In the glory of their escapism, videogames sometimes cover up how much they workshop the structures that organize our own lives. Gamers and non-gamers alike should take seriously the opportunity games give us to reflect on them. Multiplayer first-person shooters are notorious for being a closed-off gaming community for those who have a more casual attitude towards games, or for those who want to try these games for the first time. DOOM, chock-full of delicious nostalgia, is a reboot of a game that is foundational to the genre of the first-person shooter, and warmly embraces those familiar with its legacy. My fear was that the game wouldn’t extend those same open arms to new players.
Before I get a round of “fake nerd girl” meme ammo unloaded in my direction, I’ll explain why I’m a DOOM newbie. Though I was a dedicated console-gaming tween in the ‘90s, my family’s shared Gateway computer never opened the gateway into the PC gaming world. For a long time first-person shooter meant little more than Duck Hunt, and definitely never more than slap-mode hijinks in GoldenEye 007 multiplayer. I knew of DOOM, but I never had the opportunity to play. I grew older and as gaming evolved, the multiplayer gaming scene grew more insular. The things that come like clockwork to old-school FPS gamers are awkward and strange to me. In theory I understand key bindings, but WASD quickly migrates to ESDF and I need to constantly look down at the keyboard to make sure my fingers are aligned correctly. I know that there are the visual cues and common practices for approaching a horde of enemies—creeping around a corner, dividing and conquering, etc—but I don’t have the schema to recognize them. When I tried Star Wars Battlefront, I was quickly overwhelmed by my much more experienced teammates and enemies. Counterstrike? Forget it. I spent most of my time floating around the level, as I used to when I got finished off too early in the Mario Kart 64 battle levels. And so the first-person shooter community seemed to replicate a common social structure: in-groups made of people who already have the skills and knowledge to be “in,” and outsiders who can’t break in because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn the codes and maneuvers that are second nature to those who are already members.
One of the greatest misunderstandings held by folks who critique social reform movements is that they think lack of ability and knowledge is about pre-determined, finite ability and knowledge. Ability gaps are actually opportunity gaps. Like the first-generation college attendee, the new gamer who never had the opportunity to learn the common procedures and knowledge of the gaming community takes setbacks as an indication that they do not belong in that community. And all too often, the community takes it as an indication of that as well. With the release ofDOOM I had to find out: would the quintessential first-person shooter make room for a completely new player?
When Doomguy hopped off of that Hell shrine, I discovered that this avatar of a gaming classic was also the perfect avatar of my alien status with the gaming world.
I set my campaign to normal mode, or “hurt me plenty,” because I figured that’s exactly the experience I was about to have. The words of the disembodied voice at the very beginning epitomized my apprehensions about the first-person shooter world, but also previewed the encouragement to come: “They are rage, brutal, without mercy, but you…you will be worse…rip and tear, until it is done.” With trepidation, I positioned my fingers on the controls. I felt about as naked and confused as the space marine is when he woke up. But when he put on the suit, I felt myself adopting his sense of confidence and total dismissal of the hierarchies and rules of the world that made him to be the alien among demons. The frustration and silence he exuded worked like a shield as we made our way through this foreign world. The “glory kill” mechanism also oddly relaxed me, reassuring me that I always have the upper hand when I get in my enemies’ faces. I soon looked forward to the afterglow of massacring a wave of demons and shared Doomguy’s apathy toward the comical level of gore. Though Doomguy may share the old-school gamer’s memories of donning his suit, I quickly saw that he doesn’t actually care very much about upholding those memories I never experienced. He fist-bumped and played with the secretly-located Doomguy toys with the same curiosity I had in maneuvering his own arms, guns and jumps. He smashed messages from the highly accredited in-crowd about how to properly make our way through the level. Doomguy doesn’t need their secret rules. Doomguy doesn’t care about making perfect headshots, successfully diving behind cover while bellowing out military adventure jargon. In eschewing the popularized tropes of the first-person shooter, he makes me feel both capable and at home in a strange and hostile land.
My realization that Doomguy is my perfect newbie avatar gave me courage to try my hand at the multiplayer mode, where my alien-ness is truly on display to the DOOM community. Instead of approaching it with a desire to achieve in-crowd status through fancy moves and high stats, I took my cue from Doomguy and made my way through the multiplayer arena with cold apathy and the intention of simply “ripping and tearing till it was done.” When the matches end I’m assaulted with experience, rewards, thrusting motions by avatars with winning names like “Thug Life” and “Twerk Stain,” and no explanation of any aspect of this finale. It turns out that the messy arena of multiplayer is just that for many in-group gamers as well: an uncoordinated mess of jumping into random matches with unbalanced teams lacking any kind of goal-oriented momentum. But when I think of myself as Doomguy in this first-person shooter world, I feel good to go. Do I need to customize my suit? Do I need to unlock custom loadouts? Does this space marine need Samuel Hayden’s help? No, we do not. We just need some ammo. Whereas many players new to multiplayer FPS games might be made to feel alien by the in-crowd’s casual tossing of the word “cunt” (particularly when they discover that I am female), Doomguy’s first-person shooter attitude can throw that intercom right back in their faces.
It’s not the job of all videogames to make themselves accessible to new players. But we should give props where they are due to a game that encourages us to think a little differently about alien status by asserting that newbies, even in all of their ignorance and rule-breaking, can be bad-ass too.
Molly Appel is a Ph.D candidate and a comparative over-thinker. You can find her on Twitter @mollyappel.