On June 4, 2015, six video games were inducted in to the Video Game Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. A cabal of video games editors, scholars, and other notables selected this first wave of inductees, which included Pong, Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, World of Warcraft, Tetris, and Doom.
Before the dust could settle, the Christian Science Monitor reported on anti-video game activist Jack Thompson protesting Doom’s inclusion in the hall of fame. This from Mr. Thompson,
“It’s only a matter of time before Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and Halo are in there. Obviously if they put Doom in there, morality is not playing a role in their selection process.”
Part of me wants to take this joker to task. I love Doom, and I won’t quietly abide somebody shitting on something near and dear to me. As a critic, I could argue for hours about Doom’s technical merit and the complexity of its level design compared to modern games (looking at you, Bioshock Infinite). Say nothing for its ability to spin-off mods and daughter projects from the fan base. If you’ve never played Brutal Doom, you should. Likewise, Doom is fantastic for its subversive use of Christianity imagery – something horror movies did for decades before I shot my first demon possessed UAC Marine.
There’s also the very simple fact of Doom being 22 years old, and we’re still having pissing contests about it. Do we need another argument in favor of this title’s significance beyond its ability to stay relevant for more than two decades? I think not.
Instead, I want to tackle the notion of morality that Mr. Thompson invokes in his criticism of Doom. The first and most obvious question, how is Doom an immoral game?
Asking the question invites a debate on the definition of morality, the likes of which could go on for pages, accompanied by endless comment threads of trolling and counter trolling. Who am I kidding, nobody reads this blog…except for you, mom. Hi mom.
Nevertheless, I’ll offer up a working definition of morality from Bernard Gert’s Morality: Its Nature and Justification.
“Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.”
In order for Doom to be immoral by this definition, one would have to demonstrate that it has the effect of increasing evil and harm in society. Alternatively, we could call Doom immoral if, through intention or design, it promotes evil and harm through a set of values. Finding proof that Doom contributes to harm while working within the confines of a public system applying to all rational persons sets the bar high for those out to argue for Doom’s immorality.
First and foremost, Gert’s definition of morality rejects any religious argument against Doom’s morality; as I submit objections to Doom based on Judeo-Christian (or any other faith-based system) morality do not meet the burden of being public or applying to all rational persons.
At the risk of being glib, an impassioned belief in the supernatural to the point of allowing said supernatural being to proscribe corporeal behavior is not, in this critic’s opinion, a rational thing. Moreover, denominational religions do not meet my understanding of a public system. Religion, by its nature, is an exclusive system built around semiotics and metaphors. That sound you’re hearing is the god argument going up in smoke like so many plasma burned cacodemons.
With the religious definition of evil and harm taken off the table, we’re left with a question of Doom’s morality as it intersects with the physical world.
At this point, we could easily be drawn into a quagmire of trying to determine the intention of Doom’s creators. Though I doubt anybody at iD Software created Doom with the goal of producing moral rules for the promotion of harm – a point I will return to in a moment – let us suppose those desires were in play. Yet if Doom exists to promote harm and evil in the world, research from Rutgers and Villanova would suggest iD made a complete hash of their endeavour. Gamespot paraphrased the results of Rutgers and Villanova’s study below.
“Annual trends in video game sales for the past 33 years were unrelated to violent crime both concurrently and up to four years later. Unexpectedly, monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults and were unrelated to homicides. Searches for violent video game walkthroughs and guides were also related to decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides two months later. Finally, homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games.”
Even if Doom had the intention to create harm – a highly dubious notion – it nor any other video game has managed to bring about widespread immoral actions like assault or murder. For the record, murder happens to be the primary action available to players in Doom.
As an audience discussing morality as a public system applied to all rational people, does it make sense to interpret Doom as the spectacular failure of a group of black-hearted maleficarum intent to ruin the world? Is it not more sensible to presume the moral objections to Doom, like those witnessed from Mr. Thompson, are better seen as taste-based objections (e.g. I don’t like this and neither should you) or morality as defined by a religious dogma, which likely fails at least one test of being rational or rooted in public understanding?
Assuming no outward ill-intent on the part of Doom’s developers, we’re left with only one course in exploring Doom’s morality: taking the game at its face value. On this front, Doom’s message is as plain as a shotgun to the face. Only a critical tendency to over complicate matters obscures the fundamental fact about Doom’s moral compass.
In Doom, a player’s foes are the very embodiment of evil. They colonize humans, turning the living into zombies. These infernal forces are beyond reason or compassion. They kill everything in their path. Should this horde escape the confines of Mars, they pose a clear threat to life on Earth. Doom’s protagonist “aka Doomguy” personally resists said evil. Indeed, he quite literally reduces the evil threatening the Earth each and every righteous shot of his plasma rifle. I submit the game’s moral code is clear: resist and reduce evil in all its forms.
Doom is certainly a violent, possibly frightening affair for someone not disposed to science fiction horror. However, the challenging nature of any work of art, notwithstanding propaganda, does not amount to a code of behavior so much as an expression from the artist. Likewise, Doom has not had the effect of guiding people to harm through exposing them to challenging imagery. At its core, the game’s narrative is about the reduction of harm to humanity, using force as an absolute last resort against an utterly inhuman enemy. When individual taste and morality parsed through religious systems are set aside, Doom presents itself as a perfectly moral video game.