Would you defend a Columbine video game?
In late November, a jury at the Slamdance Film Festival nominated a video game about the 1999 Colorado school shooting as a finalist in its Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition. Slamdance, which will start next Thursday in Park City, Utah, specializes in edgy content.
But last week, festival organizers dropped "Super Columbine Massacre RPG," citing moral and sponsorship concerns. This past weekend, other game makers began dropping out of the competition in a show of support for the Columbine game, and what was a festival of 14 guerrilla games is set to be contested with just eight at press time.
"There are moral obligations to consider with this particular game and the interests and welfare of the Slamdance organization and its community," reads a statement posted on the Slamdance Web site Tuesday morning. "Ultimately, after much internal conflict and debate, we decided to pull this game and hope a choice like it will never have to be made again." The festival had never pulled jury-selected content from the competition before.
The man who made that decision is Peter Baxter, the co-founder of the Slamdance Festival. On Tuesday (January 9) he explained his call to MTV News: "Is this unfair to the game maker? Yes. Is it unfair to the game jury? Yes it is. It's a hard decision. In my mind we really struggled with this."
"SCMRPG" was created in 2005 and last year drew national attention for its Super Nintendo-style rendering of the deadly school shooting. Solo developer Danny Ledonne drew ire from people horrified by the notion of a video game based on a national tragedy. Ledonne countered that his free game — which is not the kind of bloody first-person shooter many expected — is designed to make people think. He said this in an Artist's Statement on his Web site and in interviews with MTV News and Brian Crecente, the Rocky Mountain News games reporter who subsequently broke the Slamdance story (see "Columbine Victim, Game Maker Speak Out About Controversial Role-Playing 'Massacre' ").
"Using a basic role-playing game (RPG) interface, this game explores the thoughts and actions of two teens bent on blowing it all up," read a statement on the Slamdance site, back when "SCMRPG" was still a nominee. Baxter said that the game's handling of Columbine wasn't the issue. "I'm comfortable with how the game maker is working with this subject matter. But the answer is it does take this to the next level." Because gaming is interactive? "Yes."
Baxter rejected the implication of a double-standard — that he wouldn't have made the same call regarding a movie that involved a school shooting, like "Elephant." "We've had a lot more challenging fare shown at Slamdance than 'Elephant,' " he said. "I don't think you can compare 'Elephant' and this game. They're different." How so? He didn't elaborate, but he did raise other concerns about "SCMRPG." "This game is not crude in its topic but crude in its game-making design," he said. "A lot of game makers are coming out in support from its social content. What's become more important is the consideration of the families that have suffered from this and their reaction to it. There lies the moral obligation to really consider it."
Until last week, the "SCMRPG" game shared the finalists' page with the likes of "Plasma Pong," a time-manipulating adventure game called "Braid" and the meditative and soon-to-be-released-on-PS3 downloadable game "flOw." None of the rest of the games pushed quite the same bounds as a game that allows players to control two teenagers who murdered their schoolmates. But that hasn't prevented a closing of the ranks.
"The game lacks compassion, and I find the artist's statement disingenuous. But despite this, the game does have redeeming value," wrote Jonathan Blow, the indie designer of another Slamdance-nominated game, "Braid," in an online statement Monday. "It does provoke important thoughts, and it does push the boundaries of what games are about. It is composed with more of an eye toward art than most games. Clearly, it belongs at the festival. So, in protest of game's expulsion, I have dropped 'Braid' out of the competition as well."
Deciding to pull a game from the show wasn't an easy call. On Friday, "flOw" creator Jenova Chen would not say whether he would remove his game. He was torn. "My first reaction is that this action really reduces the artistic value of the Slamdance award among indie game makers' eyes," he wrote in an e-mail. "However, I think I can understand why the sponsor insisted this action." He shared a story from last year's Slamdance, when he had to demo another of his acclaimed games, "Cloud," in a room that also featured screenings of a documentary containing scenes of soldiers torturing kids. The material bothered him. "Personally I am definitely not ready to see this kind of content without warning. And I believe many people felt that way last year too. Maybe someone complained, so the sponsor decided to do something about it."
But on Monday, "flOw" was yanked anyway. A statement signed by Chen and three other developers involved with That Game Company, the young team preparing the game for PS3, suggested that the dismissal of "SCMRPG" represented an affront to gaming as a maturing medium: "We cannot help but wonder, if 'SCMRPG' were a film, if the reaction by the Slamdance organizers would have been the same. 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."
Three other indie developers have pulled their games. Another developer, Ian Bogost, who was set to attend the festival, has publicly bowed out. And the developers of last year's festival winner, "Façade," have written an open letter supporting "SCMRPG" and calling for the game to be reinstated.
Not every developer is preparing to bow out, however. John Baez is a producer at the Behemoth, a small San Diego developer that was planning to make its second Slamdance appearance, this time featuring a finalist called "Castle Crashers." He's still planning on attending. "We think it's best we go on site and have a dialogue with the other competitors as well as the festival organizers," he said. He was among the signers of another open letter criticizing the dismissal of the Columbine game, but said it didn't make sense to skip the event. "Our primary purpose for being there wasn't for getting PR and it wasn't to compete in the competition. It was to meet other developers and to meet filmmakers who have been doing this many more years than game developers and learn from them how [to secure] independent financing of our art projects. And I'm sure a lot of those filmmakers, once they understand what's going on, are going to have a lot to say and I don't want to miss it." He also said his team may still excuse themselves from the competition once they arrive in Park City.
Where is Ledonne in all of this? On Friday he told MTV News that he hadn't courted the festival in the first place. "Slamdance tried to convince me otherwise and at their request I submitted the game to their festival. They ended up backing out on it. It's fine, though; this was never about winning awards, etc." Since then, he's been sending mass e-mails citing articles in his support. His subject lines include, "The gaming community is pissed" and "La Revolución de videojuego."
Baxter confirmed that the Columbine game will not be reinstated, and he said work is afoot to avoid this situation in next year's version of the festival. In the shorter term, though, he's hoping a panel can be pulled together to discuss these events next week. "It is important to face this and not try and tuck it away and pretend it never happened. And that could end up benefiting everyone on both sides."