The first person shooter (FPS) is a mainstay of modern gaming. From the yearly churn of AAA titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield to genre-benders and indie games like Superhot and Portal, it’s clear to see that FPS are big business. It’s been a controversial journey to the top. In an industry legendary for its insanely graphic portrayals of senseless violence, FPS have a reputation for being the most depraved and dangerous variety of games. This week marks the 25th anniversary of Doom, the game that blew the doors off the genre. As veteran gamers ruminate on a quarter century of strafe-strafe-shoot, there’s a unique opportunity to reflect on the cultural impact of first person shooters.
To most gamers, playing a FPS is relaxing way to blow off some steam. But to non-gamers, there is something terrifying about millions of young men stepping into the shoes of mass killers and mowing down legions of enemies. In a world where mass shootings have sparked a divisive culture war over America’s unique gun culture, FPS can seem as tasteless at best and enabling at worst. Sure, Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto have been lambasted for their shocking violence too, but these are third person games. There is a certain disconnect inherit with controlling a character from the outside. Yes, you may control the game but you are watching someone else do your bidding. When the game is first person, there is no denying that it is you who is perpetrating the destruction.
Doom wasn’t the first FPS but it defined the genre for nearly a decade. It introduced multiplayer to the fold. It pushed graphics to the next level, making players feel like they were part of a three-dimensional world. Doom ushered in a generation of modders and level editors who created their own custom versions of the game called WADS. Many of these individuals went on to successful careers as game designers. Doom was also the first FPS to garner major public backlash. The powder keg was the Columbine shooting, when it was discovered that the two boys who committed the heinous act were avid Doom players.
A false narrative emerged that Doom was the gateway drug of teen violence. Innocent children would be turned into psychotic killers from playing violent shooters as the thinking went. At the time I knew that this theory was patently absurd and all the evidence around the behavior of gamers conducted in the ensuing decades have supported this refutation. One study showed that aggressive games like football were more likely to bring out a young man’s violent tendencies than video games.
Disproving the game-to-violence pipeline is as easy as debunking the gateway drug theory. Does everyone who smokes weed become a heroin addict? Of course not. But those predisposed to be heroin addicts are gonna smoke some weed on the way to hitting bottom. Weed is a checkpoint drug, not a gateway. The same goes for FPS. My friends played as much Doom as the Columbine shooters and you know how many of us went on to become mass shooters? Uh…none. That being said, the kind of guys who think it’s a cool idea to pepper the school library with a few rounds and toss some pipebombs around the cafeteria are also probably going to play some Doom along the way. So FPS are part of the culture of mass shootings but they are not the cause or even the symptom. Doom is window dressing in the grand tragedy of America’s mass shooting epidemic.
A quarter century later, Doom lives on. The franchise is no longer the top dog in the genre but it remains relatively relevant. The newest entry can be enjoyed on a variety of platforms. You can play it on your PC like back in the old days, lean back on your couch with an Xbox controller, cart it around on your Nintendo Switch, or even experience the game in virtual reality on PS4. The original version continues to be sold on the popular Steam platform and the mod community is still at it, producing a steady stream of WADs every year. The website Doomworld even does gives out awards to the best WADs each year, sort of an online Oscars for Doom levels. Various modders have created higher-resolution versions of the game, including a fan who used neural networks to upscale the graphics. The original designer John Romero even announced that he will be releasing a new episode of the original game, a “Megawad” as they are called.
The hotly anticipated FPS DUSK was also launched this week (read my review here). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the game dropped on the day of Doom’s quarter century anniversary. The game certainly owes a lot to the granddaddy of shooters and its spiritual sequel Quake. It’s also indebted to some of the forgotten gems that emerged as part of the wave of Doom “clones” released in the mid-nineties such as Duke Nukem 3D, Redneck Rampage among others. DUSK is wildly violent and genuinely disturbing in many respects. It’s also glib and cartoonish, reminding players that despite all the bloodshed, first person shooters are pretty ridiculous and anyone who plays one and then goes on to perpetrate a mass shooting has problems that go way beyond playing video games. After all, video games don’t shoot people, guns do.