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wherein the author explores the notion of games as satire.

Not to get all anal-retentive and semantic and shit, but let’s start with a couple definitions:

  • Wikipedia:  “The purpose of satire is not primarily humour but criticism of an event, an individual or a group in a clever manner.”
  • YourDictionary (among others): “A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.”

Further proving you should never listen to Wikipedia.

What’s the difference? Well, the point of satire is to (as the second definition gets at) criticize an aspect of society to encourage positive social change, in a funny way (because, really, otherwise who would pay attention?).

If you’re just making fun of something with no larger purpose, it’s parody (well, or just straight up fucking mockery).

Now, I loves me some satire. Stephen Colbert is my personal hero (er, men know what men like).

So, SCMRPG! (getting back on topic sloooooowly… but not just yet) has been noted as having satirical elements (making fun of violent games like Doom). Before I get to that, lets look how other games have (not) been satire.

Grand Theft Auto (3 in particular), and The Sims (the first installment), both at first glance, seem capable of being described as satires of certain characteristics of American culture. GTA, of violence, and The Sims, of consumerism.

But they’re not. You spend every waking moment of those games pursuing the acts they each would seemingly claim to be satirizing. Every single asset in them is dedicated to rewarding those acts.

Now imagine if Jonathan Swift, instead of writing “A Modest Proposal” to point out the mistreatment of the Irish poor under English landlords (by suggesting the Irish sell their babies for food), had actually written a 1000-page cookbook with recipes for baby. For EATING baby. 

That would *not* be satire (just kinda gross).

SCMRPG! is certainly closer to satire than either GTA or The Sims. The combat is unfun by design, so even though it has many of the same aspects of violent games, they’re not rewarded in the same way. The cute & humorous art style, characters, & sound effects do tend to fall into the glorification over satirization category, but in a more minor fashion – so it has some potential as satire.

If we really consider SCMRPG! as trying to say something about violence in games (either that it’s bad, or more likely, should be questioned), then it would definitely be satire. However, the point behind the other major theme is that violent games and other media really had no part to play in why Klebold and Harris did what they did. So if it was satire, the game would directly contradict itself (in a making-my-brain-explode kind of way). Should violent games be taken under greater consideration, or were they the straw man the community misguidedly blamed? So I would have to say those elements of SCMRPG! are really parody, not satire. Either way, they still serve as a distraction to the main point (in the amount they are focused on in the second half of the game).

But, in the end, maybe this is a little bit like Alannis Morrisette irony (as in, nobody will ever care about the difference anyway). The themes to be found in SCMRPG! are muddled perhaps for one important reason: Ledonne may have just not cared. The point of the game seems to have just been to get people thinking about these issues, and on that note it succeeds emphatically. If you haven’t played it, you should, for the very least that it will make you think (about more than just how to beat it). And how many games can you say that of?

9 Responses to SCMRPG! part 3

  • Jimmy Maher says:

    One thing I never see mentioned in discussions of SCRPG is that if it wants to make an ironic comment on the shooter’s favorite medium of entertainment — videogames — by reenacting the shooter’s acts through that medium, it’s chosen the wrong genre entirely. Klebold and Harris didn’t play Japanese-style RPGS, but rather Doom and other first-person shooters. I assume the answer to this conumdrum is probably that it’s easier to put together an RPG Maker game than it is to make a Doom level. (I’ve never tried to do either.) It does rather confuse the game’s rhetoric, though.

    I see a lot of commentary on the game along the lines of: “Its garish, simplistic graphics serve as a grimly ironic counterpoint to the bloodshed it actually signifies.” Um, is it just possible that the author was an amateur with no background in game creation, and that was just the best he could do? I see a lot of deep meanings being grafted onto the game after the fact that I am not at all sure were placed there intentionally by Mr. Ledonne. He is happy to nod wisely when they crop up and post the choicest bits on his website, though, which does prompt me to agree with a couple of other commentators that there is a certain aura of disingenuousness about the whole thing. None of which means that SCRPG is not an important game, of course.

    I found your criticism very balanced, though. Thanks for that, and congratulations on the new blog. I have added you to my regular reading rotation.

  • DannyLedonne says:

    This is a very interesting examination of the game’s effect in literary terms. To clarify: I’ve been aware of FPS engines for years and the prospect of making a game (Columbine-themed or otherwise) in this genre never really appealed to me. Why? I didn’t think I could accomplish anything meaningful in terms of storyline or player response by choosing a format that emphasizes the control physics of aiming a weapon and firing. There are certainly interpretations of SCMRPG that I’m NOT happy to nod wisely at: that the game was a form of personal “revenge,” an incitement to more shootings, a way to make money, or a way to “get attention” as a game designer. Surely, though, when Aaron Ruby argues in Next Generation that SCMRPG is a punk rock videogame I was quite intrigued (as this had never occurred to me) and when Patrick Dugan called the game “the Rosa Parks of videogames” I rolled in my chair laughing.

    What puzzles me the most, honestly, is despite the sheer volume of press I’ve done, my artist statement, and my ongoing devotion to reply to every email I receive, somehow there are still threads that speculate as to what my intentions where and why. If you want to know why I made this-or-that choice in SCMRPG, just ask me. :) > deevideo(at)

  • Jimmy Maher says:

    Okay, fair enough. :) Thanks for being so accessible.

    If it’s okay okay with you (and Mr. Pfeifer), I will ask you a few questions here, in case someone else is interested.

    1. Were the simple, low-res, garish graphics an aesthetic choice, or were you (as we all are) simply constrained by limitations of technology and artistry?

    2. As its creator, what purpose did you have in mind in making the game? Is it primarily educational, to let me “decide for myself,” or rhetorical, to convince me of something? In your artist’s statement you express a definite point of view of Klebold and Harris and “canaries in the coalmine” “foretelling of an apocalypse soon,” quite a strong statement. (One I vehemently disagree with, although it is beside the point. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.) Yet elsewhere I am told that what I get out of Columbine is what I put into it.

    3. Apart from any societal meaning of their actions and any rhetoric that may be present in the game, how do you personally feel about Klebold and Harris as human beings? Psychotic killers who should burn in hell? Victims, as much as those they killed, of the institutionalized violence of our public school system? Something else in between these extremes?

    Since I am asking a somewhat personal question here, perhaps I should answer it too. I just kind of see them as pathetic. And I say this as one who grew up as a painfully shy, unathletic, geeky kid whose weight always seemed to trail his height by a couple of years. I got picked on plenty, but I don’t see myself as a martyr. I sort of see the whole process as a painful thing called “growing up.” No one gets through adolescence without a few scars. I don’t even think that Harris and Klebold fit the “picked on geek” mold all that well, actually, when you really start to read about them.

    4. What is the purpose of the second half of the game, in Hell? It just seems tacked-on and unnecessary to me, and actually blunted the game’s emotional impact when I played it.

    Sorry if I seem like I am raking you over the coals. I’m just honestly curious about these things, and would love to hear answers not from some third party commentator but from you, the game’s creator. I think it’d be great if you could reply here, but if you’d rather discuss in private by all means drop me a line. maher (at)


  • borut says:

    Well, as far as my entries go, I very specifically didn’t read your artist statement (although I knew about it). I just wanted to dissect the game on it’s own in that sense, free from (as much as possible) all the crap in the media written about it. Criticism as in literary terms, like you said, not criticism as in review or as in just pointing out negatives. As one of a handful of games that actually tries to say something of importance/meaningful, I thought that deconstruction would be a useful exercise (both for myself and for others to read more of) – which is a pretty positive comment about SCMRPG! in my book, that it is capable of being looked at in that light.

    That’s also actually why I don’t mention stuff like how you’ve said you’re predominantly a filmmaker, only an amatuer game maker – because it takes away from the criticism – as in, Hey, this game could say these things better only if Ledonne had mad art skillz, or a team of 50 artists. Which is largely irrelevant if all you want to do is analyze the game itself as it exists.

  • DannyLedonne says:

    1. The choice to use RPG Maker 2000 was deliberate insomuch as I could have used RPG Maker XP for much higher resolution with the same basic middleware. Why? I’m a fan of films like Todd Haynes’ “Superstar” (using Barbie dolls to tell the story of anorexic musician Karen Carpenter). I made a lego animation called “Ship of Fools” in which I compressed the colors to palette of 256 (find it on Google Video or YouTube). There is something to be said for a simplification of reality, a reductive approach to scaling back our perceptions to something purely representational. It often forces us to think more about meaning and less about aesthetics. While a Columbine game with 3D graphics would probably outrage just as many people, I argue that it would get fewer of them to think about the shooting itself. I still shoot films in black and white (as do many filmmakers) because there’s something “pure” about returning to the roots of a medium. I’m a fan of retro – and that includes the games I grew up playing.

    2. You certainly do get out of the game what you put into it but this is something of a tautology because this can be said of everything from the Bible to a coloring book. I REALLY think that the Columbine shooting is an event that is endemic of our moribund culture – a signal that not all is well in post-industrial suburbia. The shooting, for me, marks the beginning of a slow unraveling of modern civilization. It shows us a world that we may not actually want to live in – one in which our own children grow to hate everything despite all the riches we offer them. I believe, as the film “Ship of Fools” indicates, that we are heading toward an impending collapse on social, political, and ecological terms. In some future society, we will look at Columbine as more than the sum of its parts. At least this is my thesis.

    How much of this is conveyed in the game? That really depends on who you ask. To those who see the same writing on the wall that I do, this is a rather transparent assertion. To those who think the shooting was the result of too much violent media, this argument is lost to them or they simply label me as a “nihilist” and write off the deeper indictments of the shooting.

    3. I don’t think Hell exists because I don’t subscribe to any specific theological dogma. Having reviewed much video footage and writing of the shooters, I think of them as profoundly sad, angry, lost kids. Kids who saw no other way out of their own pain and suffering. I work with kids everyday and I know that to go so far off the edge as to randomly execute your own classmates is to signify a kind of desperation that few of us at 17 could cope with sans any real support system. So you can hate them all you want but really they are a reflection of us. That’s the scariest part of 4/20/1999 for me.

    4. In some sense, the “Hell” level is a more traditional form of videogame but subverts much of the dynamic because the player has already taken the characters through a deadly school massacre. The idea to have Eric and Dylan battle the demons of Doom came fairly early on and really was just an amalgamation of several existing notions and conditions; this was their favorite videogame, the monsters in the game are from Hell, and many after Columbine cursed Eric and Dylan to an eternity in Hell… so there’s the connection. In its own polemical way, the game suggests that IF there is a Hell, Eric and Dylan might actually enjoy it. Being an atheist myself, this is all mere mythology and serves as a rhetorical point to be made about the subjective nature of reality (can you imagine Eric and Dylan having much fun in heaven? Wouldn’t atheists like John Lennon be in Hell to serenade the Columbine shooters even if they preferred Rammstein?). Because I was one guy who could put whatever he desired into a game, the idea of spoofing Doom while simultaneously confronting an element of the Columbine shooting (that it evoked deeply religious condemnation from some) seemed a logical choice for me.

    Those on the Island of Lost Souls are used, by my design, to illustrate one of the profound theological problems with Christian concepts of salvation: it excludes almost everyone outside a narrow spectrum of irrational belief. Growing up atheistic in a very religious community, I was told often by other kids during my childhood that I was “going to Hell” and eventually I began to reply “at least all my friends will be there.” The Island of Lost Souls is populated by just such people; tell me you didn’t smile when you saw Mega Man, Pikachu, and Mario wandering around on an island at the end of the game… it’s the ultimate post modern Easter Egg in videogames… at least that’s why I grinned while I made it.

    Most of all, I want people to make games the way they would write a poem or paint a picture: from their own conviction. So often videogames are used as a vehicle to make money and seldom are personal statements from artists. I don’t care what kind of games we make as long as they matter to us. After the protests at Slamdance and all the email I receive (praise or criticism), it became clear to me that SCMRPG matters to a whole lot of people and to me that’s the best feeling in the world. I likely won’t be checking this page again but please email me with any questions and look for my documentary on the entire ordeal sometime next year. The title is “Playing Columbine: a true story of videogame controversy.” >

  • Jimmy Maher says:

    On the chance that you do check this page again, thanks for that. Really, sincerely, thanks. I’ve never seen YOUR views laid out plainly like that before. The Artist’s Statement says a lot less of real substance in a lot more words. I humbly retract my accusation of disingenuousness in light of your willingness to share your view.

    I don’t agree with many of your points of view. I don’t attribute the wide sociological significence to the killings that you do; am not nearly so sympathetic toward the killers, although I wouldn’t use the word “hate” to describe my feelings; and don’t think the Hell level really works in the context of the game as a whole, whatever choice bits may be included there. (One of the things I’ve learned from my own creative writing is that it is often necessary to cut bits you really LIKE because they just don’t work in the piece as a whole. This may be one of those situations.) I’m not religious either, but most of the debates that swirl around the subject are kind of exhausted to my mind, so maybe I wasn’t the best audience for your message here.

    Best of luck with the film project. (And I’m really sorry to have kind of hijacked this blog. I’ll go away and read quietly now.)

  • borut says:

    Please, no need to apologize Jimmy, those were great questions – and thanks to Danny for answering them!