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Repressing the Potential of the Video Game

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires
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Despite their explosive commercial and popular success, video games continue to be limited in their ability to convey messages outside of their purposes of entertainment. This essay looks at the example of the game Super Columbine Massacre RPG (SCMRPG) and explores what its rejection from an independent games festival means for the potential of the video game to expand beyond a medium of entertainment.

Hero-of-the-guitar
Nic McPhee, Hero-of-the-guitar, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

The 13th annual Slamdance film festival, held in January, concluded their celebration this year somewhat differently than in previous years. They awarded their prizes in film in the typical manner, but announced that all the attending gamemakers at the Guerilla Gamemaker Competition (GGC) arm of the festival would be awarded the distinction of Official Jury Selections but no prizes would be distributed. They quietly attributed this to “circumstances” and promised to tighten their guidelines to continue to “protect Slamdance in the future(1)”. This article will examine this recent event and the ultimate reason for it, a video game based on the details of the Columbine massacre. This game and its rejection from the festival embodies a prime example of a perpetual cycle of repression in the capabilities of the video game as a medium of expression.What happened at Slamdance cannot be traced through official press releases, although one lead is found in a news item on the withdrawal of a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG (SCMRPG) from the competition. This game was nominated and selected by a jury as a finalist, and then later eliminated based on a decision by Slamdance organizers. It is impossible to determine through the official website, but multiple video game blogs (most extensively www.watercoolergames.org) reported on the subsequent exodus where 50% of the games withdrew from the competition in response to SCMRPG’s removal. Games that had generated a lot of buzz in the independent and mainstream gaming scenes like Braid, flOw, and Everyday Shooter removed themselves in a gesture of solidarity to SCMRPG and against what appeared on the surface to be an act of censorship and a bow to sponsor demands.

Yet censorship and sponsorship were not the reasons for the competition to court, honor, and advertise a game and then proceed to pull it from the festival, even in the face of the extreme support by the rest of the competition. From the official statement, it appears that Slamdance organizers felt a “moral obligation” to protect itself from the inevitable civic action that would be taken against it upon showing the game. They state that they did not fold to sponsor demands (in fact they lost sponsorship in light of SCMRPG’s elimination), or want to infringe on the freedom of expression of independent gamemakers. They refer explicitly to the merit of the game. Slamdance simply felt that the showing of SCMRPG was actionable beyond the monetary means of the festival to defend itself, though they did not describe any of the potential civic action they claimed to face.

What is SCMRPG?

Slamdance prides itself on showing independent games without other venues for display and on helping independent artists gain visibility. What about SCMRPG makes it go beyond the pale? The game is an RPG (role-playing game) where you play as killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on the fateful day in 1999. The game’s objective is to kill as many people as you can while following the day’s timeline, while a great deal of the game is punctuated by home videos of the boys and some of their exact quotes. After you reach your goal of mass-murder, you are presented an Andre Breton quote: “The purest surreal act would be to go into a crowd and fire at random.”

As this quote suggests, SCMRPG is not styled like your typical video game, but is hinged on a cynical understanding of how the day was framed in the media. To begin with, the style of SCMRPG is not the realist graphics or free-form shooting violence commonly portrayed as the typical video game aesthetic. Characters are represented as cartoon-like sprites, you watch action from an overhead, 2-D perspective, and the sound quality is minimal. You play the day through, roaming the school hallways and taking out your classmates. As you do so, you encounter Marilyn Manson CDs (“the lyrics are sure to inspire impulsive aggression and rage(2)”), learn some facts about Harris and Klebold (such as their college acceptances), and ponder quotes from distraught parents. In fact, text is a constant companion to the cartoon-ish visuals, a combination that eradicates any potential for the immersion sought by most sophisticated game design. Instead, the experience is of disassociation with your actions as you cycle between the ridiculous visuals and the disturbing text. Unlike typical games, you are not compelled by the constant feedback of rewards, and you are not awarded at the end of the game with a celebratory win. As it happened on April 20th 1999, you, playing as the Columbine killers, die at your own hand.

What Is (and Isn’t) a Video Game?

An obvious source of controversy was the fact that a game was centered on a recent dark moment in history, in which, as one victim’s friend said, you could murder a real victim over and over again. The outcries were predictable — how could someone turn such a tragedy into a form of entertainment? And therein lies the rub. The maker of SCMRPG did not intend to glorify or celebrate the events of the day, but sought to allow players to “confront their actions and the consequences those actions had(3)”. This motivation, and its continual rejection of validity on all fronts, highlights a key element of video games and their role in popular culture. While Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant largely followed the same format of following the killers’ perspectives on the day, it was examined for its message rather than outright dismissed for its subject matter.

Video games have been the target of controversy and moral panics for years, and are characterized by the popular press and crusading politicians as transmitters of violent content, the content-deficient entertainment of boys, and as highly addictive challenges to educators and parents. These negative portrayals are in many ways supported by the nature of the medium — most popular video game brands are marketed and tailored to the interests of teenage boys and young men, with an abundance of games centering on shooting, horror, sports, fast cars, and bikini-clad women.

Yet the development of the recent academic field of video game studies and attention by artists, storytellers, designers, and activists has shown some other elements of the medium that require consideration. Video games are unique in that they combine visuals, audio, and text with a wholly participatory form of consumption. While you watch, read, and listen to elements of video games, the overall experience is that you play their content. This is partly what makes video games, especially SCMRPG, seem inherently perverse. The playfulness of a game makes it seem ill-suited to the exploration of a serious issue. The language that surrounds the media frames it as a form of entertainment, and restricts it from taking on the same subject matter as the more serious acts of reading, listening, and watching, acts that inherently comprise a distance from events as traumatic as Columbine. It is this paradox that makes the video game a remarkable candidate for exploring very serious ideas. This medium nullifies the distance between its user and what is conveyed as one is forced to enact, experience, and participate in everything that is contained within the video game. Instead of watching like a witness, you act as an accomplice, a form of consumption that is unquestionably powerful.

Nevertheless, films like Elephant, as well as books, articles, and even television episodes, are permitted to explore dark moments; and comics, in the form of editorial cartoons, can probe tragedy. Video games, no matter how they are styled, are rejected as a form of artistic expression, political force, or social study on the whole. How many of those revolting against SCMRPG have played it? The answer is very likely “I don’t need to. It’s a travesty.” And this commonly-held viewpoint, on the rigid limits of what this form of media can do, are only repressing the potential of video games, which have come to include serious games, advergames, political simulations, and art games. This position, which might originate from ignorance about the breadth of games available, elitist preference of more traditional media, or a multitude of other perspectives, are quashing what might be one of the most powerful modes of expression available.

Avant-garde artists and designers have turned to the medium of the video game to explore topics such as war and terrorism (September 12th), refugee camps (Darfur is Dying), cultural difference (Real Lives), and territorial conflict (Peacemaker) in a new genre known as serious games. They are capitalizing on this medium because it allows them to follow the old writing adage of ‘show, don’t tell’. Unlike print, visual, or auditory media, video games are inherently simulational, which allows for an entirely different way of seeing events, systems, and processes. Simulation games like flight simulators allow players to experience the exact possibilities and limitations of a particular situation, for example rapid maneuvers at a high altitude. Similarly, serious games allow their player to experience something like living as a Palestinian or trying to survive as a refugee rather than simply bombarding a reader with facts that will not necessarily impact a reader who has no context for them.

To return to SCMRPG, by revisiting an event using the participatory medium of the video game, players can reconsider well-known elements surrounding the massacre, such as the politics of gun control, high school social hierarchies, the overblown role of popular culture, the moral panic surrounding Goth culture, etc., while putting themselves in the shoes of the perpetrators. Whatever one’s feelings towards experiencing an alternate perspective, it is certain that such a possibility will evoke emotions and provoke thoughts.

The simulational and experiential element of the medium continues—as the very recent example of SCMRPG shows—to be ignored in the face of the pervasive impression of video games as, at best, simply childish entertainment or, at worst, perverse exploitations. As the medium continues to grow as a tool for social commentary, education, political activism, and artistic expression (albeit among a select few), the enduring negative opinion serves only to limit a burgeoning form and potentially explosive development in communication. As long as we maintain the position that video games cannot be used as a medium for expression, we will be deaf to their powerful messages.

References

(1)Please see all official statements on Slamdance and the GGC at the website <www.slamdance.com>, 1 July 2007.
(2)From screenshots at the SCMRPG website at <http://www.columbinegame.com>
(3)Quoted in Jose Antonio VARGAS. “Shock, Anger Over Columbine Video Game” The Washington Post 20 May 2006. Available at <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/19/AR2006051901979.html> 1 July 2007.

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