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After ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG!’: The Rebirth of The Slamdance Guerrilla Game Competition (EXCLUSIVE)

More than a decade has passed since The Slamdance Guerrilla Game Competition was removed from Utah’s annual independent film festival following an online furor over the entry and consequent removal of the controversial game “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!”.  But the decision to close the Guerrilla showcase “was not based on controversy,” Slamdance President Peter Baxter tells Variety.

“It was based on being able to properly focus support for our artists and the desire to broaden the array of artists working in digital, immersive and gaming media.”

“For 25 years Slamdance has broken boundaries by championing works and the artists who’ve made them. We’ve been criticized and celebrated for doing so. We answer to no one. We’re aware our programming decisions sometimes upset people, especially with works like ‘Waco Resurrection,’ ‘Graphic Sexual Horror,’ ‘Super Columbine Massacre’ and this year’s’ Dollhouse.’

“In the case of “SCM,” we took out this work because it became clear that the artist hadn’t created several of its elements. We received several cease and desist notices from owners of images and music being used in the game. We stand behind all of our artists who’ve made their work, but in the case of “SCM” that wasn’t entirely true and this is why we took it out of the line-up.”

Baxter’s comments to Variety last week don’t entirely line up with what he told the Rocky Mountain News back in 2007 when discussing his decision to pull the game.

“On the one hand a jury selected this game, and as a result of that decision it leads to our organization supporting their creative decision,” he said at the time. “On the other hand there are moral obligations to consider here with this particular game in addition to the impact it could have on the Slamdance organization and its community.”

It was the first time in Slamdance Festival’s 13-year history that a game or film was removed from the competition.

That decision sparked ire from many in the game industry, the indie community and those who write about gaming from the makers of “fl0w” and “Braid” — both of which pulled their games from the contents to protest what they called censorship — to comments from Greg Costik,  Ian Bogost and the game’s creator Danny Ledonne.  The University of Southern California also withdrawn its sponsorship of Slamdance over this controversy and the competition was never held again

While that killed the Guerrilla competition, over the last five years the concept behind it has “morphed” into a technology-driven event called DIG which aims to help showcase artists who work within the realm of technology and storytelling.

“We learned from the guerrilla showcase that games and other interactive works need the same level of support that films have,” says Baxter. “The creators have a definitive point of view and their art is personal and reflective.

“Because of the nature of interactive art these projects challenge the audience in ways that are fundamentally different than film. As a way to present these works with the context they deserve guerrilla had to evolve into DIG. The new program is better equipped to support those unique, and sometimes controversial, visions of these emerging artists.”

Baxter has played a key role in the development of DIG – an acronym that stands for Digital, Interactive, and Gaming. First launched in 2012, DIG is an exhibit of projects ranging from virtual and augmented reality, to meta-narrative iPad apps and cubist-inspired digital video projects, to dark YouTube found footage about brainwashing and murder.

“Video games are just one aspect of the emerging storytelling of the future,” says DIG curator Dekker Dreyer.

The latest project to appear during DIG at this year’s Slamdance is “America The Beautiful” by James Kaelan & Blessing Yen. Shot entirely on vertical iPhone, “America The Beautiful” tells the story of Billy Reynolds who moves to San Bernardino and begins to chronicle the remodeling of his home, posting the progress to YouTube. As the footage progresses, the audience watches as Billy slowly becomes recruited into an alt-right militia and eventually plan to film a murder.  “America The Beautiful” was viewable in Park City, Utah on Saturday.

“To me, technology is intimately tied to storytelling,” says Dreyer. “Ever since the printing press, and for thousands of years before it, technology has always pushed storytelling forward. What [this technology] is really doing is better connecting artists to audiences. In VR, for example, you don’t even necessarily need to use words. You could use touch, for instance.”

“At its core, tech in hybrid forms is really challenging audiences with what they think storytelling can be. Everything is storytelling with technology when it comes to mass communication.”

The DIG showcase has evolved since its 2012 launch in Park City, Utah. In 2017, the event was brought to downtown LA where emerging and established artists would be provided with a platform for their work. Situated at the LA Artist Collective, DIG’s West coast home is an extension of an indie philosophy that originated with Slamdance from its start in 1995 as a grassroots community of filmmakers.

“We’re in our 25th year at Slamdance,” says Baxter. “Slamdance has changed in that time, but it hasn’t changed direction.”

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