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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 Page 1 of 3 Next

"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.
  • The 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.

After 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.

The resulting 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."

The 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.

Ledonne 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)

On 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 correlation."

He concluded the segments in response to the anchor woman asking if he'd take down the website (, 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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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