"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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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)
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
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.