Synopses & Reviews
“To my taste, the greatest American myth of cosmogenesis features the maladjusted, antisocial, genius teenage boy who, in the insular laboratory of his own bedroom, invents the universe from scratch. Masters of Doom
is a particularly inspired rendition. Dave Kushner chronicles the saga of video game virtuosi Carmack and Romero with terrific brio. This is a page-turning, mythopoeic cyber-soap opera about two glamorous geek geniuses—and it should be read while scarfing down pepperoni pizza and swilling Diet Coke, with Queens of the Stone Age cranked up all the way.” —Mark Leyner
, author of I Smell Esther Williams
Masters of Doom is the amazing true story of the Lennon and McCartney of video games: John Carmack and John Romero. Together, they ruled big business. They transformed popular culture. And they provoked a national controversy. More than anything, they lived a unique and rollicking American Dream, escaping the broken homes of their youth to co-create the most notoriously successful game franchises in history—Doom and Quake—until the games they made tore them apart.
Americans spend more money on video games than on movie tickets. Masters of Doom is the first book to chronicle this industry’s greatest story, written by one of the medium’s leading observers. David Kushner takes readers inside the rags-to-riches adventure of two rebellious entrepreneurs who came of age to shape a generation. The vivid portrait reveals why their games are so violent and why their immersion in their brilliantly designed fantasy worlds offered them solace. And it shows how they channeled their fury and imagination into products that are a formative influence on our culture, from MTV to the Internet to Columbine. This is a story of friendship and betrayal, commerce and artistry—a powerful and compassionate account of what it’s like to be young, driven, and wildly creative.
The Rock Star
Eleven-year-old John Romero jumped onto his dirt bike, heading for trouble again. A scrawny kid with thick glasses, he pedaled past the modest homes of Rocklin, California, to the Roundtable Pizza Parlor. He knew he wasn't supposed to be going there this summer afternoon in 1979, but he couldn’t help himself. That was where the games were.
Specifically, what was there was Asteroids, or, as Romero put it, the coolest game planet Earth has ever seen There was nothing else like the feeling he got tapping the control buttons as the rocks hurled toward his triangular ship and the Jaws-style theme music blipped in suspense, dum dum dum dum dum dum; Romero mimicked these video game sounds the way other kids did celebrities. Fun like this was worth risking everything: the crush of the meteors, the theft of the paper route money, the wrath of his stepfather. Because no matter what Romero suffered, he could always escape back into the games.
At the moment, what he expected to suffer was a legendary whipping. His stepfather, John Schuneman-a former drill sergeant—had commanded Romero to steer clear of arcades. Arcades bred games. Games bred delinquents. Delinquency bred failure in school and in life. As his stepfather was fond of reminding him, his mother had enough problems trying to provide for Romero and his younger brother, Ralph, since her first husband left the family five years earlier. His stepfather was under stress of his own with a top-secret government job retrieving black boxes of classified information from downed U.S. spy planes across the world. Hey, little man, he had said just a few days before, “consider yourself warned.”
Romero did heed the warning-sort of. He usually played games at Timothy's, a little pizza joint in town; this time he and his friends headed into a less traveled spot, the Roundtable. He still had his initials, AJR for his full name, Alfonso John Romero, next to the high score here, just like he did on all the Asteroids machines in town. He didn't have only the number-one score, he owned the entire top ten. Watch this, Romero told his friends, as he slipped in the quarter and started to play.
The action didn't last long. As he was about to complete a round, he felt a heavy palm grip his shoulder. What the fuck, dude? he said, assuming one of his friends was trying to spoil his game. Then his face smashed into the machines.
Romero's stepfather dragged him past his friends to his pickup truck, throwing the dirt bike in the back. Romero had done a poor job of hiding his bike, and his stepfather had seen it while driving home from work. You really screwed up this time, little man, his stepfather said. He led Romero into the house, where Romero's mother and his visiting grandmother stood in the kitchen. Johnny was at the arcade again, his stepfather said. “You know what that's like? That’s like telling your mother ‘Fuck you.’
He beat Romero until the boy had a fat lip and a black eye. Romero was grounded for two weeks. The next day he snuck back to the arcade.
Romero was born resilient, his mother, Ginny, said, a four-and-one-half-pound baby delivered on October 28, 1967, six weeks premature. His parents, married only a few months before, had been living long in hard times. Ginny, good-humored and easygoing, met
Includes bibliographical references (p. 303-304) and index.
About the Author
David Kushner has written for numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Wired, New York, Worth, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Village Voice, Details, Mondo 2000, and Salon. He is the digital-music columnist for Rolling Stone online, and a contributing editor for Spin and IEEE Spectrum. He has also worked as a senior producer and writer for the music website SonicNet. He received a B.A. from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s in creative writing from City University of New York. He can be reached at www.davidkushner.com.
A Talk with David Kushner
What made you delve into the subject of video games?
As a writer, there's nothing quite like exploring an uncharted world. And the world of gamers–despite its cultural, economic, and artistic impact–is still a mystery to most people. That’s why I wrote MASTERS OF DOOM. I grew up reading all the New Journalism books and I saw an opportunity to do for gamers what Tom Wolfe did for astronauts–recreate their definitive story and make them human.
What do video games say about American culture?
You have to be careful not to overanalyze video games because, ultimately, they’re just about having fun. But, on another level, they do say a lot about Americans desires and dreams: dreams of power, escape, fantasy, and violence. What makes this unique from any other medium is the interactivity. Games let players try on different roles–wizards, warriors, athletes, and hip-hop stars. This is one reason why Americans spend roughly $11 billion annually on computer and video games, which is more than they spend on movie tickets.
The two Johns have been called “the Lennon and McCartney of video games.” Why is that?
Every medium has its rock stars. For video games, which are still a relatively new art form, they’re Carmack and Romero. Along with their exceptionally talented colleagues, they innovated games that still impact business, technology, and pop culture. They’re also completely self-made, rising from their basements to rule a multibillion dollar business. And, like any good rock stars, they’re controversial.
In many ways, MASTERS OF DOOM is a classic business parable. Do you agree with this assessment?
Sure, I think Johns’ success story is important to anyone in business. These guys never took no for an answer. And they always thought outside of the box–so much so that, at one point, a journalist said they made Microsoft look like a cement company. Even if you don’t care about or play video games, you've got to admire their passion and dedication. That's one reason I wrote this book as a reconstruction of the past. I wanted readers to feel like they were right there with them, riding that incredible ride and smashing through the obstacles along the way.
Video games are a multi-billion dollar a year industry, but they appear to be underneath a lot of people's radar. Why do you think that is?
It’s easy to forget this business is still so young. Though it's been a multibillion dollar industry for years, it’s just now gaining mainstream recognition. One reason I wrote this book was because people still had all the wrong ideas: mainly, that games are the domain of teenage boys. In fact, the most popular computer game on the planet is probably Solitaire–and the players are parents and grandparents. While he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush admitted to playing computer Solitaire almost every day. Now that the Pong generation is coming into power, the industry won't be underneath the radar much longer.
Violence in videogames often comes under a lot of scrutiny in the media. How did the two Johns answer these criticisms? How would you answer these critics?
For various reasons, the Johns didn’t speak much to the press after the Columbine tragedy, when certain people were suggesting that Doom inspired the killers. I’m glad they had a chance to finally tell their side of the story in my book. Both of them felt that their games were being unduly blamed for a terrible crime that defies an easy explanation. I agree. The reason people keep criticizing games is because they don't understand them or, for that matter, play them. When I showed Doom to my mother-in-law for the first time, she said, “I can't believe that everyone’s making such a fuss over this.” Also, a lot of people don’t realize that the gamers playing–and making–the more violent titles are adults. And for those who are concerned about kids’ exposure to violent content, all they have to do is pick up a game and look at the rating on the box before buying it for their children. Even Senator Lieberman, one of the industry’s harshest critics, has lauded game publishers for voluntarily rating their products.
What's next for Romero and Carmack?
Romero has returned to his roots, programming games with a small team. He’s designing games for a new platform–cell phones and handheld devices–just as he pursued the new medium of PC games over a decade ago.
Carmack and the guys at id Software are getting ready to release Doom III, the first new Doom game in nearly a decade. It’s already been voted game of the year by the industry, and it hasn’t even come out yet. He’s also building a rocket which he hopes to launch into outer space. Knowing him, he’s got a decent shot.
What's next for David Kushner?
Another book. But first, lunch.