Coopted Access: The Rise of the Shooter in Video Game Design

This post revolves around a series of paradoxes. Within the realm of information technology, access often is understood as something that should be promoted. However, within the realms of information technologies, increased access often has led to increased centralization. For example, the shooter, a minor video game genre prior to the early 1990s, is now being incorporated into an increasing number of other game genres. How was this rise to dominance1 accomplished, to the point where shooters are held up as the definitive example of video games in popular news media, considering that other designs were firmly established by the time shooters made their appearance?

A standard history of shooters maintains that they were invented in 1992 (Yang, 2012). However, prior to this date shooters did exist. An analysis of the abandonware2 repository Home of the Underdogs (HOTU) demonstrates that shooters did exist at least as early at 1989 but the repository contains no examples of shooters prior to this date (Home of the Underdogs, n.d.-a, n.d.-b). In fact, from 1980 to 1997, the two game genres most widely represented are role-playing games and action adventure games (Home of the Underdogs, n.d.-a, n.d.-b) , two genres still popular today.

The common understanding of how the shooter genre developed involves a lone team that created a game that became wildly popular, which caused a multitude of similar game designs to spawn. Within this history, Wolfenstein 3D, considered to be the first shooter (Gamasutra, 2010), and Doom, which introduced multiplayer gaming to the budding genre (Gamasutra, 2010) are held up as the beacons around which shooters originated. The market success of these two games caused their design to be imitated by other designers who oftentimes used the very tools their producers developed (Cook, 2009).

However, when understood as part of the history of information and communication technologies, taking a look at the history of the shooter allows us to see that their current situation was not simply a matter of market forces and genius programming. Rather, it involves an interplay between the increasingly militarization of society (Lenoir & Lowood, 2005; Lenoir, 2000) – and information technologies in particular – and the ethics and politics of access that have long been a part of information and communication technology discourses. The history of the shooter genre allows us to see how the ethics and politics of access are cooptable by corporate and military discourses. It allows us to understand how these ethics and politics are produced and reproduced historically.

Id Software, John Carmack and the Ethic of Access

Crucial to the standard history of shooters is the role of id Software, founded in 1991 by John Carmack, Tom Hall, Jon Romero, and Adrian Carmack (North Texas Business, 2009). Id Software subsequently rose to become one of the leading game development studios in the video game industry (id Software, n.d.). However, how was this rise accomplished? Often, id Software’s success is explained in terms of its technological and design innovations (id Software, n.d.), such as the use of modular WAD files (Yang, 2012). However, I will explore how a certain ethic of access promoted by John Carmack, id Software’s lead programmer, allowed id Software’s game designs to influence subsequent game designers.

Access is an ever present issue in the world of information technology. One organization that makes access its priority is the Free Software Foundation3 (FSF). The FSF defines four essential freedoms that should be available to all:

The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0)[;]
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this[;]
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2)[;]
The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this” (Free Software Foundation, 2013).

Carmack possesses a long history of association and support for the FSF. As early as 1998, he mentions his desire to donate money to the FSF – a desire that had been present “for a long time” (Carmack, 1998) – because id Software had benefited from many programs that were developed by the FSF (Carmack, 1998). In 1999, Carmack was involved in doing some work on projects sponsored by the FSF (Carmack, 1999a). While he mentions that he does not necessarily subscribed to all the dogma of the FSF (Carmack, 1998), the organization’s ideology has helped influence Carmack’s outlook. For example, in an interview with Apple in 2009, Carmack stated that “[t]here are many university research projects, proof of concept publisher demos, and new platform test beds that have leveraged the code. Free software that people value adds wealth to the world” (Cook, 2009).

Carmack also has been known to publicly take a stand against the patenting of game technologies, to the point where he has stated he would resign from id Software if the company ever pursued any patents (Carmack, 1999c). This ethic was originally present in the form of an open source ethic when Carmack released the source code of Wolfenstein 3D in 1996 (id Software, 1996) and of Doom in 1997 (Carmack, 1997a).

Carmack’s ethic of access had several important effects. First, it impacted the distribution method of id Software’s early games. Wolfenstein 3D was distributed through a method known as shareware, where a portion of the game is released into the public domain, and copies can be obtained and played freely until certain conditions are met; in Wolfenstein 3D‘s case, the first ten levels of the game were freely playable (Antoniades, 2009). Second, id Software includes with its games the tools used for the creation of the game, such as map and level editors (Carmack, 2002). This allowed young game players to access id Software’s games and familiarize themselves with their design, which aspiring game designers were able to study more closely after the source codes for Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were open sourced.

Carmack’s ethic of access has been present within modern information technologies for a very long time. This ethic did not begin with the silicon chip. Rather is it evolved and transformed itself as the information technologies changed. From as early as the first telephones to mail-order catalogs and the eventual networking of the entire world, and ethic of access has existed throughout the history of information technologies since the turn of the twentieth century.

The Ethic of Access Through Time

In Consumers in the Countryside, Ronald Kline (2000) tells us about the arrival of the telephone into the American countryside in the early twentieth century. Rather than being – at first – dominated by large corporations, the rural telephone systems were administered locally. This allowed the local residents to control the kind of access they wished to have. The ethic of access that accompanied the spread of the telephone throughout rural America took many forms: telephone cooperatives were formed to alleviate the start-up cost of the telephone network; telephone lines were extended to the properties of those who subscribed to the cooperative; the metal wire of existing fences was even used in some cases as a means to transport the telephone signals.

This ethic of access that came with the telephone allowed it to insert itself into existing forms of communication. For example, Kline (2000) tells us how the rural practice of ‘visiting’, where one drops in on neighbors in order to gossip and catch up on the news, was transformed with the arrival of the telephone. Rather than physically transporting themselves over to their neighbor’s farm, early rural telephone users developed the habit of eavesdropping on the communal telephone lines that were used. The ethics and politics of access that came with the telephone technology allowed for its incorporation into existing cultural practices.

This ethic of access present in the early telecommunication technologies did not disappear. Rather, it took on a different shape as it interacted with existing social movements. For example, the 1960s saw the appearance of what Fred Turner (2006) has called the New Communalists who promoted and ethic of deregulation and community in the form of a ‘back to the land’ movement. According to Turner (2006), this counterculture eventually led to the appearance of a cyberculture, and one of the key moments in this transformation was the role played by the Whole Earth Catalog.

The Whole Earth Catalog acted as a sort of meeting point for the 1960s New Communalist counterculture. It featured products that were ‘acceptable’ within the New Communalist ethos as well as reviews by the members themselves. The Catalog was an accessible entry point into the ‘back to the earth’ movement. After the demise of the Catalog, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) was established online (Turner, 2006). The WELL became the focus point for the New Communalist ethos online. Modeled after the Whole Earth Catalog, the WELL allowed people to access the knowledge and ideas of others. The idea was to make such resources and networks accessible to a wider audience by putting them out in the open where anyone could find them.

Networking is an important player in the next stage of accessibility in information technologies. Manuel Castells (2000) argues that, now, human societies are network societies. Within such societies, a new information technology paradigm exists that acts at the core of all processes (Castells, 2000). This paradigm is characterized by, among other things, its network logic and flexibility (Castells, 2000). Now, Castells argues, information is a product and organizational forms are geared towards its propagation and management. The network logic and flexibility of the information technology paradigm allows unprecedented access to the information that is being produced and managed. An increasing number of nodes are connected to the global network Castells describes, which allows the produced information to flow into areas that were previously closed to it.

The ethic of access present in various forms of information technologies acts as a gateway into other networks. By remaining open and flexible, networks are able to transform themselves by incorporating new and different nodes into their own constitution. The ethic of access is what allows networks to expand and connect to one other. It is what allows, as Castells (2000) describes, allows an economy based on the production, management and distribution of information.

Video Game Engine Licensing and Distribution

The ethic of access is also present within the realm of the latest forms of digital entertainment. The ethic of access present with the early shooter designers is especially relevant to the issue of licensing. Shooters are well-known for a portion of their code called the game engine4. While most games incorporate a game engine in some way, shooter game engines are especially noteworthy because of the way they are extensively licensed and shared between companies; many companies that create game engines license them to other companies. This allows games to be developed more quickly because large portions of the code do not have to be recreated from nothing (Carmack, 1997c). However, acquiring a license for a game engine can be expensive. In the early years of shooter design and development, a licensing fee of half a million dollars was not uncommon (Carmack, 1997b).

However, the choice of which license to attach to the game engine is a political one (Carmack, 1999b). Different licenses have different requirements and restrictions. For example, the standard copyright is a license that does not allow unauthorized reproductions of the licensed product. One popular license that has been used to license shooter game engines is the FSF’s General Public License (GPL). This license allows the licensee to use the game engine for any purpose, to make modifications to the game engine, to share the game engines with others, and to share the changes they made to the game engine (Smith, 2013). Such a license allowed shooter game engines to be widely distributed and adopted by a large number of commercial and non-commercial users. This is especially important for the early days of shooters where aspiring game designers and programmers were able to familiarize themselves with these technologies, effectively elevating them to the level of that-which-must-be-emulated, before starting their own careers as professional game developers. The GPL allowed shooter game engines and the design inherently present within them to shape the views of future designers.

Emulation of existing genres has been a popular method of game development for a long time. Carmack himself has noted that, in the early years of his career, he was happy to just be able to emulate what existed (Carmack, 1997c). Game designers are influenced by what is available, and promoting an ethic of access allows your own designs to be more easily and widely available. Aspiring designers are thus able to gravitate towards them as they learn their craft. While other game genres chose to keep their game code closed, the ethic of access that existed among shooter designers allowed the shooter design to more easily be incorporated into different design strategies.

Access and the Militarization of IT

Along with the ethic of access, the militarization of information technologies also has played an important role in the rise to dominance of the shooter design strategy. Information technologies have a long history of association with the military and shooters, by their very design, are worthy successors to this tradition of militarization of all things social; shooters allow an entry point into the militarization of leisure.

Some of the earliest interactions between the military and modern information technologies took place within the emerging world of cybernetics. David Mindell (2002) argues that communication and control have merged gradually throughout history. In the inter-war period notions of control and feedback began to be be spread throughout many fields. However, during the Second World War, the American military applied such notions to what was called ‘the antiaircraft problem’, namely that the airplanes of the time did not behave as the military doctrine assumed they did, which made defending against them very difficult (Mindell, 2002).

Notion of feedback and control were used to create algorithms that would be able to predict where a plane would be in the very near future. Such algorithms could then be used in antiaircraft defense to calculate where the cannons needed to be aimed to have a better chance of destroying the enemy aircraft. The computer was an essential player in this scenario. From the very beginning of their development, computers were designed with such ideas of command, control and feedback in mind (Mindell, 2002). That their very architecture revolves around such notions makes them ideal candidates for military appropriation.

According to Paul Edwards (1997) the history of computers cannot be dissociated from the American grand strategy elaborated during the Cold War. By being able to effectively access and control networks, computers became a means by which control and execution could be centralized. This made them interesting to the military organizations who could use them to extend their reach beyond the limits of human biology. Computers enabled what Edwards (1997) has called a closed-world discourse where everything can be viewed in terms of computers and information technologies. Military organizations were then able to model, with the help of computers, what happened, was happening and would happen within such closed system. The computer allowed for a rationalized predictive capability that previously did not exist.

The command and control metaphors employed by the military also can be traced back to the computer. With its architecture as a vehicle to control entire systems, the computer was able to be incorporated in the military view that defense needs to be global (Edwards, 1997). The networked and nodal qualities of the social arrangements favored by computers allowed military organizations to extend their reach beyond the physicality of the nation-state. In an age of Cold War, this meant an increased response time to any Soviet strikes. Because of computers, the fight could be taken right to the enemy’s doorstep.

2001: A Militarized Odyssey

The terrorist attacks of September 2001 allowed a continuation of the trend of militarization that had been occurring with information technologies. Within the video game world specifically, 2001 can be understood as a moment when leisure becomes increasingly militarized. The dominant national discourses promoting national security that emerged at that time were able to insert themselves into discourses of digital entertainment. If we take the video game design as an example, we can observe that game designers began to increasingly produce console games that incorporate elements of the shooter design strategy. Games with military themes, such as Halo: Combat Evolved or SOCOM: US Navy Seal, became increasingly popular both with designers and consumers at this time.

Military organizations also took advantage of this entry point into popular leisure. By producing games such as America’s Army in 2002, the American military is able to extend its reach into the private spaces of American citizen and beyond. Digital leisure then acts as a vehicle for military discourses, ethics and politics to become interiorized by game players. The relatively ‘safe’ digital representation of warfare becomes substituted for the traumatic experience of war.

The Cooptation of Access

Access is often portrayed as the Holy Grail of information technology. If only everyone could access existing networks, then all ills would be cured! As such, existing discourses often revolve around the creation and distribution of access. However, how and why access exist at a particular time and place are rarely questioned. Too often, it is forgotten that the ethics and politics of access promoted by information technology discourses can be coopted by other discourses that exist alongside it. Accessibility is not a one-way street. If it can be used by subaltern forces to access areas kept private by dominant forces, then it can also be used by dominant forces to increase their penetration of subaltern discourses.

Kline (2000) and Turner (2006) give us good examples of this situation. In Kline’s account, rural Americans receive increased access to news and technology but in the end they are subsumed under the dominant market discourses of technology. In Turner, libertarian ideals of commerce and innovation make their way into the New Communalist discourses and many of the proponents of this world view end up founding some of the most powerful information technology corporations that exist today. Even the example of video game design is not immune to this scenario. The ethic of access that promoted the use of the GPL for licensing allowed shooter game engine designers to distribute their technologies widely, often to enormous profits.

Edwards (1997) and Mindell (2002) also offer insights into the interplay between access and militarization. Through their studies of computers and cybernetics, they demonstrate how information technologies have a long association with military discourses and organizations. They demonstrate how these technologies are imbedded with assumptions that allow martial discourses to effectively incorporate them. Edwards and Mindell both show us how our very technology, which is often said to be emancipatory, is in fact designed in ways that are conducive to control and centralization.

In the case of video game design, the ethic of access that was present in the early years of shooter design was able to be coopted by the discourses that promoted an increased militarization of society in general and leisure in particular. Because of this increased in militarization discourses and of the ethic of access, the shooter design strategy was able to spread out to many other game genres. Video games that can neatly be classified into a single genre are now very rare. The spread of the shooter design – through the ethic of access and the militarization of information technologies – enabled an hybridization of video games that is heavy slanted towards military themes, which allows military discourses to access the private spaces of American citizens.

This hybridization of game designs was somewhat anticipated by shooter game designers. Because the elements that compose a shooter are fairly simple and limited, there are only a limited number of games that can be created before they all begin resembling one another. As was noted early on: “If you don’t want a game that mostly consists of running around and killing things, you will be disappointed” (Carmack, 1997d). However, due to the ethic of access that was a part of shooter development from the beginning, the design has been able to survive by hybridizing with other genres, to the point where shooter elements are the design features most used in genre hybridization. An analysis of the online catalog of Electronic Arts, a leading game publisher, reveals that 50 out of its 78 hybrid titles include shooter design elements (Electronic Arts, 2010). Through access and militarization, the shooter was able to expand beyond its humble origins and limited scope by becoming a design strategy embraced by game designers in a multitude of genres, which allowed martial ethics and politics greater access to the lives of game players.


1When I speak of dominance, I am not speaking in terms of monetary figures or number of copies sold per title, two variable that often are used to measure success. Rather, I am looking at the dominance of a particular design strategy. I am interested in why certain design elements are occurring outside of the context in which they were originally created.

2Abandonware denotes a set of video games that are no longer supported by their manufacturers.

3While these freedoms are espoused by many open source advocates – in fact the FSF states that many open source projects are also Free Software projects (Free Software Foundation 2010[2008]) – the main difference lies in the fact that the OSM does not necessarily advocate “the freedom to run the program, for any purpose” (Free Software Foundation 2010[1996]). Open source licenses, such as the Creative Commons licenses, can put a restriction on what can be done with the licensed product.

4Game engines designate development tools that can be help organize the way different part of the game relate to one another. For example, they might determine the way graphics are displayed or the way actual physics are reproduced within the game environment.


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About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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