By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006
For a little more than a year, the online game "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!" and its creator have been sailing the Internet underground.
But some popular Web sites devoted to gaming began blogging about it this month. And it's no surprise that the game, based on the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., now is generating controversy.
For it's one thing to have a documentary ("Bowling for Columbine"), a movie ("Elephant") and several books ("No Easy Answers," "Day of Reckoning") about that dark day, but it's quite another to have a game.
"There's a video game?" asked a shocked Linda Sanders, widow of William "Dave" Sanders, a teacher slain that day. "On what happened?"
She was too distraught to keep talking.
The game's creator had insisted on maintaining his anonymity until a friend of one of the victims discovered his name and posted it on the game's site this week.
"It was just a matter of time," said Danny Ledonne, 24, the game's designer. Until Thursday, he had identified himself only as "Columbin" in the few news reports on the game.
The game has been available online since April 20, 2005, the sixth anniversary of the deadliest school violence in U.S. history. (Fifteen people died and numerous others were injured.) Ledonne said he made the game partly as an "indictment of our society at large" and partly because he was "a misfit," "a loner" and "a bullied kid" in high school, much the way Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two students responsible for Columbine, were characterized.
Ledonne, who grew up in Alamosa, Colo., a rural burg four hours south of Littleton, said he anticipated a negative response to the game, hence his effort to remain anonymous. He cared about the reaction of the victims' families, he said, but also believes they do not "own the opinion" on Columbine.
Ledonne admits that the site is not "a very good game." Harris and Klebold, fans of the gory game "Doom," probably wouldn't think much of it.
It's a 2-D game with tiny, cartoonish pixies and the look of a 1980s Nintendo title. It's not especially bloody. ("Not what gamers are expecting," he said.) It can take nearly five hours to play. In the first half, one plays as Harris, then later as Klebold. Armed with a Tec-9 semiautomatic, the player can move from the cafeteria, down the hallways, up the stairs, then to the library. The player decides whether to kill. In the end, players learn there's really no way to win.
The game, which is free but asks for a $1 donation to keep the site operating, has been downloaded nearly 40,000 times since it was posted last year, Ledonne said. More than 30,000 occurred this month, he said. It was downloaded so many times Wednesday -- more than 8,000 -- that its server temporarily crashed.
Friends and relatives of Columbine victims have been outraged.
Randy Brown's house is a mile and a half from Columbine High School. His son Brooks, who went on to write "No Easy Answers," had an on-and-off relationship with Harris and Klebold. "I've been living with Columbine for seven years," Brown said. "This game is just deplorable. It shouldn't surprise me, living in the kind of world we're living in, but it does surprise me."
Roger Kovacs, a 22-year-old Web developer, was so infuriated about the game this week that he sought to figure out who "Columbin" was. Once he learned Ledonne's identity, he posted it on the game's site. "One of the girls who died was a friend of mine," Kovacs said. "Rachel. We were in the same church group. Anyone playing this game can kill Rachel over and over again."
Richard Castaldo, one of the students injured that day, had a different take. He is paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the back, chest, arm and abdomen. He's a gamer -- he wants to be a sound engineer for games -- and he's played the Columbine game. There are some parts that were tough for him, the 24-year-old said, but he thought the game has a unique take on that day. "It's weird for me to say this, I guess, but there's something about it that I appreciated, seeing the game from the killers' perspective," Castaldo said.
Games that many would find tasteless and insensitive have sprouted up in recent years. Two years ago, you could play as Lee Harvey Oswald in a game based on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Another game that, according to its Web site, allows players to "shoot Mexicans crossing the United States border," has been making the rounds.
Ledonne spent more than six months designing his game. He watched videos, read newspaper articles and pored over the 11,000 pages of documents released by Jefferson County.
"Columbine deeply touched me," said Ledonne, who says he's also a filmmaker. (Four years ago, he made a short film based on "Ship of Fools," a short story by Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Ledonne's a Stanley Kubrick buff. "Every year that passes by, 'Dr. Strangelove' gets better and better," he said.) This is his first video game, and he said it's also his last.
"I'm not advocating shooting up your school, and I don't know how many times I can say that and no one will listen. This game does not glorify school shootings. If you make it far enough in the game, you see very graphic photos of Eric and Dylan lying dead." Ledonne said. "I can't think of a more effective way to confront their actions and the consequences those actions had."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.