Philadelphia Film Festival: Playing Columbine

A few years ago, student filmmaker Danny Ledonne discovered a computer program called RPG Maker (which provides an easy way to create a video game without having to learn programming) and decided to make a game that would explore issues important to him. As a high school student in Colorado at the time of the Columbine shooting, he found that event to be particularly important in his life. He recognized himself in the shooters and wanted to make a game that explored that concept as well as the idea that video games were themselves responsible for the tragedy. So he made a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! where you play Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and act out the massacre, following events on the day of the shootings and continuing after their suicide into hell (where they fight creatures from the video game Doom).

In 2005 he (anonymously) made the game available for free on the internet. He didn't do much in the way of promotion for the game, but it almost immediately started garnering attention due to its controversial subject matter. Many people condemned the game and its creator, but it eventually started to pick up some supporters who mounted a defense. As a way of explaining his actions, Ledonne made a documentary called Playing Columbine in 2007 that covers why and how he created the game, and then springboards to broader discussions on the role of serious video games and art in our society.The film has been making its way through the festival circuit since then, including a the showing I saw yesterday at the PFF.

While I wouldn't say that Ledonne is anywhere close to Errol Morris territory, I do think he has crafted an effective exploration of an intensely personal subject. Without knowing much about the game or the movie going in, I suspected that there might be something of a conflict of interests for Ledonne. Was this going to just be an exercise in self-serving defensiveness and bias, or would it be a legitimate exploration of video games, art, and culture? I'm happy to say that Ledonne has succeeded in making a movie that is more than just a defense of his simple game.

Of course, the film starts by detailing the controversy surrounding the game and the response to the game. However, the movie wisely strays from the game at almost every opportunity in order to explore broader and more interesting concepts such as the demonization of video games in the media, the value of video games as an artistic medium, censorship, responsibility and the nature of violence and school violence. There is a somewhat cyclical structure to the film, as each segment uses the Super Columbine Massacre RPG! game as a springboard to discuss different ideas and controversies surrounding video games in general. For instance, one segment covers an incident where the game was pulled from the Slamdance Film Festival's Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition by festival director Peter Baxter. As a result, half of the other game developers withdrew their games from consideration and USC pulled its sponsorship of the competition. The details of this particular story are interesting by themselves, but the movie uses this as a jumping-off point to discuss broader ideas of censorship and art.

The film is comprised primarily of talking head interviews intersperced with video game and movie clips, but Ledonne has done a great job assembling an appropriate and noteworthy cast of game developers, university professors, media experts, school shooting survivors and even game critics. Some notable names include Ian Bogost (video game professor and designer), Hal Halpin (founder of video game trade organization), Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago (designers of Kaedrin favorite, Flower), Jack Thompson (attorney and anti-video game activist), and Andrew Lanza (NY State Senator and video game critic). There are lots of other worthy contributers as well, and they mostly have interesting and thought provoking things to say. By necessity, Ledonne himself also appears throughout the film (for example, there are excerpts of interviews and lectures he has done), but you see him as one of many video game designers and experts throughout the film, not as the director (unlike, say, Bowling for Columbine).

The movie obviously has its own bias, and the amount of time given to critics is dwarved by proponents, but the film does a good overall job of letting you know that fact. Perhaps it's just my current obsession with video games and art, but I did thoroughly enjoy this film. Unfortunately, I it may be difficult to actually see the film, as there doesn't appear to be any DVD release scheduled and I suspect there are a lot of clearance issues that would need to be worked out. Still, if you get a chance to watch it, I would recommend it. Even if you're not interested in a Columbine game, the movie goes much deeper, exploring interesting and broader topics like censorship and violence in the media. Speaking of which, I'm reminded of this exchange from the Acts of Gord:
"We would like a quote for the front page of the newspaper talking about videogame violence, and it's possible impact on society."

"Video games don't make people more violent, and I'll kill anyone who disagrees."

<dramatic pause>

"I don't think we can print that."
Heh. I'm still not sure I'll ever play the game, but that isn't because I think there's something wrong about its very existance or anything. Anyway, because of the game, we get a good, thought-provoking movie, which is good enough for me. ***