How "Doom" Was the Harbinger of the Social Media Age

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May 13 2016

How “Doom” Was the Harbinger of the Social Media Age

May 13th, 2016

Today sees the release of the long-anticipated reboot of id Software’s legendary Doom series. While hype and controversy around video games is common, Doom is the grandaddy of such stuff. It’s arguable that now-familiar issues around video game addiction (currently under consideration for inclusion as a condition in the DSM), online play and violence really took off in 1993, with the launch of the original, seminal Doom.

Back then, the eccentric John Romero led a small, young team of developers. Inspired by heavy metal music and action movies like Aliens, they began work on what is perhaps the most significant and controversial title in gaming history. The graphics engine that Doom ran on, id Tech 1, took a dimensional leap by being able to mimic 3D objects with 2D renderings. This creative use of very limited graphics technology was a game-changer, heralding what was then called the “Doom Clone” —now simply known as the “first-person shooter.” Driven by brilliant creativity, violence and addictiveness, video gaming has since turned into a multi-billion dollar industry that dwarfs Hollywood.

Thematically, Doom was born of the early-’90s zeitgeist that brought dark, strange subject matter to music, television shows and movies. Nirvana, Aeon FluxBeavis and Butthead, and Pulp Fiction were all Doom‘s siblings. Its simple tale of a lone space marine blasting his way through the Legions of Hell with a shotgun immediately struck a chord.

The developers said then that they hoped it would become “the number one cause of decreased productivity in businesses around the world.” They didn’t fall far short. While Doom‘s creative leaps were a huge factor, what really sucked people into its world was the ability to play online, a practice had yet to hit critical mass before the title’s release. Online gamers—and I should know; I am one—have a well-earned reputation for obsession. World of Warcraft has a particular reputation as a life-devourer, for which it has been hilariously mocked on South Park. Many kids now spent thousands of hours playing Halo and Call of Duty online. In one case, an online gamer in China died in an internet cafe after a 19 hour-long stint of World of Warcraft without attending to his physical needs. Looking back from today’s world of social media addiction and online childhoods, it’s clear that Doom‘ was a significant forebear of our times.

The increasingly violent nature of entertainment became a huge political issue during the internet decade, with politicians going after hip-hop, heavy metal and, of course, video games. Doom has been blamed for everything from Columbine to terrorism. Dylan Kleibold and Eric Harris, who massacred their classmates at Columbine, were both huge fans of Doom. People were widely asking themselves if interactive media could cause desensitization to violence and turn kids into sociopaths.

One result of early 90s scrutiny was the ESRB rating system, which is similar to the ratings attached to motion pictures. But a decade after the government tried to crack down on Doom, the US Army began releasing violent games as a recruiting tool. Unlike John Romero who released much of his materiel for free, the Army charged players for their own “doom clone” called simply “America’s Army.” Meanwhile most of the original developers have been pushed out of id Software, denied a full share of the massive loads of cash the company has raked in.

This doesn’t seem to bother John Romero too much; he continues to work on video games, even producing his own lower-budget titles while the industry he largely created turns into a corporate behemoth.