Noah Brier | July 27, 2021

The It Runs Doom Edition

On video games, open source, and the magical evolution of technology

Noah here. If you were a kid playing video games in the 1990s, you almost certainly remember Doom, the 1993 sequel to Wolfenstein 3D. It was a first-person shooter that drops you in a post-apocalyptic world to fight demons invading from hell. It’s still a classic of the genre and probably responsible for a significant amount of the aesthetic of modern video games. And, as video game philosopher Ian Bogost argues, much of this look and gameplay was out of necessity for Doom and its contemporaries:

Real-time 3-D worlds are harder to create than it seems, especially on the relatively low-powered computers that first ran games like Doom in the early 1990s. It helped to empty them out as much as possible, with surfaces detailed by simple textures and objects kept to a minimum. In other words, the first 3-D games were designed to be empty so that they would run.

An empty space is most easily interpreted as one in which something went terribly wrong. Add a few monsters that a powerful player-dude can vanquish, and the first-person shooter is born. The lone, soldier-hero against the Nazis, or the hell spawn, or the aliens.

Why is this interesting?

In addition to the aesthetic, there’s another design choice that has given Doom serious lasting power. In 1997, id Software, the makers of Doom, released the game’s source code. As a result, folks have spent the last two decades making Doom run on anything and everything.

The list includes: 

doom on a pregnancy test

Why? Like a lot of things on the internet, the better question is, “why not?” More interesting than the litany of devices it runs on, may be the reason it’s available at all. From Motherboard

Doom is largely compatible with other devices because id Software wanted it to be. After the success of their previous hit, Wolfenstein 3D, id found porting a DOS-designed game to other platforms incredibly taxing and decided that its next game should be more flexible in its code. id Software released Doom's source code to the public in 1997 for reuse, albeit the Linux version due to copyrighted sounds in the original.

A big part of the story here is obviously the massive increase in the computing power of every device in our lives. What in 1993 was a cutting-edge game is now able to be run on chips people literally throw away. All of this fits in very nicely into W. Brian Arthur’s evolutionary theory of technology, which basically says what we do with technology as it matures is shrink and cheapen it, enabling it to become components in other tech. I can think of few better examples than humanity’s never-ending pursuit to run Doom on everything. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) 

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