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What Is ‘Active Shooter’? A Guide to the Video Game Industry’s Latest Controversy

Four days ago, no one had ever heard of a video game called “Active Shooter.” It was an obscure indie first-person shooter that let the player commit a mass killing in a school environment. It was originally scheduled to launch June 6 on Steam, but widespread condemnation led to its removal, along with all of the other titles from its developer, Revived Games. So, what happened, exactly? And why was it such a big deal? Here’s what you need to know to get caught up.

What was ‘Active Shooter’?

It’s a “dynamic SWAT simulator” where players could choose to be members of an elite SWAT team or the titular active shooter, according to its description on Steam. Depending on what role they picked, players were tasked with either neutralizing the target or hunting and killing civilians in a school setting. A counter in the corner of the screen tallied the number of cops and civilians killed. The developer also said he planned to launch a 4-player co-op mode, a survival mode where players could choose to play a civilian, a survival mode from a civilian’s perspective, and a zombie mode where people needed to scrounge for gear and health packs while fighting the undead.

A disclaimer on the game’s Steam page read: “Please do not take any of this seriously. This is only meant to be the simulation and nothing else. If you feel like hurting someone or people around you, please seek help from local psychiatrists or dial 911 (or applicable). Thank you.”

Who Created It?

Revived Games was an indie developer responsible for over half a dozen Steam titles. Many of them seemed like deliberate attempts to be trollish or satirical. “Zucc Simulator” was a thinly veiled jab at Facebook and the recent controversy over how it handles personal data, for example. “Tyde Pod Challenge” was a racing game where players controlled a police cruiser and picked up collectibles resembling a certain laundry detergent. All of the titles launched on Steam within the last six months, except for “Active Shooter.”

The games were all published by a company called Acid. Apparently, Revived Games and Acid were both the same person, a man who called himself Ata Berdiyev. He has a history with Valve. A spokesman told Variety via email Tuesday night Berdiyev was removed from Steam last fall while he was operating under the names “[bc]Interactive” and “Elusive Team.”

“Ata is a troll, with a history of customer abuse, publishing copyrighted material, and user review manipulation,” Valve said. “His subsequent return under new business names was a fact that came to light as we investigated the controversy around his upcoming title. We are not going to do business with people who act like this towards our customers or Valve.”

Variety tried to contact Berdiyev, but he did not immediately respond.

What Was the Controversy?

There have been 23 school shootings in the U.S. in 2018 alone, according to CNN. Just last week, 10 students and teachers were killed at Santa Fe High School in Texas. Seventeen people were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February. Given America’s current gun problems, many believed a game like “Active Shooter” was in extremely bad taste. Florida Senator Bill Nelson called it “inexcusable.”

“Any company that develops a game like this in wake of such a horrific tragedy should be ashamed of itself,” he wrote on Twitter Monday.

Ryan Petty, the father of 14-year-old Parkland shooting victim Alaina Petty, called it “despicable.” “Let @steam_games know games depicting ‘active shooter’ scenarios in schools, where players shoot civilians, students & law enforcement are unacceptable,” he tweeted.

Fred Guttenberg, another father of a Parkland victim, said, “This company should face the wrath of everyone who cares about school and public safety and it should start immediately. Do not buy this game for your kids or any other game made by this company.”

There was also a petition on Change.org urging Valve to not publish the game. It gained over 144,000 signatures in four days.

Berdiyev recently addressed the controversy in a blog post, claiming “Active Shooter” doesn’t promote violence or mass shootings. “Originally when this game started its course of development, I planned on having SWAT only based game-play,” he wrote. “Then I thought about adding more gameplay to it by adding additional roles: of the shooter and the civilian. While I can see people’s anger and why this might be a bad idea for the game, I still feel like this topic should be left alone. As I mentioned on Steam discussion forums, there are games like ‘Hatred,’ ‘Postal,’ ‘Carmageddon’ and etc., which are even worse compared to ‘Active Shooter’ and literally focus on mass shootings/killings of people.”

Is This the First Time Someone Made a School Shooting Game?

Unfortunately, no. In 2005, Danny Ledonne released a role-playing game called “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!” It was based on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings perpetrated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and it let players act out the infamous killings. Reaction to that game was unsurprisingly negative. In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News, Ledonne said the game was a way for him to work through his own issues surrounding similar problems he faced as a bullied high school student. Ledonne made a documentary about the experience in 2008 called “Playing Columbine.”

Two years later, a 21-year-old indie dev from Australia named Ryan Lambourn created a Flash-based game that derived from the Virginia Tech shooting called “V-Tech Rampage.” He followed that up in 2013 with “The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary.” At the time, Lambourn defended the game as a statement in favor of stricter gun control laws.

So, Why Was Valve Publishing ‘Active Shooter’?

Under the Steam Direct Program, anyone can publish a game after paying a $100 fee. Before it goes live, Valve reportedly reviews it to make sure it runs properly. There are a few guidelines: games containing hate speech or pornography are not allowed, for example. But Valve’s record of enforcing those guidelines is sporadic at best. It recently cracked down on certain visual novels containing sexual content, but a violent title like “Active Shooter” seemingly passed muster. The company’s laissez-faire approach to publishing has led to a flood of cheap games hastily cobbled together by so-called “asset flippers” looking to make money on the platform.

After it pulled “Active Shooter,” it told Variety a broader conversation about Steam’s content policies “is one that we’ll be addressing soon.”

The Entertainment Software Association praised Valve’s decision in a statement on Tuesday. “We applaud Valve for pulling this tasteless game that so heinously exploits recent national horrors. It’s the right call. ESA and its members take its responsibilities seriously, as illustrated in its support of the ESRB rating system and broad compliance with strict industry marketing guidelines. Valve’s decision reinforces the importance of taking responsible actions and being respectful of its consumers.”

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