The Age of Doom

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DAVIS STRICK / REDUX FOR TIME

QUITE A SKULL SET: Carmack is the mind behind a generation of computer games

It was the janitor who showed John Carmack that the world had changed. In 1993 Carmack was working on a new kind of video game for a tiny company called id Software. He had written games before, but nobody except computer geeks had cared much about them. "I remember showing some people games that I liked on the Apple II," Carmack remembers, "and just having them sit there, completely not comprehending what could be enjoyable about moving these little guys around. People just did not get it." But this game was different. "We noticed that the janitor coming in to empty the trash had just been sitting there staring at the game — for a long time," he says. "The game had this power: it could affect normal people."

The game was called Doom, and the janitor was among the first of us normal people to get a look at the electronic frontier of the coming century. With Doom, Carmack and his colleagues had created a three-dimensional virtual world so powerful, compelling and disturbing that it would change the real world around it. This week id will launch Doom 3, four years in the making. It is, if anything, a little too real.


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In 1993 id consisted of six rootless dorks in an office in Mesquite, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Carmack, their programming ringer, was a 23-year-old who had spent a year in juvie and completed exactly two semesters at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Carmack is an odd duck: blond, skinny, with a fixed, unblinking gaze and a curious vocal tic — his sentences often end with an involuntary noise that sounds something like Mn! Despite his otherworldly demeanor, he is artlessly charming, although he does not make anything resembling small talk. It's not because he's too busy or aloof; you get the impression he doesn't make small talk because he has never heard of it.

Before Doom most games took place in flatland: they were two-dimensional, like Donkey Kong or Pac-Man. But Carmack figured out a way for the cheapo, underpowered personal computers of the day to create depth, to render three-dimensional spacea miniature theater, a virtual dreamworld in which the player could move around at will. "You could have fun with those old games, but it was more of a detached, abstract sort of fun," Carmack says. "But when you take the exact same game play, put it in the first-person perspective, and you go around a corner, open up a door, and there's a monster, like, full-screen, right there, you saw people just go aggggghhh and jump back. That's something you never, ever could have done before." With Doom the monitor screen became a magic rabbit hole, and you fell down it, screaming all the way. Mn!

Doom was packed with high-tech innovations. It pioneered multiplayer gaming over networks, online distribution and an open architecture that promoted user modifications. Today video games are a $7 billion industry, and most of them rip off Carmack's work in one form or another. The military used multiplayer Doom to train soldiers for combat. Architects use the graphics engine for Quake, Doom's successor, to explore their buildings before they build them. Doom and Quake have pushed computer manufacturers to make (and gamers to buy) faster, more powerful machines.

Doom had a cultural impact as well. Its fluid, hyperkinetic rhythms have become part of the visual language of movies and TV. "Kids can absorb information on the screen more rapidly, and they react to it much faster as well," says producer Jerry Bruckheimer (The Rock, Enemy of the State). "They also don't have the patience of older audiences, so we have to make our stories move along at a faster pace." The game was also exceptionally violent ("It's going to be like f___ing Doom!" one of the Columbine killers famously said), to an extent that shocks us and ultimately attracts us. We don't have to be happy about it, but five years after Columbine, it is no longer possible to deny that Americans passionately enjoy pretending to shoot one another with guns, and fears that such a pastime would give rise to a generation of spree killers have not borne fruit. Ignoring the mass appeal of virtual violence seems as pointless as wagging a finger at those darn long-haired rock 'n' rollers.

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