A major video-game kerfuffle broke out at this year's Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
At this festival created as an edgier alternative to old man Sundance, the Guerilla Gamemaker Competition was marred by a controversy involving the creation of Danny Ledonne, a 25-year-old game designer.
Called Super Columbine Massacre Role Playing Game!, Ledonne's game allows players to assume the perspective of Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on that day in 1999 when they murdered 12 students and one teacher in the horrific Colorado school shooting before taking their own lives.
Citing "moral obligations" and "legal checks and balances," on its website, Slamdance officials pulled the Super Columbine game from the Guerilla Gamemaker contest.
And though Super Columbine may seem like a fluke -- an inflammatory, attention-grabbing bleeding of real-life issues into the perpetually adolescent, escapist, intellectually vacuous realm of video games -- fellow game designers rushed to defend Ledonne, even pulling out of the competition in protest.
One of Ledonne's advocates has been Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost, 30, who says of the game: "I think it's a brave, thoughtful meditation on the Columbine tragedy. It does something that games are uniquely positioned to do: give the player the opportunity to play a role very different than the one they occupy in everyday life.
"A lot of people found it uncomfortable or even immoral to play the role of Harris and Klebold, the killers," Bogost says. "But isn't it also important to step into the shoes of exactly those people we vilify and fear, to try to understand some small part of what makes them do the things they do, for good or for ill?"
It's really no surprise that Ledonne has found a defender in Bogost, a man who has been at the forefront of the movement to treat video games as tools of protest and artistic expression and whose own games have been featured in years past in the Guerilla Gamemaker Competition.
Bogost is a highly visible member of a fascinating segment of video-game culture: the socially conscious gaming community where games are designed not strictly to entertain, but to make players think. Such games have broached complex ideas including life in a consumer culture, corporate greed, political apathy and even school violence. By doing so, these games challenge the public perception of video games as the province of socially inept young men still living at home with their parents.
Bogost's academic study of one of the most lowbrow of entertainment forms is mind-expanding for anyone whose perception of games has been formed by suburban rec-room run-ins with Pac-Man or Grand Theft Auto. Bogost has taught classes at Georgia Tech on adapting works as diverse as a 7th-century, B.C., Greek lyric poem and "Seinfeld" for video games.
Though his work is cutting-edge, Bogost's tools often are not. He currently is transfixed by the retro, and is designing games for a primitive Atari VCS (2600) game system, circa 1977.
Video games as social commentary is a concept that has fueled both Bogost's scholarship as the author of two books from MIT Press on the subject, and his work for the Atlanta game studio he co-founded, Persuasive Games (www .persuasivegames.com), where he also programs and designs "video games with an agenda," according to his online bio.
Persuasive Games also is the title of Bogosts third book from MIT Press (due out in July). Subtitled The Expressive Power of Video Games, the book examines the unique ways in which video game language can persuade and make meaning.
At Persuasive, Bogost creates "playable editorial cartoons" or "newsgames" centered on engagement with the political and social issues of our time.
"These are games produced in one to three weeks in response to a current event, much like an editorial cartoon," Bogost says.
Many focus on the economic underpinnings of our lives -- as with a game called Bacteria Salad, in which players harvest cheap produce to sell for a profit. In Oil God, the goal is to double consumer oil prices. Xtreme Xmas Shopping is a parody of the seasonal consumer frenzy in which players attempt to buy the "hottest, scarcest gifts."
Bogost has also designed a satirical game called Disaffected, about working at Kinko's. And Persuasive Games created the first candidate-endorsed campaign game for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential election effort.
Bogost is just one of a legion of video-game designers committed to making games mean more. One of Bogost's favorites, a kind of video-game answer to Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me, is The McDonald's Videogame, created by some Italian friends who call themselves Molleindustria.
"It's a game about greed and the temptation of corruption in running a global fast-food company," Bogost says.
The contradictions in Bogost's life make for amusing visuals. On one hand, there is the Ph.D. in comparative literature from UCLA. On the other, there's the image, hard to push from one's mind, of Bogost playing the same pocket Nintendo DS video game that has turned a nation of elementary school kids into hunched, glassy-eyed turnips with superfast reflexes. Or the fact that Bogost has his Decatur home TV hooked up to 11 video game systems.
"I'm much more interested in video games as a medium for commentary, critique and social engagement than as a medium for entertainment," Bogost says.
He adds a parenthetical caveat: "Although I'm happy to play the games others make purely for entertainment."
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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