Interview: Jason Rohrer

January 15, 2007

What follows is a transcript of our interview with Jason Rohrer, the developer of Slamdance finalist Cultivation, regarding the recent removal of Super Columbine Massacre RPG from the upcoming Slamdance independent game festival.

Snackbar Games: There are some critics of Slamdance who might argue that going back to the fold, as you suggest in your letter, would hurt the credibility of the gaming medium. One thing that’s come up over and over again in my discussions with gamers and developers as I’ve tracked this story is that this would not happen to a film. Do you think there’s damage to be done to games and gaming, at least in the public perception, as a result of Slamdance’s decision?

Jason Rohrer: I certainly do not agree with the decision, and I don’t think that games are being taken seriously by the festival or by the rest of society. When I mention the idea of “a game about Columbine” to people that I know (like my mother-in-law, for example), their first reaction is almost always one of disgust. I’ve even heard things like, “games are for children, and who would want their children to play a game about Columbine?” Granted, this is mostly coming from a generation of non-gamers. They did not play games themselves, but saw their children play games, so they have pegged games as a medium that only interests kids. It’s like a 90-year-old saying, “Rock-and-roll? That’s for kids!” In both cases, those kids kept their taste as they grew up. So we have 30-year-olds that still play games and 60-year-olds that still listen to rock-and-roll.

Did the decision “damage” gaming? How much weight does Slamdance really pull? I was surprised (and impressed) that they picked SCMRPG as a finalist in the first place, given how controversial it is. That initial decision probably boosted Slamdance more than it boosted gaming. Likewise, the second decision, to pull SCMRPG, hurt Slamdance more than it
hurt gaming.

I’d say that the public doesn’t take gaming seriously, and the inclusion or exclusion of SCMRPG at Slamdance would have had little effect on public perception of gaming. If anything, the pulling of SCMRPG has spawned a lot of useful discussion. Before the controversy erupted, there was almost no press coverage of Slamdance at all. Yeah, they picked a controversial game, but no one seemed to notice. It was only through the pulling of that game that people started to take notice and discuss whether games can be taken seriously—you could call this the “bright side” of pulling SCMRPG. This is a discussion that we certainly need to have.

SBG: One of the points you make is that Slamdance, as an event, warrants protecting, even though we might disagree with the decisions of the directors. How much danger is Slamdance in?

JR: I would not be shocked if this was the last year that Slamdance holds a game event. From the original fourteen finalists, only four games will be screened at the festival. The program is in shambles and funding has been withdrawn (so prizes are much smaller). There’s really not much left of the game festival this year. The film festival, on the other hand, has been going strong for many years—I’m sure it will live on in the future.

SBG: Pulling out of the contest, as you say in your letter, is not a valuable method of protest. Do you plan to address the issue during your screening? If so, how?

JR: My game Cultivation, which I will be screening, is about conflict and compromise. The game is set within a community of gardeners on a small island, but their situation is really a metaphor for any situation that involves conflict, from a squabble between board members of a small non-profit to a full-scale nuclear engagement. The metaphor can be usefully applied to the controversy surrounding the pulling of SCMRPG.
Through the mechanics that I’ve set up in Cultivation, you can observe a number of emergent phenomenon. If conflict is allowed to build unchecked, it can lead to the destruction of resources that are valuable to everyone involved. Eventually, the entire island can be ruined by a series of unchecked conflicts, leaving no land to grow food, and everyone starves as
a result.

In the conflict over SCMRPG, I saw both sides sticking stubbornly to their guns, and the result was that the game festival was essentially destroyed. A discussion of these issues will fit nicely into my screening. Will I stand up there wagging my finger at the festival organizers and saying, “Games MUST be taken seriously?” Probably not, since I think they know that already.

SBG: In many circles, the backlash over Slamdance’s announcement deals more with their behavior surrounding the decision than the decision itself. Do you think they could have acted more appropriately?

JR: I’ve had some time to fully digest the series of events that unfolded so
quickly over the past week. I now believe that the problem resulted more from premature press coverage than from the organizers’ behavior. Of course, before making a press release about pulling Danny’s game, the organizers told him about it. As I understand it, Danny went straight to the press with the news (fueling Kotaku’s “exclusive” news flash). The press reported based on Danny’s recollection of the phone call, so we got one version of the “reasons for pulling SCMRPG” (sponsor pressure). Then, still before the official press release was ready, other journalists interviewed Peter Baxter by phone, and we got a second set of “reasons for pulling SCMRPG” (a personal, moral decision on Baxter’s part). Next, we got an “official statement,” which didn’t give details about a reason. Finally, we got a letter directly to gamemakers, which explained that screening SCMRPG could open the festival to a lawsuit.

Several finalists have called the communication coming from the festival organizers “inconsistent.” However, I now believe that they were simply struggling to react to the media firestorm that Danny lit.

If we had known, from the beginning, that the festival could have been sued by the families of Columbine victims (or even by the Harris and Klebold families—after all, Danny used the boys’ likenesses without permission), would people have been as angry about the decision?

SBG: Have you played SCMRPG? If so, what are your thought on the game?

JR: Yes, I played it all way through, and wrote an in-depth review of it, just days before the controversy erupted. You can read my review online. In summary, it surpasses any other video game that I’ve played in terms of artistic achievement.

SBG: What has the response to your letter been? Have any of the finalists agreed to come back? Do you think they will?

JR: Most of the finalists who have pulled out already have written me with negative responses to my letter. None have agreed to come back, and I don’t expect that any will in the future (the “stay the course” mentality prevails). There are other issues lurking here, however. Some of these finalists weren’t planning to attend Slamdance anyway, because they could not afford the trip. Out of the six that have bowed out, only two are still coming to Park City to join the discussion—obviously, those two already had non-refundable lodging and plane tickets. The other four protesters declined to join the discussion in Park City, claiming that they could not afford it. That means that, one week before the festival, they still had no reservations (which would make plane tickets expensive, indeed). They’re much slicker to bow out in protest than to bow out due to financial concerns, I’d say.