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in Filmmaking
on Jan 9, 2007

Boing Boing has been covering this week the controversy surrounding the Slamdance Film Festival’s rejection of a video game, Super Columbine Massacre, from its interactive competition, the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition.

Here is Slamdance’s official statement:

The Super Columbine Massacre RPG game has been withdrawn from Slamdance ’07. While understanding the different positions people have already taken with the game, we want to express the struggle we had with ours. On one hand, a jury selected a game they believed merited programming, a decision that always leads to our organization supporting the creator’s independent vision and freedom of expression. On the other, there are moral obligations to consider with this particular game and the interests and welfare of the Slamdance organization and its community. 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.

Apparently, Slamdance was concerned about potential sponsor pressure so it decided to de-select the game, which had been picked by its jury. In the wake of the decision, several game companies are withdrawing their titles from Slamdance in protest, and the decision has caused much debate and commentary on the various gaming blogs. Over at Manifesto Games, Costik offers some description and then commentary on the game.

First, on the controversy, Costik writes:

Super Columbine Massacre is controversial for one reason only: Because our culture continues to assume that games are “mere entertainment,” that a game based on so horrific an event must ipso facto be in bad taste. Games are fun, Columbine was a tragedy and never the twain shall meet; a game on Columbine must by nature trivialize or cynically exploit the event. Q.E.D.

Yet we do not make the same assumption about any other medium: a documentary on the Columbine massacre, or a novel, or a New Yorker essay would, a priori, be treated with respect, at least until the viewer or reader had experienced it, after which a judgment might be made as to its merits. And if the work proved insightful, somber,and respectful of its material, the world would consider it unexceptional.

I will suggest, therefore, that no one is entitled to criticize this game until they have played it–and am morally certain that those who do have not. Because those who do will find it insightful, somber, and respectful of its material.

And then, on the game:

Perhaps the riskiest artistic decision in Super Columbine Massacre is in casting the player as the murderers themselves–risky because we expect to identify with game protagonists, take pleasure in their actions, and share in their triumph. The emotion most games strive to evoke is ‘fiero,’ the joy of triumph over adversity–inappropriate, in the context of a story where there ought to be no joy, there is tragedy rather than triumph, and where there is scant adversity: unarmed children pose little challenge to the heavily-armed PCs. In another designers’ hands, this choice would have been crippling.

But the insight Super Columbine Massacre provides about its subject matter derives precisely from the fact that the player is forced to take the roles of the pepetrators. The player is exposed to their world: the music, the games, the heedless cruelty of high school life, the thoughts and words of Harris and Klebold themselves. Few people of intelligence and sensitivity emerge unscarred from the relentless anti-intellectualism and the cruel cliques of the American high school, and while most of us are not driven to murder (rather more to suicide), this game does a good job of evoking the thoughts and emotions of Harris and Klebold–without glamorizing or exculpating them.

He concludes:

And a game such as Super Columbine Massacre can lend insight into the events of that terrible day that newspaper reports, or somber and thouthful essays, cannot. Not necessarily better insights–but different ones–precisely because it makes you complicit in recreating the events.

As gamers, and those who love games, our reponse to this game, and to the criticism of it, should not be to hide, or run away, or hope that it goes away. Instead it should be to say: You do not understand, nor are you attempting to understand. This is not a glamorization of the murderers, nor yet a trivialization of the tragedy; it is a work of serious artistic intent and accomplishment, based on considerable research, that in fact illuminates and reflects the horror of that day. Just as there are novels of the Holocaust, there can be a game of Columbine, and neither need trivialize a tragedy.

Meanwhile, over at Grand Text Auto, Andrew Stern and Michael Matea, creators of last year’s Slamdance game winner, Facade, write an open letter to Slamdance.

An excerpt:

As recipients of last year’s Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance game festival for Façade, we wish to express our strong disapproval of Baxter’s decision, and urge him to reconsider allowing Super Columbine Massacre RPG! to rejoin this year’s competition.

We recognize that Super Columbine Massacre RPG! addresses a highly sensitive and incendiary topic, of the sort that gamemakers, independent or otherwise, are still experimenting with and learning how to address. Also, we recognize that the general public is unaccustomed to games about such subject matter, thereby risking negative publicity for Slamdance by including it in the festival.

We give no judgment here about how successfully Super Columbine Massacre RPG! addresses its topic. However we feel it is extremely important that the game community, including high-profile festivals such as Slamdance, support such experimentation. Games, as a medium, are as fully deserving and appropriate as film and other more established media forms, to deal with such subject matter.

Water Cooler Games has an entire “update page” on the continuing controversy, which has already been covered by MTV and Wired. The latest? USC’s Interactive Division is withdrawing their sponsorship of Slamdance in protest. And for those who want to take up Costik’s challenge and decide for themselves, the game can be found here.

(Thanks to Steve Gallagher for the tip on this.)

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