Braid won’t be at Slamdance after all.

Recently, a game about the Columbine High School shooting — in which the player takes the role of the killers and wanders through the school shooting students — was kicked out of the Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition, due to pressure from sponsors.

The game lacks compassion, and I find the Artist’s Statement disingenuous. But despite this, the game does have redeeming value. It does provoke important thoughts, and it does push the boundaries of what games are about. It is composed with more of an eye toward art than most games. Clearly, it belongs at the festival.

So, in protest of game’s expulsion, I have dropped Braid out of the competition as well.

This decision has been difficult. Festivals like Slamdance are important to the continued deepening of the independent games movement, and the competition organizers are very hard-working people who understand games. I don’t want to hurt the festival or undermine the efforts of the organizers.

But games should be taken seriously as an art form that can expand the boundaries of human experience. Games can help us to understand situations in a fully-engaged fashion, as participants and co-creators, which the passive media cannot do. As an art form they contain a tremendous power to shift perspective and to heighten wisdom. For the art form to achieve these potentials, game developers need to explore the space of possibilities in earnest. But if games are denied their appropriate level of societal recognition, growth of the form will be very difficult, and human culture will be the lesser for it.

If left unchallenged, the expulsion of the Columbine game sets a precedent in the wrong direction. Dropping Braid out of the competition, while not a huge act, is the strongest protest I have the power to make.

This may seem paradoxical, but I do respect the sponsors’ decision to pressure Slamdance into dropping the Columbine game. They are just preventing their money from supporting something they consider morally reprehensible. So, good for them.

In the unlikely event that Slamdance re-admits the Columbine game, Braid will consent to rejoin the festival as well, assuming they still want it.

Jonathan Blow

Braid developer

39 thoughts on “Braid won’t be at Slamdance after all.”

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  2. Hey Jon, I completely respect this move. I think a few key titles making similar action might leverage Baxter to reintroduce the game. Since it turns out there were no financial pressures driving Super Columbine’s expulsion, it seems to be a medial bigotry on Baxter’s part, after all Elephant would (or did) have done quite well as Slamdance’s film festival.

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  5. You’ve clearly done the right thing, Jon. I can only hope that many of the other participants will react similarly. There is no sense in championing the exploration of the artistic space and then subsequently declaring a region of that space to be off-limits.

    Also, I do not agree with the absolution of the festival organizers. If they are not responsible for ensuring the festival’s survival in spite of outside pressures, why are they working on such a festival in the first place? Go help organize the Oscars and leave events with supposed artistic freedom to those who will actually fight for it.

    Complicity with censorship may not be as reprehensible in absolute terms as the initiation thereof, but it is the former that allows the latter to exist and should thus be treated with equivalent disdain.

  6. Just wanted to chip in and share my appreciation for having the fortitude to stick up for something even though you personally don’t like it. If video games are ever going to be taken seriously, we need to demand protection for them to explore spaces like this. As other people have pointed out, there have been movies covering this very same topic that have created some outrage, but haven’t been so derided. I said a bit of this in my blog entry above, but I wanted to add my personal two cents.

    Anyway, best of luck with your game. I hope to see it when it’s finished and I’ll help out as I can to try to get you some of the attention you’ll miss from missing Slamdance.

    Have fun!

  7. I’m just going to add my voice to the chorus here, Jonathan. I didn’t like SCMRPG either, but as I’ve stated in the past – I want to live in a place where people are free to make that kind of game. Sturgeon’s law applies to indie games as much as anything else. But I’d rather wade through the 98% of everything that is crud in order to find the 2% that are gems that would otherwise never have been made.

    Good luck with braid!

  8. That’s a damn hard decision to make. I think you made the right choice, but I’m not sure I could have done it. I hope you continue to make noise about this issue, and I deeply look forward to Braid being released.

  9. It’s amazing that every single response to this announcement has been positive – probably because mostly fanboys are reading the site. But someone needs to call this for what it is.

    The reason we have freedom of expression is because we are trusted to do proper things with it. We are certainly allowed to act like idiots and make fools of ourselves, but we also are expected to understand that the rest of the community has the right to shun us for such behavior.

    Creating a game that capitalizes on the Columbine massacre, using the negative press as a springboard to sell more copies, and then pretending to be surprised when the negative backlash starts – that’s just asinine. That people like you are JUSTIFYING the development of this ridiculous ‘game’ with Ivory Tower argumentation and posturing about freedoms and rights … it blows the mind.

    Nobody is guaranteed the right to submit a game to a private affair such as this. If the organizers do not want certain content, they have the right to ban it. Would you be similiary upset if they banned a child porn game? What if it ‘provoked important thoughts’? How about a simulation where you get to be OJ and butcher his wife – “if he did it”? Wouldn’t that be exciting? And wouldn’t we all be much better people for rolling around in the filth like that?

    Feel high and mighty for taking your tech demo out of a presentation because they decided not to allow an offensive item for consideration. Pose and posture and speak about high-and-mighty this and that. That’s what blogs are for. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re doing something objectively ‘right’.

  10. Jeff: I respect your opinion, but like many of the people who come down hard-line condemning the game, it’s clear you have not played it or even read much in the way of concrete information about it.

    For one, the game is a free download — it can’t be selling more copies because it’s not for sale. Secondly, I don’t think the author of the game was all that surprised at the backlash — he has been through it before, back when the game was released to the public (which was a while ago).

    I think when one sits down and plays the game, usually one will see that there is redeeming value to it — just like a film about Columbine can have merit. When you just read the controversy in the press and imagine running around a school shooting things, it’s hard to see the redeeming value, sure. But that’s because you’re not critiquing the actual game, you’re criticizing an image of it you’ve built in your mind.

    As I said, I don’t think the game is compassionate, or even respectful of the Columbine victims. It is definitely not a game that I ever would have made. But, in the same way that a film that I find clumsy and tasteless still has value as a film, SCMRPG has value as a game.

    The Slamdance jury recognized that, which is why it became a finalist in the first place.

  11. I personally find it a little difficult to stomach the publicity surrounding Super Columbine Massacre RPG. The first half of the game, LeDonne’s depiction of the events of the shootings, is lovingly recreated and well-executed (in regards to the limitations of the program used, RPG Maker XP) – incorporating flashbacks, photographs, and snippets of dialogue taken from the two teenagers.

    This segment of the game disturbs due to it’s accuracy and presentation of the events – which makes the second segment, a fabricated epilogue/glorified fetch-and-carry quest in Hell, that much harder to stomach. I feel that this part of the game, despite it’s many strengths, flies in the face of the intended message of Super Columbine Massacre RPG, and in fact almost serves to cater to those who discredit the artist’s statement as a sympathy vote, and to those who villify videogames as tools with which to rape the minds of children.

    Or perhaps that is the intention and I have entirely missed the point.

    In spite of my own opinions of the game, I wholly respect your own ideals, your own opinions surrounding the publicity and the game itself, and your decisions to do what you feel is the appropriate thing. I wish you the best of luck with your project, and whatever may come of it.

  12. Tough choice, Jonathan. It would be sweet if all of the other finalists, as well as the judges, withdrew as well. [I see the flOw team has already followed your lead.]

    My only disagreement is your willingness to re-enter the competition if Peter Baxter compounds his cynical exploitation of the Columbine tragedy by changing his mind.

  13. I applaud your decision to stand up and do this. I think HL Mencken said it best:

    The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. (Mencken, Notes On Democracy)

    Regardless of whether you or I approve of the game, the point is that he has a right to make his statement. Kudos to you!

  14. Must have been a hard decision, but you’re right. SCMRPG deserved to be there. It may have been controversial, but it didn’t deserve to be pulled. It is helping to expand the borders of what we consider gaming. It was unique, something we don’t see alot these days. Most games are just the same old games with improved graphics.

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  16. Thanks Jon – good to see people standing up.

    really surprised by it myself. Does this mean that slamdance is getting too big to be alternative?

    I personally would never play the game or give them my money but that is not grounds for censorship. everyone has the right to be tasteless. even me 🙂

  17. This may seem paradoxical, but I do respect the sponsors’ decision to pressure Slamdance into dropping the Columbine game.

    ahem. that is the original understanding of the events that has changed since the withdrawal of scmRPG has been announced:

    the festival president Peter Baxter says that he made the decision free of any outside pressure based on moral grounds and concern for the future of the organization.

    from the Rocky Mountain News Piece:

    [… Slamdance President Peter Baxter:] “… there are moral obligations to consider here with this particular game in addition to the impact it could have on the Slamdance organization and its community.
    “Ultimately it was my decision to pull this game and I hope that a choice like it will never have to be made again.”

  18. Definitely true. But, I didn’t want to go back and edit the announcement and/or make some kind of new statement modifying it, especially as my understanding of the situation is still tenuous and changes from day to day. Though now we know at least one of the sponsors on the game side felt the opposite way (the USC Interactive Media Division has dropped their sponsorship because Slamdance wouldn’t reinstate SCMRPG).

  19. Wow! This has to be one of the most interesting topics I’ve read in a while. Everyone here has interesting opinions, and I really do respect each one of them. Boycotting Slamdance is indeed an interesting issue. At first I thought it was silly to protest against taking SCMRPG out of Slamdance, but I am convinced that there is a lack of fairness in it.

    However, I really want to know to what extent people are willing to boycott under the circumstances. What if the situation was a tad different? For example, what if it wasn’t about Columbine, but what if the game was about being a terrorist and trying to slam your airplanes into a couple of buildings (yikes!). What if the game was about being a slave master in colonial America? Or even worse, a game about being a Nazi regulating a concentration camp.

    Nevertheless, I do agree that all games should be judged fairly. It’s just that the word “game” is taken so lightly these days. Most people don’t recognize the seriousness of the word “game”. I mean, even in everyday vernacular you hear now and then someone say that “life isn’t a game” or “[place something here] isn’t a game”. Comparing the Columbine incident to Mario Bros. can be very hurtful. It really depends under what context a game is being presented. And I think that’s where the confusion is being bred. Games should be taken more seriously, and people should remember that the word “game” has several connotations, and understand that.

    All-in-all, I feel that there is a very big can of worms just waiting to burst from all this. Not that it’s bad. With the rise of serious games and big controversies like SCMRPG people will hopefully view games with a more serious outlook. Besides, cans of worms are meant to be open 🙂 I wonder what the future holds…

  20. I’ve been doing a lot of reading over the past week, since I bought Braid on XBLA. Normally I like to read the forums to see what people are saying before I invest in the time it will take to play a game, and obviously Braid has generated a lot of buzz. Braid speaks for itself, and leaves many folks with many conclusions.

    All that aside, reading the forums has taken me on an interesting journey. Kind of ironic in a sense that Braid, for me, has opened a door in my mind probably not intended. To be clear, I’ve been thinking a lot about the indie game community and the discussion of video games as an art form. And my current thinking is that games as art is a slippery slope.

    How do most people define the word game? Learner posted above that “Most people don’t recognize the seriousness of the word “game”. That’s because the word game isn’t about anything serious. A typical definition is:

    1. something played for fun: an activity that people participate in, together or on their own, for fun

    That in and of itself is causing me to be very conflicted about my thoughts. Just because I play games for fun, and competition, doesn’t mean everyone does, of course, but my experience leads me to believe that most people do.

    There is the slippery slope for me. What is a game, really? Is it what most people think it should be, is that what defines it?

    Video games as a form of art is an interesting topic, thanks for opening my eyes to it. I’ll honestly say it scares me a little to think about what might become of it, but I’ll certainly look at it differently.

    Braid, intended or not, is certainly being talked about and has helped raise the awareness of what can be. I applaud that, and as a fellow computer scientist, I appreciate the dedication, devotion, and perseverance you demonstrated to get it into my hands.

    Good luck with your future endeavors, and here’s to hoping some of them end up in my hands again!

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