Playing Columbine

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/30/10 18:16:50

"Like the game, more measured and thoughful than one would expect."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2010 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: It's not that I didn't think much of video games as an art form before seeing "Playing Columbine"; I just tended to think of them as more of an abstract art form. I would respond to complaints from my brother that a game was disappointing because of its plot with the argument that any plot more than "I love dots; they're delicious!" was extraneous. "Playing Columbine" is an eye-opener on that front, as much for what it does poorly as for what it does well.

That I say Playing Columbine does some things poorly is not a knock on the film. All documentaries, even the best ones, have trouble encapsulating their subjects entirely; the movie screen is a few senses short of reality in even the best of circumstances. Understanding the evolution in games that hit a watershed moment with Super Columbine Massacre RPG! requires an interactive element that film just can't supply; it requires putting oneself in a character's shoes more directly than mere empathy; passively watching people play SCMRPG! cannot do it.

A little background: In 2005, Danny Ledonne used a piece of "game construction set" software to build a role-playing-game that used Columbine high school as an environment and allowed players to play as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, recreating their infamous 1999 killing spree - an even that struck the young Colorado man close to home. Initially placed on the internet anonymously, until Ledonne was identified as the designer, it would later gain fame and notoriety beyond its obvious controversial nature when a college student in Montreal who went on a similar shooting spree cited it as a favorite, and when the Slamdance Festival dropped it from competition without explanation, causing both half the entrants in their gaming competition to drop out, as well as some jury members.

Ledonne is also the director of this film, and while the initial reaction to that is that objectivity is clearly out the window, it is actually far more even-keeled than many documentaries with less personal involvement. For starters, Ledonne is a filmmaker first (whose interests run more to nature films than political advocacy), with no plans to build another video game. Much of the film appears to have come together out of events that he attended during and after the controversy, a way of him processing being at the center of a free speech battle the same way that the game was his ways of dealing with feelings similar to those of Harris and Klebold. He resists the urge to place himself at the center of the film as a host; unless one pays attention during the end credits, he could be just one more relevant interview subject.

Considering all that, it's striking just how measured and polite the film is. Ledonne does not spend a lot of time talking to well-known game designers who might give him bombastic quotes or name recognition among the gaming community. Instead, he talks to independent game-makers, including Paolo Pedercini, whose games are often very political. He talks to academics to find ways to describe how gaming has become an emerging medium. He talks to survivor's of Montreal's Dawson college shooting who initially had no reason to view him with anything other than suspicion. And he talks to the man who kicked his game out of Slamdance, the man who outed him as the game's designer, and folks like lawyer Jack Thompson and New York state senator Andrew Lanza who would seek to impose some limits on video games. Those comments aren't followed with immediate, mocking rebuttals, but allowed to stand.

It's that sort of willingness to listen rather than obviously advocate for his own personal interest that makes Ledonne's "Playing Columbine" an unusually effective documentary. He spends a fair amount of time preaching to the choir, but gives the undecided plenty to chew on, while the rest likely can't complain about how he makes his argument.

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