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How Real Is Too Real?

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, January 18, 2007

A controversial computer game based on the Columbine High School shootings of 1999, called Super Columbine Massacre RPG, has nearly upended a game-design competition that kicks off today in Salt Lake City.

The game, available online as a free download, was a finalist in the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition until the festival's president yanked it this month for being a little too radioactive for the lawyers. Now, nearly half of the competition's 14 finalists have withdrawn their entries, calling the organizers' move an insult to their medium. The festival has also lost one sponsor, the Interactive Media Division of the University of Southern California.

A homebrew creation of filmmaker Danny Ledonne, the game examines the lives of shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as they prepare for and carry out their killing spree. In flashbacks throughout the game, players learn about the killers' backgrounds, including their obsessions and their friendship. The game has been controversial for its very existence, as well as for the fact that Kimveer Gill, a Montreal gunman who went on a shooting rampage last year before killing himself, was a fan.

It's a disturbing piece of software but is considered by some in the tiny, indie gamemaker scene to be important as a work that explores the boundaries of what a game is, or can be.

Ledonne says he hopes his title, which he considers to be an "electronic documentary," will inspire others to base games on topics they find important.

Ledonne, who turns 25 today, says he was bullied as a kid and might have headed down a road in life similar to Harris and Klebold's had he not found other outlets. "I wanted to explore who they really were, and I didn't have the funding to make a film," he said.

Slamdance co-founder Peter Baxter says he decided to pull the game from the competition because he was afraid the festival might get sued out of existence for having it on the program. The game competition, a spinoff side event at the 13-year-old film festival of the same name, is in its third year.

"I was told in no uncertain terms that there was a lot of legal exposure because of its subject matter," Baxter said. "It was a very, very hard choice."

Baxter's critics in the indie-game design community say the move shows there's a "double standard" between what topics films can explore and what games can address.

Game designer Jenova Chen took his title out of the competition even though he hasn't played -- and has already decided he doesn't like -- the Columbine game.

"This is degrading to what video games are as a media and as an art form," he said of the Slamdance move. "Even though this game has nothing to do with the positive aspects of humanity, it is a game that uses the medium as journalism, letting the player experience the tragic event through a unique perspective."

Chen won the competition last year for a tranquil game that had players floating in the clouds. This year's equally meditative entry, called flOw, follows the evolution of a sea creature that swims around and swallows up other creatures to survive. A downloadable version for PlayStation 3 is on the way.

Ledonne doesn't express much hostility toward Slamdance. "I don't agree with the choices they made, but they aren't easy choices to make," he said.

I downloaded Ledonne's game recently and was surprised by the amount of work that had gone into it. Ledonne relied on transcripts of the two shooters, witness reports and other sources to create the dialogue for a game that is loaded with information.

But when it came time to start creating mayhem in the school's halls, I couldn't bring myself to push the buttons to continue. Odd, I suppose, because I have "killed" thousands of video game characters over the years. And though the game's chunky graphics are primitive, compared with nearly any new title, no game has ever made me feel nearly as queasy. I didn't want to be responsible for the real-world violence that happened that day, even in a game.

Ledonne figures that games will either grow into a medium in which it is acceptable to confront and challenge an audience with titles like his, or will devolve into a stagnant, failed format.

I'll probably be uninstalling Super Columbine Massacre tonight -- even though I think he's probably right.

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