously inches you towards the cockpit. Select brings up a mundane but deadly inventory. Bic razor equipped you slip through the door, mash the X-button to slit the pilot's throat then hit B to praise Allah for an ideological multiplier. Lock the door and L-click to engage the flight controls. The camera switches to a third-person view following the plane, lens-flared HUD as sparse as your character's emotion. New York's twin towers stand 25 minutes and 100 achievement points away.

Before the Daily Mail staff enjoys a collective brain haemorrhage from outrage/delight, as yet there is no such videogame: to many people the idea of any interactive media that allows you to role-play as a real-life 'villain' recreating historical atrocities is simply taboo. United 93, a film which hired actors to act out the type of roles described above in order to help viewers dissect the events of 9/11 might receive worldwide critical praise and accolade but with videogames think of the children! How on earth could a 'toy' meaningfully comment on or communicate about the darker side of humanity's behaviour?

It's attitudes like this *- the kind that reveal the disparity between freedom of expression in videogames to that in books and movies *- that resurfaced last month when the Slamdance Independent film festival announced it was removing one of the most controversial games from its Guerrilla Gamemaker prize short-list. The cutesy 16-bit Final Fantasy style graphics of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, mask its macabre and challenging content: you play as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two ostracised teenagers who visited their school, Columbine High, on Tuesday, 20th April, 1999 and shot and killed twelve students and a teacher before committing suicide in America's most deadly school shooting.

The festival organisers blamed the decision on fear that a public backlash against the game's inclusion (it had already attracted acres of negative column space before being short-listed) could scare off sponsors, or even attract a civil lawsuit (as Slamdance upped the ante by amending their official statement to read on Friday), something which could throw the festival's future into jeopardy.

But the Columbine massacre has been the subject of much creative investigation: Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine and Gus Van Sant's Elephant, films which respectively dissect and recreate the day's events, were awarded the Palme d'Or in consecutive years, not to mention the countless books published on the subject. So what is it that makes a Columbine-based videogame so unpalatable to the media? Does the interactive element of videogames change the parameters of what is and isn't permissible in art? Or is it simply that games are seen as being for children and should leave tough subject matters to the elder mediums? Eurogamer spoke to the game's (until recently anonymous) creator, Danny LeDonne, and Ian Bogost, assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a staunch supporter of the game and its importance in the videogame canon, in order to untangle the issues.

LeDonne, now in his mid-twenties, was attending another high school in Colorado at the time of the killings. Confused as to why boys of a similar age, location and situation (he too was bullied) would express themselves in such a destructive manner, LeDonne decided to make a homebrew videogame using the PC program RPG Maker to try to make sense of the events leading up to and during that day. Eurogamer asked Bogost what he thought the relevance of such a game might be to a wider audience. "The game is about the experience of Harris and Klebold before and during the Columbine massacre," he explained. "It's primary purpose is to give the player an experience of the lives these two led, the horrific and tragic acts they perpetrated, and their eventual demise by their own hands.

"The main point of the game, as I see it, is to provide players with the killers' perspective - their feelings of alienation and loneliness, their withdrawal into an isolated world in which they misused media - including videogames, but also music and books - to rekindle their feelings of alienation. This game is certainly not meant to make us excuse Harris and Klebold, or to forgive them. But it does ask us to empathise with them, to try to understand the situation they perceived themselves to be stuck in."

The plotline follows the events of the day with meticulous detail amassed from newspaper reports and sheriff records. Such attention to minutiae (your characters have the exact same number of bombs and weapons as Harris and Klebold for example) has seen LeDonne described as obsessional, perhaps even glorifying the attackers' acts. So why go to such great lengths? "I felt like if I wanted to make a serious game, I ought to take my subject seriously," said LeDonne. "This wasn't going to be something I'd sink months of time into unless I was going to tell the story the way it happened (while still allowing for an open-ended environment for interaction - a challenging balance to strike). Without the attention to detail, I think SCMRPG would run a much greater risk of trivialising the shooting (as some critics allege) and would undermine the game's primary purpose of showing the player a story they only thought they knew before."

Motivations, disillusionment and rage are all discussed through the lens of the day's events. While the game never shows footage or stills of any of the victims, it does intersperse real photographs of the boys, quote things that they said and, finally, displays a graphic image from the coroner's office of their own lifeless bodies at the scene. What drove the decision to display such a graphical image? "That decision was an easy one: to connect the limited graphical reality of the 'game' with the deeply serious consequences of the game's subject matter. They killed people. They killed themselves. This isn't Mario Bros. This really happened. Here are the crime scene photos to prove it. The player must now account for what has happened thus far in the game. I felt like a documentary approach filled with real quotations and real photos was the best way to confront the shooting on honest terms.

"Videogames often sanitise their violence and thereby shortchange the player in terms of understanding the ramifications of his/her actions. I wanted to challenge that. This is a subject that demanded as much."

The game was released onto the Internet for download on 20th April 2005, the sixth anniversary of the shootings. For a while it went mostly undiscovered, but when exposed and written about by Ian Bogost on his blog in May last year it began to gain platform and media notoriety. Much of the mainstream US press decried the game for making entertainment out of others' suffering. LeDonne is adamant that this is not the case: "I don't regard this game as entertainment. Many have written about how morally challenging this game is to play. A review in Salt Lake City said: 'I hate this game with all my heart not because it was made, but because the real Columbine massacre occurred'. And, that, I think, is the real point.

"There are moments in the game that push the idea that games can be emotionally difficult, that they can be satire, that they can be critical social commentary. If all people want is entertainment, this isn't a very good choice; the graphics are sub-par at best, the gameplay is clunky and limited, and there is so much reading involved that someone looking for a 'murder simulator' would best look elsewhere. But entertainment aside, is it 'wrong' to make a film that centres on another's suffering? What about a book? A painting? A song? A theatre production? Why are games different? If there are films about the suffering of Christ, why could there not be videogames? Videogames absolutely should be able to approach the same issues other artforms do albeit in the manner that is inherently unique to gaming."

It's this 'inherently unique' aspect to videogames that is the cause of so much consternation when it comes to their depicting sensitive issues and events. While the films Bowling for Columbine and Elephant addressed many of the same issues as SCMRPG, there is a key difference in that here you role-play as the antagonists. Surely the interactivity and participatory nature of SCMRPG neuters any real meaningful comparisons between those films and this game?

"I disagree with the contention that, because videogames are interactive they must somehow be treated differently to other creative media," argued LeDonne. "This is a dangerous line of argument because of course every medium is in some way distinct from the others. Is film an inappropriate medium for a subject of photography simply because viewers are shown twenty-four photographs per second? Is music too interactive a medium because sound waves actually strike against us? Are books too interactive a medium because they compel us to envision the author's description in our heads?

"Surely this tired concern about how 'interactive' games are is merely a reaction to their infancy as a medium. I can't think of a single medium that hasn't had a share of controversy for whatever unique expressive qualities it has. The concern exhibited here was actually the very same that was put forward to criticise role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons in the '70s and '80s: that assuming a character is simply too dangerous a proposition. I suppose the same arguments could be wheeled out against an actor who plays an antagonist (such as Bruno Ganz as Hitler in the 2004 Oscar-nominee Downfall) or children playing cops and robbers.

Bogost agrees: "Interactivity is one of the core features that differentiate games from passive media like film. In a game we play a role. Most of the time, the roles we play in games are roles of power. Space marine, world-class footballer or hero plumber. Isn't it about time we played the role of the weak, the misunderstood, even the evil? If videogames remain places where we only exercise juvenile power fantasies, I'm not sure there will be a meaningful future for the medium."

The idea that videogames can allow a player to take on the role of an antagonist is not a new one. Fable and Knights of the Old Republic were both recent titles that gave players the option to role-play as an evil character. The difference with SMCRPG is that the position is forced upon you as you recreate real life horrors. While the effect was clearly deliberate, Eurogamer asked why it might be important for games to facilitate playing such roles?

"We can learn about the system of ideas, values, historical circumstances, and personal feelings that drove their decisions," explained Bogost. "I'm sure every American wonders how and why the 9/11 hijackers could choose to commit the acts they did. Is it enough just to wonder? Should we not try to understand? Understanding and empathy does not mean apology or excuse. It's worth flipping this point on its head: from the hijackers' perspective, what do you think someone can learn by playing a game in which people value global capitalism over faith? In which people can learn to become soldiers of America's Army to pursue that goal? Who gets to be right?"

"I think the opportunity to walk a mile in someone else's shoes is an experience that videogames can uniquely give us," agreed LeDonne. "Play the McDonald's Videogame or Darfur is Dying or Disaffected. How does it feel to run a corrupt multinational corporation? How about being a refugee in the Sudan? What about working at Kinko's? Games offer a window through which we can see the world a different way. I suppose that's a lofty jump for some people to make and as a result videogames are often scrutinised because the power of role-playing (as psychologists know well) can be very potent. But I think this is something to study, redefine, and embrace... not flee from."

Custer's Revenge, the Atari 2600 game from 1982, gained notoriety for casting the player as General Custer tasked with overcoming various obstacles in order to rape a Native American woman bound to a post. The game received widespread criticism, not just because it was a terrible videogame, but also for its content. Eurogamer asked both men whether they thought that videogames had to present a worthy point in order for offensive interactivity to be permissible or if meaningless sexism and racism could be validly portrayed?

"We shouldn't confuse expression with sensationalism and offence," noted Bogost. "Custer's Revenge was probably created to offend, not to inspire or raise questions in its players. That is not because it depicts rape, by the way, but because it fails to offer any meaningful perspective on rape, from a historical perspective, from the perspective of the perpetrator, or from the perspective of the victim."

"Well, for me," LeDonne added, "the 'worthiness' of a point isn't exactly something we can measure with a ruler. One of the most important nuances of free speech is the understanding that one's personal estimation of 'poor taste' is a weak means of examining the value of any particular expression.

"It's important to remember that while Birth of a Nation is a deeply racist film by today's standards, it is also an important landmark for filmmaking itself. Perhaps the same importance cannot be placed on Custer's Revenge but nonetheless perspectives of sexism and racism should have the same accessibility in videogames as they do in a variety of other mediums. Watching Triumph of the Will or listening to Nirvana's Rape Me can be very valid experiences for an audience to have. So long as an issue exists in the real world, artists will feel compelled to represent it in their work... including videogames.

"One of the ways in which SCMRPG differs from Custer's Revenge, in my estimation, is the depth of the perspective SCMRPG offers and the factual nature of the game's content. However, the basic idea that the player can take on the identity of a morally unwholesome character is shared by both games and I believe a valuable exercise. How do we know who we are unless we know who we are not?"

It's this kind of denial of any ineffability in videogames that perhaps most scares videogames' detractors. Eurogamer asked both men if they thought any act was truly permissible in a videogame and, if so, why. "Yes," argued LeDonne. "If games are to truly explore the world we live in instead of merely allowing us to escape from it whenever we press the power button, then games need to have the artistic license to approach any subject. I think it is possible to make a game on virtually any topic that comes to mind and the game should be evaluated on its content rather than its form. Is there any subject matter that should be off-limits for sculpture or acrylic? Of course not. What matters is what the work contains."

"I agree," added Bogost. "No topic is off-limits to art of any kind. We must not be afraid to try to understand our world, even if such progress seems difficult or dangerous. Clearly there are more and less meaningful ways to simulate any topic. But no subject is a priori off limits. It is then the job of the critic to tell us whether it is good or successful."

The Slamdance Festival contacted Bogost to ask if he'd be willing to give his opinion on the game just before the decision was made to strike it from the awards shortlist. However, before he was properly interviewed the announcement was made to the press. Eurogamer asked Bogost why he thought Slamdance were wrong to censor the game from their festival. "Slamdance is a juried festival," he explained. "The game was selected among entries by a panel of judges to advance to the festival. The purpose of the festival - for films and games alike - is to give independent and experimental voices a place to be shown and seen, where otherwise they might not have one. By singling out one title for unilateral exclusion, Slamdance has shown that those values are in fact a sham."

The decision not only implies the festival organisers made a mistake with their initial invitation but also that they perhaps now believe the game to be irresponsible. However, right from the game's initial release onto the Internet LeDonne provided discussion forums on the game's official website to allow players to discuss the game and the issues it raises. Eurogamer asked him why this was so important to him: "I didn't make this game for money (it's a free download); I didn't make this game for fame (I was anonymous for over a year): What's left then? I made the game because I was a kid in Colorado when the shooting occurred, because I was frustrated with how the press portrayed videogames as complicit in this (and many other) shootings, and because I felt like there was so much to the Columbine shooting that most people weren't paying attention to (namely why the two boys became so angry and detached). So to foster awareness in these areas, I put up a place for people to discuss these and other emerging issues."

German politicians have recently been discussing introducing a law that could see crimes against videogame entities punishable in the real world. Such acts might be easier to pinpoint in a mindlessly violent game but in SCMRPG one player might play with a view to learning about the killers, their motivations and the circumstances that led up to their actions; Another might then play the game simply to role-play killing some teenagers in a school canteen for kicks. These two scenarios would be near impossible to distinguish in a court of law. Eurogamer asked LeDonne if he thought the opportunity for misuse of interactive media was a valid case for banning it?

"Well, I think the idea of 'banning' a game, a poem, or a dance is deeply worrisome. What you speak about really asks us to consider the role that parents and others take in the developmental process of young people. I think that anyone who would kill others after playing a video game is a deeply disturbed individual and would find any media available to further such a demented personal ethic.

"Would we have school shootings even without videogames? Yes. We would even have school shootings without guns; they would be worse, I predict, because the ingredients to make propane bombs (like Eric and Dylan's) can be purchased at a hardware store and could potentially kill hundreds of people at once.

So the real issue for understanding violence has nothing to do with whether one has read Catcher in the Rye (as John Lennon's assassin did) or listening to The Beatles (as Charles Manson did). I think these kinds of reactionary gestures may satisfy a nervous public in the short-run but really they only provide false comfort as the real causes remain unaddressed - one of the overarching themes in SCMRPG.

Whatever your position on the game it's impossible to deny that SMCRPG has raised a great many issues that are becoming increasingly relevant to the mainstream videogames debate. But there's a sense in which this homebrew RPG - a way for a bullied schoolboy also living in Colorado at the time of the killings to try to understand why other ostracised schoolboys would have dealt with their experiences in such a destructive way - was never meant to carry so many issues into the public spotlight. Eurogamer asked LeDonne whether he thought its shoulders are broad enough to carry the issues.

"I don't think SCMRPG (or any other single game) is 'broad enough' to carry all the issues raised by its content," added LeDonne. "I think of SCMRPG as a contribution to what games can someday be. The reason the spotlight on this game is so intense and scrutinising is because it's attempting to walk a path most have so far stayed well away from and, as a result, is a lightening rod for both agenda-driven criticism and praise. It's been called 'ghastly and horrible' by some and 'the Rosa Parks of videogames' by others.

"In the end, I suppose SCMRPG was ultimately just a personal statement I made that a variety of people found a variety of responses to. However, as I was making the game it changed me. I realised how I was able to save myself from the same fate as the main characters I was looking at so closely: I found things I loved in life whereas they let themselves grow to hate almost everything. If even one other teenager reads this and reciprocates that sentiment, I'll feel extremely validated"

I first heard about this game a while back, but i dismissed it as a distasteful peice of "fun" from some punk kid, but having read this article the guy gives some well articulated answers and makes some very well reasoned points.

Before i read this i thought the idea of this game was pretty disgusting, but now im not so sure...

Opinions?
 

Tejstar

Distinguished Member
It's difficult to say. I think whenever you create a game based on a real event it will always strike a raw nerve. In a way it is glorifying what they did.
 

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