By: Stephen Crane
A new game is filling headlines around the US. No, it's not a AAA game like Grand Theft Auto V. This game, instead, is being lambasted as a sick joke, or a sign of great societal evil, and articles about it are popping up on Huffington Post, The NY Daily News, and especially local Connecticut news.
The game in question is The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary by Ryan Jake Lambourn, and it puts the player in control of Adam Lanza, the mass shooter of the tragedy that took place less than a year ago. Because of itssubject matter the indie developer has been called everything from sick, to a troll, to a "gun-control wacko". Most seem to believe this is a meanto to be taken as a game along the lines of PacMan, or Super Meatboy, or a game for entertainment's sake. I disagree.
Before I continue, I should place a massive TRIGGER WARNING to anyone involved. If discussions of violence, especially pertaining to the Sandy Hook massacre disturb you, please do not read any further. I have played the game and will describe it in detail as well as add my own commentary below. Thank you.
Most news outlets, and indeed most talking heads reacting to the game focus on the "game" aspect. Some apparently haven't even played or done too much investigation before reporting. At face value, the game might appear intellectually devoid and just another way for someone to troll for hits and glory, but that's not the case. In fact, so much of this needs to be put in context of the game developer's own words. In the credits section, you can click a button to hear Ryan Jake Lambourn explain why he made the game and his positions. His words have been transcribed below.
"Hi, I'm Ryan Jake Lambourn, creator of this game. Back in 2007 I created a game called V-Tech Rampage about the Virginia Tech shootings. In the years since since I've been routinely asked by fans of V-Tech to make, y'know, more games of just about every mass shooting that's gotten media coverage. I'm someone who rarely follows the news so these updates have been a constant reminder of just how commonplace mass shootings and school shootings have become.
I grew up in Houston TX, where I remember guns and ammunition [sad half-laugh] being available y'know in unmanned sections of WalMart and y'know just it being commonplace to hear gun shots in the distance as I tried to go to sleep. Which is a stark contrast to Sydney Australia where I moved to in 2001. Australia had sweeping gun control put in place after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people died, and as a result of that sweeping legislation is that guns are no longer a noticeable part of Australian culture. Gun violence is practically non existent here and it's just something you don't see around anymore.
That's not to say there's no guns here, though. A friend of my brother has had a firearm license since he was young. He owns a gun and has to do things to maintain his gun license such as having a secured gun safe. Back in America, though, all these massacres don't seem to have had any similar effect on regulation. Instead, gun control and enforcement has steadily loosened and you end up with places like Chicago where gun control is at its weakest, overtaking New York City as the murder capital of America. And here we are nearly a year after the Sandy Hook shootings in which 26 people were killed 20 of which were first graders and absolutely nothing positive has come out of it.
As much as you might want to blame this entire state of affairs on politicians, or the NRA, you have to remember that your politicians aren't mind readers and the NRA is not doing anything more than motivating its members to passionately talk to those representatives about their opinions. If you're a middle of the road person who believes that firearms should at least have the same amount of regulations as a car, then it's really on you because your absolute apathy is why the news is unbearable to watch.
So I want you to go and click that USA.gov link and find your state governor and find your representatives in Senate and Congress and shoot them an email or a phone call and tell them your opinions on gun control. That's the least you can do. And if you feel inspired to shake off that apathy then you can bookmark that NRA link. The NRA are kind enough to have a very orderly and up to date list of important gun legislation from around the country so if you want to get involved it's an extremely useful resource.
Yeah, so you know, get involved. Hope you enjoyed the game or at least got something out of it, danke."
With that artist's statement in mind, I took the time to play the game and try to understand it and its motivations. There are three "modes" your play in. The first is historical. Using the gun available to Adam Lanza (a semi-automatic AR15) find out how much damage could be done, especially when teachers were hiding kids and barricading doors. The second mode is only unlocked after playing the first. It's Gun Control mode. What if Adam couldn't get access to guns? Well weapons aren't necessarily out of the question, so he instead hypothetically attacks with a sword. This results in less people dead, though more if not the same wounded (similar results to the mass-stabbing in China the same day as the Sandy Hook shooting).
The third option, only unlocked after gun control, is tongue-in-cheek named "Eagletears". This one is probably the most interesting as it is the NRA's dream. The teachers are now all armed and instead of hiding the kids they stand their ground. What happens? Based on the game's mechanics, this results in the worst ending. It has the highest body count as the teachers are the first to go. They are naturally at eye level with the gun, and the player avatar (Adam) walks in with his gun up to his shoulder, looking down the scope as military personnel are trained to do whenever entering a room, making the teachers the easiest targets, even before they can draw their guns. If you take too long, the teachers draw their guns, but are still hesitant to shoot. Instead, they start off with [threat of violence] and fire useless warning shots, missing the avatar. Still after a few shots, the teachers then run out the door. It is literally impossible for the avatar to die by any other's hands but his own in any of these modes.
Now for my opinions. As someone heavily involved in the gaming scene, this isn't the first time I've seen a game tackle a hard subject. A trans-woman's game, called Dys4ia about the difficulties of being trans and going through personality and physical changes comes to mind specifically when I played this. It uses very specific mechanics to convey a deep message in a way that is jarring. Another game that comes to mind is Spec Ops: The Line. This is a game that deals specifically with the atrocities of war and tackles the subjects of PTSD, white phosphorous, the glorification of war, and justifications for war crimes.
What each of these games have in common is something very specific: They aren't fun, and they aren't meant to be. These aren't games played to get a "high score" or to crowd around with your friends and brag about. These are deeply personal games that have tackled difficult topics in artistic ways. Similar to how Heart of Darkness deals with the atrocities of war, or Grave of the Fireflies shows us a post-Hiroshima, post-Nagasaki Japan, games like the one in question here artistically try to convey a message.
Just as not all movies or books are fun (and they shouldn't be,) not all games are fun, especially those in the indie scene. Games are an art form just as much as movies or books, or TV, or radio. Is it perhaps a young medium? Absolutely, but that shouldn't stop anyone from trying to explore what the medium can do. Its interactivity is distinct and can certainly lead to new ways of exploring topics.
The Slaying of Sandy Hook does not glorify the shooter. He is quite obviously a force of evil. He slowly plods along, a tall, slender, barely human shape, wielding a gun (or katana depending on the mode). His movements are sluggish, and the music that eventually plays in the background is jarring.
While I'm on the music choice, I should mention I question the game developer's use of the track. It is an odd mixture of chiptune, dark metal, and rap. It seems, at least in my listening, to suggest that "Sandy Hook was an inside job" yet that is also directly in contradiction to the game developer's beliefs. He tweeted, "the conspiracy theorists dont like me because it risks informing people of what happened." It makes me question if the song choice was actually supposed to be a dramatic over-telling of many anti-gun control advocates' beliefs. Especially with the line about how every "school child should be strapped" meaning wielding a gun.
Now, all of that being said, I have many reservations about the game. In many ways I'm torn. On the one hand, I support efforts to increase gun control, and I also support the artistic use of video games to handle difficult subjects. I think he effectively conveyed an anti-gun message and provided if not a learning opportunity, then certainly a launching off point to renew discussion on many subjects.
At the same time, my heart goes out to those who have suffered because of this tragedy, and others like it. I question the value of exploiting a specific tragedy like Sandy Hook vs. making a broader, more general game about gun control. I also question the use of games as propaganda which I believe this... probably falls under. It's difficult to directly call it a propaganda game as it sort of leaves the door open to discussion on both sides, but yet the mechanics were designed to lead you to a very specific conclusion. I more lean to the side of propaganda, though, and I share opinions on propaganda games the Extra Credits team.
Perhaps less than a year after the tragedy, it's too soon for a game that is so specifically tied to the tragedy. This also raises the question, does the game developer use the tragedy to spark discussion, or exploit the tragedy for cheap points and attention? Where is the line? Does that add or detract value from the artistic statement? At the same time, I believe it's good to talk about gun control. As Jon Stewart points out, there is no good time to talk about gun control yet I believe it's a conversation that should be had. Perhaps video games, a medium so commonly associated with first person shooters and action-based violence is a medium that can open new doors to discussion, but that conversation won't happen so long as media outlets and the public at large dismisses games as having no artistic value or weight.