The constroversy over Peter Baxter's decision to pull Super Columbine Massacre RPG! from Slamdance's Guerilla Gamemakers Festival hit the New York Times this weekend, and Baxter has yet another explanation for his actions.
This time, it's not complaints by a sponsor, hypothetical complaints by a sponsor, or even his own personal distaste for the game. It was, as he explains to Heather Chaplin,
because of outraged phone calls and e-mail messages heâ€™d been receiving from Utah residents and family members associated with the Columbine shooting. He was also acting on the advice of lawyers who warned him of the threat of civil suits if he showed the game.
Chaplin writes of SCMRPG!'s "champions" and "detractors," which I think misses a major point. In the glare of attention and the fallout surrounding the game, and certainly around the decision to pull it. It's pure media Heisenberg: as events unfolded and garnered more attention, everyone--Baxter, Danny Ledonne, the game's creator, other designers who pulled their games in protest, and observer/critics--adjusted their own positions and justifications for their moral stances in light of what new had transpired.
Greg Costikyan posted a reader's refutation of his legitimating defense/review of the game which is at once perceptive [and not just for using the twee critspeak, "games qua anything"] and entirely beside the point. Whatever Ledonne's ex post facto interpretations of his game, the argument goes, his earliest discussions of it were not ironic metacommentary; they were the rantings of a dumbass who was wallowing in the Columbine killers' actions. The game isn't a self-consciously retro exploration of society, but an amateurish hack by a guy who didn't know how to change the default settings on his RPG gamemaking software.
Conclusion: SCMRPG! sucks as a game and should never have been juried into the competition in the first place. Which sounds true, but irrelevant to this situation.
Sundance's jury let in an exploitative, sensationalistic, controversy-seeking POS starring Dakota Fanning this year, but you didn't see Redford pulling rank and yanking the film. It just got the critical drubbing it deserved and will presumably slip into oblivion as it should.
Instead, the fact that a POS like SCMRPG! got into the competition at all should spur debate over the critical standards for judging games, which seem poorly thought through at best. Get a smarter jury, one which isn't just interested in flamethrowing qua flamethrowing by introducing a crap game to the competition.
But the combination of as-yet unformed critical consensus about what makes a "good" game or a game "good," combined with Baxter/Slamdance's knuckleheaded, ass-covering conservatism only strengthens the case that games need a new, different venue of their own. Whether it's a festival, a competition, whatever, is up to the gameworld to decide.
As for SCMRPG!, I'm still inclined to cut Ladonne some slack. If Trey Parker and Matt Stone had turned tail after their musical Cannibal! was rejected from Sundance, there may never have been a South Park. And there may never have been a Slamdance, for that matter.
Artists are not always clear or conscious of what goes into their work, and they're certainly not in control of the response it engenders when it gets into the world. Whatever the merit (or lack thereof) in SCMRPG!, it still resonates because of its uncanny similarity to a scene in Gus Van Sant's Elephant. The two killers-to-be are loafing around a basement bedroom. One plays the piano [fur Elise] and one plays an RPG on a laptop. It was an effortless kill'em game set in an empty desert.
The targets were dressed like the characters from Van Sant's Gerry. After expressing surprise that anyone had noticed, the producer of Elephant, Dany Wolf, told me that they had to create their own game [using the Doom engine], because they couldn't find a company who'd allow their video game to be used in the film.
Video Game Tests The Limits. The Limits Win. [nyt]