My name is Danny Ledonne. In 2005 I created a videogame called “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!” — an interactive look at the shooting at Columbine High School. Yes. I am that guy. Maybe you hate me already. Maybe you have never heard of me. Or maybe, just maybe, you know that my creation is helping to reshape the discourse on videogames, school shootings, and the potential for interactive electronic media (“games”) to confront cultural problems. At any rate, you are probably wondering why I am writing about Joseph Lieberman’s “SCHOOL SHOOTINGS.” Truth be told, he and I are actually seeking to accomplish some of the same goals but have used different mediums to do so. We touched base after he read about my game in the Washington Post and we soon found that we have surprisingly much in common.
I found “SCHOOL SHOOTINGS” to be an excellent examination of the school shooting crisis. I read it very carefully; so much of the press on school shootings is incredibly reductive and reactionary. Mr. Lieberman’s writing is thorough and shades the complexity of our world for the reader to better understand the nature of school shootings on one’s own terms. One of the central reasons for making “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!” (SCMRPG) was to critique the mass media’s vilification of videogames, rock music, and “Goth culture” in the soul-searching aftermath of Columbine. With his book, Mr. Lieberman seeks to dispel the caricatures of the school shooter and take a step back from the desperately reductive scapegoatism that nearly always occurs after such a tragedy. The author offers up a balanced, thoughtful examination of what cumulative factors collide into the day it all seemed to fall apart.
While speaking with Mr. Lieberman before the printing of his book, we talked often about the “true causes” of school shootings. On this matter, I explained that I believe the apple falls quite close to the tree. While we can quickly write off these kinds of tragedies with dismissive finger-pointing to that which the mainstream cultural canon does not embrace anyway (“Marilyn Manson,” “Doom,” “evolution in the schools”), it is seldom that we are willing to acknowledge that there is something profoundly broken in our culture; the truth is that people want cheap, packaged solutions to our deepening problems. In my artist’s statement on www.columbinegame.com, I wrote:
Citizens can no longer afford to believe the necessary illusions of modern society. In an age when hastily-formed scapegoats and false dichotomies of “good” and “evil” run rampant, SCMRPG dares us into a realm of gray morality with nuanced perspectives of suffering, vengeance, horror, and reflection. In the words of Harris’ friend Brooks Brown, there are “no easy answers” to such a socially indicting tragedy. As humanity teeters precariously on the threshold of collapse—politically, ideologically, and environmentally, the days of comatose media coverage and a subservient populace cannot remain. [These school shooters] can be understood as the canaries in the mine—foretelling of an apocalypse soon for those remaining to ponder their deeds. … Are we willing to look in the mirror?
So often the cultural pundits and soccer moms will ask, ‘Why did they do it?’ but the truth is that they do not really want an answer. This question is not being asked with genuine concern but rather because they wish for this problem to be “fixed” as neatly as possible. This means, unfortunately, that the real answer must be averted at any cost. In my experience, what makes people uncomfortable with my words is that when I have an attentive audience, I open up the scope of criticism to the fundamental tenants of our society (those which extend beyond the videogames our kids are playing). Ergo, the real answer implicates the core pillars of our collective identity and so to even begin to acknowledge it is to tacitly indict society—not some expendable or correctable aspect of society (ratings on media, restrictions on firearms)—but the totality of society. This is more difficult work, of course, and in his book Mr. Lieberman has shown the courage to undertake it.
What, then, are the real causes of these shootings? I believe the sources of such rage is as varied as freeways, shopping malls, formula films, commercial television, state-sponsored compulsory education systems, the ultimately empty pursuit of materialism, and the ever-expanding technofascism of modern civilization itself. Far more than violent videogames alone, the entire system reduces empathy for other human beings. Insomuch as videogames are a negligible part of that larger dehumanizing force, they are culpable—though they bear no more responsibility than any of the other numbing palliatives of the consumer lifestyle obsession.
Having said this, we must concede that if videogames can teach kids the principals of geometry, they can also teach kids how to aim a firearm. In a free society, these are all risks we must be willing to take. However, the “risks” that videogames present have been heavily exaggerated by the 24 hour cable news networks and opportunistic politicians. Remember a generation ago when kids would take toy guns and run around in the back yard “shooting” each other for hours? When did this activity—now fitted into digital means for the 21st Century, become such a heavily-studied, often criticized form of play? Could it be, perhaps, that videogames are about as eroding to our moral fabric as Elvis, jazz, or gangster films were generations ago?
Essentially, there is little qualitative difference between games like “Halo 2” and a pinball machine. Both are created for the expressed purpose to be “fun,” which ultimately means to passively amuse and to disengage audiences from their current state of affairs. For my part, I think SCMRPG goes quite beyond the idea of providing escapist entertainment or “training” would-be shooters; it is a game that confronts the conventions of gaming and the recent societal bastardization of videogames. SCMRPG was an inadvertent throwing of the gauntlet on that front. Much of the ire it draws can be explained by McLuhan’s mantra, “the medium is the message.” The controversy is not about the content of the game but rather its very existence. All in all, it has been strange being a “digital celebrity;” I get autograph requests and death threats… all for an 8-bit videogame. While some will take my words more seriously than others, I am nonetheless quite willing to share them.
As Mr. Lieberman’s extensive research indicates, parents need to get more involved in their children’s lives and, more importantly, help them to make informed decisions about their own financial, emotional, academic, reproductive, and spiritual lives. While framing the debate on this month’s most shocking musician or violent entertainment shifts the examination quite comfortably away from ourselves, it leaves us only to react to “the usual suspects” instead of the kind of introspection that has been long overdue.
Years ago I made a short film animated with Lego blocks called “Ship of Fools” (it can be found on Google Video). I have often said that I view school shootings such as those at Columbine, Thurston, Paducah, or Red Lake as one of the major icebergs our Ship of Fools crashes into but most are set on convincing themselves that this was a special case rather than a general foretaste of the trajectory we have set. Surely, we tell ourselves, these are “bad apples” and once we “install metal detectors” or “close the gun show loophole” or “ban the sale of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ to minors” it will all go away. It won’t. We’re headed toward even rougher waters ahead and nothing short of a drastic change of course will keep us from more frequent, destructive collisions.
In SCMRPG, Eric and Dylan look over downtown Denver and say, “I live in Denver, and God damn it, I would love to kill almost all of its residents.” These words were originally written in Eric Harris’ journal just months before the shooting. While games like “Doom” may have taught the shooters how to strafe around corners while holding their shotguns, they certainly did not create in them the desire to destroy the whole world. Rather, we all have done this; we have created a society in which a tremendous number of young people do not feel connected, valued, or driven by a sense of purpose in their lives. That is why shootings like the one at Columbine is a painful look in the mirror—a taboo subject that gets people’s blood boiling when I approach the issue from new ground.
I once got an email from a student claiming to go to Columbine High School today—saying that the situation with the elite students who bully the rest, the cliques and ostracism, the unwillingness to address kids who are isolated and depressed is much the same. The email concluded that another school shooting at Columbine was quite possible. Clearly, this problem is not going away.
From my work with youth in my community at a Boys & Girls Club, I have learned a thing or two about what really works with regards to empowering troubled young people to make healthy decisions: give them a voice. Give them opportunities to self-actualize on their own terms instead of imposing a set of cultural expectations they must adopt. Let them write the poetry, sing the songs, design the games, draw the pictures, make the movies, and create the music that reflects their identities and experiences. Every generation is entitled to its own form of expression and it is quite likely that their elders will not understand or appreciate this expression. Embrace it anyway. No school shooter has said, “I like myself, I feel understood and appreciated for who I am.” This fact should be instructive.