Thursday, 1 December 2011

A choice: race to the bottom or fight and win

This is a simple message from someone who marched and visited pickets yesterday, but who works in the private sector:

Don't moan. Organize. Just because the private sector workforce has been brought to its knees by legislation, greedy bosses and cowardly union leadership, it doesn't mean public sector workers have to throw away their hard-earned and hard won benefits (as rubbish as they are for the low-paid majority) in a race to the bottom.

I spent the first few years of my working life in the public sector, and was never paid enough to be able to pay a penny into a pension, or to even afford a place of my own to live. The vast majority of public sector workers are people like me and you, people like my parents: underpaid, overworked, disproportionately taxed, and destined to struggle for every penny in old age. These people are fighting not just for their own pensions, but for the services everybody, public and private sector workers, take for granted. Imagine having to find money for healthcare from your minimum wage once the NHS is gone. Imagine, when you're old, having to choose between heating and eating because fuel bills are sky high while winter fuel allowance is being cut. 

And then look at the cabinet. Almost every one of the people making these decisions about your life is a millionaire who will never have to worry about affording to see a doctor, or heating their home. The median pension payout for a public sector worker is £5,600, with the average pension for a female local government worker being just £2,600. And the new proposals will mean workers paying more per month into their pension fund, and getting less out at the end. Combined with government proposals to cap wage increases at just 1% per year, when inflation is taken into account this adds up to a huge pay cut.

The basic state pension pays out £102 a week. The government itself says that anything below £178 per week for a pensioner is poverty pay and over 2 million pensioners are in receipt of just a basic state pension. That means they must live their day-to-day lives in poverty. Add the cuts to fuel allowance and the rising cost of utilities and food, and the destruction of the NHS, and it’s clear things will only get worse for pensioners. Of course, this won’t be an issue for those politicians and bosses now attacking the right to a decent old age for working people.

Private sector pension schemes have been all but destroyed over the past 10 years. The number of workers in private sector pension schemes has fallen from around a half of all workers to just a third. This will force workers in the private sector to rely on more state benefits after they retire. All of this has happened as corporate profit over the past 30 years has increased hugely. The average pension for directors at large companies runs to around £175,000 per year. And private sector bosses won't voluntarily sacrifice their comfort in life to pay you a living wage. They'll do what they can to save money. Turn the heating off in winter, scrimp on the equipment you need to do your job, contravene health & safety regulations and put you in danger of injury or death, and ultimately they'll make you redundant. Because they don't care about you. You're a negative number on their balance sheet and if they can drive that cost down they will. 

Make no mistake - this fight is not "working people against each other" but "the haves against the have-nots". The bosses, and the politicians who serve their interests, like nothing more than seeing workers pitted against each other. It means workers are not focused on them while they decimate every privilege previous generations have fought for in order to keep their own position in society. Everything politicians say about strikes and other action is designed to discredit them, to divide private sector and public sector workers further, and to divide different areas of the public sector from each other. Francis Maude has been particularly outspoken over the strike, yet his pension is funded by the taxpayer at £43,825 a year. And union bosses are no better. Their position means they have little in common with the people they're supposed to be representing. They will defend their position and their pay at the expense of their members. 

Bosses and governments will continue to attack everybody's pay and conditions unless workers stand up to them, and union leaders will only go so far with their help. If workers want a proper deal in life for ourselves and for the next generation, we will have to take action for ourselves. We get nothing without fighting for it, and we keep nothing without fighting to keep it. The bosses and the government have already been for private sector pensions. Don’t let them come for public sector ones as well. Stand up and fight for a decent future for all. 

Stop moaning in news comments, visit a picket, visit a march, learn and understand how it's done and that you yourselves have the power to do the same if you've got the appetite and the knowledge to fight for it, because that's what you'll have to do. Fight. The bosses and the politicians rely on workers to keep production running and to keep them in their position, to keep profits rolling in and to keep the millions in their bank accounts. The power is in your hands but we've got to stick together to win. And we can win.  

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A brief comment on the 30th November strike action

This is the first of what I hope to be several posts on the 30th November strikes.  It's actually a comment I posted on the Liverpool Echo website in response to their news piece on the forthcoming strike, the tone of which appears to be largely hostile.  The response to my comment has been hugely and pleasingly positive. 

I'm a private sector worker who is not on strike that day. I will be marching alongside trade unionists in solidarity. The strike might nominally be about pensions, with ministers expecting working people to pay more and work longer for less (and that's for those lucky enough to have a job at all) while they continue to take huge salaries and allow the likes of Tesco, Sainsburys and Poundland to employ young people without paying them a penny for their work, allowing banks to do what they like, allowing corporations to take multi-billion pound profits without paying any tax, and allowing their friends and donors to take over our hospitals and put profit before patients.

It's important that working people very quickly draw a line in the sand and tell the government where to go. There will be classic attempts to divide public and private sector workers from each other over this dispute. Everybody needs to remember that workers will always have more in common with each other than with any politician, and we need to stick together because at the end of the day, it is the workers the government and the boardrooms are expecting to pay dearly for the mess they've made and everybody, public and private sector workers, will suffer at their hands.

I don't want to grow old, or see kids growing up, having to work two or even three jobs just to pay the rent and fuel bills. I don't want a world where illness or injury can mean a lifetime of debt for medical bills for the poorest people. I want a world where ordinary people stick together to fight injustices like that, and to fight for the hard-won gains of past decades, like the NHS, and to make them better. Politicians won't do this for us. They've long been in the pockets of business, so we need to do this ourselves and industrial action like this is a necessary first step. We need to be organized in order to fight for what is ours.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Why I will not wear a poppy, this year or any year

We know politicians are liars and hypocrites and this extends into every sphere of life.  The poppy today is used as a cheap way of paying lip-service to the needless sacrifice of millions of working class service personnel at the altar of empire and capital while sending more working class men and women to fight and die in needless wars in the present and, when they return, making many of them rely on charity while the state that sent them serves the millionaires in the boardrooms. 

The state is perfectly happy to encourage the jingoism that surrounds the idea of the poppy as it perfectly diverts the attention away from the complete lack of any true support offered by the state to the mostly working class men and women who are still sacrificed at the altar of capital and at the whim of politicians of all parties in wars to this day.

The politicians don’t care about the people they regularly send to die. They don’t care about the people they’re killing.  They care about image and they care about capital and the soldiers, sailors and airmen are no different from the rest of the workers in this country.  They do a job for and on behalf of the ruling class, so the politicians and the millionaires can keep their place and keep us in ours.  They are asked to kill and to die on behalf of people who don’t give a shit about them.  So instead of wearing a poppy or saying a prayer to remember the men and women who have so needlessly died, demand that our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers are never sent to kill and to die on behalf of the people who exploit them, the politicians and millionaires.  Demand that no more people die for their privilege. 

No war but class war.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

On Human Nature

Arguments I see time and time again against left-wing politics is that “human nature will get in the way” or “it ignores human nature”. Recently I’ve even seen this argument trotted out by people on the left, that any future system must “take human nature into account”. It’s fairly clear what is meant here without asking too many questions. Human beings are selfish. Human beings only work in their own self-interest and that this is natural. But I believe this to be wrong. This blog post will hopefully explain why.


The complexity of this subject has seemingly always been acknowledged but the approaches of philosophers, scientists and economists have varied widely over the centuries.  The ancient Greek approach held that destiny played a large role in human nature as every human was thought to be in some small way divine.

As time went on, this metaphysical view of human nature fell out of vogue and philosophers began to rely more on observation of human tendencies.  Thomas Hobbes had a particularly pessimistic view of human nature as fundamentally violent.  Following this, Rousseau held that there was no predestination involved in human nature.  He believed that morality was a natural possession of human beings and that the construction of institutions, language and concepts such as justice are a necessary development from this, and that further to this, the importance of government and commerce had undermined liberty.

Later, following general acceptance of Darwin’s ideas on evolution and natural selection, an idea built up of nature in general being a brutal and violent struggle pitting individual against individual in a battle for survival.  The complexity of Darwin’s idea was frequently and erroneously boiled down into soundbites like Darwin’s unfortunate yet metaphorical “Survival of the fittest” and (retrospectively) Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw”.  Inevitably this was applied to the economic, social and political ideas of the day.  Indeed, this narrow view of evolution seemed to reaffirm the class divisions and economic inequalities of Victorian society.  A society divided by class and deeply uneven in economic terms suddenly had a basis in reason, a scientific justification.

Darwin himself knew, of course, that this was a gross oversimplification and had anticipated such misunderstandings by pointing out in The Origin of Species that his phrase “Survival of the fittest” was more metaphor than an attempt to distil evolution into an easily digestible soundbite.

The use of these ideas by the establishment to justify the status quo could almost be seen as harking back to the time of the ancient Greeks.  While the Greeks used the idea of metaphysical predestination to justify the status quo of land-owning citizens and a labouring class of non-citizen slaves, the post Industrial Revolution capitalist societies used the idea of a kind of scientific predestination in the same way.

In the mid-twentieth century, game theory began to be used in the study of human nature and the initial studies in this direction would have consequences reaching into the 21st century.  Mathematicians working at the RAND corporation tasked with developing US Cold War strategy began to apply their ideas in game theory more generally and in idea of human beings as isolated, paranoid and self-interested individuals began to be built up.  Not only that, but an idea developed that human beings acting in their isolated self-interest would bring about a stable society, and the mathematician John Nash actually won a Nobel Prize for demonstrating this mathematically.

The key to this was that the ground rules set down in the games developed at RAND must be followed – that is, participants must act selfishly and always attempt to outwit other players.  But when these ideas were tested on real people at RAND, the mathematicians found that in reality, people always chose to cooperate rather than betray other participants.

The particular game developed at RAND to demonstrate this concept was called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the game can be outlined as follows:

“In the Prisoner's Dilemma two players act as prisoners who have been jointly charged of a crime (which they did commit) but questioned separately. The police only have enough evidence to be sure of a conviction for a minor offence, but not enough for the more serious crime.
The prisoners made a pact that if they were caught they would not confess or turn witness on each other. If both prisoners hold true to their word they will only be convicted of the lesser offence. But the dilemma occurs when the police offer each prisoner a reduced prison term if they confess to the serious offence and give evidence against the other prisoner.
This sounds like a good deal, confess and you get the minimum possible term in jail - although your partner will get the maximum. But then you realise that if both you and your partner confess then both will be given the maximum term in prison. So the dilemma is whether you trust your partner to keep quiet - and if you do, should you 'stitch them up' to get out of jail quicker?”

The game, and Nash’s application of it to human behaviour, chimed perfectly with the paranoia of the time, at the height of the Cold War, and with Nash’s own paranoid world view as, at the time, Nash was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

These ideas eventually filtered into the consciousness of right-wing economists and politicians, culminating in modern neoliberal economic thought, Thatcherism and extreme individualistic capitalism.  Cooperation and altruism were held to be myths and every person thought to be working purely in their own self-interest.

But parallel to this, certain biologists had begun to study what they considered a neglected and poorly understood aspect of evolution.  Biologists knew that, contrary to the received wisdom, the story of evolution was not exclusively one of brutality, violence and death.  They knew that along with the competitive aspects, there was also an aspect of cooperation and altruism, and some biologists set out to try to explain this in evolutionary terms.

Blazing a trail in the early 1970s was American evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, who proposed theories on reciprocal altruism and parental investment. Reciprocal altruism can be framed as follows:

“…a behaviour whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time.”

Examples of reciprocal altruism in nature include vampire bats, which will occasionally regurgitate blood to feed each other, dolphins, which occasionally come to the aid of struggling humans and other animals, and, in particular, chimpanzees have been shown, in studies at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, to act altruistically towards even genetically unrelated individuals.  According to Felix Warneken at the Institute:

“Chimpanzees and such young infants both show that some level of altruism may be innate and not just a factor of education.  People say we become altruistic because our parents teach us so, but that young children are originally selfish. This suggests maybe culture is not the only source of altruism.”

And we know from our own experience that human beings cooperate all the time in a wide range of endeavours and also often perform extremely selfless acts for the greater good of the group, or other individuals.  We see cooperation all around us, from trade unions to workplaces to units in an army during times of war.  All of these activities require cooperation and individual sacrifice for others.

As laid out by Peter J. Richerson, Robert T. Boyd and Joseph Henrich in a study entitled Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation, evidence of human cooperation is “extensive and diverse”.  They cite studies of Prisoner’s Dilemma games which shows that “humans are prone to cooperate even with strangers”, and they “often vote altruistically”, but that cooperation could be dependent on other factors and that institutions play a large role in human behaviour.

It may seem obvious, but, as Richerson et al put it, “people from different societies behave differently because their beliefs, skills, mental models, values, preferences and habits have been inculcated by long participation in societies with different institutions”.  This manifested during repeated play of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, a rapid breakdown in trust and consensus.

In Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search For Who We Are, an experiment is relayed in which “macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror.  Otherwise they starved.  After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so – 87% preferred to starve… Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain”.

In the study The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, it is acknowledged that cooperation is a common intra- and inter-species phenomenon.  Building on Robert Trivers’ theories, Axelrod and Hamilton used the Prisoner’s Dilemma game to suggest a possible mechanism for the evolution of cooperation.  The tit-for-tat mechanism which had great success during these experiments is quite comparable to Trivers’ idea of reciprocal altruism.  Indeed, the conclusion of the study states that:

“Darwin’s emphasis on individual advantage has been formalized in terms of game theory.  This establishes conditions under which cooperation based on reciprocity can evolve.”

In some situations it seems clear that people will cooperate and in some they will act in their own isolated self-interest.  Of course, there are numerous variables which will affect this, in addition to the situation.  Personalities, values and beliefs, among other things, will all play a part.  But in relation to the more general situation, could the political and economic status quo of the day play a part?

There seems to be no question about this.  Media and government have always been hugely influential.  The influence of the experiments at RAND mentioned earlier is still being felt.  The paranoid world view embodied in these experiments has sat at the heart of western capitalist institutions for several decades, especially so in 1980s Britain and America and also, even more tragically, in Pinochet’s Chile.  Yet despite this, people have continued to cooperate in many circumstances despite encouragement, sometimes forceful and violent, to behave otherwise.

As mentioned earlier in relation to the P.J Richerson et al study Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation, “Institutions matter”.  There are implications for human cooperation which depend on the institutions under which the behaviour occurs.  Politics, media and social norms will influence individual behaviour to a greater or lesser extent.  And as we note the general tone of self-interested individualism presented to us by politicians and the media today, it can be no coincidence that this view of humanity has filtered into everyday thought.  Where institutions themselves come from is a complex subject which has only comparatively recently come to be understood, but societies and communities probably began to develop early in the evolution of human beings as a consequence of the development of the human brain.

As the human brain began to get larger, human females in response had to give birth earlier and earlier in the development of the child since as the brain got larger, the more difficult the childbirth became.  This in turn meant that human babies were born helpless and remained so for a relatively long time (a number of years).  Human babies were also born without a large amount of instinctive knowledge and behaviour and thus had to be taught by earlier generations.  Extended family units remained together for this purpose and as the amount and type of knowledge required changed down the generations, societies and communities built up to meet this need.

A general history of human institutions throughout the centuries is not the aim of this blog post.  Different people in different places have come up with different solutions to challenges they have faced.  But obviously, as we see all over the world today, institutions also have the potential to oppress a majority and work in the interests of a minority of individuals.  As an example, capitalism has seized on Darwin’s ideas and bent them to its own ends, with Social Darwinism as the result.  Later, the ideas of the mathematicians at RAND were also used to strengthen the grip of capitalism and to try to cement in the human consciousness the ideas of all-against-all individual self-interest on which capitalism thrives.  Capitalism requires division, greed and inequality in order to exist and the ideas which came out of RAND to influence neoliberal thought provided what appeared to be a reasoned mathematical basis for these ideas, even though the models relied on initial assumptions which proved to be untrue.

Opposition to these ideas has taken many forms, from changing the state to better manage capitalism, to the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a workers’ state, to the abolition of both capitalism and the state, and it is against these ideas that the human nature argument is brought to bear.  The argument is thought to be simple and self-evident but relies on a mixture of erroneous assumptions and institutional propaganda.  Capital has long used a mixture of these arguments and coercion by law and state violence to reinforce the status quo and to suppress opposition in all its forms.  Yet human beings, while generally living under its yoke, continue to defy such coercive violence all over the world.  Why should this be?

Peter Kropotkin argued in Mutual Aid that the natural tendency of human beings, far from being combat, opposition and violence, is one of cooperation and mutual aid and that mutual aid is the chief criterion of evolutionary success.  Kropotkin may have overstated his case somewhat, but he was certainly onto something.  Stephen Jay Gould points out that Kropotkin and other Russian intellectuals’ views about Darwin’s ideas and their generally Malthusian tone was coloured somewhat by the differences in culture and their experiences in Russia, in contrast to Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace’s life experience in an imperial, industrial and strongly capitalist Britain.

Since this time, we have seen the ideas of altruism and cooperation studied in more detail in evolutionary terms and have found that humans, primates and many less cerebrally complex forms cooperate extensively, with both related and unrelated individuals and that humans and primates also have a biological predisposition towards altruism and even heroism.

It would seem that this innate tendency is not exclusively a product of culture, but culture and experience is able to build on, develop and change the nature and frequency of display of these tendencies.  So the question should not really be “How can we make this or that idea work with human nature?” but “How can human nature help us make these ideas work?” or “What aspect of human nature do we feel we should encourage?”

The ideals of capitalism have been responsible for a great deal of human suffering.  Concentration of wealth and property, exploitation of labour, the use of land for profit, the suppression of opposition by violence, the exploitation of democracy, control of information, the enormous gap between rich and poor, and surpluses of food and medicine for the rich while millions of the poorest die of malnutrition and disease.  However, attempts to oppose this system using the state have also led to oppression, poverty, injustice and violence– all of the crimes of which capital is guilty.  Such regimes have proven to be twisted caricatures of the ideals of the left, however well-meaning their creators were originally.

So, if capitalist and communist regimes inevitably lead to oppression, then how can both be opposed?  What can the solution be?  Both types of regime require the control of the majority by a minority.  Both require strict rule of law and coercion by violence to run.  Both, at their heart, serve the interests of an elite against that of the masses, and so both need to use ideas of paranoia, suspicion and, ultimately, violent suppression to achieve their goals.  So the reasons that paranoia, suspicion and violence are needed must be removed.  Power and control by an elite must be replaced with true direct democracy in which every person can participate and in which every person can have a stake.  The tyranny of capital must be removed; nobody’s labour should be exploited by anybody else for their gain.  No more must wealth be concentrated in the hands of the few.  Wealth must belong to all.

Human beings have the capacity both for individual self-interest and for cooperation, altruism and heroism.  It is culture, education and the situation in which they live which determines which aspects of human nature will manifest themselves.  Society itself and the institutions within it are hugely influential in this.  Cooperation, altruism and heroism must be valued above individual self-interest.  By creating a society where this is so, we can remove the distinction between cooperation and altruism, and self-interest, and make true cooperation between everybody in the interest of all.

References and further reading/watching:
  • ·         Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: The Search For Who We Are (1992)
  • ·         Michael Crichton – The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996)

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Some thoughts about the Tottenham civil unrest

The community and the police have been sitting on a tinderbox for years and the most recent spark has set the whole thing alight.  The background to this isn’t just one shooting, but years of heavy-handed and racist policing coupled with decades of economic neglect and a plethora of politicians from all parties cocking a deaf ear to the problems of real people everywhere.

Inevitably this will continue over the coming days and weeks as police statements are reported as fact and the mainstream media chooses to prioritize pictures of fires and stories of looting over the real grievances which have sparked the events of Saturday night and Sunday morning.

This has happened before in Tottenham, in 1985, after police killed a woman in her home during an unauthorized search.  It seems the attitude of the police towards local residents has changed little.  Another shady killing of a local resident has been followed by a protest demanding answers and then the apparent assault by police with batons of a 16-year-old female protestor.

The wider context of all this is that such communities have no confidence in the police, who continue to push the lie that they are the benevolent protectors of the public.  Yet a Guardian article last December points out that since 1998, 333 people have died in police custody and not one police officer has been successfully prosecuted, with the IPCC saying that jurors’ inability to convict police officers is a problem.

Add to this such high-profile cases as Blair Peach, Cynthia Jarrett, Jean-Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and Smiley Culture, heavy-handed policing of legitimate protest (including duping the Fortnum and Mason protestors into a mass arrest) and excessive sentences relating to the likes of Charlie Gilmour and Johnny Marbles when compared to similar offences, while police officer Delroy Smellie is acquitted of an assault which took place in full view of the cameras and it becomes easier and easier to understand where this lack of trust in a police force which seems to be a law unto itself actually comes from.

And when this is set against the background of economic deprivation in such communities as cuts to local services continue while banks carry on handing out billions in bonuses and corporations are making billions more in profit as working people are pushed to the wall, it will come as little surprise if this weekend’s events are repeated up and down the country over the coming months and years.

Monday, 27 June 2011

My Most Important Games Ever - Part V

Read part 4 here.

For the final part of this series I’d intended to focus on two games, the two most important games I’ve ever played.  But I quickly realized that I’d need to focus on each game in turn, so this part will focus on one game, and the next part will focus on the other.  Both of the games almost completely define the time in my life that I first played them, and their feel, atmosphere and the music chimed perfectly for me at the time.

Nostalgia is a difficult emotion to describe, but everyone knows how it feels.  In its literal form, nostalgia is severe homesickness.  The word comes from a contraction of the Greek nostos (returning home) algos (ache, pain), but is now more commonly used to describe an interest in or longing for an often idealized past.  It’s hard to say why these games have this effect on me.  Anyone with an attachment to something from their past knows how powerful this emotion can be.  The best I can do to describe it is to ask you to think of something that may affect you the same way.  It could be a TV programme, an album or a toy from childhood.  This feeling is essentially what drove me to write this series.  For example, just the music alone from the C64 version of Uridium could almost make me cry with longing to go back to a time I remember barely anything about.

I think nostalgia reflects more on the person than it does on a certain point, or the comparative differences between two points, in history.  The longing is less for the general “time” than it is for the person you were at that time, and for the experiences you had then that have helped define who you are now.  A lot of nostalgia seems to be for childhood and it’s no coincidence that this is the time in our lives when we have the least pressure, the least responsibilities, and the time when we are most impressionable.  I’ve wondered whether this sort of nostalgia affects us in the present.  I tend not to play any modern computer games and I don’t really know for sure why I don’t find them appealing.  I don’t really accept the argument that games were just  “better back then”.  This strikes me as a conservative, overly sentimental and overly simplistic explanation.  I can only conclude that the answer lies within me, or rather, in the difference between the me of then and the me of now.

Some of the games I’ve mentioned so far haven’t aged too well.  Some are just as playable now as they were then.  The final two games though are the most special to me.  The most important of all that I’ve played.  And this is the first of those two...

Wolfenstein 3D
Back in 1993 I’d been playing PC games for a while.  I’d just bought my uncle’s Amiga and he’d replaced that with a 486 DX-based PC.  I remember playing games like Dune II, Alone in the Dark, the LucasArts adventure games and X-Wing.  PC gaming was starting to come into its own and the capabilities of the machine were starting to make the Amiga look like old news.  Not long before this, a game called Wolfenstein 3D had come out.  It was the first of its kind really. I’d never played anything like it before; a game where you saw everything from a first-person perspective.  And shot things.  It was the first REAL first-person shooter.  At first we had to put up with using the PC speaker for sound.  Just beeps and pops and clicks and not much else.  But some time after getting the game we got hold of a cheap Soundblaster card and the game felt like it had been transformed.  Now there were proper gun sounds.  Chunky clanking sounds when the metal doors opened.  And a small range of speech.  The game took on a real atmosphere and you thought “How can they improve on this?”  The sequel/prequel, Spear of Destiny, was more of the same.  Little more than an add-on pack really.  Different, slightly harder levels.  

It begins
But then in late 1993 something happened.  A game was released which changed the world.  Literally.  I’d heard rumours of a follow-up to Wolf3D for a while but I wasn’t online at the time so I had no access to all the chatter on the BBSs.  And at first, when we finally got our shareware copy of Doom, I didn’t know what to make of it.  I knew everything had changed as soon as I saw it.  It was such a leap forward from Wolf3D graphically, sonically and gameplay-wise that it seemed almost miraculous.  The same basic game concept (find the exit, find the key, kill everything that moves) was taken to another level entirely.  Maps were far richer in detail and texture.  Walls could be at angles instead of always at 90 degrees to each other on a grid system.  Floors and ceilings were textured.  There were stairs and sloping floors.  Ceilings at variable heights.  Outdoor areas.  And the lighting.  Lighting was used as an active part of the game, with often terrifying results.  Graphically the game is almost a literal work of art.  A lot was drawn or painted but several monsters were actually modelled in clay by or latex and then digitized.  

The implementation of stereo sound allowed the programmers to use sound as more than just audible window-dressing.  Sound was used to scare the player, or to provide the player with information, such as when a monster was nearby or when a switch or button had triggered a distant door.  The direction and distance of a sound could be roughly determined by the player by its volume and panning position.
All of this combined to create a hugely impressive and immersive game world; one where atmosphere, gameplay and scares combined brilliantly to push the game along.  All of this is set to one of the most iconic game soundtracks ever, supplied by now living-legend Bobby Prince.  The music suits the atmosphere of the game perfectly and is often more than a little reminiscent of popular heavy metal tracks.

Blake Stone
The Doom engine was a marvel of the age in gaming terms, a wonder of the world.  When the shareware version was released it caused a sensation.  There was a rush to download the freely distributed first episode from BBSs on the Internet.  First impressions for me were shock and amazement at how far gaming had come.  X-Wing from earlier the same year was hugely impressive as a space “sim” but it didn’t reinvent the wheel.  Games like that were being released all the time, albeit few as good.  But this – it was relatively new.  Wolf3D laid the groundwork and Doom was going to build a cathedral on it.  In comparison, the same month that Doom was released, Apogee put out JAM Productions’ Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold.  While a decent game based on the Wolf3D engine, it just wasn’t in the same league.  And for years after, games struggled to be in Doom’s league.

The storyline (or lack of it) was a major point of controversy during development.  Director Tom Hall had written a design document he called the Doom Bible containing an outline of a detailed narrative and several playable characters for the game, while John Carmack favoured a much simpler, stripped down design.  Hall was eventually forced to resign from id, and many of the ideas from the Doom Bible later appeared in Rise of the Triad, which Hall helped design for Apogee.

Certain games require a tight narrative structure and some can get away with having little story.  And some games excel due to a lack of narrative detail.  One example mentioned in this series would be Elite.  The lack of any real story gave these games a very open, sandboxy feel, allowing the player to fill in their own story as they played.  Doom is slightly different as it lacks the open-world aspect.  Indeed, Doom is as linear as gaming gets.  But the lack of real detail helped to push the game along, and helps immerse YOU in the game world rather than have you act out the actions of a named protagonist.  Everything about the game, graphics, sound, music, the mindblowing game engine, and just the right amount of storytelling, really pulled you into the game and helped you believe you were there.  This is what gaming is supposed to do.  It’s not supposed to be a passive, detached experience.  It’s an interactive medium.  The game provided moments of real foreboding, when you went into a dark room with no idea what could be lurking there, and moments of real fright.  It tapped into the subconscious desire to be scared into exhilaration in the same way a good horror movie does, and provided interactivity beyond the scope of films, in a way only computer games are capable of.

Need more rockets
Big movie fans tend to get snobbish about games.  They might as well get snobbish about the LP record format.  Games are a medium unto themselves.  Movies, games and music can never be compared.  The ultimate aim of each is to entertain, but that is such a broad purview.  All three also often tell stories and it seems to me that here lies the movie industry’s largest constraint.  When looked at this way, almost the sole expectation of a film is that it tell a story.  You can argue about the art all you want but if a film doesn’t tell a story it’s probably a failure.  Games don’t have this constraint.  They are perfectly capable of telling stories, but it can often be at the expense of engaging gameplay, as anybody who has sat through Metal Gear Solid 2’s cutscenes will know.  Where some games excel is when they deliberately don’t tell a story, where they provide the world and the atmosphere for the gamer to tell their own story, and to play again and this time tell a different story.  The only limit is the player’s imagination.  And in the hands of a good developer this can be dynamite, and you get true works of genius.  Like Elite.  And like Doom.

And as if all this wasn’t enough, Doom also popularized multiplayer gaming over the LAN.  It was the first 3D game to allow friends to play against each other over the network, and actually coined the term “deathmatch”.  Doom helped to bring gaming to a wider audience through a mixture of innovation, excellent design and no shortage of controversy.  Religious groups attacked the game for its violence and overtly satanic imagery.  One level in an early version of the game lowered a maze-like set of walls to reveal that it’s was shaped like a swastika (this was later altered).

Kill Bill
By 1995 it was thought the shareware version of Doom was installed on more machines worldwide than Microsoft’s game-changing operating system Windows ’95.  Bill Gates even gave a presentation superimposed on the Doom world to advertise Windows ’95 as a gaming platform.  Workplaces were formulating policies designed to curtail the playing of the game on company networks.  A worldwide community built up dedicated to modifying and creating new levels for Doom, made easier because the developers had actually designed the game to be easily modified.

For a while, the first-person shooter genre was fresh.  Following Doom and its sequel Doom II were games like the average Rise of the Triad, the half-decent Heretic, the half-boring Hexen, the over-the-top Duke Nukem 3D, id’s own fantastic Quake and Quake II, the wonderful Unreal, Valve’s brilliant Halflife and at the back-end of the 90s came Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament, essentially network-only FPS games, with no real single-player mode to speak of.  And the FPS hasn’t stopped.  Nowadays it seems to be everywhere.  It seems that Doom’s legacy today is for every major developer to have its own online post-apocalyptic brownscape, or military grey world, populated by 12-year-old boys with headsets who seem more interested in holding contests to find out who can say “faggot” the most in a 15-minute period, turning the whole experience into nothing more than a long-distance bellowing contest.

And my memories of Doom’s latest sequel, the third in the series, leave me with just one impression of the game: how beige everything seemed to be and, following the success of the Halflife franchise, how by-the-numbers it felt.  At least until the game crashed and dumped me back on my XP desktop.  I didn’t reload.  I downloaded Legacy* and played the first two again.  And remembered why I started playing games in the first place.

Legacy is an enhanced source-port of Doom.  Get it here.