When the Columbine school shootings happened in April 1999 Jerald Block, a US psychiatrist, made the suggestion that the two assailants, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were influenced by there love of the videogame Doom. It was a popular sentiment at that time and connecting violent videogames to shooting sprees and other crimes has sort of become par for the course. As gamers we just expect to hear it.
A few years later the Columbine massacre had another game-related controversy attached to it that also garnered some media attention. In 2005, Danny Ledonne released Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a role-playing video game. The game put the player in the shoes of Harris and Klebold, and played and looked very similar to 16-bit-era RPG classics, like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.
Much of the dialog and the plot of the game follow how the actual events were believed to have transpired, with some dialogue lifted from the boys writings and from television broadcasts. For the most part, the game was not well received, with some in the mainstream press calling the game “exploitative” and a “monstrosity”. The specialist gaming press were also hard on the game, though their issues had more to do with Super Columbine Massacre RPG!’s merits as a game, in and of itself, rather than its subject matter.
In an interview with 1up.com from October 2006, Ledonne defended his work, calling the game an “interactive electronic documentary” that reflected his thoughts on the shooting at the time. In that same interview, Ledonne said something else of importance that extended beyond the scope of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!:
“I think one of the problems inherent to making a video game about an important, tragic event is that the message may be forever lost in the medium.”
I write under correction, but as far as I can remember, Ledonne’s game was the first videogame that addressed a tragedy while still very fresh in the minds of public. Since then, there have been a few scattered examples of games that took their inspiration from current or real world events, but not many, and those that have done so have met with condemnation.
In 2003, John Brennan, Mike Caloud, and Jeff Cole, supervised by their university lecturer in game design, Brody Condon, produced a game called 9-11 Survivor. Played from a first person perspective, the game cast the player as someone trapped in the burning Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. In one scenario the player is a businessman unable to find an escape route, the only option left to the player is how to die, either by fire or leaping to death. In other scenarios, escape is sometimes a possibility because the game starts you on a lower floor or you survive long enough for fire-fighters to come to the rescue.
When word of that game leaked, Brennan, Caloud, and Cole received death threats and were publicly condemned for bad taste and moral indecency.
Games like JFK Reloaded (where you play as Lee Harvey Oswald), Endgames: Waco Resurrection (about the ill-fated Waco Siege), Medal of Honour (about the current conflict in Afghanistan), Six Days in Fallujah (which focussed directly on Operation Iraqi Freedom) and others all courted controversy of some kind and many where accused of trivialising serious issues.
The most recent serious real life event to inspire a videogame adaptation is the Fukushima Nuclear meltdown, following the recent tsunami in Japan. Though technically not a game, Fukushima is a player-developed mod for another game called Fallout 3. To those unfamiliar with modding: Modding allows the players of games to create their own content and then offer that mod to other players of game. In this case, the mod was created by a Japanese player of Fallout 3 calling himself KOBJ and released on fallout3nexus.com, a popular fan site for the game. The discussion that followed the mods release was quite spirited, with many claiming it was “too soon”.
All this has led me to wonder: Why is it such an issue when videogames decide to handle such weighty subject matter? And the answer goes back to Danny Ledonne’s quote from earlier. Whatever the intent of those making the games, the medium they have chosen is the “wrong” one.
Because videogames are toys and if you’re trying to say something important you don’t do it with playthings. By doing so you are trivialising the story, since games are – obviously – not a serious enough medium to be able to deal with human tragedy.
I am a bit ambivalent about that myself. On the one hand, I have had many fulfilling emotional experiences playing various games, which has convinced me that the medium is ready to handle much more serious subject matter. On the other hand, I have serious doubts that the industry has the maturity to handle those subjects.
The solution? I have no idea. The best I can come up with is that developers need to keep pushing to include that kind of subject matter in their work and to develop a thick skin when the controversy follows. One thing I do know is that the solution isn’t going to come from a Triple-AAA studio, where things like bureaucracy and negative PR and stock prices and return on investment are a concern.
And as long as things like that are in the picture, we may never see a meaningful game come out dealing with a topical current affairs issue. Which is sad for both the medium and the industry.