After all, what kind of crazy person would make -- or play -- a game where the point is to go to school, plant bombs, carry out a massacre … and ultimately commit suicide in the library?
Growing up in the post-Columbine world, we have been through more active shooter drills than we can count and fear for our lives every time we hear the alarm. Could you imagine someone making a game like this about Parkland? Sandy Hook? Virginia Tech?
We were actually sick to our stomachs prepping to interview the game’s creator. But at the same time, we were definitely curious. So we sat down with Danny Ledonne, who made the free, downloadable game in 2005 in his early twenties.
But as we talked to him, we started to realize he’s not as twisted as you might think...
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why was Columbine so important to you that you had to make a game about it?
I was a sophomore at another Colorado high school at the time of the shooting at Columbine. So that really forced me to think about what was going on in my life. … Before Columbine, I had had violent and angry thoughts about hurting myself or hurting other people. I think a lot of young men go through that struggle. I imagine young women as well. So that really forced me to think about what was going on in my life.
The game seems to point to bullying as one of the motives for the shooters. How did their stories resonate with you?
In the months that followed [Columbine], there was quite a bit of criticism of Marilyn Manson and video games like Doom and Mortal Kombat -- things that I was interested in. But there was also not a lot of opportunity for me as a teenager to assert what I thought might be more relevant to consider, issues like bullying in schools or social isolation.
I experienced a considerable amount of bullying growing up. I was always the shortest kid in class and I think that sometimes that made me an easy target … so there was this discomfort of realizing that other kids are also bullied. The shooters at Columbine … basically developed this kind of inner sense of vengeance that they couldn't apparently find another way to resolve.
I don't think it's helpful to demonize and ostracize people further and to say, "They are pure evil. They did the work of Satan," and not being willing to actually understand what led these two young men to the point that this happened in their lives.
What were some of the more extreme reactions you got from people who played or heard about the game?
The most extreme reactions I tended to get were from people that never played the game. So then I will get a reaction like, “How could you do this? This is the most sick thing ever! You must be doing this for attention or to make money!”
I certainly have gotten death threats over the years, which is a little bit strange if you think about making a game that is in response to bullying and violence, and the critics of this game think that bullying and violence are the best way to respond to you for having made it.
I had never seen the game until a few days ago, and I would say the game play itself is not incredibly violent or gory. But as someone who grew up with a constant fear of school shootings, the idea of the game is still deeply disturbing to me.
A shooting is a disturbing subject for a game… It's a difficult topic, but we shouldn't condemn or we shouldn't shy away from engaging work that is disturbing. That emotional experience, that intellectual endeavor, is an important one.
What do you say to the friends or families of Columbine victims who say, “What the hell? In this game, you can kill my family member or friend over and over again!”
Yeah, I know that is certainly criticism of the game. I did not put the names of the victims anywhere in the game because I didn't feel that it was an appropriate design choice. It wasn't even getting at what I thought was important to understand because the shooters at Columbine didn't have specific targets. For them it was an act of kind of random ideological terrorism and that's a fine line to walk, and I'm not even sure I was completely successful at doing so.
But your game seems to empathize more with the shooters, rather than the people who were killed in the shooting?
Yeah, the game definitely has an empathetic aspect to the two shooters at Columbine. There is no denying that. I also don't necessarily think that is a bad thing because we have to remember that Eric [Harris] and Dylan [Klebold] were students at their high school just like everyone else. We need to acknowledge that Columbine created and helped shape Eric and Dylan.
So for the anniversary of the Columbine shooting and the next national school walkout against gun violence, I wanted to talk about a little bit about how things have changed.
So unfortunately with Columbine, the more things change, the more things have stayed the same. [But] I'm encouraged to see a new generation of young people kind of carry the torch forward and push for things that obviously my generation and my parents’ generation failed to do to address these issues.