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Soapbox: Why You Owe the Columbine RPG
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Soapbox: Why You Owe the Columbine RPG

March 13, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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