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

In making the film, you are choosing to tell your own story, yet you are also interviewing some of your harshest critics. Watching the film, I kept wondering about the dynamics of some of those interviews. What was it like to interview the organizers of Slamdance or Jack Thompson or the Columbine survivors about their reactions to your work?

I decided early on that making a film about this topic was not merely a matter of editorializing my own perspective. When I told people I was making a documentary, many imagined a bombastic, Michael Moore approach of framing the story with my narration, maintaining a strong on-camera presence as the “main character,” or generally centering the film on me. Frankly, I found the debates this subject matter engages to be far more interesting than my own opinions on it; I filmed many of the presentations I gave during this time and cut out almost all the material as more exciting, articulate ideas arose during other interviews.

Many of the interviews with my harshest critics were not conducted by me at all. I knew that in order to conduct a more impartial interview, I would be better served by having other filmmakers sit down with Parents Television Council president Tim Winter, Denver resident Roger Kovaks (who initially ousted my anonymity after being outraged by SCMRPG) or anti-videogame activist Jack Thompson. Often times I prepared the questions myself and watched the footage with great interest as their points of view were very insightful as I began to reflect on my own. If given the chance, I recommend everyone take the opportunity to interview their most outspoken critics!

My interview with Slamdance Film Festival director Peter Baxter was very challenging because he seemed rather disinterested the entire time. It seemed to me that every question I asked was met with the phrase, “well like I just told you…” as though I was simply not listening. When Brian Crecente of Kotaku interviewed Peter, he reported much the same experience: “I spent forty-five minutes on the phone trying to get him to answer the question of ‘why.'”

During this interview, while Peter would shower videogames as a “powerful” art form with praise, he seemed generally disengaged from his own decision to pull SCMRPG and questioned the effectiveness of other game developers protesting his decision by boycotting the festival. He more or less deferred to legal advice he’d received and a court of law that he imagined would ruin his festival (never mind that no legal threat–specific or vague–was made of Slamdance in connection to SCMRPG).

The film draws some parallel between your game and others about current events, ranging from what sounds like a pretty exploitative game about the Virginia Tech Shooting as well as games about Waco and Darfur. Are all of these games equally valid? What criteria should we use to determine whether they represent appropriate or meaningful responses to the events they depict?

In my eyes, all games are equally valid insomuch as they offer us opportunities to evaluate their game rhetoric. That means that I can think critically about Tetris as well as Manhunt. As protected speech in this country, both games should enjoy the same open discourse in a pluralistic society. How much time I choose to spend playing either of these games is up to me as a media consumer–hopefully a well-informed one. I think the best way to illustrate how I would answer this question is to give you a specific example.

Recently there was a game released by a young Australian man called Muslim Massacre. The title had obvious reference to mine so I wanted to play the game and evaluate it using my own admittedly biased criteria. I did not find the game itself overtly offensive as I read the game as satire–much in keeping with a film like Team America: World Police which I enjoyed immensely. I projected my own political views onto the game when I determined it was an effective videogame caricature of US foreign policy and the US media’s representation of Muslims.

As one might predict, the game came under immediate scrutiny by the Western and Arab cultures. I emailed the game’s creator after reading a letter of apology he posted in response. However, the game’s creator replied to my email indicating that the apology was fake and designed to offend and dupe more people. This, to me, eroded the credibility of the game developer; he was less interested in socially-engaging discourse from his work and more interested in executing a juvenile stunt with a videogame as its central function. While that many invalidate the game developer, I still see the same initial value I held in the game itself; Muslim Massacre remains valid to me because I can identify with the cultural criticism it represents to me–whether the game’s creator meant it or not.

This is why my film raises the point of authorial intent. In some ways, it is irrelevant whether I made SCMRPG to create a dialogue, make money, encourage school shooters, gain attention for myself, or to save the whales. The game stands on its own as a valid expression–free for interpretation and conjecture. I believe that my decision to stand behind the game, author an artist’s statement, and argue for its value in the press has helped my credibility as a multimedia artist. The game stands alone, however–as all cultural artifacts ultimately do when we engage them.

In the film, Jack Thompson talks about the backlash against him in the games blogosphere as a threat to his own free expression rights. What similarities and differences do you see between the responses to Thompson and the responses your game has received from some of his allies?

John Bruce Thompson, disbarred attorney at law, is an interesting fellow. I find his self-fueled conviction fascinating–so much so that I made a music video about his crusade entitled When Jack Thompson Talks to God that can be found on YouTube. Jack was so enamored with this video that he called my phone at 5am on a Sunday morning demanding that I call him back (so he could threaten me and tell me that I’m “messing with the wrong guy.”) What a charming voicemail, indeed.

What Jack and I share is the experience of being a controversial public figure–one that includes receiving hate mail, death threats, and assaults on our characters by people who will never know us. Some of his criticism in the film is directed at the immature antics against him–people who oppose Jack’s point of view and see fit to mail sex aid products to his wife. He has also carved himself a unique cornerstone as the arch-nemesis of game culture (or at least its bumbling court jester).

Generally Thompson and I are not attacked by the same people; often I can imagine that those would have sympathy for Jack’s position are the ones emailing me with clear information as to how quickly I am going to Hell. Similarly, I have won support from those who imagine that I have created a headache for people like Jack Thompson. To put this in general demographic terms, Jack Thompson is attacked by gamers and I am attacked by their parents.

Unlike Thompson, I do not feel entitled to press and don’t use it to establish my professional credentials (Jack Thompson predictably introduces himself as the man who predicted Columbine on the Today Show and appeared on 60 Minutes twice). Also unlike Thompson, I do not believe I am on a personal mission from God to accomplish my goals.

What advice would you have for other game designers who find themselves in

similar controversies in the future? What do you wish you had known going into

this struggle that might have changed how you approached things?

At the end of my documentary, I try to provide just such advice. Let me summarize it here:

1. Do not be afraid of controversy. It can be a useful tool to spread your message. Just make sure you have a message. You will gain respect from people for standing behind what you believe in.

2. Stand behind your creative decisions. While some people will always call you “pretentious” or “vapid,” articulate your intentions and design choices. It may not change everyone’s mind, but it will challenge them to think more carefully about their suppositions.

3. Welcome allies and actively form new ones. I slowly discovered that for every email I received from an angry person, there were ten more that silently supported my efforts even if they could never take up such an effort themselves.

4. Take creative risks. There are boundaries on all fronts to push with regard to the creation of media. If you don’t push them, someone else will. If you are a creative person and really love what you do, ask yourself what impact you want to leave on the world.

I read that “well-behaved women rarely make history.” That is not just true for women.