Video game pushes envelope

Designer’s self-defense game to debut at Denver Film Festival

Posted 11/12/08

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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Video game pushes envelope

Designer’s self-defense game to debut at Denver Film Festival


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 with violence.

The player might also learn a thing or two about himself, according to Ledonne, and he likely won’t hit “play again” for more “fun.”

“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 explanation.

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 socially alienated.

“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 screen.

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 said.

“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’ tradition.”


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