I, Columbine Killer: My latest video-game column for Wired News

Wired News has just published my latest video-game column — and this one is on the ultracontroversial Super Columbine Massacre RPG! The game was recently just kicked out of the Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition. I noticed there were many critiques about the game floating around that had been mounted by people who’d never played it, so I decided to formally review it, to help describe a bit more accurately what the gameplay is really like.

The story is online for free at Wired News, and a permanent copy is archived below:

I, Columbine Killer

The infamous Super Columbine Massacre role-playing game is in the news again after being slammed from Slamdance. But is the game sick or is it a serious examination of the massacre?

by Clive Thompson

I barrel into the Columbine High School cafeteria, pull down the fire alarm, and the kids erupt into chaos. Then I pull out my Savage-Springfield 12-gauge pump-action, which I’ve sawed off to 26 inches for maximum lethality. A jock stumbles across my path: With one blast, he lies dead on the floor.

“This is what we’ve always wanted to do!” hollers my fellow killer, Dylan Klebold. “This is awesome!”

The I in these previous paragraphs is, of course, Eric Harris — one of the two infamous teenage shooters in the Columbine High School shootings of 1999. I’m playing one of the most controversial games in existence right now: Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a homebrew role-playing game that puts you in Harris’ shoes.

As you’d imagine, the game has been sandblasted with criticism since it was released early in 2005. Families of Columbine victims denounced it; a Miami Herald editorialist called it a “monstrosity.” The game — and its creator, the 24-year-old Danny Ledonne — came under even more fire last year when a school shooter at Dawson College in Quebec was discovered to have played Super Columbine.

Still, it didn’t capture the attention of the gaming community — until last week, when Slamdance booted the game out of its annual Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition. The competition organizers had originally lobbied Ledonne to enter the game, and the jury selected it as a finalist.

But as Slamdance approached, cofounder Peter Baxter decided that Super Columbine was simply too hot a potato. There were legal concerns, he told me (though he was vague about them); and “there was a question of our moral obligations to the families of the victims.”

Fair enough. If Baxter has moral concerns, he’s certainly allowed to act on them. But given how politically radioactive the game has become, you might well wonder: What’s it actually like? Does it exploit the tragedy for cheap thrills? Or does it actually have artistic merit — offering a new way to think about Columbine?

Right off the bat, Ledonne tries to put his critics off guard by delivering precisely the opposite of what you’d expect. Nobody will be able to use Super Columbine to live out explicit fantasies of gore or train themselves to shoot up a high school.

That’s because it’s anything but a graphically sophisticated, blood-soaked shoot-em-up. On the contrary, Super Columbine was designed to look like a clunky Nintendo game from the mid ’90s, with low-rez, pixelated characters the size of sugar cubes, and cheesy MIDI music. When you kill someone, the avatar looks like a mashed red blot.

What strikes you, instead, is Ledonne’s attention to narrative detail. He painstakingly researched the killers’ life stories using publicly released police investigations of the pair, and the game thus includes all manner of detail I never knew. When I started off in Harris’ house, I found a box of Luvox, an antidepressant he was on that prevented him getting into the Marines. When I met up with Klebold in a basement, we sat down in front of the VCR to watch the “I’ve seen the horror” speech from Apocalypse Now, a movie they apparently loved.

Ledonne actually reconstructed copious dialogue for the pair, pulled from real-life transcripts of what they said on the day of the shooting — including survivor reports and their own videotapes of themselves. (He estimates 80 percent of the dialogue in the game is lifted from real life.) It’s oddly mesmerizing: They wonder about what the reaction will be to the massacre (“pass more gun laws, probably”), reminisce about old times, gird themselves for battle and explicitly compare the attack to video games. “It’s gonna be like Doom, man!” Dylan exults.

You’re constantly reminded of how creepily unbalanced Harris and Klebold were. One minute they’re tossing off nihilistic riffs: “When I’m in my human form, knowing I’m going to die, everything has a touch of triviality to it,” Klebold muses. The next minute they’re quoting Shakespeare: “Good wombs hath borne bad sons.”

Harris is sad that his parents will be blamed for his evil acts (“My parents are the best fucking parents I have ever known. My dad is great. I wish I was a fucking sociopath so I didn’t have any remorse”).

And they perennially break into bitter recriminations about the popular kids they feel have tormented them. “If you could see all the anger I’ve stored over the past four fucking years. I’m going to kill you all,” Klebold seethes.

The upshot is that Ledonne has done a surprisingly good job of painting the emotional landscape of the pair — whipsawing from self-pity to pompous grandiosity and blinding rage, then back again.

When you actually get to the school and begin the attack, things become subtler yet. As you wander through the hallways, the little pixelated victims scurry around in semi-random paths, and any time you cross paths a battle is triggered. You encounter the same six or seven kids over and over again: the “Jock Type,” the “Preppy Girl,” the “Sheltered Girl”, the “Preppy Boy.”

It’s a neat stab at the mindset of the killers, who, for all their bombast about being objectified by their tormentors, did precisely the same thing to their victims. They didn’t see them as individuals: They were just metaphoric targets for their hatred. Indeed, in the game, as the killers did in real life, you don’t target any particular kids. You just wander around killing randomly. And Ledonne’s aesthetic decision to make Super Columbine so retro-looking enhances this effect: The game’s style evokes the killer’s pared-down, simplistic, self-serving view of the world.

Ledonne also gets in a few sly jabs at video-game culture itself. When you acquire your weapons, the game announces it with the sort of cheery dialog box that is typical in an RPG: “You acquire a Fire Spell! You pick up a Frag Grenade!” Except here, because the weapons are drawn from real life (“Eric got a Hi-Point model 996 carbine rifle complete with shoulder strap!”), the exuberant tone highlights just how psychotic and disconnected from reality the conventions of video games can sometimes seem.

And this, really, is what makes Super Columbine so artistically interesting: It uses the language of games as a way to think about the massacre. Ledonne, like all creators of “serious games,” uses gameplay as a rhetorical technique. (In fact, to support Ledonne’s artistic license, almost half the finalists in the Slamdance competition have pulled their games, and USC’s Interactive Media Division has withdrawn its sponsorship.)

The game is hardly perfect, of course. Ledonne’s sardonic touch sometimes becomes a bit heavy-handed, detracting from its power. And his use of the killers’ many self-mythologizing quotations — including material from Nietzsche, Shelley’s Frankenstein and T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, among others — wind up seeming merely ponderous, instead of thought-provoking.

But you certainly can’t argue that the game merely trivializes the killings, or voyeuristically revels in them. As the school shootings wind up, your avatar commits suicide in the library alongside Harris. The game cuts to real-life photographs of the killers’ dead bodies, taken from security cameras in the schools. These are the only photos of real-life carnage you see in the entire game: Ledonne follows them up with a montage of news photos of the survivors clutching each other in horror, then archival shots of the killers as young boys, but he avoids any pictures of the dead victims.

The overall effect is a bit bathetic, but still — after all the pixelated abstraction, the sudden appearance of real-life photos leaves you pondering the mystery of the shootings anew. Though you know more, you still can’t quite fathom why it happened.

There was one final bit of gameplay I didn’t understand at first. After you commit suicide, you awake to find yourself in a parody version of hell. I wandered around, being attacked by demons that — in a hilarious meta touch — were plucked from Doom, the very game originally blamed for inspiring the Columbine killings. But I didn’t get very far, because the game became suddenly very hard, and the demons quickly overcame me. I knew from reading online descriptions of Super Columbine that the hell sequence goes on for a long time, but I couldn’t figure out how I could possibly play such a hard level.

So I called up Ledonne to ask what the secret was. He pointed out that in his game, as in any RPG, you become more powerful with each enemy you kill — “leveling up,” as it’s called. To survive in hell, you need to level up as far as you can while you’re still in the school, which means you need to kill virtually every student in existence. I hadn’t done that, so when I got to hell I was too weak.

“It’s a little joke — you have to be really, really bad to survive in hell,” Ledonne said. “But I’m also making a point about choice in real life. The killers made a choice every time they pulled the trigger, and it affected them. You make the same choices in the game, and it affects you.”

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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