Super Columbine Massacre RPG - Part 1

Have videogames gone far enough?

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.

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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.

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"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."

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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?

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"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."

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