Lentis/Doom: Violent Video Games and Controversy

Controversy over Violence Before DoomEdit

The early 1990s saw an important turning point in the history of video games in the United States, especially in regards to how the industry treated violent games. 1992 and 1993 saw the release of a number of extremely controversial games, such as Lethal Enforcers, Night Trap, and Mortal Kombat.[1][2][3]

At the time, there was no unified ratings system for games, and it could be difficult for parents to discern the kind of content that a game would contain. [4] Even the same game could have vary wildly between different versions. Nintendo had policies in place that limited the level of violence and sex that could be shown in their games, while SEGA was much more permissive. As a result, the version of Mortal Kombat released for Nintendo's SNES console had significantly less on-screen blood than the version for the SEGA Genesis.[5]

On December 9th, 1993 the senate to held a hearing to discuss violent video games. At this hearing they hoped to gather the perspectives of relevant groups, including key figures from Nintendo of America and SEGA of America, as well as educators and other stakeholders. [5] Senators Joseph Lieberman, Byron Dorgan, and Herbert Kohl felt that with the holiday season approaching, the senate needed to act in order to curtail the level of violence and sex in games sold to children. [5] To demonstrate how inappropriate games were becoming, these senators showed video footage of two games, Night Trap and Mortal Kombat. [5]

Night Trap was a game that tasked the player with protecting a group of women from vampires.[6] Even though there was no nudity, the game was still extremely voyeuristic and not necessarily appropriate for children.[6] The senators recommended that Night Trap be removed from shelves, and SEGA ultimately complied in January 1994.[7] While Night Trap was controversial for its sexual nature, Mortal Kombat was chosen as a game portraying extreme violence. In Mortal Kombat, the player fights to the death with another character, and upon winning a match is told to execute a "fatality" or finishing move, which were often extremely graphic. [8]

ESRB Ratings. The current main ESRB ratings.

While the senators did not want to impose policies that might be construed as censorship, they felt that if the game manufacturers did not make the creation of a voluntary ratings system a high priority, then congress would need to intervene.[5] From this mandate, the rating body known as the Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB) was born.[4] The ESRB, formally started in 1994, rates games based on their suitability for different aged audiences.

The system was entirely voluntary; however, most major retailers agreed not to stock games rated AO and to check IDs for games rated M.[9] Additionally, the console manufactures agreed not to license their console technology to games rated AO.[10] As a result, AO games have extremely limited economic viability, and publishers have a strong incentive to avoid the rating. The ESRB is also able to use the AO rating to force publishers to change or re-release their titles, as occurred when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was re-rated to AO following the discovery of a hack that could expose sexual content in the game. [11]

Origins and HistoryEdit

The December 9th hearings on violence in video games focused primarily on games for home consoles, but on December 10th 1993, one day later, Texas game developer id Software released Doom for the PC, a game that introduced incredible technical innovation paired with a new level of violence.

After id Software released Wolfenstein 3D in May of 1992, most of the company began work on a sequel, titled Spear of Destiny. This left John Carmack, a software engineer at id, to improve Wolfenstein 3D's engine. Tom Hall, creative director of Doom, wrote the game's design document, which he titled the Doom Bible. Hall wanted Doom to tell a story, unlike Wolfenstein 3D; however, the other developers, specifically John Carmack disagreed. These disputes ultimately led to Hall being forced to resign in mid-1993. With Hall gone, most of the plans in the Doom Bible were left out of the game in favor of a more simplistic approach.

Technological InnovationEdit

Doom map format. Height changes were now plausible as a result of improvements in the engine, resulting in much more realistic environments.

The Doom engine heavily extended Wolfenstein 3D's, which resulted in extremely realistic 3D graphics compared to other games of the time. The new engine supported height differences, texture-mapped floor and ceilings, and non-perpendicular walls, which allowed designers to create much more interesting level layouts. The game allowed for dynamic components, such as platforms that raise and lower themselves, which made the environment more believable and interactive. While the graphics may seem primitive today, the stereo sound, shadows, and variable lighting created an atmosphere that many players found terrifying. Doom was also able to import custom content files, which allowed players to create their own levels and share them with friends. For many years after Doom's launch, a vibrant community continued to create and play these custom levels.

Release and Widespread SuccessEdit

Doom was released as shareware on December 10, 1993, and was estimated to be installed on more than 10 million computers by 1995. Doom sold 1.1 million copies between 1993 and 1999, making it the 8th bestselling game of that time. During the same time period, its sequel, Doom 2, sold 1.5 million copies, placing 3rd.[12] id software stated jokingly in a press release that Doom was expected to be "the number one cause of decreased productivity in businesses around the world". [13] The game had a large following among tech companies and universities, forcing Intel and Carnegie Mellon University to issue policies forbidding Doom during work.

An entire genre of games was made to emulate the style of Doom [14], at the time called "Doom Clones". One of the most noteable Doom Clones was Duke Nukem 3D [15], a shareware title released in January 1996 by 3D Realms. Duke Nukem 3D made over $7 million [16] and had very similar gameplay to the original Doom. In late 1997, the term lost popularity in favor of the more general term "First Person Shooter". This shift coincides with the release of Rare Ltd.'s GoldenEye 007, which borrowed many elements from Doom [17], but brought the genre from PC's to standard consoles. As Doom continued to be an influence in games, a developer of 1998's acclaimed First-Person Shooter, Half Life, stated that "Most definitely: we wanted to scare you like Doom did. Doom was a huge influence on most of us, and we really look on Doom as a brilliant achievement. It fathered the first-person shooter industry." [18]

Popularity of the phrases "Doom Clone" and "First Person Shooter" over time.

Upon its release, Doom was banned in Germany for "bloody sadistic" violence, and was relegated in adult-only stores [19]. In July 2011, the game was unbanned, stating that the game now only had artistic and scientific interest and would not be appealing to children.


On April 20th 1999, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado effected the then most violent school shooting in the United States. Harris and Klebold wounded twenty-one fellow students and killed twelve students, a teacher, and themselves. Groups from concerned parents to psychologists criticized everything from Harris and Klebold’s favorite bands to the prescription antidepressants Harris took. Among the hobbies criticized were violent computer games such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D[20].

Eric Harris’ passion for Doom was significant partly because numerous levels he created still exist. Though Harris created many different levels – including one that resembled the equally violent Mortal Kombat, all of his levels feature excessive gore. In a level named “Deathmatching in Bricks,” which Harris designed for player vs. player games, the player can see multiple different impaled or disemboweled space marines, some of which twitch perpetually on the pikes[21]. Rumors, which were later shown to be false, claimed that Doom levels mapped out Columbine High School and contained featured students as enemies[22].

Though Harris’ custom Doom levels were excessively gory, many otherwise normal players created intentionally violent Doom levels for the fun of it; Harris’ having created disturbing levels did not implicate the game per se. In footage Harris and Klebold made in the basement of Harris’ house, Harris states that the shooting will “be like [expletive] Doom” and shortly thereafter describes his sawed-off shotgun as being “straight out of Doom.” Furthermore, Harris named his 12-gauge pump shotgun “Arlene” after Arlene Sanders of the Doom novels[23]. Considering the custom levels, the apparent daydreaming, and the naming of the shotgun, Doom likely helped Harris and Klebold imagine killing their classmates. At the least, their references to the game help in understanding why violent video games received some of the blame for the shooting.

Aftermath and Modern DayEdit

Two years after the shooting, parents of the victims sued makers of violent video games. Filed on behalf of the slain teacher, Dave Sanders, companies named included Sony, AOL, maker of Doom ID Software, and Atari. Twenty-five companies were named in total. The lawsuit itself stated “absent the combination of extremely violent video games and these boys' incredibly deep involvement, use of and addiction to these games and the boys' basic personalities, these murders and this massacre would not have occurred” and sought $5 billion in damages. The case, however, was thrown out by the federal judge[24].

More recently, a California bill attempting to restrict the sale of violent video games to children under 18 was struck down at the Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court stated that video games qualify for first amendment protection. Though psychological studies suggest that the interactivity of video games separates them from television programs or graphic comic books, the legal system has established and confirmed precedent asserting that they are effectively the same[25].

In the wake of the tragedy, psychological studies done on the effects of violent video games begin to specifically mention Doom and its involvement in the Columbine massacre. Though studies on the effects of violence in video games on aggression and behavior were not necessarily in reaction to the Columbine massacre, those such as Craig Anderson’s “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts” contain specific reference to Eric Harris and Doom[26]. The continued reference to Columbine through as recently as 2008 in Chris Ferguson’s “The School Shooting/Violent Video Game Link” [27]suggest that Doom and Columbine have come to be the symbolize the relationship between violent video games and troubled youth.

Lessons from DoomEdit

The disparity between the way Doom's violent content was treated in Germany, and how Night Trap's sexual content was treated in the United States demonstrates the significant role that cultural values play in determining how products will be received. Doom's failure to take into account differing cultural values denied them access to consumers in a country that now has a thriving PC games culture.[28] Likewise, the ESRB leveraged how strongly Americans value free speech to create a voluntary review board instead of a government body.

The ESRB itself also contributed to Doom's success in the United States. While the game was not rated for the original PC release, its debuts on other platforms were, and the system's high success rate at keeping games out of children's hands may have kept the worst controversy at bay.[9][29] By agreeing to self-regulate and making concessions to the opposition before congress intervened, the gaming industry may have allowed games like Doom to release without fear of censorship. Furthermore, given that the courts protect violent video games and that the ESRB succeeds in informing consumers, the path to resolving objections over consumer products may lie in cooperation rather than legal confrontation.


  1. http://games.ign.com/articles/919/919357p1.html
  2. http://cheats.ign.com/objects/012/012402.html
  3. http://www.gamefaqs.com/segacd/920185-night-trap/data
  4. a b http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/the-needles/1300-Inappropriate-Content-A-Brief-History-of-Videogame-Ratings-and-the-ESRB.2
  5. a b c d e http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/52848-1
  6. a b http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/nighttrap/nighttrap.htm
  7. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-870489.html
  8. http://www.eyecrave.net/gaming/all-gaming-news/43-all/3132-mortal-kombat-retrospektive-mortal-kombat-1992
  9. a b http://www.esrb.org/ratings/faq.jsp#7
  10. http://www.gamespot.com/news/6172830.html
  11. http://www.gamespot.com/news/6129500.html
  12. http://www.hyw.com/Books/WargamesHandbook/Introduc.htm
  13. http://books.google.com/books?id=yyaxyKjyp2YC&lpg=PA161&ots=tCl9eAKES1&dq=doom%20deathmatch%20productivity&pg=PA161#v=onepage&q=doom%20deathmatch%20productivity&f=false
  14. http://bluesuncorp.co.uk/article/top-ten-doom-clones
  15. http://www.thecomputershow.com/computershow/reviews/dukenukem3d.htm
  16. http://www.shacknews.com/article/61747/3dr-teases-numerous-duke-nukem
  17. http://i.imgur.com/07A0d.png
  18. http://5years.doomworld.com/interviews/harryteasley/page3.shtml
  19. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14748027
  20. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-04-13-columbine-myths_N.htm
  21. http://acolumbinesite.com/eric/doom.html
  22. http://www.snopes.com/horrors/madmen/doom.asp
  23. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Transcripts_of_%22The_Basement_Tapes%22_of_Eric_Harris_and_Dylan_Klebold
  24. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1295920.stm
  25. http://www.nationaljournal.com/tech/supreme-court-strikes-down-california-s-nobr-video-game-nobr-law-20110627
  26. http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2000-08135-012
  27. http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=3e37981d-0e2c-49f8-8b8e-1d49fdfd1df8%40sessionmgr111&vid=6&hid=127
  28. http://kotaku.com/5832820/germany-loves-pc-gaming/gallery/1
  29. http://www.esrb.org/ratings/search.jsp?title=doom&fromHome=fromHome