On April 20, 1999, senior students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School and began a school shooting, killing 12 students and one teacher, plus wounding 21 other victims. The two killers then committed suicide.
The United States was shocked by this tragedy, and the aftermath was a frantic search for reasons – and/or someone to blame –, be it guns, depression, bullying, Goth culture, Marylin Manson or violent video games – both boys were avid Doom players.
So, it’s easy to imagine the public outrage when independent filmmaker Danny Ledonne anonymously released Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a free game where you play as Eric and Dylan.
First released in April 20, 2005, sixth years after the shootings, the game initially flew under the radar. However, about a year later it was reported on by gaming websites like Gamasutra, and soon the mainstream press was all over it, and the game eventually reached over 700,000 downloads. Danny Ledonne’s identity as the game’s author was then leaked, and so he decided to come out and stand for his creation.
An amateur game created on RPG Maker 2003, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! blends 16-bit era sprites with digitalized photos of the tragedy, in a disturbing fusion of fiction and reality. The game begins with Eric and Dylan preparing themselves, sneaking into school to plant bombs and then executing the shooting, killing dozens of victims in JRPG-like battles. Said battles are almost entirely one-sided, with the victims mostly just cowering in fear, while you select a gun or bomb to kill them.
While a brutal game, violence in SCMRPG! is presented in a pointless, juvenile way, with lines like “Dylan dodges Matrix style” and other silly boasts. After the boys’ suicide, there’s a dream-like section where they go to Hell and fight hordes of Doom monsters, padded out to such length that even the bloodthirsty players will tire and question its purpose.
As you explore the school, you’ll relieve the events of that tragic day, as well as trigger flashbacks of the frustration, anxiety and bullying that the two boys lived. There’s a surprising and well-researched depth here, with the game taking a documentary-like approach and showing real facts of their lives, like how Eric was prescribed drugs for his social anxiety and those prevented him from joining the Marines, or how he ran into a school “rival” before starting the shootings, forgave him and told him to go home.
All these details provide a unique perspective into the tragedy. SCMRPG! was often criticized for trivializing the shootings, but in fact it humanizes it. It places players in the shoes of the boys and offers a glimpse of why did they do it – and then list them among the tragic losses that day, not as monsters.
Not everyone agrees, of course, with activists like Jack Thompson saying the game blatantly promotes similar actions, training new killers.
Things got worse when in 2006 another school shooting happened, this time in Montreal, Canada. Ledonne’s game was brought once more into the media’s spotlight, as it was revealed that the killer was a fan of violent games, namely Postal 2, Manhunt, Max Payne and Super Columbine Massacre RPG!.
A year later, SCMRPG! was chosen as finalist for the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition. But, in a sudden twist, it was pulled from the contest on alleged “moral obligations”. In protest, a group of other competitors – including the developers of Braid, flOw and Castle Crashers – wrote an open letter to the Slamdance organizers, arguing that the decision was “[…] hurting the legitimacy of games as a form of expression, exploration, and experience”.
Outraged by the removal of the game, the jury of the Slamdance Film Festival decided to award the game a Special Jury Prize, as a documentary. But, once again, the Slamdance organizers vetted the award.
In the end, more than half of the finalists ended up removing their games from the contest in protest, and Slamdance never hosted a video game festival since. Danny Ledonne further explored these events with a 2008 documentary titled Playing Columbine, focused on the controversy surrounding SCMRPG! and the perception of games as children’s toys.
When covering the festival incident in 2007, New York Times reporter Heather Chaplin elegantly wrote “Video Game Tests the Limits. The Limits Win”. In hindsight, that was only momentarily true.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! may have lost the Slamdance award, but it sparked a global debate about the role and value of video games as media that is still going on today, and inspired other developers to use games to explore serious real-world issues. SCMRPG! did break the limits on what games can talk about, and in doing so became one of the most important video games ever made. Felipe Pepe