At 11:10 a.m. Tuesday, April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold arrive at Columbine High School in separate cars. The teenagers are armed with …
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At 11:10 a.m. Tuesday, April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan
Klebold arrive at Columbine High School in separate cars. The
teenagers are armed with two sawed-off 12-gauge shotguns, several
semi-automatic weapons and an arsenal of homemade bombs.
Nine minutes later, Harris and Klebold are wandering the halls,
randomly opening fire on their fellow students. At 12:08 p.m. in
the school library, the shooters turn their guns on themselves. In
a span of less than one hour, 16 people, including the shooters,
have been killed.
The deadliest high school massacre in U. S. history is also the
scenario that plays out on screen in a controversial video game
titled “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!”
Despite its self-consciously commercial title, complete with an
ironic marketing adjective and exclamation point, the RPG or
role-playing game was designed to be an exercise in multilayered
discovery, according to 26-year-old Danny Ledonne, the filmmaker
and former Alamosa resident who developed the game.
According to Ledonne, by the time a player has finished the RPG,
he will have not only learned more about the massacre, but he will
have come face to face with the culture’s uncomfortable fascination
The player might also learn a thing or two about himself,
according to Ledonne, and he likely won’t hit “play again” for more
“The emphasis for me was not on the actual combat. It’s really
sort of a commentary on what video game violence is and
represents,” Ledonne said. “If you play the game, you learn much
more about the background of these two boys and what led them to
the events of that day — the rejection that they faced when they
felt angry and alone.”
A player walks through April 20 as either Klebold or Harris as
the teens prepare for the massacre. As the player maneuvers through
the game, various flashbacks are triggered — Klebold eats alone in
the school cafeteria; bullies push Harris against the wall in the
boys’ locker room.
Unlike many other video games, when a victim is shot in “Super
Columbine,” the body does not instantly disappear. It remains on
the screen as a stark reminder of the real-life tragedy that the
game symbolizes. When the massacre is complete, the “play”
culminates in an on-screen photo montage of actual victims, their
relatives grieving and autopsies being conducted.
“While you’re drawn into the idea that this is a video game, you
begin to participate in the rhetoric of the game design,” Ledonne
said. “You’re then thrown out of that and you’re forced to make the
conscious accountability for the fact that this has happened as the
result of your actions.”
Education and understanding aside, the idea of turning a tragedy
into a game of any kind has been seen as being in bad taste to many
observers. When the RPG game was made available for free on the
Internet in 2005, it was broadly vilified by media pundits and was
the subject of fierce debate in the blogosphere. At its peak, the
game was downloaded from Ledonne’s Web site 8,000 times daily.
The RPG’s content was too much for even the famously edgy
Slamdance Game Festival in Park City, Utah. Protests erupted from
gamers and free-speech advocates alike last year when the festival
dropped “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!” from competition without
Such controversies prompted Ledonne, a graduate film student at
American University in Washington, D.C., to make the documentary,
“Playing Columbine,” which will be screened at the 31st Starz
Denver Film Festival Nov. 21 and 23. Ladonne will appear in person
at the screenings in the Tivoli on the Auraria Campus.
“I didn’t choose a career in media production because I think
media has no effect on people,” the filmmaker said of his movie, an
impassioned defense of the video game medium as art. “All of these
things — movies and video games — can be persuasive, and they can
get us to view the world in different ways. At the same time, too
much of anything can be a bad thing.”
The irony that violent video games often are blamed for
desensitizing problem kids has not been lost on Ledonne. But
according to the self-described onetime high school misfit, his
game has been a learning tool for many at-risk youth who feel
“A lot of them have written to me to say the game helped get
them through the problems in their life in a way that they wouldn’t
have otherwise been able to do,” he said.
“Super Columbine Massacre RPG!” is part of a growing underground
movement of video games built around serious issues and political
points of view. As documented in “Playing Columbine,” other games
have been based on the war in the Sudan region of Darfur, food
safety, globalization, environmental devastation and even the
Catholic clergy sex scandal.
An RPG called “September 12” sees players bomb Middle Eastern
villages; as more people are killed, more terrorists are created on
While such RPGs will not be found on the shelves of the local
Walmart or Game Stop any time soon, they are evidence that gaming
can be an important avenue for learning about the world, Ledonne
“Play is something that a lot of social mammals use to
understand the world they live in,” he said. “Predators play by
learning how to hunt. A lot of four-legged herbivores play by
running from one another. In humans, we use play throughout our
development, whether it’s Cowboys and Indians or Risk.”
Therefore, according to Ledonne, society and the gaming industry
have a fundamental choice.
“This kind of technology is neutral,” the filmmaker said. “We
can use it to engage young people in a positive direction or we can
just unleash more escapist entertainment in the ‘American Idol’
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