So, just the other day, I saw a documentary called “Playing Columbine”, about Danny Ledonne's “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!”.
Yeah, if you haven't heard of it before, I know what you're thinking. The point of the documentary, also created by Danny Ledonne, is to draw attention to the controversy surrounding the game, most especially its last-minute dump from Slamdance's Guerrilla Gamemaker competition, despite protests from the game competition jury, but more than that, the documentary is about pointing at the role of games as art and the ability (or inability) of violent video games to influence violent behavior.
An important Disclaimer before we get too far:
I have not played this game. It looks like I might need to, but I haven't yet played it, and anything I say about it is gleaned from first hand accounts of people that have, combined with internet research and said documentary. The website for the game can be found at http://www.columbinegame.com/
The point of the game, well, I'll just quote a bit from the “Artist's Statement” found on the website:
“Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, through their furious words and malevolent actions, can be understood as the canaries in the mine—foretelling of an 'apocalypse soon' for those remaining to ponder their deeds. With ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG!,’ I present to you one of the darkest days in modern history and ask, 'Are we willing to look in the mirror?'”
Whether or not the game accomplishes this is unclear (certainly for me, having never played it), but the amount of controversy regarding it certainly proves it struck some kind of a nerve, and virtually all mainstream media outlets that caught a whiff of it didn't help.
The detractors of the project generally fall into two parties: The people who feel that allowing a person to participate in recreating the tragedy is reprehensible (the player does, in fact, take on the role of Harris and Klebold), and people who have latched onto this as evidence of the negative impact of violent video games.
To the argument that violent video games encourage violent behavior, I merely need to point out that violent crime has been on a drastic decline in recent years. Small scale cause-and-effect studies don't do much for your cause when correlational evidence is stacked so high against you. Furthermore, playing violent video games, it's been shown, does encourage violent behavior, but as “Playing Columbine” insists, so does watching violent movies and reading violent books. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, even shows that reading polite words causes polite behavior. No more needs to be said about that topic.
(As much as no more needs to be said, have you ever noticed that Video Games are blasted for desensitizing people to violence, and yet, video games that are more graphic, represent violence in a more physically accurate form, are also attacked? Seems a little disingenuous...)
Regarding the responsibility of creating a game that represents the events of Columbine in excruciating detail, I direct your attention to “Elephant” the 2003 Gus Van Sant film about a school shooting. It, too, weathered a great deal of criticism, but has been almost universally critically acclaimed, particularly for its willingness to tackle generally taboo issues. (The name “Elephant” refers to the fact that no one wants to acknowledge the existence of the real problem) The same goes for “Bowling for Columbine” and “Zero Day”. The idea that a game somehow can't explore these themes, if done with artistic responsibility and respect for those involved, is laughable to me.
This is probably a futile endeavor on my part, because I imagine no one who reads this blog legitimately believes that games simply cannot be agents of social change, but I'm tempted to grind it out anyway.
No one would doubt that movies can be agents for social change, and the one quality that games have different from movies is interactivity. Graphics and sound have since become a non-issue. So, how interactive does something have to be to be called a game? Pressing “Play” on your DVD menu doesn't turn “The Dark Knight” into a game. Having to press “Play” every 44 minutes while watching the first season of 24 on DVD doesn't make it a game. You remember those old arcade games, where it was all animated and you only had one button, but you had to hit it at the right time to avoid dying? That's clearly a game, and it's almost entirely you watching things, and there's only one button.
But that's kind of a glib assessment. When you press the button, it has an effect on the course of the story in arcade games, while once the story starts in a movie, the author has complete control, right?
Well... if I go and see a movie, I decide when I'm gonna see the movie, right? If I buy it on DVD, I have control over when I press the button, I have control over how to interpret things, I have control over whether or not I want to keep watching, I have control over whether or not I have to pause it to go take a whiz. I've certainly heard more than one convincing interpretation of “Mulholland Dr.”, but because the person can only ever have a set experience, it can be “art”?
Well, no, that doesn't work either. The demeanor of the film changes significantly if you don't see the cowboy the second time, which is entirely under the control of the viewer. You can't absorb all of the information in one go, and you have to choose what you pay attention to, but that sounds like choices you make in a game. I haven't heard an argument that doesn't boil down to “Games usually aren't artistic, so they can't be artistic”. Even Roger Ebert's critique of games as art only thinly veils his contempt for the average gamer:
“But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
But nevertheless, most sensible cultured gamers admit that this critique is not undeserved. Most people don't think of games as art because there are virtually no artistic games.
(It's worth noting that that's why I enjoyed Xenogears so much. It was the first game I remember playing that seemed to have a cinematic sensibility about it. The fully rotatable 3d environments allowed the camera to move during even mundane scenes long before graphics in consoles reached the point of allowing for more than rudimentary cinematography)
And more than artistic purpose, political activism and social responsibility have been largely absent from game creation. Edutainment is there, but none of it is that good. What interests me most about this, however, is the cycle that's emerged about older generations being threatened by the newest development in youth culture. I think the parallel is obvious here: Swing, Rock, Movies in the first place, Grunge, and now it looks like videogames. Are cultural/artistic revolutions occurring with just enough time between them that the older generations forget about when they were the edgy revolutionaries being yelled at by their parents about how they were all going to end up drug addicted rapists? Are the people fighting to have video games, even violent ones, treated as a legitimate artistic medium going to learn their lesson, and not rail against their children about how this time, unlike all the other times, the world is really going to hell in a handbasket?
Eh, it's probably more likely that I'll be a 70 year old man, and filmmaking will have turned into nothing but a vehicle to produce additional “Saw” films, and I'll be yelling at my grandkids about how all they ever do is watch hamfistedly moralizing torture pornography.
I can't wait. =/
The website for Ledonne's film can be found at: http://www.playingcolumbine.com/