If you followed video games about a decade ago, you probably remember the controversy surrounding it Super Columbine massacre RPG. The free indie title dissected the tragedy of 1999 by putting players in control of shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, exploring the school (and their motivations) through 16-bit graphics and a familiar, top-down RPG system. Not everyone liked the title to say the least. For example, the game was a favorite target of anti-game violence crusader Jack Thompson and was controversially removed from Slamdance’s “Guerilla GameMaker competition” in 2007.
Now, the creator of the Super Columbine massacre RPG, Danny Ledonne, is once again embroiled in controversy. The administration of Adams State University in Colorado banned Ledonne from campus ahead of a recent film festival he helps organize, citing his creation of the game in a letter that also refers to him as a public safety issue.
ASU: “The game is about shooting students.”
“Fact: Mr. Ledonne created a post-Columbine video game that recreates the horror of the Columbine HS massacre,” writes ASU Police Chief Paul Grohowski in an open letter to Adams State University discussing a warning against Ledonne. “In this post-Columbine, hypersensitive world of mass shootings and college campus violence across the country, it is my duty to balance freedom of speech and individual rights against the public safety of the many,” continues the letter. “While Mr. Ledonne’s behavior has not yet violated the area of violation of our laws, my recommendation that he be banned from campus is sound, rational, and on the side of public safety.”
ASU President Beverly McClure also mentioned Ledonne’s creation of the game in an interview with the Alamosa Valley Courier about his campus ban and the new “Persona Non Grata” policy that made it possible. “In the game, you win by shooting students,” she said. “Tell me how that’s just right policy or good practice, or show what he claims to be. The game is about shooting students.”
In a reply letter posted to his own site, Ledonne, who worked at ASU from 2011 to earlier this year, takes issue with these characterizations of his game. “The crude graphics of the early ’90s are designed to subvert the ‘glamor’ inherent in first-person shooters,” he writes. “As summarized in the website’s artist statement, my goal in creating the game is to help everyday audiences understand the world of the killers, as it made me feel that we are closer to understanding and achieving actual solutions to the ongoing epidemic of school shootings would come.”
In his response, Ledonne also notes that ASU was “fully aware” of his involvement in the game when he was hired. The campus hosted a 2012 production of “Bang Bang, You’re Dead,” he points out, a play that also explores the issue of school violence. “Could anyone involved in this production be construed as a ‘threat to campus security’ for the same reasons? What about someone who published a book, wrote an article, or made a film about a shooting on a school? … This is a grave threat to free speech and academic freedom.”
Previous problems with the school
ASU’s problems with Ledonne – and vice versa – go far beyond a decade-old computer game. After losing his teaching job at ASU this year, Ledonne has been an outspoken critic of the school’s salary policy for adjunct professors. On the recently launched Watching Adams website, Ledonne is pushing for more transparency in salary information for the school of about 3,500 students. He argues for a more balanced pay structure, especially for part-time workers. Ledonne has also been involved in a number of complaints from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about losing his job.
But ASU administration officials have also accused Ledonne of threatening and intimidating behavior, Ledonne claims to vehemently deny. Grohowski’s open letter states that Ledonne “made countless faculty and staff members uncomfortable through his actions, words and behavior” and “began to harass members of the university.” [former ASU President David] Svaldi family on social media sites.”
“There were patterns of behavior that happened when we were making that website. When we put it all together and looked at the timeline, targeting us and other members of the community, we took that and went to the attorney general’s office,” McClure said in the interview with the Valley courier. “This was a safety issue.”
“I am not a threat to anyone’s safety,” Ledonne said in the same piece. “I’ve never had a physical fight with anyone in my life. I’ve never had any criminal activity, activity related to violent behavior.”
(Ledonne says he and ASU officials are in negotiations to “fix this,” but neither side was immediately available for further remark to Ars.)
Interestingly, regardless of the many other issues surrounding Ledonne’s campus ban Super Columbine massacre RPG is used again as a reference in a discussion of Ledonne’s character – now as possible evidence that he is a threat to public safety.
Ledonne, who also made the documentary Playing Columbus about the game and the controversy surrounding it, was supposed to coordinate the Southern Colorado Film Festival on the ASU campus last month, until the violation warning prevented his participation. Instead, Playing Columbus will be shown on campus tomorrow and after the screening Ledonne will participate in a panel discussion via webcam.
“We, students of ASU, are concerned about the management and exercise of our institution’s powers of authority on campus,” the organizers write on the screening’s Facebook page. “We want to talk about the Persona Non Grata policy and its implications with our first amendment rights for students, faculty and staff… No one has the privilege or right to balance ‘freedom of speech and individual rights’.”
Update (18/11, 10 a.m. EST): In response to a request for comment from Ars Technica, Ledonne said that “it is perfectly clear that SCMRPG is being used to discredit my character and without any justification… it is clear that those who have attempted to use the game as part of a campaign to portray me as a threat to campus security… have never played the game themselves or researched it or the documentary Playing Columbus that explores the controversy in detail.”
Ledonne reiterated that his involvement in the game was never brought up during his years of service at ASU. “The previous department chair was full of praise for my work and SCMRPG mainly because it is a cutting-edge way of using media and was widely received and discussed when it was released,” he said. “During my teaching at ASU.”
Asked if he regretted being involved in the game now that it was being used against him, Ledonne stayed behind at work. “It would be just as impossible for me to regret making it SCMRPG when I was 23, as it would be to regret drawing a dragon when I was 6… What has become clear is that, when used as a convenient excuse to get a critical voice from the ASU- delete administration, the entry of SCMRPG without context or explanation is a cynical attempt to exploit campus security fears at the expense of academic freedom.”