Pushing the Limits of Gaming

Courtesy of Digg, I came across an article about the creation of controversial games, including the well-documented and discussed Super Columbine Massacre RPG, which, as its title implies, allows you to play the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine massacre. According to many tech-savvy diggers, the story is old news. But it was the first I had heard of it, and it raised a lot of reactions for me.

My first reaction was a visceral disgust. For many people my age, Columbine (along with 9/11) was one of those seminal “remember where you were” events of our lifetimes. As such, its memory is still charged with emotion. I immediately thought, “How could someone turn something to serious into a game?”

But the more I read about it, the more I came to, if not admire, then at least respect the game’s creator, Danny Ledonne. He seems to be less of an attention-starved incendiary, and more of a thoughtful, albeit reactionary, artist. At the heart of the matter lies a basic question: where do video games fit into the scheme of creative production? Many people view them as diversionary hobbies, which can be pretty or engrossing, but not art. Is a video game so much worse than writing a first-person fictional account, drawing a graphic novel, or filming a gory movie about the tragedy?

The reason why people seem to react so strongly to video games, I believe, is not that they cannot be considered “art.” It is that there is an intensely interactive element to games. Books, paintings, and films can all transport you and drop you into another world. But video games give you significantly more independence to explore, and at least partially, to control that world. In a theoretical movie from the perpsective of the shooters, you can see their perspective and “feel” like you are shooting people. In a game, that reality is heightened by the fact that when you decide to push a button, you decide to shoot someone.

To tie the subject back to scholarship, I wonder what would happen if a student made this game as part of a class project (computer science, sociology, philosophy, etc.)? What would the the responsibility of fellow students, the teacher, the school administration in addressing this issue? I can imagine how this very scenario would make any dean or administrator break out into a cold sweat. The implications of academic and expressive freedom are quite obvious.

Finally, Ledonne himself brings up the idea of exploring a serious, societal issue through gaming. This is one of the major hurdles facing educational gaming, as there is resistance from both sides that implies educational games are either too serious and academic, or not enough. I’ll end with a quote from Ledonne that I found particularly thought-provoking in this regard: “There is little in the realm of socially conscious gaming-software that does more than merely amuse for a few idle hours. Yet while some low-selling games offer pedagogical education (in geography, math, etc.), games that genuinely challenge social taboos or confront real cultural issues are nearly non-existent. I wanted to make something that mattered.”