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Halfway into Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture From Geek to Chic, game programmer John Carmack buys a sports car. It’s a moment that has become a staple of the pop-millionaire fable: The mother who spent all those years imploring her child to stop futzing around with his computer, or basketball, or electric guitar, or tap shoes finally gets her comeuppance. Or, as Carmack—the taciturn graphics wizard whose first-person killfests Quake and Doom revitalized computer gaming—says, “It wasn’t until I drove up to the house in a Ferrari that I proved my point.”
A generation of computer geeks made the proverbial drive home in the Ferrari in the late ’90s, laying claim (simultaneously) to cutting-edge cultural radicalism, a new conventional wisdom in business, and untold billions of dollars. Though much of the tech boom was later revealed as tricked-up fraud, it spurred the rise of the disaggregated corporation and the emergence of a file-sharing ethos that threatens to ruin the record industry. And, quietly, it also nurtured a video-game industry that swamps the music and movie businesses for return on invested capital, with ambitions to usurp both as the dominant force in entertainment. Someone needs to write a book that tells this story.
This, alas, isn’t quite it. Former Wired correspondent Brad King and CNET writer John Borland have written a loose hodgepodge of thumbnail histories of trends, games, and gamers tied together by snatches of sociological rumination, most of it in praise of the community-building aspects of gamer culture. They focus on the handful of mostly adolescent male hard-core PC-game fanatics, sidelining arcade-style game consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony PlayStation, which have embedded games into the lives of a young generation, and let most of the broader business story occur offstage. Their intent is to show that gamers are social rather than antisocial, normal rather than deviant—which is sort of true and sort of not.
The book begins with the first computer games, written as a lark on mainframe systems in the ’60s, and the sci-fi and fantasy culture that intersected with them in the ’70s. It then episodically traces the evolution of gaming into the present—ranging through such characters as Gary Gygax, the originator of the seminal Dungeons & Dragons in-the-flesh role-playing game; the aforementioned Carmack and his partner at id Software, John Romero; and Dennis “Thresh” Fong, reputedly the greatest competitive Quake player in the world, who in 1997 won Carmack’s red Ferrari by “killing” him multiple times in a head-to-head Quake “deathmatch,” thereby proving to his mother and the world that one could make a pile not only creating but also playing games.
The authors follow the career of game designer Richard Garriott—better known as Lord British to fans of his Ultima adventure games—from start to finish, returning to him periodically throughout Dungeons and Dreamers. His trajectory and the book’s culminate in what are known as massively multiplayer online games. For King and Borland, these games, which allow players to interact with one another in imaginative worlds in real time, best exemplify the spirit of gamer culture. Existing MMOGs, including EverQuest, Ultima Online, and the Sims Online, already host virtual communities of hundreds of thousands of players; dozens more such games are currently in development. But in fact, there is an inherent tension between the games and online worlds that Garriott dreamed up and the killfests that Carmack and Romero pioneered.
Garriott, the son of an astronaut, began tinkering with computers in high school in Houston and wrote a commercial hit (which ran on the Apple II) called Akalabeth before graduation. Garriott quit college to start Origin Systems with a few friends in a loft above his parents’ garage, and he had a string of major game titles to his name by 1992, when he sold his company to Electronic Arts. The first third of the book tells this inherently likable story, of a bunch of misfits struggling to build a viable business out of their eccentric hobby.
As Broderbund founder Doug Carlston says, “You didn’t go to business school, you didn’t read the rules; you were just going to go out there and figure it out. It was a blissful ignorance of the real world that united everybody.” But such idylls never last long. Just as Microsoft imposed ruthless discipline on the general software market, Electronic Arts, which now controls the lucrative sports and movie tie-in titles, has come to dominate gaming, buying or squeezing out many creative originals. The new corporate structure cramped Garriott’s style in many ways, though he did manage to convince his bosses to let him build the first successful online adventure.
It was all part of the same trend, in which an anarchistic, libertarian culture gradually turned to brash marketing rhetoric. But freely distributed, open-source software is not a utopian dream; it is an inherently efficient way of developing shared intellectual property. (Witness the superior stability of the Linux operating system compared with the bug-ridden monstrosity that is Windows.) It is also genuinely subversive to the basic assumptions of commerce. You can’t make money by giving stuff away. The successful software companies either learned to stifle or exploit these communitarian currents.
Carmack and Romero’s id Software exploited them brilliantly when it released its first title, Wolfenstein
3-D, in 1991, not as a for-sale item, but as shareware—part of the game could be had for free, although you had to pay for the full version. But it was with the release of Doom in 1993 that id really made its mark. No other game has generated such enthusiasm and such hostility, from both within and without the gaming culture.
The mass enthusiasm is easy to explain. When Doom came out, it offered the fastest and most realistic depiction of three-dimensional space ever created, tied to a gratifyingly simple storyline: You’re in an alien world, armed with heavy weaponry, where you have to kill everything that moves. The Doom franchise pioneered networked head-to-head play, which permitted players to duel one other in virtual space, and the game’s designers released its source code to the public, abetting the rise of a culture of “modders,” who programmed their own twists into the game, breaking down the wall between game developers and players. A month after its release, more than a million gamers had downloaded the free version—more than five times Garriott’s biggest-selling Ultima game.
The hostility is also easy to explain. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold brought computer gaming to public attention by barking, “It’s gonna be like fucking Doom,” into a videocamera a few days before their killing spree in Columbine, Colo. (The authors don’t include this quote.) King and Borland offer a fairly balanced discussion of the ensuing controversy, which included congressional hearings on violence in games chaired by one Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Game designers, moralists, psychologists, social scientists, and other experts trotted out the expected arguments; King and Borland give sympathetic accounts of the more nuanced critics, along with the more thoughtful defenders of games.
But they ultimately miss the point, in a characteristic way. In addition to not including the Columbine quote, the authors neglect to mention that one of id Software’s famous marketing tactics included setting up a 10-foot-tall vagina studded with dildos at one of its game fairs. Rather lamely, King and Borland protest that a presentation of the violence in games showed instances of bloodletting “without any context,” as if there were any other context in a game whose object is to “kill everything that moves.” Other vastly popular titles they fail to justify include the hugely popular Grand Theft Auto series, in which carjacking and murdering prostitutes are among the goals of play.
Equally problematic, King and Borland write as if there were a single lineage from British’s adventure games, through the networked play of Doom and Quake, to the fully realized worlds of the later online games. This is true from a technical standpoint, but the advent of Doom and Quake represented a cultural shift away from games focused on storytelling, problem solving, and adventure—to a crude celebration of adolescent male narcissism, nihilism, and loutishness. Not surprisingly, it was not until the latter shift that gaming was catapulted into a mass phenomenon.
King and Borland are at their best when capturing the creative and participatory aspects of gaming—and the success of Ultima Online shows that this culture was not buried by Doom and Quake—but they miss at least half the story by their excessive emphasis on it. The book bogs down in rather bland retellings of the life stories of certain gamers, which catalog not only the games but also the computers they played them on, and often end with somewhat canned-sounding quotes. About one gamer who played in ad-hoc Quake tournaments, the authors saw fit to pose this rhetorical question: “Why was he spending his weekends with a bunch of increasingly smelly guys in T-shirts and on perpetual caffeine highs? It was simple. ‘It feels like home.’”
This rings false, and so does the book as a portrait of a subculture. One comes away from Dungeons and Dreamers feeling fairly well briefed on the facts about gaming and the basic outline of its growth, but missing a picture of the culture as it exists today. It is an awfully weird place, populated by very strange people, with a rather scathing sense of sarcasm, and a book that rendered this attitude better would’ve been a livelier read. CP