The ongoing debate over representations of violence in videogames is the immediate focus of “Playing Columbine,” Danny Ledonne’s gripping, troublemaking docu about the reaction to his videogame re-creation of the Columbine High School massacre. But the film goes much further, ultimately tying questions of propriety and censorship into a larger discussion of the development of videogames as a form of expressive art. While it raises far more questions than it can answer, pic serves as an impressively nuanced call for games to be taken more seriously, and it could find a healthy fest and homevideo reception from the gaming community and beyond.
A Colorado high school student at the time of the Columbine shootings, Ledonne used his own complicated feelings about the incident as inspiration for “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!” a cartoonish yet exhaustively researched online videogame that he released anonymously as a free download in 2005. In the game, players assume the identity of one of the two killers, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, and are then set free to wreak havoc (or not) on the titular high school.
Reactions were predictably extreme, and Ledonne was soon outed as the game’s creator and subjected to a deluge of outraged newspaper editorials and hate mail, both of which increased even further when a Montreal school shooter was revealed to be a fan of the game.
Yet what the film makes clear is that the game, while undeniably offensive, had far deeper artistic intentions than mere shock value — a key fact lost on most of the game’s critics, few of whom bothered to actually play it. Of those who did, many came to consider it something of a watershed for the medium. The Slamdance Film Festival grand jury even attempted to give the game a special documentary prize in 2007, sparking yet another series of controversies.
Ledonne’s game has antecedents in other media, the most obvious being the caustic satire of punk bands like the Dead Kennedys, but one could also draw parallels with the cinema of Michael Haneke, in which the audience is implicated in the often horrific actions occurring onscreen. (The game’s twist is that, in addition to empathizing with the killers, players are ultimately made to feel guilty for what they’ve done.) But whether one finds Ledonne’s game intriguing or revolting is ultimately less important than the notion that he should be afforded the same freedom to explore the incident as any other visual artist.
Doc shows an admirable lack of self-justification or self-congratulation, and Ledonne himself mostly stays out of the picture. Instead, the floor is ceded to an impressively wide swath of perspectives — from game designers, academics, politicians, filmmakers and school-shooting survivors — with ample and mostly respectful time allotted to the game’s critics (though Ledonne can’t resist taking a few potshots at Jack Thompson, the tireless wannabe Will Hays of the videogame world).
At times, the film gets too caught up in issues of imitative violence that, while relevant, are simply less intriguing than the baby steps young designers are taking to expand the boundaries of games.
Technically, the film shows its limitations in a number of areas (sound is particularly rough), and could probably have stood another pass through the editing room, though such shortcomings hardly detract from the overall impact. Well-integrated clips from a variety of videogames, films and newscasts testify to extensive research.