When news of the massacre at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., reached Danny Ledonne, he was sitting in his sophomore English class. By midday, about 40 minutes after the shooting began, his school was placed on high alert in fear of a copycat attack.
"No one really knew what was going on at that point," says Ledonne. "I liken [Columbine] to the JFK shooting of my generation."
The Columbine massacre was an event that would change lives across the United States, including Ledonne's. Within a few years of the shooting he would be at the center of a fierce media firestorm, demonized in the press by Columbine survivors, and the target of open abuse and death threats. While countless others publicly came to terms with the shooting by making films, books, plays or music, Ledonne dared to use a different medium: He made a video game.
He made Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
"[Columbine] remains very present in the public consciousness."
Destroy the world
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, entered Columbine High School equipped with firearms and homemade explosives. In under an hour they murdered 12 of their fellow students and a teacher and injured 24 others before they committed suicide together in the school library.
"[Columbine] remains very present in the public consciousness," says Mark Kline, a clinical psychologist who consults in U.S. schools. "It created a profound sense of sadness, outrage and disbelief."
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! casts players as Harris and Klebold on the day of the shooting. You carry out the massacre, pursuing unarmed students and teachers through the school and dispatching them in one-sided combat. The game was built single-handedly by Ledonne in RPG Maker, a beginner-friendly home development tool for making role-playing games, lending it the disarmingly cute look of a 16-bit RPG. Digitized photographs of the event are used for backdrops and cutscenes. There is, all told, very little graphic violence.
SCMRPG! was released as a free download on April 20, 2005, the sixth anniversary of the Columbine massacre. At first Ledonne remained anonymous, opting to moderate a discussion forum under a pseudonym. Although the game was quickly denounced by a number of Columbine survivors and the friends and family of victims, it wasn't until almost a year later that it was picked up by the media. It was promptly labeled a murder simulator, an exploitative disgrace, a sick joke. Ledonne's identity was exposed, and there was little choice for him but to stand up for his creation.
"I was clearly aware that this was a controversial subject and that this was something that most people hadn't dared to do before," says Ledonne. "I was interested in Columbine specifically because it was a particular story; it happened in Middle America where 'these kinds of things don't happen.' It was an affluent suburb with two young men who were very intelligent and relatively privileged, and certainly capable of doing what they wanted with their lives. And all they wanted to do was destroy the world around them."
Massacre by proxy
Samuel Granillo grew up with Dylan Klebold, advancing with him from day care through high school. When the shooting started, he barricaded himself with a group of other students inside an office. There was no lock on the door, and when the shooters tried to get inside he held it closed with his feet. He would never have guessed it was his old friend on the other side.
"That's why so many people struggle to understand [Columbine]. It sort of came out of nowhere," he says. "[Harris] and [Klebold] were very private, as far as their hatred went. Even their best friends had no idea they were planning this attack."
Granillo still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. "I had about a decade's worth of nightmares — a lot of chase dreams, being trapped, pretty violent stuff," he says. "It never really goes away, but you learn to deal with it."
His search for healing led him to make a documentary called Wounded Minds, which aims to help others who suffer with PTSD after similar events.
"I can't always explain what inspires people to create things about Columbine," he says. "Maybe it's their way of dealing with something like that. Or maybe people don't really understand what it's like to go through something like this. It's a lot scarier than they think."
With SCMRPG!, Ledonne seeks to understand the event by putting the player through as accurate a representation of the massacre as possible. As he developed the game, Ledonne read through the 96,000 pages of reports released by Jefferson County police, and frequented websites that compiled firsthand accounts. He estimates that around 80 percent of Harris and Klebold's in-game dialogue is what they actually said during the attack or wrote in their personal journals beforehand.
"My task was to take all this material that I found interesting and was either revealing or compelling about the story of Columbine, and find a way to put it into the dramatic structure of the game," says Ledonne. "There was a little bit of artistic license, but it was really in the effort of giving the player an overall experience of what happened."
The aim was, by having players walk in the shoes of the shooters, to trigger a conversation that Ledonne believed the media wasn't having. Following Columbine, a huge number of elements were blamed: bullying, violent video games, antidepressants, gun culture, the internet.
"These are how people cope with the pain and anxiety," says Kline. "We end up in this culture with some very simplistic thinking and simplistic explanations for how these atrocities come about."
Although SCMRPG! focuses heavily on bullying as a motive, it aims to make people look beyond these easy answers and consider the mental state that led these two young men to commit such a heinous crime.
Ledonne believes that playing the blame game is simply not useful. "You haven't acknowledged what took place and why it took place," he says. "You're burying your head in the sand and not acknowledging the systemic catalyst to these kinds of events.
"The goal of a game is to give the player an opportunity to experience something in a new way. So the layout of the school being identical to Columbine was less important than recreating the feeling of walking down the hall, chasing students who are unarmed, shooting them down and then reflecting on the anxiety or depression of the shooters themselves, and reflecting on the havoc they have caused as a result of their own histories and the choices that they made."
Many critics instead perceived this attention to detail as a reflection on Ledonne himself. He was labeled an obsessive, a deranged spectator of the same brand of evil as the shooters themselves.
Granillo has adopted a milder approach. "I can understand that," he says. "It's very bizarre seeing something that I went through turned into a game. It's sort of eerie to know that it's based on something so real."
Although he's unsure about the execution, Granillo recognizes the merit in exploring the characters of Harris and Klebold to seek understanding of what made them carry out the attack, and how it might help people to come to terms with it.
"A lot of people ask me if I hate [Harris] and [Klebold], and the thing is, I really hate what they did. But I don't hate who they are," he says. "I still see them as people. I still try and grab some kind of understanding of why they did what they did. That's why it's hard for me to find a whole lot of negative things about this video game."
"It's very bizarre seeing something that I went through turned into a game. It's sort of eerie to know that it's based on something so real."
The killer inside me
Although he aimed to spark a wider conversation, there was also a personal need for Ledonne to try to understand why Harris and Klebold made such a fatal decision. They were bullied, ostracized from their classmates, and their hatred grew in isolation from the world. Ledonne found that he could empathize with this aspect of their lives, and he worried that, with only one or two different decisions, his life could have taken a similar course.
"Some media have reported that I was on the verge of committing a school shooting, that only by making a video game about Columbine was I able to exorcise those demons, or that the game itself was a cry for help," he says. "That's not exactly true."
Ledonne was bullied at school, and he worried about fitting in. "What makes [Harris] and [Klebold] compelling historical figures is the fact that what they experienced in high school is incredibly common, but that the choices they made for the shooting are thankfully rather uncommon," he says. "The shooting at Columbine kind of forced me over the course of several years to re-evaluate the course of my life."
After Columbine, Ledonne saw a therapist, achieved his black belt in taekwondo and threw himself into theater and film work. "I tried to find ways to channel the same kinds of things that [Harris] and [Klebold] went through, but in ways that wouldn't result in the same kinds of ends." This culminated in making SCMRPG!.
Kline recognizes the validity of the game as a personal coping mechanism for Ledonne, but he questions the value of a coping mechanism that might prevent others from coping.
"[SCMRPG!] may have been something he needed to do to express something within himself, both feelings about the Columbine event and also feelings about the way video games were implicated in it. I certainly wouldn't call him a sick person for doing it," Kline says. "But if you need to cope with this in some way, I'd rather find a way that doesn't cause hurt, pain and trauma to other people who have already been traumatized."
Granillo can only speak for himself, as reactions from survivors have varied from vague support to outright disdain. He himself sits somewhere in the middle. "It doesn't seem to me like the person who made this is any kind of threat," he says.
When his identity was revealed, Ledonne did not just feel the need to stand up for his game as a valid personal and political statement. He also felt that video games as a medium had every right to depict and tackle difficult subjects, just like the countless films, books and other media that had been produced about Columbine without a sliver of the same controversy.
"I got fan mail, I got death threats. I got people who admired me and wanted to work with me. I got people who tried to get me fired from my job," he says. "It was very difficult and very stressful. I was concerned for my family. It was ironic: I made this game that's basically anti-bullying, and now people were actively bullying me in the most vitriolic ways."
For some it was particularly offensive for a video game to depict these events when the medium had been so widely implicated in the shooting. Harris and Klebold were particularly fond of first-person shooter Doom, and some were quick to accuse it of having trained them for the real-life event.
Ledonne chose to make light of this assertion in the second half of his game. In SCMRPG! Harris and Klebold commit suicide and awaken in hell. The game becomes a far broader satire, and a much more traditional video game, as they fight monsters lifted directly from Doom, level up, and meet pop culture figures such as Satan from South Park.
"Columbine was a big rallying point for the Christian evangelical movement in the U.S., suggesting it was the satanic influence of games like Doom that caused the shooters to do this," says Ledonne. "They were quite sure that the shooters were in hell. So I thought that the story of Doom features monsters coming up from hell, maybe [Harris] and [Klebold] were down there having a good time, shooting all the monsters and demons! It was a tongue-in-cheek way of suggesting that it wasn't that simple."
A feeling of dissonance creeps into the experience during the second half of the game. As well as making a statement, Ledonne also wanted to try his hand at creating a traditional video game. Although he stands by the decision, he admits that putting together these two sides of SCMRPG! results in a "fundamentally flawed" experience.
Kline believes it is these prominent game elements that upset so many people. He doesn't believe that playing violent video games leads to violence in young people, but he understands the need to be sensitive of those who do.
"It's one thing to dramatize the lives of those involved, and it's another thing to make what the kids did seem like sort of a game," says Kline. "I think in reality that's how they perceived themselves, as playing a kind of a game, and that people could somehow cross the line of playing a video game for fun to actually doing violence feels very palpable to a lot of people."
"I got fan mail, I got death threats. I got people who admired me and wanted to work with me. I got people who tried to get me fired from my job."
"The whole media monster in itself is something almost as damaging as these events."
When considering why video games are singled out over other entertainment media as offensive and morally bereft, Ledonne refers to his experience with Roger Kovacs, the friend of a Columbine victim and the man who exposed Ledonne's identity online. "He told me that [film and books] have literary merit and engage us intellectually. But video games are just a way to pass a few hours of your time."
This helped Ledonne understand why some people were so upset. "If you believe that video games are just a way to pass a few hours of your time, then a video game about a realistic event, especially one that happened in your community, would be deeply upsetting. You would never have thought video games were up to the task to begin with.
"Video games are uniquely problematic because they're not well understood," he says. "I can't tell you how many people I spoke to who said the last game they played was Pac-Man, and that's supposed to indemnify them from the issue. Your problem is being functionally illiterate when it comes to interactive media and [it's] not my problem for making a game that you didn't understand."
Granillo puts a different spin on the media outrage. He recognizes that SCMRPG! has the potential to be retraumatizing for people, and it's for that reason he has always made sure to avoid it. As a video game it is a completely optional experience. It was only once the media got hold of it that it became unavoidable.
"The whole media monster in itself is something almost as damaging as these events," he says. "It's part of the trauma. We keep seeing these images repeated on the news. That's just as traumatizing, if not more so, than playing a video game.
"I have made the choice never to play the game because I lived through it and I don't need to relive it in any fashion. But I turn on the TV and every year it's all over the news. They throw images at me that I don't want to see anymore. That's more retraumatizing, and forced onto me, than someone who makes a video game where I have a choice."
Agitation and acceptance
Since the release of SCMRPG!, indie games have risen to prominence and many games have tackled difficult subject matter that would previously have been considered alien territory for the medium. Ledonne points to this greater capacity for designers to release such games independently and find a receptive audience, as well as increasing mainstream crossover, as the principle reason for video games gradually being accepted as a legitimate form of commentary. He believes that SCMRPG! was an important step on that road to acceptance.
"Other game designers realized that their medium was under attack," he says, "and that they had to circle the wagons and defend their industry, and more importantly defend their art form."
In October 2006, Ledonne entered SCMRPG! into the Slamdance festival's Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition, where it was selected as a finalist. The game was then abruptly removed by the event's organizer, citing moral grounds and the possibility of sponsor withdrawal. Conversely, the game's expulsion prompted a major sponsor to withdraw support, and seven other finalists removed their entries from the competition in protest.
"The game basically killed the competition," says Ledonne. "After that it ceased to be. They weren't ready to handle it."
He hopes that the controversy he faced will help other developers to tackle similarly difficult subjects. "Any time a developer pushes that envelope it opens up the possibility for people to come after them and try something different," he says. Somewhere along the way, when these experiences are more than an exception to the rule, people might not be so quick to point the finger at video games after every violent event.
"I think what we really need is a more sophisticated dialogue about certain kinds of very profound mental health disturbances, plus access to potentially lethal weapons, plus the potential stimulation for some people of a violent video game that might psyche them up to do damage," says Kline. "It might require all those ingredients to make a shooter, and it isn't enough to say that one element is causative."
Despite the trouble it caused him, Ledonne says that he would not do anything differently given the chance. "I look back on the game the same way I look back on the drawing of a dinosaur I made when I was 5," he says. "It's where I was at the time of my life when I made it. I want to respect it for what it is. I think the game speaks for itself."
There may still be some way to go before video games are accepted as a suitable medium for dealing with difficult, controversial topics, especially those that deeply scar the public consciousness like a school shooting. The 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was promptly linked to video games, even though a recent report draws no line between them and the shooter's motive. A game came out in November 2013 called The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary, in which the player carries out several different versions of the killings. What is intended as a stark warning about gun control has been dismissed by much of the media as a sick joke.
"Shootings are almost the norm; you just wait to hear about them," says Granillo. "It's always something that's going to be around."
For now, games and their creators will have to play the role of agitator, hoping that their controversies open the possibility for fresh debate, instead of easy assumptions and apathy.
As for Columbine, Granillo wishes that those conversations would end. "For some reason it always comes back to Columbine," he says. "I would love for it to stop. But I'm not sure it's ever going to."
"The hardest part is that it won't ever go away."
"The hardest part is that it won't ever go away."