[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]
On two strikingly communal and collaborative sides to the influential first-person shooter.
I could write a post about id Software’s Doom (1993) very similar to yesterday’s on Pac-Man, as Doom was nearly as innovative and influential in its own era and genre as the little yellow dude was in his. (To cite one such aspect that I won’t be focusing on in this post: the game was originally distributed through shareware, making it a very direct predecessor to internet gaming.) Indeed, having spent more hours than I care to admit during my first year of college playing Doom with and against (on which more in a moment) other residents of my dorm, I would be even more equipped (armed, one might say) to write overall about the game’s staggering popularity and effects. But I wanted to take a slightly different approach for today’s post, and to focus in more closely on two distinct but interconnected aspects of Doom, both of which in their own ways reflect the game’s striking communal and collaborative elements—and both of which have been frustratingly linked to critiques of the game and its first-person shooter ilk for inspiring (whether implicitly or even explicitly) acts of violence in the real world.
The first such communal aspect was a main reason why I spent so much time Doom-ing during my freshman year: the multiplayer mode known as “deathmatch.” The ostensible goal of Doom is to defeat level after level of swarming monsters using your array of weapons, and the game offered a “cooperative” (or “co-op”) multiplayer mode in which 2-4 players (linked through a shared network, such as, I dunno, in a college first-year dorm) could team up to fight those monsters as a unit. But that was only one of the game’s two multiplayer modes, and the other was the deathmatch, in which 2-4 players instead compete against one another, becoming their respective targets instead of the monsters. The deathmatch gameplay option became so popular that various corporations had to ban Doom entirely in order to keep their employees from devoting all their time to playing against each other. In my experience, Doom deathmatches were a great way to connect with my fellow dormmates and become better friends with this important academic community; but for critics, the chance to kill fellow humans (rather than unrealistic monsters) brought video game violence home to the real world in dangerous ways—a perspective that was seemingly validated when the 1999 Columbine High School shooters were revealed to have been avid Doom players.
That tenuous link between one of the first prominent school shootings and Doom was mythically amplified by a connection to the other communal and collaborative aspect of the game I want to highlight: the ability for players to create and play in their own custom levels, known as WAD files (“Where’s All the Data?”). The potential for such customization was a striking innovation, and became one of the most popular and shared aspects of the game for many players. But this aspect also became unhappily associated with Columbine, as one of the two shooters, Eric Harris, had apparently designed a number of WADs of his own (which came to be known as “Harris levels”). However, one of the key elements to how that fact was reported turned out to be entirely false: reports suggested that Harris had designed a level based on Columbine High and had used it to practice for the school shooting; but that was quite simply not the case. Here we can see quite specifically and frustratingly the way that violent video games in general, and this innovative collaborative side to Doom in particular, can be inaccurately turned into fodder for attacks on the games and their negative societal effects. Like any work of art, Doom can and should be analyzed and critiqued; but neither the WADs nor Doom overall are what gave us Columbine.
Last game tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?