May 3, 2012

Convenient Truths -- PLAYING COLUMBINE

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.

Today he and his friends Jason Sacks and Nick Boisson found 2008's Playing Columbine by Danny Ledonne and released by Emberwilde Productions.
Elkin: America's innocence was further eroded on April 20, 1999.  It was that day in Littleton, Colorado that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School and killed twelve students and one teacher, while injuring over 20 others in the worst High School shooting in American history. Following this came a period of reflection where we as a nation tried to make sense of the tragedy. Fingers were pointed. Books and magazine articles were published. Movies were made. Laws were enacted. Artists responded. The public held discourse.
Then in 2005, using entry-level middleware, Danny Ledonne created a 16-bit role-playing video game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! where players took on the roles of Klebold and Harris on the day of the massacre. Ledonne posted it as a free download and after a half a million hits, the game sparked enormous controversy.
Playing Columbine is a documentary that Ledonne made about the debate surrounding his game. It also gives him a platform to explain his reasons for creating Super Columbine Massacre RPG! in the first place. As it is Ledonne's own film (released by his own production company), it has a certain agenda. While in the process of laying out that agenda, though, Ledonne's film raises some rather profound questions about the press, the gaming industry and American morality.
Boisson: I have been playing games for as long as I can remember. Longer, in fact. I was born in the late-'80s -- when the home video game console was becoming a thing -- and my parents had bought a Nintendo Entertainment System for their first-born, who could not stand up, feed himself or speak a single word. There are pictures of me holding an NES controller in my hands at the age of one. I grew up with video games being a monumental part of my everyday life. Take a shower, brush my teeth, go to school, come home, play video games, get yelled at by my mother to do my homework, do my homework, eat dinner, play video games, go to sleep, rinse and repeat.
Video games, to this day, still hold as significant a role in my everyday life. Granted, I am about to be 24 and have a full-time job, but playing video games are still something that I do and something that I know I will always do.
I have also, believe it or not, never killed anyone. I have never gone hunting (human or otherwise). I have never fired a gun. I have never wished for everyone around me to die by my hand in some fantastically violent manner. So when some idiot says something like, "Video games were the cause of the Columbine massacre and the Virginia Tech shooting and children running wild, having unprotected sex," I find it a bit hard to take them seriously.
Yet, the Jack Thompsons of the world keep popping up to make life as vanilla and inoffensive as they can possibly make it, and people are actually listening. If there is one thing that Ledonne did -- both with his game and with this film -- is start a discussion on free speech and how anxious many are to take it away without reason or purpose. Honestly, it is a frightening thing. More frightening than anything found in Super Columbine Massacre RPG! by far.
Sacks: The self-defined moralists will always find a scapegoat for anything that they are offended by. You know why the Columbine Trenchcoat Mafia were able to kill their classmates, or why the Virginia Tech or Montreal killers were able to kill so many people? Because they had access to semi-automatic weapons. If they couldn't access guns, they wouldn't have been able to kill. But of course in a world where the NRA has the majority of our political system in their pocket, the idea of banning guns is completely beyond the pale.
And of course everyone turns away from the idea of bad parenting being a major cause; busy parents being too lazy or arrogant or stupid or plain damn busy to check in on their kids and see how they're doing. And it's not the fault of busy overloaded teachers or of former friends or current classmates too caught up in their own lives to take action. No, those sorts of factors hit too close to home. How can parents control their kids in this crazy sexting, internet-everywhere world with ubiquitous and continuous communications? It's all too much for anyone to handle.
So the self-defined moralists turn to the arts, as they always do, and as always they confuse coincidence with causality. Of course video games inure kids against violence. Of course games like GTA make rape acceptable and of course Columbine Massacre RPG! is the worst offender of all. Just look at the name of that game! It scans well on the scroll at the bottom of Fox News, it offends Middle America, it's in your face, obnoxious and confrontational. It's scary. Whether any of this is true, our 24/7-news cycle demands immediate gratification, immediate definition of good and evil. Screw the facts. Opinions are what matter – no matter how ridiculous those opinions may be.
As CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein has said, it's the duty of each generation to offend its parents' generation, and it's the responsibility of the parents' generation to figure out why they are offended. There should always be a tension between the edgy art of one generation and the next. In 1976, the Sex Pistols offended; in 2012, they're kind of cute and kitsch.
But the self-imposed morality zealots are always with us. In the '30s they went after films; in the '50s they went after comic books; in the '60s they hated rock and roll and in the '90s and '00s they went after video games. Never mind that all of those art forms simply reflected society back to the people consuming it. By God, the world was turning to hell in a hand basket and only these self-imposed zealots were going to same America from evil overriding it.
Those zealots have always been wrong, and they're wrong here, too.
Yeah I know I just climbed onto my soapbox and let loose another manifesto, but the kind of reflexive moralizing found in a movie like this really offends me. I was repulsed by the idea of a game like Columbine Massacre RPG! but it absolutely serves an important purpose in the world today.
Elkin: I knew this film would stir some pretty strong feelings in you guys, and I guess that was sort of the point of the whole thing, both the creation of the game, as well as the release of Playing Columbine.
There were three questions that I really took away from this film, as self-serving as it was: 1) Why is gaming, regardless of its ubiquity and enormous profits, still considered one of the marginal aspects of American culture, 2) What does it say about Western Culture when we spend so much of our time engaged in escapist activities, and 3) Is game design a legitimate art form?
The point Playing Columbine was trying to make, I think, regarding the marginality of gaming culture, was that, like you said Sacks, it is associated with youth culture, and anything that youth culture embraces (like jazz or comic books or rock and roll) is quickly demonized by the establishment and viewed as a threat to public order. The film goes to certain lengths to talk about this pattern of moral panic that has been part of our development as a society, but doesn't do much about trying to explain the whys and wherefores of this phenomenon. But I guess that is a can of worms this column doesn't have the shelf space to store – although it is something that I think we all have our opinions about.
The second question about escapism was raised at the end of the film, but not explored really at all. One of the interviewees in the film said something to the effect of, “Maybe escape is not the best solution to the things that make you want to escape in the first place.” It is interesting that this is NOT a topic the gaming industry spends much time discussing, nor does the media for that matter. I think it is a subject that, as a website devoted to escapist pursuits such as comic books, television and movies, might be something about which we should consider having a dialogue.
It's the final question about game design and art though I think Playing Columbine does attempt to poke at some answers to. The focus of much of the film is on the legitimacy of gaming as an art form, and Ledonne's bias is, not unexpectedly, pretty straightforwardly towards the positive. I think the film works hard to make the case that game design is as equally valid a form of artistic expression as any other, and in some ways is more powerful because of its interactive nature. Playing Columbine brings up the concept of Serious Games like Darfur is Dying or September 12th, and uses these examples to show how games can be used as teaching tools and to “put a player in a moment of empathy.” Ledonne and many of the people he interviewed for the film also spend a great deal of time referencing the forum section associated with Super Columbine Massacre RPG! as a place for people to engage in a thoughtful discussion about the experience they had playing the game. Both of these things point to the emotional affect these sorts of games have on their players, and, if we use the definition that art can be anything that stirs an emotional response in its audience, which then causes them to examine that response, then you would be hard pressed not to consider these games art. Therefore, it is easy to say that, yes, games can be art. The question I have, though, is, “Are they inherently art?” Does a game like Mass Effect 3 cause a self-reflective emotion that people can examine to learn something about themselves or garner some universal truth about existence, or is it just a form of escapism from that sort of thinking and therefore more of an anti-art?
Boisson: To respond to your final question Daniel, did Aquaman #6 or The Hangover do either of those things? I'd jump and say, "No," but am I going to make the claim that they are not art? Absolutely not.
Art does not necessarily need to be self-reflective or speak to our society as a whole. Art can merely be an expression of one's imagination or purely for entertainment value. Art could just be something that plants an idea in your head, whether the idea is about man's place in the universe or that they really should to buy auto insurance with GEICO. I feel as if you are giving a fairly narrow definition of what is and what art can be. Also, if you think about the controversial ending to Mass Effect 3, one could make a claim that the game does both of those.
I agree with Jason and say that it is merely a generational gap that is causing us to even ask such questions. Roger Ebert has made many claims that video games are not art and never will be. This is such a pessimistic view of art from the man who wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Had he been born a generation earlier, I'm sure he would have been saying the same about the medium that he has been writing and speaking on for nearly 50 years.
As for the escapism question, doesn't all art – in some respect – provide escapism? I believe Van Gogh's work was, at times, fairly self-reflective, but his most famous work – "The Starry Night" – was the view from outside his sanitarium window. I don't think there has ever been a more escapist piece of art more accepted by critics. Art can still very well be escapist and still speak to the values or misfortunes of our own society. A perfect example of this has always been science-fiction. Star Trek, for example, used space travel and the future to talk about race relations, religion, Vietnam, sex and nuclear war in the 1960s. They are not mutually exclusive.
In about fifteen or twenty years, those who grew up alongside video games will be the ones making decisions in our country. I, for one, long for the day that our Commander-in-Chief admits to kicking ass in Counter-Strike when he was younger.
I think Playing Columbine does exactly what Ledonne planned to do: Start a discussion (if this column were not enough proof). What was brilliant about Super Columbine Massacre RPG! wasn’t that it used a tragic event in our history to make a video game, but that it used an antiquated method of interactive storytelling -- RPG Maker 2000 to create a point-and-click adventure game -- to discuss not only the tragedy itself, but how we perceive such a tragedy. I do want video games to be entertaining and fun, but video games can also be a perfect way to elicit an emotional response from someone. There is most certainly a place for such games and I cannot wait until society is in a state where these games can be released without such a flood of negative responses.
Video games are not just art, but the next step in the evolution of media as we know it.
Sacks: Well, we know that President Obama is a Conan fan, and he's just old enough to have played some video games in his time. I'd bet a community organizer in Chicago has a bit of free time to play a few games if he wants to. We may already have your gamer guy in the White House.
I'm not sure I follow your point about escapism, Daniel. I see nothing wrong with escapism, and it goes without saying that wanting to escape one's daily life into a fantasy world is a completely healthy and ordinary behavior, whether that fantasy world is The Big Bang TheoryPrometheus or Mass Effect. No matter how good things are for you, there's always a lot of fun to be had in indulging yourself in a bit of fantasy. That is just human nature, isn't it?
But I think it's just that kind of pursuit of escapism that makes people fear a game like Super Columbine Massacre RPG!. That love for escapism makes some observers fear that people will find themselves lost inside a dark and depraved world that they somehow find interesting or compelling, or a world to which they want to escape again and again. And it appears from the (admittedly self-serving) film that this game triggers precisely that reaction in its players: an initial rush of exultation when playing the game – then quickly followed by a deep sense of guilt and empathy. Several people in the film express exactly those emotions – a sense that this game pushed them to appreciate the horror of the events that it depicts in a deep and profound way.
It's that complex reaction that helps make Super Columbine Massacre RPG! into real art. I'd like to believe that art has the profound ability to alter one's perceptions, to cause a thoughtful user to think differently, to understand a topic more than they otherwise would. I loved exploring these ideas in this movie.
Elkin: I think ALL politicians are gamers in one-way or another, but that's a whole different topic.
Yes, Jason, I agree that escapism is part of human nature, and yes, Nick, all art does provide some form of it. What watching Playing Columbine brought up for me about this idea, though, was a question about why we as a society are seemingly spending more and more and more time engaged in escapist behavior. Is it the ease of access through our smart phones and laptops? Is it because we have more leisure time now than at any previous point in history? Or does the answer to this question speak to a more fundamental crisis in our shared reality? Or is there something else going on?
In a recent New York Times Magazine article Just One More Game by Sam Anderson, he writes about Jane McGonigal's book Reality Is Broken, in which she argues that play is possibly the best, healthiest, most productive activity a human can undertake -- a gateway to our ideal psychological state. Games aren’t an escape from reality, McGonigal contends, they are an optimal form of engaging it. In fact, if we could just find a way to impose game mechanics on top of everyday life, humans would be infinitely better off. We might even use these approaches to help solve real-world problems like obesity, education and government abuse.
It's an interesting perspective, to say the least, and certainly one that deserves further examination by those far more qualified than us. Still, this question concerning the value of escapism may be something we might want to consider in the back of our minds as we continue as a website reviewing video games, television shows, comic books, and even documentaries.
Or not. After all, what the heck do I know?
Anyway, here we are with another documentary leading us to try to examine the question of “what is art” while trying to figure out why humans seem to have an inexorable drive to escape from the “reality” they are confronted with on a daily basis. And this is what I love about documentaries like Playing Columbine, because they force us to examine these fundamentally human questions. Perhaps documentary filmmakers are the true philosophers of our age?
I think I can speak for all three of us here when I say that Playing Columbine is a pretty good documentary film if, for no other reason, it certainly confronts its audience in a way that will hopefully make them think about some rather profound questions.
Trailer for the Film:

Nick Boisson grew up on television, Woody Allen, video games, Hardy Boys mysteries and DC comic books, with the occasional Spider-Man issue thrown in for good measure. He currently roams the rainy streets of Miami, Florida, looking for a nice tie, a woman that gets him, and the windbreaker he lost when he was eight.

Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.

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