Agency and Dilemma
Distasteful or even factually inaccurate thematic content is not enough to make a game void of value. What if distasteful content is used for an artistic purpose? Is that even possible? Many media personalities that do not care to become familiar with the form seem to think so. A media uproar surrounded 2005’s independent art-game Super Columbine Massacre RPG! by Danny Ledonne. In it, players use the basic interface and verbs of 1990s-era Japanese RPGs to play through the final day of the mass-shooters in the Columbine High School shooting.
The game vacillates between documentary-style literal presentation and a farcical approach to the actual events of the incident. For instance, the entire second half of the game takes place in hell and is peppered with fictional characters and dead celebrities. Yet the end of the game features verbatim quotes from public figures the day of the massacre. There’s art underneath the kitsch.
As with Ethnic Cleansing, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! only received popular attention because of media controversy. However, unlike the previously mentioned game, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! actually contains a real, earnest reason for its distasteful content. As you play as killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, you are first given the emotional framework that would motivate them and then you have the opportunity to make decisions as they may have. While the writing lacks subtlety and the decision making is nonetheless forced (and therefore mostly devoid of meaning), the agency given to the player provides a different perspective on the incident than any passive documentary could ever aspire to communicate. It is not a good game in the traditional sense, but it has something to say about a topic that few think the form of the video game should be allowed to address in a serious manner.
Media personalities that decried the game as glorifying Klebold and Harris miss the point entirely. The events of the Columbine High School massacre happen in Super Columbine Massacre RPG! at the player’s pace. You are the killers. How you choose to continue in the game is a statement about the choices you make when consuming media. This choice does not exist in other media. Watching Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant allows you to watch the same subject matter but from a distance because the audience can never have an effect on the events except only to turn it off. The statement of the audience’s responsibility is much less direct when the audience has no impact. While the ability for the audience to enter a killer’s mind and suss out their motivations may be more artfully handled in Van Sant’s film, it is not nearly as direct as can be exercised in Ledonne’s game.