At first glance, you’d assume that Doom Eternal exists purely to provide catharsis for those craving a responsive, ultra-violent shooter. These qualities are what made the Doom Eternal gameplay demo at QuakeCon 2018 last week so exciting. Although, what’s less exciting, at least for me, is how id Software‘s writing — specifically the “mortally challenged” joke — seems to have dangerously stumbled into the current political climate.
In the Doom Eternal gameplay demo, the Doom Slayer blasts, tears, and grapples their way through a futuristic cityscape scorched by the fires of hell. Throughout this, there’s what appears to be a city-wide VI that broadcasts dialogue sympathetic to the demons running rampant. These few scant lines are the cause for concern. Three phrases, in particular, stand out: “Earth is the melting pot of the universe,” “let’s make our friends feel welcome in their new home,” and the aforementioned “Remember, ‘demon’ can be an offensive term, refer to them as ‘mortally challenged.’”
There’s a lot to unpack here, and none of it is especially fantastic. This parodying of new words to replace offensive terminology is a commonplace gag in right-wing circles, often a means of ridiculing the stereotypical “social justice warrior” that, in the eyes of the right, have become too sensitive and overly-offended by the minutiae of controversial comedy. As the tides of social progression wash over society, we have come to realize that some words and terminologies that were once commonplace have damaging origins and connotations, especially for the people that these words and terminologies are used to describe.
Until around the 1970s, people with physical disabilities were called “cripples.” That’s not common vernacular anymore, and when it is used nowadays then it’s often as a derogatory slur. White people used to call Native Americans “Indians,” transgender people used to be called “transsexuals,” and British colonials used to call anyone from Asia “Oriental.” All of these words were phased out of parlance, on account of the fact that they were harmful or insensitive to the people they were being used to refer to because those people voiced discontent and fought to be treated with greater empathy. The problem herein with Doom Eternal’s joke is that it’s a false conflation.
Saying that “Demon is an offensive term,” while hyperbolic in nature as a deliberate means of generating laughs, implies that the absurdity of being asked to treat a murderous hellspawn with decency and love is equally “absurd” as treating a trans person, a disabled person, or a non-white person with decency and love. It compares, in one way or another, people who aren’t white, straight, cisgender, and able-bodied to literal demons from hell. “Mortally challenged,” specifically, is a direct offshoot from the term “mentally challenged,” and it’s a offshoot that’s none too appreciated.
It’s entirely possible that id Software did not intend this to be the message it put across. It’s plausible that, for a franchise built on the foundations of angering overprotective parents and bringing violence in video games into the public sphere of debate, that this was just an “edgy” joke. It could just be offensively boring, and I think that it will be regardless of any other factors at play. But whether intentional or not, what cannot be argued is that humor like this will appeal to and enable a very specific, very dangerous community on the internet — the far-right
When you factor in the other previously mentioned red flag quotes in the gameplay demo, Doom Eternal paints a picture of a world where forces that pose a threat to humanity are being welcomed with open arms by gullible people who blindly treat them as if they’re people. And when the language that you use to paint that picture is dangerously close to what is parroted by white supremacists and ethno-nationalists, you have to ask yourself: “Is my game sending the right message here?”
The alt-right will all too often adopt free speech talking points in order to position themselves as “rational” in a political debate and will take every opportunity to “troll the libs.” That alone will have piqued their interest. It gets worse when you critically think about those other quotes. “Let’s make our friends feel welcome in their new home” can not only be seen as a phrase often used by pro-immigration campaigners, but the inherent deceit laced into the game’s use of the phrase adds a sinister edge that the alt-right attribute to the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. Labeling an apocalyptic city as the “melting pot of the universe” makes a melting pot of culture sound like something doomed to fail.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. Like I’ve said, it is an out-of-context demo of an unreleased game and I would love to give id Software the benefit of the doubt — you only need look at publisher Bethesda Softworks’ Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus to see powerful messages that convey the opposite of what Doom Eternal may be implying. But when clips of the dialogue from your video game are being shared about the internet with captions like “Doom Eternal vs PC Culture,” and people are using your joke as ammunition for highlighting that “politically correct ideology is just junk,” then you need to reevaluate whether that’s the message you really want to send.