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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 2 of 3 Next

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."

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