The public policy lessons of ‘Doom’

Last week saw the 20th anniversary of the release of Doom, almost certainly the greatest first-person shooter game of all time, if not the greatest electronic game of all time, and indisputably the most influential game to hit shelves in recent memory. Even The Economist has devoted an article to praising the game for its influence on popular culture.

Doom deserves every letter of the praise it’s gotten. Its premise is about as mind-numbingly basic as storytelling can get: you are a futuristic space marine whose base suddenly becomes invaded by the forces of hell, which you must slaughter relentlessly. Yet if video games are an art form like literature, then Doom is the equivalent of Gilgamesh. It was an extremely basic but supremely well-executed early specimen whose influence can be seen even in the infinitely more complex art it has spawned. That complexity helped shape the video game industry and continues to shape it today.

But Doom’s legacy also carries lessons for public policy, which may become relevant given the resurgence of anti-video game sentiment in the wake of a rash of recent shootings. Below are three lessons that policymakers would be wise to take from the game that arguably created modern gamer culture:

Disruptive technology is at its best without regulation

One of Doom’s innovations was that it allowed players to design their own levels using the game’s engine. This was an extremely risky move. Even if the game itself had been pure sweetness and light (which it very much was not), allowing your average computer science goon to wield the engine left the creators no guarantee that, for instance, children wouldn’t inadvertently download an app that allowed them to perfectly replicate a school shooting if they so desired (more about this later).

What’s more, this open platform arguably went against the profit motives of the creators, id Software, especially when you consider that the game’s first chapter was (and remains) available for free. If players chose, they could get that first part for free and make their own levels (or download free ones from other people), rather than buy any subsequent chapters. It’s hard to imagine such a cavalier attitude toward the asset value of the game’s engine today. In short, the decision was both financially and creatively risky, and made Doom’s engine rise to the level of disruptive technology.

But this disruptive character allowed for boundless creativity on the part of the game’s users and for innovation within the gaming community itself. This same community offered id Software ultimately new talent for its subsequent game creations — the company’s creative director was reportedly hired because the existing design team liked his homebrewed Doom levels.

All this was possible because of a tolerance for risk and uncertainty. That tolerance stands in stark contrast with the special interest-driven, one-size-fits-all approach of Washington regulators. Witness, for instance, the FDA’s zealous mission to shut down sites like 23andme. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, conventional Washington wisdom holds that even the slightest chance that consumers might suffer from poor choices or that products pose any risk whatsoever is sufficient to conclude those choices and those products must be eliminated. Such an approach would have strangled the video game industry in its crib, and is probably doing the same to other industries right now.

Moral panic is almost always wrong

The Economist writes of the controversy Doom spawned:”The content itself was controversial. The game is famously bloody and full of satanic imagery, and it helped to start one of the earliest moral panics about the effects of video games on the young (the perpetrators of the Columbine high-school massacre, in 1999, were fans of the game).”

In news accounts that emerged after the Columbine massacre, it was alleged that shooter Eric Harris had designed a Doom level based on his school. There’s just one hitch. The supposed map doesn’t exist. While there’s certainly evidence that Harris had plans to design such a level, it has never surfaced, although other maps of Harris’ creation still exist in downloadable form today. It was a hysterical rumor that got blown out of proportion by people trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy.