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

The film suggests that generating controversy is a tribute to the artistic accomplishments of the game. Is this to suggest a bad or banal game couldn’t generate controversy? To what degree is the controversy about the subject matter of the game rather than its execution, given the fact that the film also tells us that many of the critics have never played Super Columbine?

Controversy generated for its own sake is a pointless exercise that is soon forgotten and rarely culturally impactful. While some charge SCMRPG with being just that, the inclusion of a discussion forum–augmented by an artist’s statement and my commitment to defending the project–is a testament to the ongoing discourse I sought to create. What makes SCMRPG an important cultural discussion point is that it is, by your own admission, a “perfect storm” for discussing matters of videogame violence, representation of real events in digital culture, and the future of videogames as an expressive medium.

I do think that the polarizing effect the game has on people (those who play it and those who do not) indicates its overall cultural value. Very little of social impact has been received with universal praise. The polemical presentation of the game certain denotes controversy as an aesthetic choice. Ours is a culture where so often the only way to be heard outside the established information channels is by being provocative and challenging social taboos. In some ways, the act of being offended is really one of being intellectually challenged–by encountering an unfamiliar or difficult idea. Some people handle this challenges better than others; we see those that are easily offended as the very same who rally to censor media and regulate creative expression. I have no problem with the allegation that SCMRPG is a “bad game” since it works outside the expectations of what a “good game” is supposed to be. But I would hardly call SCMRPG “banal,” Henry.

The controversy around SCMRPG is largely one of the subject matter and not its execution. Only when I give talks at game design schools am I taken to task for my design choices. For example, the Associated Press, Christian Science Monitor, or Parents Television Council were not complaining with:

“Why did you hide a book in the upstairs classroom that you need to complete the last part of the game? I had to start over!”

“The hallway is really hard to sneak through. I couldn’t even tell those were security cameras until my friend showed me!”

“The graphics suck, noob.”

Instead, the mainstream press attacked the very notion that a game like SCMRPG could exist! Heavens, we can have a film or book or magazine article about Columbine but a VIDEO GAME? This was the tone of much of the initial reporting. Eventually, however, a few credible journalists for Wired and other publications began to take the proposition of a game about Columbine seriously–and their articles reflected that. Consequently, their readership reported a greater understanding of the game and larger social phenomenon of digital media for change.

You position the game in relation to the serious games movement. What does the concept of “serious games” mean for you and how does it relate to forms of nonfiction in other medium, including documentary films like Playing Columbine? What do games add to the mix in terms of shaping our understanding of real world events and processes? Would Playing Columbine have worked as a game?

As I have come to understand it, the traditional definition of “serious games” has virtually nothing to do with kinds of social issue-driven games like SCMRPG. Let me try and analogize.

The serious game has been akin to a training manual–such as the airline safety card or a “how to use your new vacuum” tutorial booklet. The military, medical, and corporate sectors use these serious games as pedagogy; these games do not make rhetorical claims. The kinds of games that Playing Columbine showcases are different. They are more like editorials in the New York Times or a polemical book on bookshelves or downloadable on the web. These are games that make arguments; these are “games with an agenda” as Persuasive Games’ Ian Bogost says.

Let’s pull this down to first principles. Why do you think games are an art form? What kind of art are they? What criteria should be used to evaluate games as art?

Throughout my travels in interviewing game developers, their critics, and those affected by videogames in relation to school shootings, no one claimed outright that videogames are not an art form. Most recognized that there are some games perhaps more artistic than others, that some art is appropriate for youth whereas other art is not, and that videogames are a relatively new art form with much potential and boundaries yet to be defined. Some people think the Grand Theft Auto series represents the future of immersive, state-of-the-art gaming. Others revile at the notion that one would call such a game “art” at all. These are inevitably conversations of subjectivity rather than concrete empirical claims.

For myself, I think games are a synergy of existing media traditions of visual arts, graphic design, musical composition, the written word, and the cinema. Of crucial distinction to, but certainly not exclusion from other art forms is the interactive nature of games–the elements of role-playing and narrative authorship being chosen in whole or in part by the audience (“the player”). Interactive media therefore combines many of the art forms we are familiar with but adds to them a significant degree of audience participation. Not audience control, however; aspects of the game physics, narrative, world design, etc. are not generally defined by the player as these are simply the pre-ordained “rules of the game.”

I am not sure we ever got around to calling board games, card games, or table top role playing games as an art form or a “medium.” Which is too bad; these earlier societal distinctions would have paved the way for a less misunderstood reception of game design. Videogames have as much in common with chess as they do with Starship Troopers.

In terms of how games as art are evaluated, clearly the existing systems are ill-equipped; games are currently evaluated as products. A typical evaluation of a videogame in a popular magazine or online publication might read:

Graphics: 9

Sound: 8.5

Play Control: 9.5

Challenge: 8

Replay value: 7

As one might imagine, games like SCMRPG would fail rather miserably by these traditional standards and indeed in 2006 PC World declared it the 2nd Worst Game of All Time (just behind E.T for the Atari). When reviewed by Jason Rohrer for Arthouse Games, SCMRPG was praised for its bold use of the form to critique a contemporary social event. Perhaps then the question of “games as art” asks more of the player than the ability to score points and navigate pristinely-rendered 3D environments; perhaps games as art are those which challenge the player emotionally or intellectually rather than strategically or tactilely.

The larger question for each of us to answer when we ask ourselves how to evaluate art–whether in games or cinema or literature–is what we expect it to accomplish. A great number of people will not tolerate a subtitled, foreign language film or a videogame that offends their assumption that games are escapist entertainment. Indeed, the concept that films could affect social change was hotly contested by filmmakers, distributors, and critics for decades. As the boundaries of what a game can be expand, the evaluation for games as art becomes more charitable.