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Last week our contributors took aim at The School Shooter Mod, trying to determine whether it was the product of a disturbed mind or brilliant statement on the power of the videogame medium. Whether it’s worth attention or deserves to be ignored?

imageJim Sterling: The point is, our very talking about School Shooter is singling it out. That aside, I understand you – the game doesn’t need a defense. Not many gamers seem to be defending it, really. However, I feel the need to speak up for it with regards to my previous point that I simply do not think it’s done anything particularly egregious in comparison to the current climate of entertainment in the West. I’m not necessarily trying to advocate the game or tell gamers to give it a chance. In fact, I likely won’t bother playing it myself as I don’t think it quite possess enough savvy wit to make a school shooting entertaining – and with enough wit, I believe almost any subject could be entertaining. You just have to be far more talented than most mortals to do it.

As far as the honest goes, I do believe some credit needs to be given, not because I think the game is trying to make the statement I’m using it to make, but because at least it’s not being pretentious. I’d rather have a guy who says, “Yeah my game is about violence and doing awful things for entertainment, whatever” than a studio like, say, BioWare, pretending its sex scenes are crucial to a mature narrative, only to throw in an embarrassing sexual encounter that exists for its own sake as a lame reward for a friend management mini game. In this regard, I’ve often said the Dead or Alive games have more integrity than Dragon Age. Admitting you’re just being crass is far more noble, to me, than being crass and pretending you’re not.

At least School Shooter isn’t pretending to be about anything deep or thought-provoking, and I can respect that more than someone who creates a shocking piece of art and then cravenly attempts to justify it with some sort of vague social message.

imageMovieBob: That’s where I’d have to disagree. Not about the game itself, necessarily – we all seem to be on roughly the same page there – but on the idea behind it. I’m not seeing the Troma/Corman-esque “yeah, this is crass junk, so is a lot of stuff” integrity you are.

What I see is something that’s been made NOT for bad-taste fun or for exploitative catharsis or even really to be PLAYED; but rather as a lazy, cynical media attention-getter dressed up as edgy provocation.

In that sense, I’d offer that “pawnstick’s” tired punk-rock-eff-the-world nihilism routine is probably every bit as much of a pretentious put-on as BioWare’s straight-faced assertion that extraterrestrial softcore is some kind of progressive gender commentary; though I’ll give BioWare the credit that A.) Their game was good anyway, and B.) Their “routine” is at least more classy and convincing.

imageJames Portnow: I have to agree with Bob. My reaction to this game: it’s just bad and not in an over the top bad so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. It’s no Cannibal the Musical, it’s not even Surf Nazis Must Die. It doesn’t use its badness to entertain or to point out the banality of our lives, it’s just lazy game crafting. There’s just not much to talk about here except for the metanarrative of how AAA designers should be more cognizant of their subjects when creating shooters or how audiences should be aware of what shooters are in general saying so they can avoid being accidentally indoctrinated by entertainment products.

I’m surprised that none of us has mentioned Super Columbine Massacre by this point, because if we’ve got to be discussing school shooting games, there’s a lot more to discuss there. It’s certainly crafted with a great deal more care (and a lot more thought as to the message).

And besides, Danny Ledone seems like a lot less of a dick…

I won’t force the conversation to that SCM, but I’d be happy to move it that way or simply compare/contrast the two. Otherwise, I think I’ve kind of run out of things to say; School Shooter is a simple game that doesn’t bear any form of analysis, us talking about it simply gives it press, and honestly I don’t think it’s even really going to serve as a blip in the long term discussion of games. Frankly, I think that Rebbeca Black’s fame will outlive it…

imageJim Sterling: If it’s bad due to its gameplay and current visual state, then yeah, I agree. I don’t expect School Shooter to actually be very good at all, and I don’t expect the developer cares all that much. On that we can all agree. However, let’s say a more talented developer with a lot more time creates a School Shooter game from the ground up. Not like Super Columbine Massacre — which comes with lengthy essays justifying the game and its message — but exactly like School Shooter. No deep meaning, no morality, just a sandbox school environment in which you shoot up classmates and teachers for no reason. Would you still say it’s bad? Are we saying the game is bad due to its slapdash visuals and gameplay? Or are we saying its bad just because we read an article about it and don’t like attitude that the game espouses?

School Shooter does bear some analysis. The fact we’ve managed to squeeze so many words out of it right here is proof positive that the game can be discussed and debated intellectually. I think any game, no matter how shallow, can be analyzed on some level. As bad as this particular game may be, I still believe that the controversy surrounding it has exposed the hypocrisy of gamers within the community — people who have indulged in Grand Theft Auto kill frenzies or have an ironic soft spot for the Postal series. People who are fine with the random murder of innocent and not-so-innocent human beings, provided it’s not so contemporary that they cannot safely rationalize it with convoluted justifications.

In the end, it’s definitely made a few people examine what they’re doing in all types of videogames, and look at virtual death in a new way.

That may not have been Pawnstick’s intention when he made School Shooter – in fact it’s highly doubtful he had any goal outside of attention – but it was a nice side-effect. For that, I’m glad the mod was put out there.

imageJames Portnow: Ah! Now we have it!

I’d argue that we haven’t been analyzing the game at all, rather we’ve been analyzing the state of the medium. In our discussion I could replace School Shooter with Zionist Occupied Government and it wouldn’t really change much. So I would turn the question in reverse and say: what if a much more skilled developer with many more resources made a game with no deep meaning and no morality that’s just a sandbox where you shoot up African Americans and homosexuals, would you say it’s bad?

imageJim Sterling: Ooh, slick.

Yet easy for me to answer. If the game is well developed, and the gameplay is actually good, then no, one could not, by rights, call it a fundamentally bad game. It would be a fairly grotesque and bigoted game, and I’d be about as interested as playing it as I am School Shooter (as in, not interested at all), but there is a chance that they made a good game that just so happened to promote an utterly corrupt and dreadful message. In that instance, I wouldn’t call it “bad” – not when there are far more accurate words I could use to describe it.

I would compare your example to the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation. It featured people in blackface, portraying black people as stupid sex pests. A fairly dimwitted and despicable stereotype, for sure. However, Birth of a Nation is praised for its contribution to film as a groundbreaking piece of cinema. Yes, some of the messages within it are dubious and its racist elements are pretty gross, but it was a technically good film, not something one can simply and crudely write off as “bad.”

And didn’t they make a game where you just shoot black people? I heard they called it Resident Evil 5 (and we all did lol.)

imageJames Portnow: Bwahahaha… I was just having a discussion with Crispin Freeman this weekend about Birth of a Nation. I believe it wound up with me saying that I would definitively say that it has an important place in the history of film, but that it didn’t meet my standards for “good” or “art” (as opposed to Intolerance, which certainly does).

Still, the point is well made, and I would agree: a “perfected” morality free school shooter is something I would call grotesque, disturbed and promoting an utterly corrupt and dreadful message, but I would never say that we couldn’t learn from it just because of these factors (although in my book these factors would actually lead me to call it “bad”).

Much as there was much to be learnt about film technique and cinematography from Birth, I think a game of this nature might be able to teach us things about mechanics and systems, despite its turpitude.

imageMovieBob: Can’t really go there with you, i.e. if the tech works but the story/setting are bigoted then it’s still a “good” game – or at least not a bad one. I understand what you’re saying, and could get onboard at least up to the point where it couldn’t be just immediately dismissed; but it feels like a version of the argument that since games are traditionally most about play-mechanics that story-critique can’t/shouldn’t be part of the discussion, and I’ve never been comfortable with that. If the game has a narrative and/or a tangible “setting,” those things are PART of the game and have to be taken into account. Just as I think it’s acceptable to place Bioshock near the top of the FPS genre despite it’s fairly by-the-numbers control/play scheme because its narrative element is so far above and beyond, I’d say it’s also fair for “how does it treat the white-hot subject matter it’s based around?” to be a factor in sizing up School Shooter – or Imagination is The Only Escape, or the Sonderkommand game, or whatever else falls into this wheelhouse.

The thing about Birth of a Nation, though, is that even though the narrative is hateful to the point of downright evil… it “works.” The reason it’s still – grudgingly and always with great caveat – revered in the study of film history isn’t just the technical aspects but the storytelling ones. To the degree that you can put the “reality” of what was actually being depicted out of your head, the structure – guy fights “noble” but doomed war, returns to blighted home, goes vigilante – is executed with alarming skill, even today.

I’m willing to entertain the idea that a good shoot-em-up could be made in the narrative of a school shooting – and hell, I’ll go one step further: I’d be REALLY interested to see someone have the stones to make an unironically non-judgmental one; i.e. one that doesn’t instantly demonize the shooter(s) and maybe even – gasp! – explores whether or not there’s a “point” to whatever they’ve been driven to… that maybe even says “obviously this is sick and horrible, but high school is HELL for some people and while I [the theoretical game maker] don’t condone what they did I sort of understand how they got there.” Of course doing it as anything other than a one-note ironic joke (the game in question) or an introspective art-game (Super Columbine Massacre) would sort of negate making a “pure fun” version just on the basis of logic: Spree-killings like this are generally affairs where a short run of “action” is followed by a drawn-out standoff. Not really XBL-multiplay-fun-fun material, unless you want to kid around about it.

You can’t really make Call of Duty out of it, for example… but perhaps it could be a “stealth” game where you (the shooter) try to get out of the place alive post-massacre. Or you could “No Russian” it – have the protagonist be less-than-totally-sold-on-it co-conspirator with options to follow-through or subvert the “leader’s” actions. Or better yet, a “survival” game where you’re an innocent student/teacher trying to survive/escape the actual event by evading/resisting the shooters – maybe with a mechanic to lead others to safety (seriously, that JUST crossed my mind and now I’m wondering why it doesn’t exist yet?) And hey… there’s always the option of playing from the perspective of a police/SWAT man/team on the scene – something in the vein of Hostages aka Rescue: The Embassy Mission.

Hm… thinking more on it, maybe the whole thing would lend itself more to the realm of an “interactive novel.” I’d be curious to know – and maybe one you guys is more dialed-in to this than I would be – does Japan (where i-novels are more popular) have a comparable “problem” with school shootings/violence and if so have there been any material like that dealing with it?

imageJames Portnow: Agreed about Birth, it has a lot of execution merit all around, not only as a technical work but also in terms of how they delivered their message. When I said “film technique” I meant in understanding how to use the medium of film (it broke a lot of ground). But execution alone, even if innovative, is not enough for me to call something “good”. I may call it “brilliant” or “groundbreaking” but not “good” (this was really just a semantic distinction I wanted to raise with Jim about how he was using good and bad in the previous mail).

Also, the “survive a school shooting game” is brilliant. I’ve wanted to do something similar with a civilian in a warzone game for a while, but that may well be a better tack!

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