The public policy lessons of ‘Doom’

Mytheos Holt Policy Analyst

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.

So, too, was the uproar over “satanic imagery” in the game symptomatic of an utter failure to grasp context. Yes, demons and satanic images appeared in the game (as they necessarily would in a game where the player has to fight his way through hell), but never in a positive light. Rather, they were antagonists for the player to destroy – a plot device which would fit right into explicitly Christian stories. In fact, the idea of a lone man surviving a graphic tour of hell, laden with the frightening visages of demons, comes straight from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Subsequent developers actually turned Inferno itself into a video game and unsurprisingly, it too is extremely violent.

Similar false rumors prevail today in the aftermath of other ambiguous shootings, especially the one at Sandy Hook. For instance, the rumor that Adam Lanza was obsessed with “violent video games” is untrue, unless you somehow count Dance Dance Revolution as violent. Rather like at the time of Doom, policymakers have fallen for these urban legends.

When senseless tragedies occur, all easy explanations should be given a wide berth, especially if they come prepackaged with overly convenient anecdotes. Skepticism should always be the watchword of policymakers at such times.

Age does not necessarily diminish functionality

As already established, Doom is 20 years old. In a world where most games have a shelf life of about as long as their graphics engine, the fact that it still attracts players today could be classed as a small miracle.

Despite that popularity, the sequels haven’t also been so successful, particularly Doom 3,  released in 2005. While the game was billed as a sequel to Doom 2, it really ought to be classed as a remake, with a more complicated story involving a renegade scientist and much more advanced graphics.

Unfortunately, while anticipation ran high, the game had been rendered unrecognizable. Time magazine noted of the original what made “Doom so great, and so different from today’s shooters, is the way it made players dance around fireballs and dart around corners, rather than landing headshots while popping out of cover.” Doom 3 was nothing like that. To quote popular online video game critic and video blogger Noah Antwiler, “but why do I say that it’s not Doom? Well that’s simple…Doom 3 is a survival horror game right down to its core, almost the complete opposite of every gameplay facet of the previous Doom games good.”

In other words, in attempting to modernize Doom, and force it to conform to prevailing trends, the result only highlighted where modernity fell short. Do we need a better metaphor for every attempt by Washington to “reform” massive systems that it often barely understands? From the byzantine legal entities spawned by McCain-Feingold, to the budget-busting Medicare Part D to the train wreck that is Obamacare, every “modernizing” law Washington passes either creates new problems or actively makes them worse.

This is not to say that nothing in Washington needs reform, but what policymakers could learn from the failure of Doom 3 is that often, in order to understand how to improve something, it’s necessary to first carefully study what must be preserved. In other words, the key to meaningful change is knowing what not to change.

Ultimately, like all great works of art, Doom speaks to all ages and the lessons of its creation and continued success are timeless. If a few of those lessons can trickle into the halls of power, perhaps it will be not just the demons inhabiting the Demos base, but the demons plaguing our politics, that will go down in a burst of BFG fire.