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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?