“Braid won’t be at Slamdance because of SCMRPG getting dropped,” is the short form. Read on for the details…
As many of you probably know, there’s this game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, an oldschool-style RPG about taking the roles of Klebold and Harris, killing kids in school, then dying, going to hell, and coming to some awareness of what they’ve done. The game is pretty divisive — the creator seems serious in his intent to create an artistic response and commentary about the Columbine shootings, but of course many simply find it to be in poor taste.
It’s reminiscent in some ways of the controversy over the “game” that recreated the Kennedy assassination; had it been presented as a “simulation” then likely it wouldn’t have caused nearly as much outrage as it did. Here, a large part of the concern over SCMRPG is that it may trivialize the occurrence, allow people to fantasize about playing the same roles that Klebold and Harris did, and so on. In other words, whether it is in good taste.
The result of this controversy, as has been widely reported, is that the Slamdance competition, whose jury had selected SCMRPG as a finalist, decided to drop the game from the show. N’Gai Croal at Newsweek has pointed out the irony of this game getting dropped when Sundance shows things like Gus van Sant’s film Elephant, which mines much the same territory, though probably more artistically. The conference organizer has stated that he didn’t drop the game due to sponsor pressure, but rather as a moral choice of his own — something which Ian Bogost covers in more detail on Watercooler Games.
Now comes the news that the intensely interesting indie game Braid, a “game fan’s game” about manipulating time to solve puzzles in a platformer context, has chosen not to appear at Slamdance as a gesture of solidarity, even though Jonathan Blow (the game’s creator, and a very opinionated guy) happens to not think very much of SCMRPG as a game.
The game lacks compassion, and I find the Artist’s Statement disingenuous. But despite this, the game does have redeeming value. It does provoke important thoughts, and it does push the boundaries of what games are about. It is composed with more of an eye toward art than most games. Clearly, it belongs at the festival.
Good for Jon.
I found SCMRPG to attempting to seriously engage with the subject – whether it actually accomplished doing so is a wholly separate subject. (Some argue that Van Sant’s film didn’t wholly accomplish it either, after all). I’ve said in the past that the issue with serious games may be that they trivialize — and that this may also be their great strength. Here we see that very issue front and center. Dismissing the game “on moral grounds” essentially argues that it is exploitative; yet we do not necessarily consider clearly issue-driven films or books as exploitative. Rather, the sensitivity of the subject seems to be what is pushing the needle here. Can games, which some allege caused Columbine, then comment on Columbine without being regarded as exploitative?
SCMRPG is no great shakes as a game in its own right. It doesn’t even try to do something new on that front. Instead, it’s incurring controversy based on artwork, content, and most importantly, the medium that it happens to be in. Were its RPG plot excised and written out as a book, would anyone raise an eyebrow? Probably not.
Jon puts in well in his post:
…games should be taken seriously as an art form that can expand the boundaries of human experience. Games can help us to understand situations in a fully-engaged fashion, as participants and co-creators, which the passive media cannot do. As an art form they contain a tremendous power to shift perspective and to heighten wisdom. For the art form to achieve these potentials, game developers need to explore the space of possibilities in earnest. But if games are denied their appropriate level of societal recognition, growth of the form will be very difficult, and human culture will be the lesser for it.
If left unchallenged, the expulsion of the Columbine game sets a precedent in the wrong direction.
Exactly. And while there may be discomfort as we get the games that seriously tackle uncomfortable issues and fail at it, hopefully we will also see those games that do so and succeed, and thereby open new horizons and justify all the discomfort. Discomfort’s just a daily fact of life; new ways to make art and get more insight into ourselves, those come along but rarely.