The Rapid Retraction of a School-Shooting Video Game

… and what it says about gun violence in America today

A toy gun in an arcade
A boy plays a video game using a toy weapon. (Ariana Cubillos / AP)

Activists managed to quash a video game called Active Shooter before it was even released to the public, the culmination of a public uproar over what critics described as the game’s normalization of violence and glamorization of death. This, as it turns out, is not precisely the reason. After all, most video games contain violence, and in many the goal is to kill. What doomed this particular game was the setting of that violence and death—a school—combined with the particular sensitivities of the country at this moment in history.

Active Shooter simulates a school massacre, allowing the player to be a SWAT officer or the gunman himself. In the latter scenario, according to apparent screenshots of the game, the player-as-murderer wields a semiautomatic rifle while traversing school buildings in pursuit of civilians (presumably students and teachers) who are shown huddling in classroom corners or fleeing down flights of stairs.

This isn’t the first school-shooting video game to surface in the aftermath of a high-profile campus massacre. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! came a few years after the 1999 rampage in Littleton, Colorado, created by an undergraduate film student who said he designed it as a critique of how the news media sensationalized the shooting. In May 2007, just a month after the shooting at Virginia Tech, a 21-year-old Australian game creator released V-Tech Rampage, explaining in an interview at the time that he meant for it to be offensive and funny. Several years ago, the same Australian creator made The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary, though that time he claimed his intent was to promote stricter gun laws. Its release date was just a month shy of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre’s one-year anniversary.

Yet while those games similarly stirred controversy and were eventually pulled from popular distribution platforms or otherwise blacklisted, the public’s reaction to Active Shooter sets it apart. In this case, the game was removed from Steam, the largest online storefront for PC gaming, before it was even released to the public. By contrast, it wasn’t until a year after Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was released that it received major public backlash, thanks to extensive media coverage and a subsequent uptick in downloads. The speed with which Active Shooter’s demise happened is in part because of the new political salience school shootings have gained in recent months.

The outcry over Active Shooter—including from the family members of mass-shooting victims and at least one national education-advocacy organization—came to a head last week once the game caught the attention of major news outlets around the world. Last Tuesday, Valve Software, the company that owns Steam and was slated to release Active Shooter in early June, announced that it would no longer be doing so.

(It’s unclear who made the game. Valve alleged in a statement, which was provided to various news outlets, that the creator behind Active Shooter isn’t some major software developer or well-known production company but rather a Russian “troll” whom it had already banned from Steam for abusing customers and publishing copyrighted material. “His subsequent return under new business names was a fact that came to light as we investigated the controversy around his upcoming title,” the company told Vice. But, in an interview with PC Magazine on Wednesday, the so-called troll denied making the game and attributed it instead to another Russian—a 21-year-old self-taught developer whom he’d merely advised and assisted financially. That developer, who also participated in the interview and indicated he may still release Active Shooter elsewhere, contended that he casually started designing the game two months ago and decided to simulate a school campus simply because the 3-D model for doing so didn’t cost as much as that for other video-game worlds and environments.)

Steam dominates the PC-gaming market; by banishing Active Shooter from Steam, experts I spoke with suggest, Valve has nearly consigned the game to nonexistence. Even though Valve implied that its decision was motivated by business concerns and not political ones, the outcome was a victory for those who’d condemned the game as a callous affront to the growing population of Americans directly or indirectly traumatized by mass gun violence; an online petition that called on the company to remove the game from Steam had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within several days and continues to gain traction even though its demand has already been met. Many of the petition’s supporters echoed the myriad social-media posts using the hashtag #notagame to express shock that such a game was created in the first place, let alone initially permitted on Steam.

The backdrop, of course, is a nation in which many activists are more galvanized than ever before on the issue of gun violence in schools. “We have more visible activism around the subject of school shootings than we’ve had in many years. … For many of the kids at Parkland and Santa Fe, Columbine happened before they were born—now they’re the school-shooting generation,” said Danny LeDonne, who was a high-school sophomore in Colorado when the 1999 massacre happened and created Super Columbine Massacre RPG! in his early 20s, partly after realizing how much he, a loner who’d thought of hurting himself and others, had in common with its two gunmen.

“We’re moving into a space now where we have a different way of looking at and engaging with these issues,” LeDonne continued. “The fact that Active Shooter was removed before its release is reflective of a culture that is much more intent on trying to effect change” as well as the rapid-fire pace of news and media consumption.

It’s also reflective of how gun-control advocates and others today are navigating the school-violence problem emotionally. Many critics reacted viscerally to Active Shooter—asserting they had zero tolerance for any video game in which the player is an active shooter at a school on a mission to kill civilians, expressing a combination of shock and disgust, or concluding that Active Shooter would increase school violence by desensitizing players. Few of these critics analyzed the intent behind Active Shooter’s creation or debated the possibility of developing a video game that deals with school shootings and mass gun violence in a constructive way—a reaction that was reasonable given the information available about Active Shooter but that also shows just how raw sentiments have become.

LeDonne sought to do this with Super Columbine Massacre RPG! largely by designing it as a role-playing game that integrated satirical commentary, flashbacks, and primary-source materials such as actual crime-scene photos and eyewitness accounts, among other elements. The goal, he argues, was and still is to give players and the public a more nuanced sense of why the Columbine shooting and similar massacres may have occurred, and to debunk common misconceptions about the gunmen.

Many scholars who study video games emphasize the importance of giving users a chance to try them out before jumping to conclusions. “As someone who designs games for pro-social causes, I wanted to wait until I could play [Active Shooter]” before judging it, said Mary Flanagan, a professor of film and media studies at Dartmouth College who researches and designs games for social change. “I wanted to see whether it actually invests in a larger-picture view of things”perhaps whether its premise is similar to the one LeDonne described for Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Flanagan and other observers suggest that Active Shooter didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt: After Valve pulled the game, the self-identified developer acknowledged in his interview with PC Magazine that while he didn’t intend to glorify violence, he did design it to be entertaining. What’s more, his flippant approach to the whole fiasco—he was incredulous as to why a school-shooting game would be received so poorly and explained that he started designing the game because he was discontent with his “crappy” day job—indicate he gave little thought to its social implications. Then there was his half-baked attempt to recast the game as a productive critical-thinking opportunity, which came off as simultaneously disingenuous and nonsensical.

Several experts who analyzed the limited information they’d gathered on the game confirmed that to be the case. Reiterating the consensus among Reddit users and other industry observers, these experts concluded that Active Shooter is just another shoddy, hastily built game aimed at profiting from controversy.