Game On

For independent videogame makers like Jonathan Blow, getting noticed in a market dominated by giants like Sony and Nintendo isn’t easy. So when he was chosen as a finalist in Utah’s Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition for his game, Braid—which took nearly two years to develop—he was thrilled. It was a chance for his work to be seen and to enjoy the company of other indie gamemakers, and he promptly laid out about $1,400 in hotel and plane reservations for the festival, set to begin Jan. 18.

Last week, however, he withdrew his game from consideration after a fellow finalist’s game was axed for its subject matter. Since then, five other finalists have followed suit, one sponsor has dropped out and now, with half of the 14 finalists out of consideration, the festival appears imperiled.

At its heart, this is a dispute over the limits of artistic expression and the boundaries of good taste. The protests are a reaction to a decision last week by festival president Peter Baxter, who pulled the game Super Columbine Massacre RPG! from the list of finalists. The game is just what it sounds like: players traverse a 2-D world taking on the roles of Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as they shoot up their high school. After committing suicide, the characters then journey to hell, where they battles demons. The free PC game has been downloaded more than 250,000 times since its release in April 2005, according to game creator Danny Ledonne, and has sparked outrage from victims’ families and media watchdog groups, as well as mixed reviews from gamemakers. It has also been accused of inspiring a September 2006 college shooting in Montreal, after which it was discovered that the perpetrator mentioned playing SCMRPG! on his blog.

But that’s not the point, Slamdance finalists say. "If this was a film instead of a game, it wouldn't even really be a question," Blow says, noting that movies relating to Columbine—such as Gus Van Sant's "Elephant"—have been featured at indie festivals. "As long as we persist in believing that games are just for kids ... we're not going to get where we need to go." Baxter disputes that. "There's only a certain point you go into role-playing with [films],” he says. “Obviously when you sit down in a game, you're actively involved."

Tuesday, seven finalist teams sent a letter to Slamdance officials calling for the game’s reinstatement. In response to the dropouts and complaints, officials have added a forum on the expulsion of SCMRPG!, and Baxter says he expects a successful festival. “We’ve got some great games,” he says. For now, at least.