This was my first real foray into the world of super-violent computer games. Overprotective parents had restricted my childhood game consumption to innocuous titles like “Math Blaster” and “Wheel of Fortune: The Electronic Version.” I had surreptitiously played games like “Doom” at friends’ houses, but had never had the opportunity to become obsessed. In the waning days of 1999, however, deathmatching constantly and feeling a very real adrenaline rush each time, I could well understand how such games became so popular, and how id Software, which created “Quake,” became the definitive name in entertainment software publishing.
David Kushner’s Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture tells the story of id with admirable aplomb. Although the subtitle sounds hyperbolic, it’s basically true. In their bloody excess, programs like “Doom” and “Quake” reinvented computer gaming and gave birth to a generation of gamers who lived by the mantra that, when it came to guns, guts, and demons, more was definitely better. Kushner takes an in-depth look at the rise of id and the fall of its founding partnership, with sidelong glances at its social and political ramifications. The result is a breezily engaging, fascinating examination of an authentic cultural phenomenon.
Strangely enough, the story of id Software is essentially an old-fashioned, rags-to-riches tale whose protagonists are both named John. John Carmack was a juvenile delinquent, building bombs and breaking into computer labs at the age of 14. John Romero was an obnoxious egomaniac with an abusive stepfather. Both shared an affinity for games, which seem to have provided respite from the instabilities of their lives. “No matter what Romero suffered, he could always escape back into games,” writes Kushner. “The computer felt like a revolutionary tool: a means of self-empowerment and fantasy fulfillment.” For eager young minds with little connection to the real world, it was a small step from playing these games to writing their own.
When Carmack and Romero met in Louisiana in 1989 at a software company called Softdisk, computer gaming was still in a relatively embryonic state. By modern standards, pioneering games like “Zork” and “King’s Quest” suffered from a surfeit of plot and a dearth of graphics, and were limited in their capabilities by the inadequacies of the programming. The two Johns soon realized that, given the time and the resources, they could offer better, more ambitious product. Working after hours at Softdisk with some like-minded friends, they soon made a coding breakthrough that replicated the side-scrolling graphical action–a constant redrawing of background scenery that creates the illusion of horizontal movement–found in games made for the popular Nintendo console. With this accomplishment under their belts, they bolted Softdisk to found their own company, the aptly named id Software. Their first offering, “Commander Keen,” succeeded immediately. “Keen,” an innocuous space adventure that featured their side-scrolling graphical engine and a smart sense of humor, was hailed as one of the best, most original games of the year.
Yet it wasn’t until the release of “Wolfenstein 3-D” in 1991 that gamers saw what the guys at id were really capable of. In the planning stages, writes Kushner, “Wolfenstein had taken on two imperatives: it would be brutal, as originally imagined by Romero, and it would be fast, as engineered by Carmack.” It was both. Indeed, “Wolfenstein” was a heart-pounding race through the corridors of a Nazi castle. Chased by dogs, guards, and zombie fascists, players moved through levels killing Nazis and collecting treasure in pursuit of the ultimate goal of killing Hitler. “Wolfenstein” was violent. It was unlike anything gamers had ever seen. And they ate it up. Id’s offices were bombarded by checks and congratulatory phone calls. Computer Gaming World called it “a peek at part of interactive entertainment’s potential for a sensory immersed virtual future.”
Carmack and Romero were actively working toward the realization of that future. The duo became known as “Engine John and the Surgeon”–Carmack the engineer wrote the innovative code that powered the games, while Romero the surgeon sewed the game up and made it all come together. But along with mastering the art of programming games, id had also mastered the business end of things. By licensing their proprietary engines to other game companies and distributing their games not in stores but through online servers and a sort of mail-order system called shareware, id minimized costs and maximized profits. The company’s business savvy made it profitable from the start. Its technical prowess and imagination won it cult status in the gaming community. And both profits and popular acclaim would explode into space upon the release of “Doom” in December 1993.
Everything about “Doom” blew “Wolfenstein 3-D” out of the water–its graphics, its gore, its scope. “Doom” was “Wolfenstein” on steroids, with demons instead of Nazis, set in Hell instead of Germany. Guided by only the barest outline of a plot, players were set loose in dark, subterranean corridors, blasting monsters with gleeful abandon. While parent groups and politicians complained, gamers lapped it up, buying millions of copies and making “Doom” the most successful computer game ever, while simultaneously anointing Carmack and Romero the standard-bearers for a new generation weaned on speed and violence.
After “Doom,” writes Kushner, it became increasingly apparent that “games were the new rock n’ roll, and the guys at id, the new rock stars.” But it was this rock star ethos that eventually tore the company apart. Carmack and Romero had become rich and relatively famous. Both men, still in their 20s, handled these developments in characteristically different ways. The gregarious Romero constructed a pre-pubescent Playboy Mansion with “milk crates overflowing with games, crystal bowls of multicolored M&M’s, video game music blasting from the speakers.” Carmack, on the other hand, spent his money trying to build a rocket to the moon. With success, the personality differences between the two men grew more pronounced. As Carmack retreated into his shell, working 80-hour weeks and gradually losing contact with humanity, Romero carried on like David Lee Roth, wearing tight mesh shirts and making brash claims about id’s future projects. It soon became apparent that Romero was working less and boasting more, and the rift between the two Johns grew wider until Romero was unceremoniously fired in 1996.
Romero went on to found Ion Storm, a short-lived company noted more for its sybaritic offices and sweeping boasts than for quality games. Carmack, whom Kushner portrays as gradually becoming more robot than human, was content to keep tweaking and improving his graphical engines. To him, technical accomplishment was everything, plot and storyline next to nothing. With Carmack now the de facto head of id, the company focused on putting out variations on the same game, rendering these new worlds as realistically as possible, yet giving little thought to their qualitative content–a posture which seems a telling metaphor for the entire game craze.
The difference between the public’s perception of id’s brand of games and the tech world’s is one of the key conflicts in Masters of Doom. Carmack and Romero saw “Doom” and its brethren as escapist worlds unto themselves, with little correlation to reality. But the general public has historically sought to ascribe practical consequences to computer simulations. Thus it was perhaps inevitable that while gamers and tech enthusiasts hailed id’s programming feats, and considered its games harmless escapism, millions of parents worried that their children were not only wasting their time, but being seduced into violent acts. Much was made, for instance, of the fact that the Columbine killers had been “Doom” afficionados.
Kushner presents both sides of this dispute, wisely refraining from making value judgments. Yet he hints at the intriguing possibility that the broader significance of games and gaming–if indeed there is one–can perhaps be found not in the effect games have on players, but in the development of the computer industry itself. Michael A. Dennis, once a professor of science and technology studies at Cornell University and a specialist in the history of computing, notes that, “Gamers are always first adopters of the latest technology” and are at least partially responsible for driving the frenzied pace of computer progress. If nothing else, games like “Wolfenstein” and “Doom” gave birth to a new generation of computer users who demanded more of technology than any generation before. So perhaps it would be better to think of the gaming community as an online MIT for the most disaffected among the best and brightest–increasing their technical knowledge while simultaneously prodding the industry to produce better, faster machines. It’s a debatable theory, but one that implies that, rather than being the destructive influence that moralizers so frequently complain of, id’s games are instead making a demonstrable positive contribution to society.
It’s an interesting argument–one of several larger lessons that discerning readers will draw from Masters of Doom. Many of these ideas deserved further exploration; for example, the fact that so many of the book’s protagonists hail from similarly unhappy childhoods, and also that today’s mainstream, mass-marketed violent fantasies seem to have largely sprung from misplaced wish fulfillment and aggression in the minds of the isolated and socially maladroit. I also would have liked to see a better treatment of the rise of the online communities that surrounded “Doom” and “Quake.” Nevertheless, as a well-researched glimpse into the eye of the gaming storm, Kushner’s smart, readable book ably fills a void that future authors would be well advised to build on.