Video game reopens Columbine wounds

Parents of victims are horrified; creator says it's for 'real dialogue'

May 16, 2021
Rocky Mountain News
By Kevin Vaughan and Brian D. Crecente

An Internet-based computer game that puts players in the army boots and black trench coats of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as they kill Columbine High School classmates is attracting attention and sparking controversy.

Called Super Columbine Massacre RPG, the game mixes cartoonish scenes with photographs of Harris and Klebold, pictures taken from newspapers and television stations and excerpts from their writings.

The game's creator, who refused to identify himself to the Rocky Mountain News, did agree to an online interview. He said he wanted to create something profoundly unique and confrontational that would "promote a real dialogue on the subject of school shootings."

Several Columbine families, after being told about the game, had plenty to say.

"It's wrong," said Joe Kechter, whose son, Matt, was murdered in the Columbine library.

"We live in a culture of death," said Brian Rohrbough, whose son, Dan, was gunned down on a sidewalk outside the school, "so it doesn't surprise me that this stuff has become so commonplace. It disgusts me. You trivialize the actions of two murderers and the lives of the innocent."

And Judy Brown, who has been immersed in the Columbine controversy along with her husband, Randy, called it a "sad and sick thing to make a video game out of a tragedy where 13 innocent people were murdered."

Harris and Klebold killed a dozen students and a teacher and wounded more than 20 others on April 20, 1999, in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

The game's creator said in an e-mail that he wanted to show that "behind all the pixels is the fact that people really died, including two angry boys who were, at times, very thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent young men."

Super Columbine Massacre RPG was posted on a Web site on last year's sixth anniversary of the rampage, but it wasn't until recently that the game was rediscovered by a number of popular gaming news sites. The game makes use of Jefferson County Sheriff's Office investigative material, including images of Klebold and Harris after their suicide.

The tiny characters look like something from an old Nintendo game. The game also uses real photos taken from inside and around the school as a backdrop for some scenes, including images from the cafeteria and the bloody pictures of Harris and Klebold dead on the floor of the school library. None of the photos features victims of the attack.

Some of the photographs included in the game were taken from the Rocky Mountain News and were used without the paper's permission. John Temple, the paper's editor, president and publisher, said the News is taking steps to prevent their unauthorized use.

'Up to you'

A player who begins the game is met with directions and the following statement: "Welcome to Super Columbine Massacre RPG! You play as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on that fateful day in the Denver suburb of Littleton. How many people they kill is ultimately up to you."

The game begins in Harris' bedroom. The player is represented by Harris throughout the game.

The player navigates a series of scenes that require Harris to plant bombs in the school cafeteria, meet Klebold on a hill outside the school and attack students inside Columbine.

In each confrontation, the player has the option to play on "auto" mode, in which the game chooses the weapon, or on "manual," in which the player decides whether to use a gun or a bomb.

Each time Harris and Klebold kill someone in the game, a dialogue box pops up on the screen with the words, "Another victory for the Trench Coat Mafia."

The game uses a mix of statements attributed to Harris and Klebold and dialogue that appears to be based on reality. For example, it uses a quote taken from Harris' writings: "Don't follow your dreams or goals or any of that (expletive), follow your (expletive) animal instincts: If it moves kill it, if it doesn't, burn it. Kein Mitleid!"

The last phrase is German for "no mercy."

After spotting police from the library window, the game version of Klebold and Harris take their own lives. When they die, the screen rolls through a photo montage that includes the crime scene photos of the dead shooters and images of students running, crying and consoling one another taken from newspapers and television stations. Then images of Klebold and Harris from early childhood to high school pop up on the screen.

Finally, the game starts back up with the two in hell fighting off demons that look like the bad guys from the computer game Doom.

After the two find Friedrich -Nietzsche and return a copy of his posthumously published book Ecce Homo to him, the game shows a game version of a news conference in front of the school.

The game's creator said he used Jefferson County sheriff's documents and photos and newspaper and television coverage to try to craft a narrative that is meant to explain what might have led Klebold and Harris to attack their school.

'Marked me deeply'

The creator, who goes by the name Columbin on his Web site, said he was inspired to make the game because he was in another Colorado high school when the shooting occurred.

"Columbine marked me deeply," he wrote in the e-mail interview with the News. "I was in a Colorado high school then. I was a bullied kid. I didn't fit in, and I was surrounded by a culture of elitism as espoused by our school's athletes."

Columbin said the game took 200 to 300 hours to create. Since its creation, more than 10,000 people have downloaded the free computer game, he added.

The game has flashbacks that highlight times when Klebold and Harris may have felt marginalized. One takes place behind a Blackjack Pizza store, where the two worked. Another takes place at the school.

The reaction to his game, Columbin said, has been almost entirely negative.

"I'm routinely accused of being soulless, of being destined for an eternity in hell, and similarly colorful assertions," he wrote. "However, I cannot emphasize enough that there is a small fraction of the population who really gets it, who really understands why I made the game and how possible it is to escape from the polarized, dualistic thinking the Columbine shooting seems to (elicit) in most people."

One of those people may be Ian Bogost, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Bogost researches video-game criticism and video-game rhetoric and runs a Web site dedicated to video games with an agenda.

Bogost recently stumbled upon the game and wrote about it on his site,

"While it is a challenging subject, I think the effort is brave, sophisticated and worthy of praise from those of us interested in video games with an agenda," he wrote.

"Super Columbine Massacre RPG is disturbing because it is meant to be.

"I've talked and written for some time about how games need not be fun to be worthwhile. This game is not fun, it is challenging and difficult to play - not technically difficult, but conceptually difficult. We need more of that."

Add Columbine families to those angry about the game.

"My initial thoughts, I guess, are that when people glorify murderers, they make murder acceptable," Rohr-bough said.

Columbin said he doesn't believe any video game should be taboo.

"Honestly, I'm not sure why video games are held to a larger degree of scrutiny than films, books, or other (media)," he wrote.

"The Palm d'Orre at Cannes in 2002 was Bowling for Columbine and in 2003 was Elephant. Why, then, ought not a video game be made of the same award-winning subject matter? The silence is deafening."

Richard Castaldo, who was paralyzed from the chest down in the Columbine shooting, downloaded and played the game after reading about it on a gaming Web site.

He said he wasn't sure what to think about it.

"It didn't make me mad, just kind of confused me," he said. "It kind of reminded me of that Elephant movie, but in video-game form. I think I get what he was trying to do, at least in part.

"Parts of it were difficult to play through, but overall, I get the feeling it might even be helpful in some ways.

"I don't think it's bad to discuss."

Read the full Q&A with the creator of the game.

Columbine records

• 2005: The state Supreme Court ruled that certain records in the Columbine High School case, which include videotapes made by killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were subject to release. However, the court left it to Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink to determine whether they should be made public.

• Mid-June: Sheriff's spokesman Jim Shires said a decision by Mink would probably come in four to five weeks.

• Input: Mink has sought input from the families of victims and from other experts as he has considered the decision. site map