For the game industry as a whole, it’s a small news item, but I believe it’s going to have repurcussions that will last years: the Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition (an offshoot of the popular indy film festival) pulled an entry called Super Columbine Massacre RPG from their contest. (Announcement on the festival’s homepage.) As the title suggests, Super Columbine is a cruelly ironic, Final Fantasy-style depiction of the horrific 1999 high school shooting.
Ian Bogost of Water Cooler Games has a full rundown of what transpired next, but a short summary: After initially accepting it into the festival, the Slamdance staff withdrew it, evidently bowing to external pressure or second thoughts or both. In protest, USC Interactive Media pulled its sponsorship of the festival, while numerous developers pulled their own games from Slamdance. (Including the creators of flOw, perhaps the most high-profile entry, since that acclaimed game was recently picked up as a PS3 title.)
And that last point is why all this merits a mention here on GigaGamez, a site devoted to the business side of gaming. With so many emerging distribution channels (PDAs, phones, Flash sites, IPods, console ports, casual game downloads, etc. etc.) the market has never been better for independent developers. But this also means that indy developers will have to decide just how much art they want in their commerce, and vice versa— and more crucially, how serious they actually are about their medium. But I’m afraid the entire Slamdance debacle just made that decision for them.
Because here’s what’s surely going to happen next:
- Fearing a similar backlash, future indy game festivals will simply refuse to feature controversial games in their lineup.
- Afraid that festivals will refuse to accept games with edgy material, most indy developers will simply not develop them.
- From now on, indy festivals will only showcase non-controversial titles that don’t even remotely offend sponsors, the media, or the public at large.
Ironically, most of the game developers who’ve pulled their titles from Slamdance in solidarity with Super Columbine’s creator cite artistic freedom and a desire to see games treated as an art form. But in withdrawing their games, they are actually hurting both values. From now on, indy developers with thematically provocative games will have less venues to show them off.
But is Super Columbine a work of art? Having watched a play-through video, I’d say so. (Hat tip: Greg Costikyan.) But then, art can also be juvenile and gratuitously tasteless, which I’d also say this is, as well. Some have compared Super Columbine to Gus Van Sandt’s Elephant, an indy movie which also depicted a Columbine-esque slaughter. But then, Van Sandt’s movie is not actually set in Columbine, a place where real people are still grieving over a very recent atrocity, but a fictional high school— a wise and humane creative choice a mature artist is more likely to make.
In all this, it’s hard to find anyone coming off well. Super Columbine’s creator could have dealt with the same material in a fictionalized context, and still got his themes across; Slamdance could have declined to feature the game in the first place, and still promoted equally edgy (but less needlessly hurtful) games; and when it was pulled, other Slamdance entrants could have posted a strong announcement of disapproval at the move, and still stayed in the festival.
But none of these things happened, and so we will all need to suffer with the results: a future of self-censorship, and an indy game festival circuit which will focus almost exclusively on abstract or otherwise non-controversial titles like flOw.
From a business angle, this will probably be a good thing: big publishers and tech organizations will be more comfortable sponsoring and promoting festivals like these, and leveraging them as a talent search for new content. It might ultimately be a good thing for talented indy developers, who will slowly learn the lessons that Hollywood’s best filmmakers did decades ago: how to work with provocative themes, while not totally freaking out the money people.
But for the next few years, at least, I’m afraid indy developers with something worthwhile to say are going to be doing so for a much smaller audience.