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Living Game Worlds III: Playing with Controversy: The Case of Super Columbine Massacre

Ross Miller

At the Living Game Worlds III Conference last week at Georgia Tech, Director of the Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition Sam Roberts lent his feet to the fire to explain his company's decisions in the aftermath of the Super Columbine Massacre RPG pullout, to which he lamented that "I don't think we handled this very well ... this was poorly execution, from start to finish, how we dealt with this."

Also on the panel, entitled Playing with Controversy, was GT Assistant Professor and founder of Persuasive Games Ian Bogost and USC Assistant Professor Tracy Fullerton, whose Interactive Media Division withdrew sponsorship following Slamdance's decision. GT Assistant Professor and game theorist Celia Pearce served as moderator.

Portion of the SCMRPG trailer was shown to begin the discussion. In it, video of the game is shown over audio tracks showcasing the mainstream media's reaction to the game. The choice quote, from unknown source: "I see no way that you could, in any way, create the mindset that this was anything other than a really bad attempt to make money." The game was created by aspiring filmmaker Danny LeDonne using RPG Maker and was released his website for users to download free of charge.

Pearce providing the purveying theme for the session: "Why is it that you can make a film by Columbine but not a game?"

Bogost said that film is more understood by older generations and therefore there is a greater feeling of sophistication. "What we're hearing is that you shouldn't [make a game like SCMRPG]," he said.

Roberts talks about why Slamdance pulled the game. "I think Ian's exactly right, this is an issue about in most ways media literacy," he said. While there is no internal policy or prejudice, the decision was made by management because after talking to lawyers, we made decision that keeping the games would be detrimental to the future of Slamdance.

"Public understanding of a game on this content is different than public understanding of a movie on this," he said.

A sign of solidarity

Fullerton provided her perspective of events. "We're a small program, we don't have a lot money to go around sponsoring things," she said. USC students had gone to Slamdance the year prior with a game that no one complained about because it wasn't controversial. Meeting with other developers inspired them to give back to the festival that gave them such a great feeling.

"I would argue with the notion that you were protecting the ability to show provocative work by pulling the very type of work you were showing. I think that's a huge contradiction in approach ... by protecting one's ability to show this kind of work, we invalidate this very mission we're trying to achieve." Citing a perceived hypocrisy, they pulled sponsorship. Kellee Santiago, former USC student and co-founder thatgamecompany, instigated the pullout. Santiago, part of the team who brought flOw at Slamdance this year, called Fullerton about what was happening.

Fullerton and Roberts quickly traded words, with Roberts agreeing that the decision to pull SCMRPG was "inherently shortsighted," while Fullerton shared a conversation she had with Slamdance President Peter Baxter, where she said he stated proudly to her that "this has never happen before." Roberts said he was happy to see games like flOw and the six others from pulling out as a show of solidarity.

Pearce asks if the Gamemaker Competition's relation to the film festival -- as a unit contained within Slamdance -- had influenced management's decision.

"If this was a standalone game event, this would not have happened," said Roberts. Different expectations were cited. He gave some of what he considered positive aspects of being part of the film festival. "Films and independent films have been doing this for 40 years, they've figured ot how to make it work and train media literacy," he said, adding that these are "huge resources that could help game makers."

"Filmmakers could not understand someone taking point with legitimacy of their medium," he said. Yet this is one of the problems facing the gaming medium.

The Special Jury Prize

Despite being kicked out of the competition, Super Columbine Massacre RPG was still shown in the lobby. LeDonne brought his game and caught the eye of at least one person, Slamdance juror and filmmaker Brian Flemming (The God Who Wasn't There), who managed to convince two other jurors to honor the game with an honorary award, "Special Jury Prize" for Best Documentary. The efforts were stopped at the last minute by Baxter.

"The objection from Slamdance was that this was a game and we don't feel like it's proper giving a film award to a game," he said. However, was the award for Best Documentary or Best Documentary Film? Fullerton and Roberts go back and forth over this.

"I don't think we handled this very well ... this was poorly execution, from start to finish, how we dealt with this," said Roberts.

Moving forward

Bogost posed an interesting question regarding the future of the Gamemaker Competition. "Next year," he said, "you get the pedophilia game, what do you do?" The question was repeated by a member of the audience during the Q&A session, who used the white supremacist game Ethnic Cleansing as example.

Roberts explained that each game is submitted to judges for approval, and that perhaps some games would be shown only in private screenings.

One of the reasons later given for SCMRPG's exclusion (and the primary one cited for its denied Special Jury Prize) was that it did not necessarily have legal permission for all the music in the game, which were crude MIDI representations of actual songs. Roberts, however, stated that the game "did not have explicit legal issues."

"Every film festival in the country regularly screens movies that don't have their rights in order," he said. By merit of the attention it garnered, SCMRPG had brought legal issues to forefront.

"Now, films will not be shown unless all rights and clearances and locked away," he said.

As to the extent which the Slamdance festival will discourage highly controversial topics in gaming, Roberts said that the organizers "did not want to be that test case about whether games should tackle these issues." He predicts a game that has a negative agenda will make a case that reach the Supreme Court.

"[Can a] game conflict with the life and liberty of another? Most people in this room would say that is ridiculous, but we are in the minority," he said.

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