Checkerboarded Studios set out to make a game in which you shoot schoolchildren for fun and succeeded only in offending everyone.
When I first heard about School Shooter: North American Tour 2012, I was appalled. Why would any sane person make a game that so clearly crossed the line from healthy entertainment into psychosis? I reached out to one of the developers – known only as Pawnstick – who is busy putting the finishing touches on the mod that uses Valve’s Half-Life 2 code to portray events that are eerily similar to Columbine and Virginia Tech. Pawnstick was surprisingly articulate, but his responses confirm that School Shooter: North American Tour 2012 is not only morally reprehensible but also dangerous for the game industry as a whole.
In the game, you play a disgruntled student who decides to start shooting and killing students, teachers and even janitors in a school setting. You rack up points for the amount of people that you kill before you are overwhelmed by police and SWAT teams sent to take you down. As your time on the level ends, you are given the option of killing yourself to end the session. Then you can just fire it up again to try to get more points – by killing as many innocent people as you can.
I don’t need to tell you that the entire concept of School Shooter: North American Tour 2012 is horrible. While many of us might indulge in a little murder while playing shooters – civilians in a Russian airport or townsfolk in Red Dead Redemption – a whole game based on killing children, teachers and janitors in a school crosses all kinds of lines that it’s impossible to argue in its favor. School shootings like Columbine are a national tragedy because it underlines fundamental problems in our society, while mistakenly pointing to media like movies and games as the cause. Pawnstick’s mod, while being disgusting in its own right, will do nothing but give ammunition to anti-game activists, joining the ranks of Postal 2 and Manhunt as examples of gaming’s moral depravity. Instead of pushing the game industry forward into new and fantastic ways of telling stories, School Shooter: North American Tour 2012 is a huge step back into gaming’s flawed adolescence.
Read on to hear from the man behind School Shooter: North American Tour 2012.
Why are you making a game where you shoot kids in a school? What was your inspiration?
Some of my ideas stemmed from the fact that nobody has ever tried to create a proper game about a school shooting. Which is to say, something intended to be “entertainment,” rather than going for pure shock value or thought-provocation. When you get over how supposedly shocking something like Super Columbine Massacre RPG is, the game itself is fucking boring. If you check the website, you’re treated to a ton of lengthy essays by the guy who made the game; about how it was never even his intent to make it fun.
The most direct inspiration though came from another Source mod, called Bully: Source. It’s this laughably bad little game which tries to teach kids how to deal with bullies at school. The problem is, the game is totally broken, and you can’t even finish the damn thing because the final “multiple choice question” prompt in the game doesn’t even respond to any input! It made me realize that games which try to convey some larger message – or which specifically try to “educate the player” – are almost always fucking garbage. That’s why we’re working like dogs on this game, in order to make sure this game doesn’t suck as much as the last couple of school shooting games.
SS:NAT2012 isn’t about why school shootings occur. It’s not about the impact they have on the families of the victims. It’s just a game, and I’m just a developer: It’s not my place to try and teach the world to love again, or to cure society’s ills. The purpose of video games is to be fun, and to provide players with scenarios they can’t (Or shouldn’t) re-enact in real life.
The maps and weapons are based on real-world school shootings. How accurate are they? What kind of research did you do to ensure that accuracy?
To be honest, most of the research consisted of simply Googling the shooters and their weapons. A Columbine Site helped us out with some of the weapons from the Columbine shootings. The maps, however, aren’t actually based on any school in particular. The maps are all designed with gameplay in mind. If any of the maps end up accidentally matching the dimensions of some real-life school, it will be by total coincidence.
How did you feel when you personally heard about Columbine or the Virginia Tech shootings?
I think the media tried to cover it in a way that made the events more dramatic than they actually were. Even in my younger age, I saw right through most of it. The way the news victimized the victims and overplayed the evil of the shooters disgusted me more than the actual shootings themselves. The fact of the matter is, I never knew any of the victims, or anybody else who attended the schools. It affected me as much as hearing about the quakes in Haiti. Which is to say, not very much at all.[page]
The Survival mode of SS:NAT2012 feels a lot like how I used to play GTA3 with my friends. We’d trade turns causing as much havoc as we could before the tanks showed up. Was that aspect of open world crime games a basis for School Shooter?
That mentality is precisely the kind which SS:NAT2012 is meant to appeal to. Hard as it may be for some to admit it, we all enjoy driving over NPCs and firing into crowds in GTA. Sure, there’s a satisfaction in killing the cops and armed gang members, but the biggest part of GTA‘s appeal is undoubtedly being able to take civilians by surprise and mow as many down as you can before the cops show up. Every level in SS:NAT2012 begins with taking a room full of students by surprise, but is meant to end with a confrontation with armed adversaries.
Is the suicide at the end of each session optional? Can you keep shooting until police take you out?
In SS:NAT2012 suicide is just a fancier way of ending your run through the level. If you’re backed up into the corner and you have no ammo or something like that, instead of just getting shot until you die you can choose to end your life with your currently equipped weapon, and every weapon will have its own unique first person animation. If you have a pistol equipped you put the gun into your mouth or if you have a grenade you can blow yourself up. We’re also in the process of writing catchy one-liners that the player will spout just before ending his life.
Will students or teachers ever fight back in the game? Why or why not?
The fun in killing the “innocent” NPCs is the fact that they are incapable of fighting back. It’s more intuitive to leave it to law enforcement to try and end the player’s spree, rather than the terrified fleeing members of the student body.
What do you think about the California bill proposing that violent videogames be illegal to sell to minors? Do you think the Supreme Court will vote in favor or against its adoption?
It is my hope that the bill passes. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t. The type of kids who are especially eager to get their hands on violent games – who would attempt to thwart store policies by using fake IDs or dragging their friend’s parents along to approve the purchase – probably shouldn’t be playing the games in the first place. As much as gamers may have hated Jack Thompson (And as misguided and misinformed at the guy may have been), the point still stands that video games have the potential to impact certain susceptible minds. Yes, so do film and television and the rest of the media, as many gamers are eager to point out. But that doesn’t actually negate the fact that games do, in fact, have an impact.
I realize this obviously puts SS:NAT2012 in a poor position. Especially considering that it’s a free downloadable mod: Not something we can really regulate with an advanced age verification system. I guess the fact that all the Source games currently available are rated “M” might keep most of the kiddies at bay. Failing that check, however, I guess one of our intents with the game is to make it it’s own sort of exclusive experience: That any angst-ridden kid who has the idea in his head to shoot up his school, who ends up playing the game, finds it amusing enough of a substitute that it keeps them from doing it in real life.
Given the constant attacks from mainstream media against videogames for portraying violence, why would you give these fanatics more ammunition to dismiss games as childish at best and harmful at worst?
Because that’s exactly what games are. The media is right to dismiss games as “bang-bang shoot ’em ups” and “murder simulators,” because at their core, that is exactly what most games boil down to. Take Bulletstorm, for example: It is pretty much the full embodiment of what the media assumes games to be. It’s humor is crude, it’s writing is dumb, and it’s gameplay is ultra-violent. And that is exactly what makes it so appealing, not only to adults, but also to kids.
With all the excruciating coverage that came with the Wii and the Kinect – complete with television hosts flailing their arms and legs around like idiots trying to play baseball and jumping in rafts – the myth that all games revolve around violence has been thoroughly debunked. The media understands now that games are aimed at specific audiences. They also know as well as we gamers do that kids do manage to get their hands on violent games. It’s their responsibility as sensationalists to discuss how kids inevitably get their hands on games they shouldn’t be playing, and how said games have the potential to corrupt them.[page]
On the page at ModDB, you adopt a very confrontational tone, as if you are challenging people to flame your mod. Why do you think people may be upset by your mod?
Gamers are a generally misguided, highly reactionary lot. Back when Jack Thompson was still hot news, in their vain attempts to discredit him, a large quantity of them made threats against him and cursed his name. Which, of course, only served to strengthen his position in the eyes of non-gamers. Watching gamers threaten us with violence, in order to stop us from making our admittedly violent game, is an amusing bit of irony. It’s our hope that one of these days, someone will leave a comment that actually puts forth a sensible argument against us.
If a family member of one of the victims of the school shootings contacted you and asked you to take down the mod, how would you respond?
We will not take down the mod just because one person can relate to the premise personally. That would be like pulling Call of Duty off shelves because the families of soldiers might complain that their loved ones died in battle, “just like in the game.” People are too easily offended by works of fiction when there are plenty of things in the real world to be offended by, like racism and politics. If people need something to complain about, they should go complain about those.
Who is the intended audience of this mod?
The kind of gamer who finds entertainment in taking non-hostile AI by surprise. Someone who tries to make a challenge out of taking out as many non-challenging NPCs as they can in short time. Ideally, gamers who accept that video games shouldn’t be particularly deep or insightful, and that they are most fun when they can just shut off their brains and let their reflexes take over.
How would you feel if someone played your game and then went on a shooting spree of their own in their school? How would that make you feel? What if they directly cited your game as the reason that they killed actual people?
Individuals who go through with any sort of killing spree generally do so because they are inclined to resort to violence, or because they have been bottling up their frustrations for extended periods of time. The idea that our mod would be solely responsible for an otherwise sane individual becoming suddenly insane is … Well, insane in it’s own right!
Let’s say that a future shooter does directly cite us as their inspiration. I figure it would make itself apparent in due time that the individual in question was troubled prior to playing our mod. Perhaps they would be too ashamed of their real reasons to cite them, and would use us as their scapegoat in order to keep investigators from discovering the truth.
That being said, we would not feel guilty for their actions, as it is not our intent to have them commit them. As mentioned before, we hope there will be a “preventative quality” in our game, which will satisfy those with the idea to commit spree killings in their head enough to keep them from doing so. In this sense, we should not be held responsible for what atrocities gamers may (unlikely) commit as a result of playing our game, as it is our intent to keep them from doing so.
Thanks to Xan Krieger for bringing this mod to our attention.