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Game Over 

Slamdance’s games competition removes a controversial title'but inspires another controversy in the process.

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The recent expulsion of a controversial video game finalist from the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition has cost the exhibition nearly half its finalists'and, according to those involved in the contest, a lot of its credibility.

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“A large part of the point of Slamdance is to be the more independent, more controversial version of Sundance,” says Jonathan Blow, who withdrew his Slamdance finalist Braid from the competition. “So, in light of moves like this, one has to wonder about the basic nature of the event. If they’re not there to stand behind controversial works, then what are they for?nn

The controversial work in question is Super Columbine Massacre RPG [SCMRPG], a game developed by Colorado designer Danny LeDonne. In the title, players take on the roll of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris as they plan and execute their shooting rampage. LeDonne says he never had any intention of entering his game, but was approached last year by game contest head Sam Roberts to do so. Then, last week, he got another call from Roberts.

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“He e-mails me to say, ‘A matter of some importance has come up,’ and, of course, I knew what it was. It’s not like he’d just misspelled my name in the festival handbook,” LeDonne says. “So then, I find myself on the phone with [Slamdance head] Peter Baxter hearing about how there has been so much pressure to pull the game from the festival. I thought to myself, ‘The Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition just became the Benevolent Gamemaker Competition.’ What game could possibly be more emblematic of the word ‘guerrilla’ than mine, right?nn

Baxter says that there was no sponsor pressure and told the Rocky Mountain News that “ultimately the decision was mine.nn

“While understanding the different positions people have already taken with the game, we had a great struggle with ours,” Baxter said. “On one hand, a jury selected a game they believed merited programming'a decision that always leads to our organization supporting the creator’s independent vision and freedom of expression. On the other, there are moral obligations to consider with this particular game and the interests and welfare of the Slamdance organization and its community. Ultimately, after much internal conflict and debate, we decided to pull this game.nn

The official statement on the Slamdance Website also cites Slamdance’s lack of resourced to defend itself from any civil action that could arise from showing SCMRPG.

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In the aftermath of Baxter’s choice, six of the 13 finalists have yanked their games from the competition. In addition to Braid, the other withdrawals include flOw, Everyday Shooter, Toblo, Once Upon a Time and Book & Volume. And, in a move that seems to back Baxter’s assertion about lack of sponsor pressure opposing SCMRPG, one sponsor'USC Interactive Media'actually pulled its sponsorship because of the game’s removal, saying the decision “communicates that Slamdance celebrates independent games only so far as they do not make us uncomfortable.nn

Baxter admitted to me that the decision was unfair to the judges and the game developer, but said, “There are more important matters to consider in life. It’s important to consider the families who are still suffering from Columbine and its events that are role played in this game.nn

Real-life tragedy played a role in a previous Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competion finalist, when Waco: Resurrection was selected two years ago. Players took on the role of David Koresh and defended the compound against federal agents. In the real Waco tragedy, 86 people'including four federal agents'lost their lives.

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When asked if he felt that the festival sold out by expelling LeDonne’s game Baxter said: “Slamdance has never sold out, and we will continue to support independent artists. I hope a choice like this will never have to be made again.nn

However, Baxter’s hope gives others pause to worry about the future. “They posted an official statement on their game page saying that they hope such a thing will never happen again but they don’t describe how they expect this to be so,” says Blow. “Will it never happen again because they will proactively prevent controversial games from becoming finalists? That seems pretty bad. Or will it never happen again because they feel they made a mistake in pulling [SCMRPG] and will not make such a mistake again? If that’s so, why not just reverse this mistake now?nn

Reversing the decision at this stage seems unlikely, though protests have come in from the finalists as well as other sponsors. Most of the finalists participated in an open letter to Baxter asking that LeDonne’s game be reinstated. It’s uncertain how many finalists will be left when the contest actually rolls around.

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Joe Bourrie was on the panel of judges that chose SCMRPG and a previous contest winner. When he first played SCMRPG, he didn’t like it, but that didn’t mean he thought it shouldn’t be included in the festival.

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“I feel that the disrespectful and unsympathetic way that it handles the subject matter is in very poor taste,” Bourrie says. “However, the game creates controversy because it gets under your skin. It is uncomfortable, but it makes you consider things that you wouldn’t normally think about.

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“Now, Slamdance has shown that the judges’ decision can be overturned by one man. It makes me feel as if the dozens of hours I volunteered were less significant. The game has every right to be at Slamdance, whether or not I like the game myself.”

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