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Super Columbine Massacre RPG – computer gaming at its worst?

The Virginia Tech shootings prompted Danny Ledonne, the creator of the controversial role-playing game Super Columbine Massacre RPG to issue a statement. Four months later Ledonne found my blog post about it and replied, and this time he is making a documentary about the game.

This is the original comment Ledonne made immediately after the Virginia Tech shootings:

I will not be because it has not been something that I am personally connected to: the shooting at Columbine (which hit so close to home for me – literally and figuratively – during my sophomore year of high school) was not only an American tragedy in the broadest sense but also a clarion call for change in my own life. Having said this, one might ask if I think an interactive project (a “video game”) about the shooting at Virginia Tech can be made. My answer is “absolutely.” Societies throughout history have dealt with pain, tragedy, and suffering with art in a multitude of forms and ours is no exception. There will be poems about this shooting, there will be books about it, films about it, paintings about it, and indeed I do not believe the medium of interactive electronic media should be excluded from exploring the sorrows and challenges of the human experience.

My response to that statement in April was:

That’s a brave stance, or perhaps stupid, because it shows a profound misunderstanding of the shift in perspective from representation to simulation that happens when one shifts from a movie or documentary to a game. You are no longer asking an audience to look at what happened from a distance, you are asking them to simulate being the killers. This is the key difference between a game and a movie and possibly the only basis for any moral objection, in my opinion.

And Ledonne responded in the comments:

For an artist who has something to say, bravery and stupidity are one in the same; these are both terms applied by an audience when faced with a challenging new idea. So then may I take this as a compliment?

The issue you raise is a central problem for the future of video games as an artistic medium. This is akin to arguing, as was done with film a century earlier, that to have a book about a subject is one thing because the audience can passively read about it but to have it re-enacted on screen is simply too engaging and thus irresponsible treatment. Virtually every emerging art form has been subject to the same erroneous criticism; even back in the times of Plato this very debate was being waged over poetry and theater. Truly every new medium is different in some way – for video games this means that the level of engagement is increased by audience participation and authorship – but I argue that this difference by no means should relegate the medium into some pigeonhole whereby it isn’t allowed to confront serious social issues.

In my forthcoming documentary ‘Playing Columbine: a true story of video-game controversy,’ this issue and others are explored in detail. I encourage you to check it out if you’re interested.

And that brings us to the present. There is no doubt that the documentary will be very interesting if directed in a way that that grapples with some of the more complex issues surrounding this controversial project. If it turns out to be a “how do you feel about this game” kind of elongated vox-pop then it’s a waste of time.

I think the point of disagreement between Ledonne and myself is whether or not it is worth raising a moral objection to something that appears inevitable. He is perfectly right to point out that the kind of objection I raise, which is coupled with the shift from representation to simulation in the way meaning is created in movies and games, is the same type of objections raised by critics of mass culture like T.S Eliot and later critical theorists like Adorno and Horkheimer. This is not coincidental, my understanding of media studies is firmly rooted in the radical works of the Frankfurt Schule, even though I occasionally feel pulled towards the conservativism of post-modern media theorists like Baudrillard. I guess that makes me a bit of an idealist by current standards.

I spend a lot of time playing games – I am as addicted to alternative realities as any person who reads a lot of books. Even though I love playing them, know deep inside that this is the future path of the mass entertainment industry [a mass of ones], and will not give up my XBox 360 for anything, I also see some inherent dangers. I don’t mean dangers in the same short-sighted way that people will say there is a direct link between games and kids going on killing sprees. My feeling on that type of research is that even if there is correlation its an acceptable side-effect of our species adjusting to a new and radically different story-telling technique.

The difference, simply put, between watching a movie and playing a game is that whereas a movie attempts to present a simulation of events as a type of reality [i.e. te viewer decodes the message and encodes its meaning], the playing of a game is a reality that simulates a message which may or may not be open-ended [i.e. the viewer encodes the message and then decodes its meaning].

Practically, when we watch a movie we can say it represents the views of the script writer, the producers and director. When we finish a game that is relatively open-ended, we must accept that what transpired ultimately feels like our own view. Except, and herein lies the rub, the parameters of the choices you can make and the context is set by the game producers. This runs deeper than simply the criteria for winning, or completing a level.

So is it really so wrong to raise a moral objection to the rise of a more insidious form of ideological messaging? Yes, it is inevitable that the forms of art and communication will change – history attests to this – but must we not also recognise that these shifts in communication are deeply implicated in the recalibration of the protection mechanisms at work in modern capitalism?

Author

  • Vincent Maher was the Mail & Guardian Online's digital strategist. He has worked in the web industry for 12 years, was the head of the New Media Lab at the Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies and writes columns for Enjin and Intelligence magazines. He is a judge of the Telkom ICT Journalist of the Year Awards and the developer of Amatomu.com. His current area of focus is Web 2.0 and social media strategy for the traditional media.

8 Comments

  1. Ivo Vegter Ivo Vegter 19 August 2007

    I fail to understand your final reference to capitalism. However, the rest of the piece indeed presents a complex argument. Can I agree with both you and Ledonne? The latter because I agree that today’s objection against games as a medium for self-reenactment and auto-fantasy is similar to yesterday’s objection against film as a medium in which actors performed the reenactment and fantasy, and the former because I agree that this change poses deep and troubling questions of philosophy and psychology?

  2. Vincent Maher Vincent Maher Post author | 20 August 2007

    I meant that the ideological messages we get – for instance the value of money and status in GTA, or the might of the US military in Ghost Recon, etc – and the way they are delivered serve to convince us that the economic system, no matter how it divides us, is something that we must fight to protect and never question beyond a certain level of depth. Its values become our values, so a critical distance needed to ask whether it is, really, the best way to organise our society is maddeningly difficult to reach.

    I’m sure a psychological analysis of what is going when games are played would be very interesting but, again, studies that try show a correlation between increased violence in games and increased violence in the real world are really just blunt instruments. It strikes me as obvious that violence will increase amongst youths when there are wars going on all over the planet, and also that young people today don’t seem that much more volent than young people a few hundred years ago, they just have better equipment.

  3. Ivo Vegter Ivo Vegter 20 August 2007

    Not to drift too far off-topic, but we use the term “capitalism” differently, then. The notions of property rights and voluntary trade are essential in my understanding of capitalism. Mere wealth and status don’t define it. Your examples of Grand Theft Auto and Ghost Recon both violate those principles: the first has undermining private property as a theme, and in the second the state’s military power is used to impose conditions of trade on an unwilling counter-party. In my view, therefore, the reference to capitalism is a non-sequitur. The very valid questions you raise in the rest of the piece say nothing about “modern capitalism”, and would be just as relevant (and complex) in a non-capitalist society.

  4. Vincent Maher Vincent Maher Post author | 20 August 2007

    We might as well drift, it’s a worthy debate. Underlying the GTA storyline there is generally the sense that you may be appropriating property by force, and illegally, but the wealth of the victims has most often been ill-gotten. There is a slight Robin Hood element to the story, even though there are no poor benefactors.

    Ideologically neither games actually challenge the notion that market economies, private property etc should be the natural and normal state of affairs. Where GTA shows a chaotic world where the protagonist operates in a criminal underground, the effect of the game is not necessarily one that earnestly shows a realistic alternative to the current state of affairs.

  5. DannyLedonne DannyLedonne 3 August 2008

    “There is no doubt that the documentary will be very interesting if directed in a way that that grapples with some of the more complex issues surrounding this controversial project. If it turns out to be a “how do you feel about this game” kind of elongated vox-pop then it’s a waste of time.”

    Oh man there’s no good reason to make a vox-pop out of something as deep as the topic of games with social agendas. I hope you find the film to fulfill all the levels of discourse that you would want it to engage in – or at least some of them!

    Danny
    http://playingcolumbine.com/

  6. Frodo Frodo 10 June 2009

    You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.

  7. hadlee hadlee 30 October 2009

    Sure, gaming requires a higher level of interactivity than film, but this is one of the first games to truly challenge the old stereotype of gaming being for kids and useless. And i think that this can only be a good thing. The message that you take from any media can be interpreted any way you want and gaming is no exception

  8. Izak Izak 13 April 2010

    Personally, I think you got owned by Danny Ledonne.

    “Practically, when we watch a movie we can say it represents the views of the script writer, the producers and director. When we finish a game that is relatively open-ended, we must accept that what transpired ultimately feels like our own view.”

    But alas, this is not entirely true. Movies (and other forms of visual media) are (practically) open-ended too, and viewers do not of necessity perceive the views of the script writer et al. In a world guided by (granted, constructed) personal codification, movies simulate what we want it to.

    The user above (hadlee) states it perfectly: “The message that you take from any media can be interpreted any way you want and gaming is no exception”

    I don’t think it terribly wrong to raise any kind of moral objection against “insidious” messaging. However, like Danny said, the medium of gaming needn’t be relegated to mindless fun, or pointless interaction. It should be leveraged to explore (and confront!) societal issues.

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