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These games really push our buttons

An increasing number of games are shoving at our comfort zones far more than “Grand Theft Auto” could ever dream of.

Danny Ledonne has been called a “disgusting and sick individual,” a “monster” and the “Antichrist.” The press has grilled him for three years running. His life has been threatened multiple times.

Ledonne’s offense? He made a video game.

Granted, the 26-year-old from Colorado created one of the most controversial video games of all time. No, I’m not talking about one of the “Grand Theft Auto” sequels. I’m talking about “” — a free computer game that lets players step into the black boots of the two teens who gunned down dozens of their fellow students at Columbine High School.

Released on the sixth anniversary of the massacre, the game presents players with a low-res gaming experience that uses material culled from Eric Harris’ and Dylan Klebold’s own words, media reports and police documents.

“‘Super Columbine’ allows players to confront the last days of these two profoundly misunderstood, angry boys through their own writing, their own testimonies and gives the player the chance to understand what it might have been like in their own heads,” Ledonne explains. “This game was intended to be a jumping off point for a larger discussion.”

But many people have taken serious issue with the game. Though the tragedy at Columbine High School occurred nearly 10 years ago, that day remains raw in the minds of many.

“You don’t gain appreciation for the tragedy by repeating it and participating in a recreation yourself and taking the role of murderers,” says Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, in an interview for a documentary film Ledonne recently completed about his experiences making the game, and the aftermath.

The film — which is called "Playing Columbine" and is now making its way around the festival circuit — includes interviews with the game's defenders and detractors as well as with school shooting survivors. The documentary presents Ledonne's argument for making his game and other games that explore troubling topics and explores the role controversial games play in our culture as well as the debate over their value.

“Super Columbine Massacre” isn’t the only game pushing people’s buttons. As game developers strive to grow video and computer games into a medium that offers more than just kid-friendly entertainment, an increasing number of games are shoving at our comfort zones far more than “GTA” could ever dream of.

From a game about a Jewish child’s escape from the Nazis, to a game about the Catholic church’s cover up of pedophilia among its priest, to a game that puts players in the shoes of a terrorist trying to kill President Bush, these games — often created by independent developers working outside the mainstream industry — ask hard questions, portray disturbing viewpoints and offer up gaming experiences that some people feel no one should ever experience at all.

“This is totally immoral and should be banned to everyone, especially younger teenagers,” wrote a reader calling herself Ms. Johnson in response to my recent column about “The Torture Game 2,”  a controversial Web game that allows players to torture a man-like person tied up with ropes.

But while some suggest that provocative and disturbing games have no business existing period, others believe that without games that push our boundaries and challenge our sensibilities, gaming as a whole will never evolve.

“I'll risk saying it: these are the types of games that truly elevate the medium,” wrote Steve Watts, a 26-year-old games enthusiast from Baltimore. “Those outside the gaming culture may not realize it, but games as a whole are taking a cultural shift right now, fighting between being ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ … I think it's only right to point out that some of the greatest art in the world is daring and tests boundaries.”

Playing Columbine
Ledonne, who grew up in Colorado, was a high school sophomore in 1999 when Harris and Klebold walked through Columbine High, gunning down students and teachers. The massacre had a profound impact on the kid who, not unlike the killers, was a loner and bullied by other students.

“I was looking at these two boys who I saw perhaps too much of myself in,” Ledonne says in the documentary. “To be honest with you, I was headed down something of a similar path.”

Years later, Ledonne — a film student fascinated by the way movies have the ability to inspire public discourse — decided to make a game about Columbine. He said it was his way of exploring this landmark tragedy, and an especially intriguing one since games like “Doom” had been blamed for the shooting.

After spending months researching the massacre, he launched “Super Columbine” as a free download on the Internet and, in doing so, launched a controversy. Some called Ledonne’s game a slap in the face to the families of those killed and an exploitive and unnecessary piece of violent entertainment. Others hailed it as sophisticated fusion of gameplay and documentary filmmaking and a ground-breaking achievement in artistic game design. Even those personally affected by the massacre weighed in with differing points of view.

But the controversy didn’t end there. “Playing Columbine” takes a look at what happened when ”Super Columbine Massacre RPG!” was implicated as an inspiration for a shooting in Montreal. The film also explores what happened when the Slamdance Festival — whose aim is to support edgier artists than Sundance — removed the game from its "Guerilla Gamemaker Competition" last year. (More than half of the festival’s developers pulled their games to protest the censorship).

Should games tackle touchy subjects?
As the film explores the ins and outs and ups and downs of making a game that treads on touchy territory, what Ledonne finds is that while movies, books, and even paintings are free to explore difficult topics, video games remain confined to something of a good-time ghetto — that is, it’s all fine and dandy if a game asks players to merrily save princesses or battle giant cartoon apes, but for some it’s inconceivable that something called a “game” should tackle controversial topics and provoke real debate.

“The controversy should be that there aren’t more games like ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG!’ that are as demanding and as artistically innovative,” David Kociemba, an art professor Emerson College, says in the documentary.

“Why is it permitted for Michael Moore in 2002, to make ‘Bowling For Columbine’ — a film essay on this subject — and to use far more graphic footage than Danny Ledonne does three years later in a primitive low-res video game? Are we really going to say that video game designers are the one set of artists that do not have the right to engage in contemporary political issues?”

But New York state senator Andrew Lanza questions the ability of games to explore such topics. "The question is, can you take real life tragedies and somehow turn them into educational games. You know, I'm sure it's possible, but I think it’s difficult."

Testing…testing
Despite the resistance developers encounter when making games that tread on taboo territory, there’s a growing number of games out there that provoke both ire and insight.

Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi-born-Chicago-based artist, was recently accused of promoting terrorism when he began showing his game “Virtual Jihadi” at art galleries. The game puts players in the role of a suicide bomber tasked with killing President Bush. But Bilal insists instead that he wanted to raise awareness about the civilian toll in Iraq and show that many Iraqis “have been forced by the consequences of the invasion to become suicide bombers.”

The Italian developers at La Molleindustria have taken a jab at the Catholic Church’s handling of the molestation scandals with “Operation: Pedopriest,” a game that puts players in the role of a Vatican task force charged with covering up for priests with a penchant for pedophilia.

Meanwhile, while a graphic novel called “Maus” depicted the lives of Holocaust survivors using anthropomorphized mice as the main characters and even went on win a Pulitzer Prize, when artist Luc Bernard recently announced he was working on a video game about a child’s experiences during the Holocaust, the outcry was immediate. Many insisted that a game could not and should not explore such a serious topic.

But Bernard disagrees. “I decided to do this game because the market is full of shooters that are about the war but don't focus on what a war really is. And that's the death of thousands of innocent people. To me the war is not a ‘game’ so I wanted to show the other aspect of war.”

One thing’s for certain, as game development kits become cheaper to buy and games become easier to make, more and more people are using games as a vehicle for expressing their opinions, agendas and even their darkest fantasies. And that means we’re likely to see more games that make us uncomfortable…and sometimes even mad.

Take “The Torture Game” for example — a game made by a 19-year-old living in South Africa. When we asked readers to weigh in on the value of his controversial creation, the response was loud and overwhelming.

Many responded much like Amy Fagan, of Charleston, South Carolina.  “I think this game is a disturbing reflection of the desensitization of our society. It saddens me that we have devalued human life so much that a ‘game’ has been made of unspeakably torturing another human being.”

Some, like Deano from South Dakota, went even further: “I think the government should secretly monitor this torture site and begin collecting data on the users who spend the most time on it. Maybe it would become a useful tool for future and present sociopaths. Aside from that, this game has no value whatsoever.”

But plenty of you said that even games as disturbing as “Torture” have an important contribution to make.

“They're really no different from our love of horror movies, our fascination with tragedy and murders, macabre literature like Shelley or Poe, or the cult of death art that grew into the renaissance,” wrote Jim of Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Each of these art and social forms allow us to delve into that forbidden yet fascinating part of us without actually hurting someone.”

For more on this topic see:

Winda Benedetti for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things or join her in the stream here on Google+. And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.