Columbine controversy spurs gaming ethics
January 27, 2007
Expelling "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!" from the Slamdance Festival’s game competition, may have had an overall positive effect on the gaming industry.
"There are lessons to be learned from this for everyone involved," said Peter Baxter, Slamdance Film Festival co-founder and president. "Ultimately, it was a positive experience for everybody."
The game, which has gamers role-playing Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who killed 13 people at the Colorado High School in April 1999, was filled with controversy even before it was accepted at Slamdance. However, after the game was juried into and then pulled from the Slamdance program, it had a rippling effect. Half of the gamemakers protested by not coming to the festival.
"The gamemakers that came all had a really good experience," Baxter said. "That’s a shame the others didn’t come."
Baxter says the people who protested Columbine’s removal would have had more of a voice had they attended the festival.
"They would have a better chance to express it," Baxter said. "(Columbine RPG) got a lot of press as far as quantity, but the gamemakers that didn’t come, OK, where are those games?
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"It’s a great pity they were not here to experience it. It was counter to what they created. I wish they would have come here," Baxter added.
Because half the competitors stayed home, the gamers decided to celebrate gaming as a whole and cut back on the competition.
"In a spirit of solidarity, and in recognition of the reduced list of finalists, the participants in the 2007 Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition choose to not compete with one another for awards, but rather wished to acknowledge the efforts and achievements of everyone who screened at the festival," wrote Nubia Flores, a media representative for Slamdance.
Baxter said the gamemakers shared the prizes, which benefited every one.
"That seemed to be the fairest way," Baxter said. "The gamemakers were happy."
Because of the controversy, neither Baxter nor the attendees knew what to expect.
"The gamemakers that came to Slamdance were wondering what would happen and they found it to be a positive experience," Baxter said.
"It was the first time the filmmakers and gamemakers fully embraced each other by seeing each other’s work. They are connected and that is really beneficial, these artists came together to share their experiences," Baxter added.
In response to the controversy, Slamdance hosted a panel to discuss the situation and the future of gaming. The discussion focused on the power games can have and the responsibility creators should recognize.
"The majority of the panel was about the environment and the positive effect games can have," Baxter said.
Gamemakers argued they are the same as filmmakers and should have a right to the same benefits and respect as artists.
"If Danny Ledonne (the creator of Columbine RPG) made a documentary about Columbine, it would have absolutely been in the festival, you don’t have films pulled for that reason," said Patrick Dugan, a narrative designer and independent gamemaker.
Dugan, who said there was a large support from locals on the game side of Slamdance, said most of the gamemakers who pulled out, didn’t like Columbine RPG, necessarily, but did it for other reasons.
"They stood up for something that was bold and that needed to be defended. The gamemakers that were there, however, wanted to make the best of it," Dugan said.
Baxter says gamers, however, don’t understand the process filmmakers go through to be able to show their documentaries.
"It’s a very difficult matter to explain to gamemakers that they are not treated the same way," Baxter said. "Yes and no that you are in the same category as filmmakers."
Baxter said documentaries go through rigorous clearances and permissions to show organizations and people in the films.
"With this game, there were no clearances," Baxter said. "He’s documenting arguably the most important, most hurtful American experience in the last few years and he had no permission from anybody."
Aside from neglecting to receive permission from Columbine High School, Ledonne used music in the film without permission from the artists as well. The project screamed of potential litigation if it were used in Slamdance, according to Baxter. Slamdance, Baxter said, "Is not an insurance policy."
"If we take this into account, even onto itself, it’s a reason not to use Columbine," Baxter said. "You can’t use the music without permission."
Baxter says Ledonne was trying to send a message using the game as a medium similar to a film, which is what Baxter wants to aid in doing.
"Slamdance will go out if its way to do that," Baxter said. "That’s why it took so long to make this decision. We were trying hard to get behind these artists and show their work. Ultimately, with this, we could not."
Many gamemakers were not aware of some of details before the controversy. This was discussed at the panel and Baxter said gamemakers now have a better direction.
"That was a learning experience for all of us," Baxter said. "We need to understand that and the gamemakers understand this in the process."
If gamemakers want to be treated in the same way as filmmakers, they have to learn the process they need to follow. It’s not all about freedom of expression, Baxter said.
"That’s what we want to do in the future," Baxter said. "How we can help the gamemaker in the future? If they want to be treated in the same way, they have an obligation."
Baxter said the medium creates a different form of application than a film. The role-play perspective causes a greater form of engagement than a film does.
"In Columbine, we’re standing there in that role, looking at that bag on screen with weapons and asked to pick that bag up to destroy a school. It’s completely different than film. There lies the value and power of games.
"By the very fact, we are being asked to cause the destruction of something," Baxter added. "What effect does that really have on our mind? Do we really know? That is the question."
The full effect of games is in its infancy right now, Baxter said, and he compared it to the movie industry 20 years ago when people started to see the industry as an art form.
The panel discussed this and the positive impact gaming could have on society if used properly.
"The power of it is there, I think we can all see that," Baxter said. "Where is that going to go in the future? That can be both extremely positive for us, but if it’s mishandled, it could be negative. We all agreed that this needs more work. We need to educate ourselves and learn more."
Baxter hopes the debate continues so the industry can grow. He was also disappointed that other gamers didn’t come to the festival to argue their point.
"We need to ask these questions," Baxter said, "everyone will benefit from it. There’s no point in hiding this or polarizing the issue.
"Columbine is a hot button to press," Baxter said. "You just can’t put a game out like this publicly without some responsibility, without really thinking about the ability to publicly show this game.
"We knew it was a very hard decision, where games are right now, we had to do it," Baxter added.
Official Jury Selections of the 2007 Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition:
"Base Invaders" – Seven Sigma (Digipen Institute of Technology)
"Cultivation" – Jason Rohrer
"Steam Brigade" – Pedestrian Entertainment
"Toblo" – Toblo (Digipen Institute of Technology)
"Toribash" – Hampus Soderstrom
Finalists (same as above, plus):
"The Blob" – Banana Games (Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht)
"Plasma Pong" – Steve Taylor (George Mason University)