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Film Review: Playing Columbine

Posted by Bart

columbinecafeteria-778163 Last night a small group of us took in the Danny Ledonne doc at Fantasia. The film was introduced by Jason Della Rocca and Melissa Fuller (a sharp Dawson student who engaged Danny on the game after the Dawson shootings). I never saw the rough cut from last year’s MiGS but I gather it is much improved and shorter.  All in all, this doc amounts to must-see-tv for game studies folks and is probably one of the best to use in a teaching context since it certainly does the general job of arguing for the artistic, social and political relevance of game design (and to a lesser extent gameplay).  That said, I have some criticisms and a laundry list of shouldofs/couldofs.

The film ultimately ends up being about censorship in the context of prevailing moral panics about video games in the U.S. The story (such as it is) moves through the initial motives for the game design, the original controversy and media misrepresentations of the game (easily debunked by Lebonne and an array of talking heads featuring quite a few game studies regulars with great lines; Ian Bogost, Tracey Fullerton, Miguel Sicart, Greg Costikyan…) on through the games figuration in the Dawson and Virginia Tech shooting media fallout and ending with the story of the game’s entry and removal from the Slamdance festival.

In retrospect I think the film does a great job of focusing on a critical moment in the evolution of the medium and numerous references are made to the early history of most media forms (film, rock and roll etc…) having to suffer through something similar.  This is too bad in a way because despite the continuities with the cultural politics of other media there are important differences…  the commercial landscape  and the role of  ‘Big Studios’ is different, distribution is different, media consumption patterns are different.  There was a small discussion of the difference interactivity makes but that’s maybe hard to gauge in this instance given that Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is not really a wonder of interactive design.

Which leads to my main beef…  Danny Lebonne’s game (and he admits this) is hardly a vanguard of the medium IMO. It may be an important  form of self-expression, of political commentary and even valuable as an artwork but it is also arguably barely a game.  That it uses the conventions of games (classic low-res RPGs) to make a visual argument or even induce a moment of self-conscious critical reflection doesn’t make this any less of a work but I’m not sure its the vanguard piece that the film constructs it as being…  Its true that all the indie designers of the moment rallied around the game but in the film this was more because of the censorship issue than because of any intrinsic qualities of the game itself.

The result is to maybe put folks like Tracey Fullerton and Ian Bogost and others into an uncomfortable position of defending the rights of the designers to make any game they choose (I agree) without also being about to talk about what might make better or worse games from their point of view.  It would have been nice to see a modicum of internal critique from the designers if only to show how much more sincere they are then the requisite bad guys (played by Jack Thompson, Tom Winter and Patrick Baxter as classic Michael Moore-esque straw targets).

It would have been cool even if Danny talked about how he might make the game differently or not after what he has been through or even after having discovered the world of politicized indie game designers.  That is, I feel it would do the movement some justice, or maybe this is just my Canadian sensibility, to portray the indie scene with a tad more humility in the struggle to gain a legitimate voice.  To that end there was a cool scene in what looked like a USC classroom (that bastion of indieness for the extremely well-heeled ?????) where the designers we’re sort of criticizing each other (Kellee Santiago talking about someone’s 9/11 game) but this was pretty thin in the grand scheme of things.

That indie voice, by the way, has to struggle just as much (if not more) with the mainstream game industry (how does Doug Lowenstein get to play a hero in this story?) as it does with the mainstream newsmedia and conservative politicians. I got a weird sense from the film that the game industry sits squarely behind Danny Lebonne (Rohrer, Mak, Santiago and Chen) and their efforts…  an odd side effect of the binary logic of revolution based film-making I guess – you are either with us or against us basically.

That said – the film was good and its a valuable contribution to game studies. Maybe there are too many talking heads for my liking and maybe too much easy slaying of trash mobs (poor Jack Thompson). It would have been very cool to see Tracey, Ian or Miguel let loose with a bit of game criticism so we could beat the “evil others” to the punch with a bit of reflexive internalist critique but maybe thats not appropriate  for the legitimating/community building work at hand…. next time perhaps.