Playing Columbine: An Interview with Game Designer and Filmmaker Danny Ledonne (Part One)

Danny Ledonne’s Super Columbine Massacre RPG! has been the center of controversy since it was released in 2005, on the sixth anniversary of the shooting at a Colorado high school which sparked international controversy surrounding the links between video games and real world violence. Some have embraced the game as a powerful demonstration of how games can force us to re-examine controversial issues from new vantage points. Others have condemned the game in the harshest terms possible, suggesting that it exploits a deep human tragedy. In 2006, PC World declared the game #2 on its list of “The 10 Worst Games of All Time.”

Every time the controversy started to die down, some new development shoved the game back into the news, whether it was attempts by the news media to link it to a Canadian shooting or the decision by the directors of Slamdance’s games festival to withdraw the film, a decision that led to strong support from many invested in the idea of games as art or simply the value of free expression. Ledonne’s game has been a model for other serious games projects and has been a focal point for discussion about whether there are some topics which can not or should not be explored through this medium. For an overview of the controversy, check out this Wikipedia entry. You can see the game yourself and make up your own mind about its merits.

Now, Danny Ledonne has produced Playing Columbine, a compelling documentary which allows him to tell his own story. This film will be extraordinarily valuable as a classroom resource for those who want to spark discussions about games as a medium. It will also be a useful film to share with skeptics who doubt that games can deal with serious topics.

Danny was kind enough to agree to an extensive interview for this blog, one which takes us through the various controversies as well as examines the process of producing this documentary. You will see that I adopt a devil’s advocate posture here, pushing Ledonne to pull down to first principles and explain his own thought process concerning the Super Columbine game and Playing Columbine. I hope this three part interview will spark further reflection on these very important topics.

Ledonne is a graduate of Emerson College’s film program. He has worked as director of photography on KiskaDEE, as editor for An Awakening Journey, and shot and edited Kenya Jidaya. He is a native of Colorado and currently lives in Washington DC where he owns Emberwilde Productions.

What were motives for making the Super Columbine Massacre RPG? It sounds like you had not done much work in games before this. Why did you think games were the right medium to say what you wanted to say about Columbine?

I have answered the question of “why did you make this” many times–probably so many that I have begun to wonder why I am asked so often what my motives were. I suppose releasing a highly controversial game on the Internet, free of charge, and setting up a discussion forum does make one wonder. I guess if I had charged five dollars per download it would be evident that I was trying to make money and then the question would shift from “why” to “how could you?”

SCMRPG is my first game and perhaps my last. What most outsiders to the creation of games do not understand about game design is how specialized a field it is–involving a multitude of skills from computer science and programming to graphic design and (hopefully) a flare for storytelling. Games generally cannot be made without a set of highly acute skills and usually a great deal of training. My efforts were amateur and my game certainly reflects that–but even then the results were only possible because I had a game creation program (RPG Maker) to act as middleware between an untrained user and a finished game concept.

Columbine had been a subject of considerable importance in my own life. I was a sophomore in high school at the time of the shooting in another Colorado high school. I listened to the same music, played the same videogames, and at times even had similar feelings of anger or depression as Harris and Klebold (the shooters). Amidst all this was a media frenzy and subsequent political fervor over a “culture of violence” replete with condemnation toward Hollywood, the music industry and videogames (in short, the best ways to decompress after another day of high school). As a politically powerless teenager, I had no real way to challenge the official assumptions as to why the shooting occurred. Among my friends, though, the consensus was that the real causes of Columbine could not be answered by pointing to Doom, Natural Born Killers, or Marilyn Manson.

Years later in the fall of 2004, I came across RPG Maker and it occurred to me that the RPG form could yield a deep and complex story-driven environment for a game. As a fan of such games as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, I had always taken an interest in this game genre. Because I was 22 and not 12, my interest in games was not one of childish fantasy but of contemporary reflection and examination. In some ways, Columbine had been a latent thread in my life and the opportunity to explore it in interactive form seemed especially promising since the event itself was inextricably linked to videogames. While authors, politicians, moral pundits, musicians and filmmakers had contributed their thoughts to understanding Columbine, no game developer had (probably for reasons of sensibility and an interest in preserving company relations). As an outsider to the game developer world, I could afford to take those risks–though the ramifications to follow were quite surprising nonetheless.

The film suggests you grossly underestimated the interest and backlash your game generated. Why do you think the game spread as far and as fast as it did? What aspect of the reaction surprised you the most?

It is worth mentioning that for a long time the game received the kind of underground, subdued exposure that I expected it to get. I posted the game online around April 20th, 2005 to coincide with the sixth anniversary (not the best word to use here, I know) of the shooting. For over a year, it remained an Internet anomaly–receiving about 10,000 downloads. I more or less went back to my life of working as a youth mentor, honing my filmmaking craft, teaching Tae Kwon Do, and volunteering as a community radio station DJ.

I posted the game anonymously for many reasons, some practical and some ideological: 1) I was aware that the approach of using a videogame to represent a school shooting would generate outrage from those unwilling to acknowledge games as a socially-conscious medium. 2) I was interested in fostering discussion not about myself and my motives for creating the game but rather the shooting at Columbine itself. 3) I had no interest in furthering a career in game design so putting my name to the work in some attempt to be “discovered” or “recruited” was unimportant. 4) The larger experiment was one of digital culture; I wished to combine musical, photographic, and textual elements gleaned from the web, assemble them in a piece of software, and finally release this reassembled contextualization onto the Web for further discourse. I did not know why, per se, but that the possibility to do so did not exist a decade earlier and this experimentation seemed interesting to me as a multimedia artist. It was as though the Internet itself assembled this game–as though it were a living information machine giving birth to a new creation.

It was a full year later around April 20th of 2006 that the game began to get the attention of gaming blogs like Kotaku and Watercooler Games. Not long after this, the game crossed over into the mainstream press. By the time the Washington Post article ran in late May of 2006, the game was getting 8,000 downloads per day and despite several PayPal donations to keep the game online, my server crashed. It was also at this point that my identity became sought after and I chose to publicly defend my game amidst harassing emails and death threats. Before long, the game was back online at several download mirrors. Little did I know the controversy was just beginning. To date the game has received nearly 700,000 downloads on the main mirror location–although the real number will never be known since it is being shared in so many decentralized ways.

What were the biggest misunderstandings people had about the game?

Misunderstandings can be miniscule or they can be gigantic. Among the smallest misunderstandings was that I was a former Columbine High School student who made the game as an act of catharsis to personally grieve or process the tragedy. Among the largest were that I made the game for money, I made the game to get on television, or that I made the game to encourage school shootings.

On some level, I welcome one form of misunderstanding because I enjoy eliciting a broad range of responses from my work. Many elements of the game have personal interpretations to me but others view them differently. The water fountain, for example, gives the exact particle content as described by Denver’s municipal water authority when Eric or Dylan drink from it. Some have taken this to be meaningless, others a joke, while some have observed that this is commentary on the notion that whatever caused the shooting, it wasn’t what was in the water.

The larger opportunity here is not misunderstanding but rather self-understanding. A game like SCMRPG can take players to an ethical situation they have never been to before. It can challenge them with a role not of mindless power but of tormented anguish, revenge, or anger. In doing so, players often reflect on their own feelings of childhood depression or angst while at the same time interacting with a pivotal event in US history. I do not have a specific expectation for what that understanding is supposed to yield. That is the beauty and perhaps the danger of art.

Which criticisms of the game hit you the hardest? Were there moments when you questioned your own creative choices?

At first I was hesitant to keep the game online. However real or imagined the charges are, the legal implications of producing controversial media can be intimidating. And that is precisely what I have faced from time to time. As one can imagine, various groups and individuals have sought to take SCMRPG off the Internet–using a variety of tactics from baseless claims of personal injury to draconian interpretations of copyright law (the game features the same media posted all over the Net and in news reports and documentaries which employed Fair Use in Copyright).

The major point of introspection occurred at the time of the Dawson College shooting in Montreal in the fall of 2006. Here I had successfully defended the game’s right to exists for the entire summer and I thought I was in the clear for future projects and a kinder, gentler Inbox. However, on September 14th, my phone began ringing at 8am and did not stop quite literally for days. I cannot tell you how many emails I received threatening me with violence, legal action, or both. I replied to as many as I could, patiently diffusing allegations the mainstream media had whipped up about a game they had never played and did not understand. In the weeks to follow I formed new alliances including one survivor of the shooting, Joel Kornek. Having initially written me in anger after leaving the hospital and learning of my game on the news, we soon leveled with one another and set about to collaborate. The results of that collaboration are my documentary and his suicide prevention website, killthinking.com.

I began to realize that making meaningful media sometimes has a personal cost–and perhaps it always should. My creative choices have always been questioned. Sometimes my answers strike people with more satisfaction than others. I think such questioning (of ourselves and of others) is very healthy, though–not just for creative efforts but in general; I’m writing you in a time of national leadership that bombs first and asks questions later. We would be living in a better world if we were just a little less certain of our own hubristic convictions.

All of these debates came to a head around the Slamdance Guerilla Games

competition. What are your thoughts about those events, looking back on them

several years later? Do you have any clearer sense of why the festival made the

decision to pull the game?

If the Dawson College shooting was the low point in the discourse of SCMRPG, Slamdance pulling it from the Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition would have to be the high point. For the first time, I was not defending my game in solitude but with some solidarity–often from game developers far more talented and established than I. If it weren’t for this competition and the controversy that pulling out the game created, the dialogue about games with a social agenda would be slightly further behind. Finally game writers and cultural critics began to take notice of the double standard our culture has imposed on games in comparison to other popular media. Finally the game wasn’t the central scrutiny of every article it was mentioned it. Finally the wagons were being circled and the case was being made in the larger culture for Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

In terms of why the game was pulled, I think the most likely answer is the most disappointing: Peter Baxter was unwilling to assume the same legal risks of showing a controversial game as showing a controversial film. In the service of obscuring this double standard, circular logic abounds: music clearance issues which had previously been vetted were reintroduced, “moral obligations” which had been previously weighed, and the imagined loss of sponsorship when in fact a sponsor only left upon the game’s removal rather than its inclusion.

As I write this, the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition has completely fizzled; entrants into the last iteration of the program have been refunded their entry fees. While film festivals such as Slamdance want to celebrate independent game making, the task must be taken with utmost respect and courage for the medium. In the meantime, several substantial game industry events are held annually to celebrate independent games and game developers are deeply appreciative of them.