January 8, 2007

From Slamdance Games Finalists

by Nick Montfort · , 11:59 pm

Dear Slamdance festival organizers,

In recent years, the Slamdance film festival has become a major gathering for independent gamemakers. We were honored to have our games selected as finalists for this year’s Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition, and were looking forward to meeting our fellow gamemakers, filmmakers, and other festivalgoers in a context where our work was seen as legitimate, artistic, and meaningful.

Recently, the festival has made the decision to remove one of the finalists, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! by Danny Ledonne, from the competition – after this game was solicited by festival organizers, chosen by a jury, and publicized as a finalist. We have been unable to find mention of any other film, game, or screenplay that has been pulled from Slamdance at any point in the past, making this an unfortunate first for the festival.

We object to this decision and strongly urge the festival organizers to reinstate the game in the festival. It is legitimate for games to take on difficult topics and to challenge conventional ideas about what video games can do. No game should be rejected for moral or other reasons after a panel of judges has found the game to be of artistic merit and worthy of inclusion in the festival. We find it very unlikely that a similar decision would have been made about a jury-selected film, and see this decision as hurting the legitimacy of games as a form of expression, exploration, and experience.

In November, we were very pleased to read this statement from Peter Baxter, the president of Slamdance, in a press release:

“Video games today are as important and influential as movies have ever been. The type and standard of creativity we are seeing at Slamdance Games is akin to the trail blazing days of independent filmmaking, a time that artists reacted with more imagination and against the generic fare of the movie studio.”

We believe that reinstating Ledonne’s game is highly consistent with supporting trail-blazing gamemaking. Keeping the game out of the festival would suggest that games are for kids and can only deal with kid-safe topics, that they are for amusement only and cannot deal with matters of importance, and that decisions about a game’s artistic merit are not as valid as are decisions about a film’s artistic merit. Please, for the sake of the Guerilla Gamemaker Competition and the work the festival has already done in support of games, offer to restore the original slate of finalists.

Sincerely,

Nick Montfort
 Book and Volume

Jonathan Blow
 Braid

Jason Rohrer
 Cultivation

John Baez
Tom Fulp
Dan Paladin
 The Behemoth (Castle Crashers)

Jenova Chen
Kellee Santiago
 flOw

Colin Fletcher
Ryan Thom
 Pedestrian Entertainment (Steam Brigade)

Jonathan Mak
 Everyday Shooter

42 Responses to “From Slamdance Games Finalists”


  1. Braid » Blog Archive » Open Letter Says:

    [...] « Flow has withdrawn from Slamdance as well. Open Letter An open letter from many of the Slamdance finalists, protesting the SCMRPG [...]

  2. nick Says:

    Everyday Shooter has also withdrawn from Slamdance.

  3. Aaron Reed Says:

    Wow.

    As an entrant last year, I have a hard time judging what I would do if this controversy had rolled around when my game was in the competition. On the one hand, it’s a serious affront to gaming-as-art and gaming-as-social-commentary that SCMRPG was pulled from the festival. I just heard from Joe Bourrie, a fellow competitor from last year who was on this year’s judging panel, and I can imagine it must feel like a slap in the face to have your decisions overruled like this, not to mention the author of the game in question. On the other hand, I wonder if all the withdrawals will culminate in cancellation of this year’s game festival, or even the event in general. Water Cooler Games seems to think it’s dead already, at least ethically, but I wonder if the creators of intelligent games should be so eager to sacrifice one of the very few venues for promotion and publicity of our chosen medium on the altar of unimpeachable morality.

    In the end, though, I’m not in the festival, so I’m just jabbering. I absolutely support each 2007 entrant’s decision to stay or withdraw. One of the things I felt at Slamdance last year was a genuine feeling that the artists were respected by the staff and organizers, not just a commodity but honored guests, the raison d’être for the festival–deserving of respect. If a guest feels he’s not being respected, he’s well within his rights to pack his bags and go.

  4. josh g. Says:

    via Arthouse Games, Slamdance has posted an official statement regarding pulling SCMRPG. Sadly, they can’t even bother to get the game’s name right.

  5. Jim Whitehead Says:

    Perhaps there should be a new contest created, as a protest? It might be possible to rent a hotel conference room during the festival to hold the alternative event. The controversy is bound to generate press coverage.

  6. Water Cooler Games Says:

    Updates on Slamdance Controversy

    I had originally begun to catalog updates to this story in my analysis of the situation last Friday. Since then, there have been so many updates that I decided to create a new place for them after the jump. As…

  7. Ian Bogost Says:

    Toblo has also withdrawn.

  8. Aaron Reed Says:

    This line they’ve been taking, in both the initial statement and this new “official” notice, that “[we] hope a choice like it will never have to be made again” is particularly galling. What does that imply? That the jury made a mistake this time and should be reprimanded? That in the future, festival organizers will be much more stringent about vetting each and every game or film so it meets their personal standards?

  9. Joe Bourrie Says:

    I find it very disheartening that Toblo has withdrawn… it is exactly what I feared would happen. I was in their position last year, a graduating DigiPen senior who needed the publicity that Slamdance provides. Withdrawing Rumble Box would have been a very difficult decision, and I’m not sure I would have had the cojones to do so.

    I spoke to one of the Slamdance organizers this morning and encouraged him to push for reinstating the game. Hopefully with enough pressure they will override Baxters (poor) decision. Until then, I hope the games that chose to withdraw will still get the attention that they rightfully deserve.

  10. milieu Says:

    How about someone quickly organizing a “Slam Slamdance” contest, and only accept games which have been rejected by, or withdrawn from the Slamdance competition? Winner gets…er, maybe a cool award image? I’d throw in some money for prizes if asked.

    Or, since I’m sure “Slamdance” is trademarked like all getout, call it “Slam Censorship” or the like.

  11. Kotaku Says:

    Developers Protest Slamdance Game Festival

    It appears the news we broke last week of Slamdance removing the Columbine game from their lists of finalists and why has created quite the shitstorm, for lack of a better word. Ian Bogost reports over on Water Cooler…

  12. Water Cooler Games Says:

    USC Withdraws Slamdance Sponsorship

    USC Interactive Media Division, whose students created last year’s Slamdance “design philosophy” winner Cloud and this year’s former finalist flOw, has just withdrawn their sponsorship of the festival. Says USC professor Tracy Fullerton: In some of…

  13. Steve Chiavelli Says:

    Joe,
    Thanks for your support. It was indeed a difficult decision to withdraw, especially with members of our team still looking for jobs.

    Hopefully something will have been accomplished by these protests after all is said and done.

  14. Grand Text Auto » Book and Volume Withdrawn from Slamdance Says:

    [...] nd Volume from the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition, for reasons discussed in the open letter I and other finalists sent to the festival.

    [...]

  15. Shadus Says:

    I just wanted to offer up my support to those of you who left the competition. I think you’ll see far more publicity and positive reaction because of the level of integrity you displayed than you would have ever gotten by staying in the competition, winning or otherwise. I’ve greatly enjoyed fl0w and Once upon a time so far and I expect I’ll find some more quality games that I’ll enjoy before I get through the rest of the list ;)

  16. Brendan Says:

    To all of you withdrawing: it’s sad, but I support you. Given the situation, it IS the right thing to do.

  17. andrew Says:

    Looks like higher-profile national coverage is starting.

  18. Joe Bourrie Says:

    @andrew

    Yeah, this is starting to become big. Of course, this is giving the Slamdance games competition more publicity than they have ever had and some believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity…

    I was contacted by a major news outlet to discuss it… I am very surprised to see that it has made it to the mass-market media. This might be a very good thing for us, and also a good thing for Slamdance (I still believe that it is a great outlet for indies and would like to see it succeed).

  19. andrew Says:

    This new Salt Lake Tribune article (the largest newspaper for the metro area where Slamdance and Sundance are held) has new quotes from Baxter that he received “legal advice” to take the game out of competition.

    That’s now the third reason we’ve heard for pulling the game — sponsors complaining, Baxter’s personal moral decision, and now the threat of being sued. Probably all three are true, I’m guessing.

    This is also the first I’ve heard that PC World called SCMRPG! the second worst game of all time. cool.

  20. Joe Bourrie Says:

    I will be discussing this issue on Chatterbox Game Radio ( http://www.chatterboxgameshow.com/ ) this Monday.

  21. Joe Bourrie Says:

    Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that he pulls out the most “reasonable” story after the first two have already been criticized? It almost feels as if he finally found a way to justify the decision, after the fact.

  22. JoshNichols.com/blog/ » Blog Archive » Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Says:

    [...] on of such censorship, other nominees decided to withdraw their nominations in protest. An open letter to the festival explains their feelings on the matter. Sup [...]

  23. andrew Says:

    There’s a great new Wired.com article by Clive Thompson on SCMRPG!.

  24. andrew Says:

    I’m kind of surprised there’s been nary a blogpost about how the SCMRPG! panel at Slamdance went, two days ago…

  25. Ian Bogost Says:

    I got some light feedback via email, but nothing concrete enough to blog. And obviously I wasn’t there. It’s a pretty insane event and not a lot of computer access, so probably in a day or two we’ll see some.

  26. nick Says:

    I found this article about it, but, similarly, didn’t have too much to add based on that.

  27. scott Says:

    Without having played the games, I’d say that of the remaining competitors, the prize should go the high school kids from Utrecht. Because they’re in high school. And because they’re from Utrecht. Futhermore, the game is titled “The Blob.” If there is a viewer’s choice award, I know what game has my vote. The Blob.

  28. scott Says:

    Correction. They are not in high school, in fact “Hogeschool” is a Dutch word meaning something along the lines of “college.” While they are not in high school, however, they are still Dutch, and their game is still titled “The Blob,” or in Dutch “De Blob.” So purely for reasons then of style and nationality, I still vote for “De Blob.”

  29. Ian Bogost Says:

    Hahahahaha.

  30. Patrick Says:

    I was there, I’ll have an in-depth Gama article on it, probably published on Monday or tuesday.

  31. andrew Says:

    Just to add to this thread monitoring the coverage, as Michael mentioned elsewhere, the coverage of the controversy has reached the NYTimes. Other than a little update on what happened at the festival itself, there’s little new information there, but it’s more national publicity.

    (We’re told that the writer, co-author of Smartbomb, wanted the piece to be a much longer piece about indie games in general, but it was trimmed down by the editors.)

  32. breslin Says:

    On a less-active thread, andrew writes:

    > It would have been unfair to the other finalists to have not pulled it, leading to the festival being cancelled.

    [later asking, perhaps only rhetorically]

    > would it have been better to have resulted in cancellation of the festival?

    I guess there are two questions, one practical and the other theoretico-hypothetical.

    The first (practical) question: “Would steadfast and reasoned defense of ‘SCMRPG!’ have led nevertheless to the cancellation of the festival, and (assuming that’s true) was this in fact the basis of the decision to force ‘SCMRPG!’ to withdraw?” I cannot say — not enough information — though I find the arguments of Ian Bogost far more convincing than those of Peter Baxter. A corollary question: “Assuming that it’s unclear whether steadfast and reasoned defense would prevail, (which is normally the case), would it have been ‘worth the risk’ to keep ‘SCMRPG!’?” Again, I don’t have enough information to calculate the risks. But the second question makes this irrelevant.

    The second (theoretico-hypothetical) question: “What are the conditions under which it’s acceptable to pull a game, when the existence of the festival itself is on the line?” The answer is, it’s never acceptable. If it’s unfair to the other finalists, that crime is being committed by the people who shut the festival, not by those who might have defended to the end what’s right. That’s what integrity means: one doesn’t have integrity if one is unwilling to make serious sacrifices for it. If the game were immoral in an uninteresting way — which is the only legitimate theoretical excuse for such censorship — then it wouldn’t have been there to begin with.

  33. andrew Says:

    Note that both my statements were said when it was originally reported that SCMRPG! was pulled was because the corporate sponsors solely decided they would effectively cancel the festival otherwise. If that were the only reason, and the festival organizers opposed the decision, then I feel their individual integrity would have remained intact, and I still would have (sadly) agreed with the need to pull SCMRPG! to save the rest of the festival. I would feel the overall integrity of the festival would have been tarnished, but not dead, and potentially repairable in the future.

    But, soon thereafter we learned Baxter had multiple, unclear reasons for pulling SCMRPG!. In fact today it’s not totally clear to me which reasons were the real ones.

    If the intentions of the festival organizers are truly forthright (ie, if the reason for pulling the game was solely due to external corporate sponsor pressure), then I would only blame their flawed procedure for accepting games into the festival, namely that they needed to give more thought to the pressures they might encounter; Baxter needed to be more in the loop, if he wasn’t… Festivals need procedures whereby they can totally commit to games once they’re accepted. (Hindsight is 20/20, of course…)

    Breslin, I agree that it’s never acceptable to pull a game, but at the same time, mistakes happen. In an ideal world, it was not a mistake to include SCMRPG!, since I think it deserved to be there, but in practical terms, it was a mistake. Again, if the reasons had been solely external for pulling the game, and they improved their acceptance procedures in the future, I could have gone on supporting Slamdance.

  34. breslin Says:

    I agree with you in spirit, but I don’t like some of the implications. (And we agree that it’s a hypothetical/theoretical question at this point, though nevertheless a highly relevant one.)

    I truly appreciate your flexibility and nuance, that questions of integrity, art vs. market, etc. are not absolute, and that finesse and sacrifice are sometimes necessary. On the other hand, integrity requires that one take a stand when the pressure is on, that ethical necessities always trump practical “necessities.”

    It’s easy to pretend integrity when the sponsors are happily enjoying the pretense of integrity for their advertising dollar. — Pretending to take a stand can pay very well. But actually taking a stand means doing what is right even when it’s impractical to do so; it means losing big from time to time — and coming back stronger, we would all hope. Indeed, had Slamdance done the right thing here, even if it meant the festival failed this year, they would have enormous loyalty for years to come, a geometrical surge in loyalty, both artistic and corporate: for they would have proven that they *do* have integrity, that in this context there is no such thing as a “practical mistake,” but only an artistic mandate.

    By contrast, pre-screening the entries, to prevent another PR fiasco, is just a way of building into the system this year’s failure. It codifies and insures that Slamdance/GGC is not the indie Mecca one would have liked to imagine. Now certainly there’s a place in the world for the “indie but not *too* provocative festival,” but I wouldn’t think to invoke the concept of “integrity” to describe such a creature.

  35. andrew Says:

    Yeah, I must have a touch more Spock than Kirk in me.

    Assuming the threat of going to court was the biggest reason for pulling the game, I’d guess Baxter would argue that if the game hadn’t been pulled, it’s not that the festival would have failed this year, but would have potentially permanently gone away for all future years, i.e. bankrupted by legal fees. (I personally find that hard to believe, though.)

    Also, don’t miss this extra happening that occurred at the festival.

  36. breslin Says:

    The court-threat is different from the sponsor-threat. As for the former, I would think the ACLU could be counted on to put their top brass on that suit. Plus, it would be one of those “you can’t possibly buy such great advertising” situations. So, ya I don’t believe/support that one either.

    But both threats are alike, in that they oppose practical “necessity” (expedience) to ethical necessity.

    Thanks for the “extra happening” — that Baxter character must really f*@#ing hate this game!

  37. breslin Says:

    Sorry to hog, but I really wanted to mention one more bit. I’m using yesterday’s NYTimes article, plus some related material (including the Ledonne’s artist’s statement ) for discussion in a Freshmen-level writing class. Today my students exhibited way more interest than I have *ever* seen before, especially this early in the semester, when they’re normally still being shy.

    As you know, the NYTimes article quotes andrew and mentions michael. Another of the related material quotes an interview with nick. And I’m just delighted that I’m talking about some buddies in my class, and the class is going unbelievably well to boot, so I’m just very happy about it. So there.

  38. andrew Says:

    Yeah, I could imagine games being a fresh topic that would get college students excited, whether it be game studies, computer science, visual art, what have you. I know I would have majored in it if it had been available in the late 1980′s when I was a student (I double majored in computer engineering and filmmaking instead).

    btw, Patrick’s Gamasutra article is up.

    Also, this week’s The Escapist is about serious games, and the first article discusses SCMRPG!.

  39. andrew Says:

    Arthouse Games has a follow-up article about attending the festival.

  40. andrew Says:

    USC had a follow up panel about the controversy, that Baxter was supposed to attend, but didn’t.

  41. Level Up Says:

    Scoop: More Slamdance Fallout–Five Finalists Withdraw to Protest Festival’s Removal Super Columbine Massacre RPG! From Competition

    After the news broke that the Slamdance film festival had pulled finalist Danny Ledonne’s Super Columbine

  42. Grand Text Auto » My Week in Review Says:

    [...] from Andrew, what I believe is the back of video-game-playing Michael’s head, and the open letter from me and other Slamdance finalists asking that the game be [...]

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