Judging a Game By Its Cover, Among Other Things
There is a connection between what first and third person shooters looked and played like, and who ended up playing them over the years in the US. Starting from the very beginning of shooters, we’re going to be looking at the visual and demographic patterns seen in mainstream shooters over the years.
Era 0: Vector Graphics
Shooters are old, and some of the first among this particular genre of game existed before “genres” or “target demographics” were even worth considering — gaming was a hobby, not a full-blown market of products. The earliest such shooters were games like Maze War (1974) and Battlezone (1980), which were definitely shooters and one could probably make an argument for putting them in one of the other aesthetic eras: Maze War had the level design and gameplay of a monster mower, and Battlezone had the design sensibilities of an Era 2 shooter. However, these games were made at a time when the tech was simply too limited to meaningfully develop the intentional aesthetics and design choices that characterize the later eras, not to mention the temporal separation these early games experience from their kind. This earliest era was a free-floating cloud of new ideas, existing before shooters had been around long enough for game-makers to know what people wanted from them.
Era 1: The Monster Mower
When early first person shooters are brought up, two of the first games that come to mind are Wolfenstein (1992) and Doom (1993). Each game came several years after the games of Era 0, but they are often still credited as the founding games of the genre. This was due in part to their gameplay, but it was also due to their striking and often controversial visuals. These two games set the trend for the look and feel of the shooter, and most shooters would stick closely to their example for the next 8 years.
General Stylings / Visual Genres
For the most part, monster mowers draw from a casual mixture of sci-fi and fantasy. Enemies tend to be more fantastical — featuring monsters and demons — while the weapons used by enemies and players alike tend to veer into slight sci-fi territory. In a monster mower, the design of the player, enemies, and levels are all used for a singular purpose: to make the player feel as awesome as possible about killing very large amounts of (usually) inhuman creatures.
One of the easiest ways to spot a monster mower is by looking at its enemies: they were, with few exceptions, literally monsters or demons. Wolfenstein mixed some Nazis in there, but by and large your opponents were horrifically disfigured abominations. Additionally, these games had a heavy emphasis on gore: killing enemies usually resulted in an explosion of blood and viscera, which was then just left on the ground. The emphasis of these designs was to make waves of enemies that you would feel no remorse brutalizing, and then allowing you to do so in the most graphic ways the technology of the time would allow.
Player characters were extremely generic. They were primarily heavily muscled white men who wore “combat gear”, and their weapons were over-exaggerated and often bloodstained. They were blank slates, assumed to be stand-ins for the player at the controls.
Earlier monster mowers featured cramped maze-like corridors that occasionally opened up into larger chambers, although as technology advanced the average room size increased. The settings of monster mowers often included laboratories, military bases, and in Doom’s case literally hell. The common threads were environmental gore, sometimes as just part of the scenery and other times left by slain enemies; alongside some “lab equipment” and the like.
Primary Player Demographic
The monster mower was frequented by the early “hard-core player,” a dedicated game hobbyist who would typically be university-aged (18 to 19 years old) with the ability to access a computer or console (white, usually). The monster mower was also marked by a trend that continues to haunt shooters up into the modern era: women are typically not drawn to the hyper-violent fantasy of these games, and as such are largely absent from their player base. The fans of these games often aged with them, leading the typical age group to rise to around 28 years old by the end of the monster mower’s mainstream rule.
Era 2: Call of Battlefield: Modern Global Offensive
In 1997, GoldenEye 007 was released. It took a step away from the monsters and the mowing of the other shooters of its time, and moved toward more mundane enemies: human, if still faceless. The shift wasn’t immediate, but after the first Counter-Strike (a mod for Half-Life, a much beloved monster mower) came out in 2000, a shift in the popular aesthetics of shooters became apparent. It was shortly followed by the first Battlefield (2002) and Call of Duty (2003) games: the first installations of two series which would become the new titans of the shooter industry. Era 2 shooters are characterized by a close adherence to realism — often citing specific wars or years in their titles — and a soldier vs. soldier and/or terrorist conflict.
General Stylings / Visual Genres
Era 2 shooters shunned the fantasy and sci-fi elements of their forebears, opting instead for accuracy to historical and modern warfare. These games were often also characterized by a lack of vibrant color, favoring muted earth tones to emphasize their grittier nature.
Enemies in Era 2 shooters were less individually distinct than those of other types: pitting the player up against groups of largely identical enemy soldiers, whose uniforms allowed them to blur together. The games that chose to make “terrorists” their enemies often outfitted them with head-wear that obscured their faces completely — usually aiming for the same remorseless killing the monster mower strove for, although with less gore and usually in smaller quantities.
Like the enemies, and like the players of the monster mower, Era 2 shooter protagonists are also usually generic soldiers. Often explicitly US soldiers, they continue the trend of the player character being a blank sheet — to be identified with rather than characterized. Unlike the monster mower, however, the Era 2 shooter does not try to create a Doomguy or a Duke Nukem: the player character is just a generic human, and they often find themselves in situations they cannot brute force their way out of.
Because the Era 2 shooter came about later, when more powerful technology was available, they were able to expand out of the maze and into the battlefield. Some Era 2 shooters recreated specific historical battlefields, while others opted to create generic barren landscapes that could have been a warzone or military base anywhere. Later Era 2 shooters expanded into civilian environments, although they usually had these environments partially destroyed before or during the player’s stay there.
Primary Player Demographic
It is quite telling that the rise of Era 2 occurred after 9/11. The stylings of Era 2 games convey a distinctly imperialist narrative: America, our great nation, versus our morally corrupt enemies. There are reasons Germany and Generic Middle Eastern Terrorists were the most common form of enemy in Era 2: it was a conscious effort by developers to draw in the young American male, under the impression that it was the biggest and most profitable demographic of gamer. Continuing the trend from the monster mower, women typically only make up 7% of the players of shooters.
Era 2B: The Sci-Fi Shooter
It would be an incomplete description of the time to exclude those games that shared some themes with the traditional Era 2, but took a very heavy sci-fi direction. Games like Planetside 2 (2012) stuck to the themes of Era 2, but put a hard sci-fi spin on it, while games like the Halo series spun together elements of the monster mower and Era 2 shooters with a sci-fi setting. Some of these games were quite mainstream! However, they never spawned the legions of visual doppelgangers that characterized the other eras. While important to gaming history in general, there was never a definitive aesthetic era of this form.
Era 3: The Comic Book Shooter
The onset of the comic book shooter was a slow one, perhaps because most games of this era are long-running multiplayer games, and many of them are still online today. Its roots lie in Team Fortress 2 (2007), or TF2, which for a long 7 years was one of the only games of its kind. In 2014, Destiny followed: taking a slightly harder sci-fi approach, but still clearly diverging from Era 2. 2 years after that, however, is when this era really entered the mainstream with the 2016 release of Overwatch, and solidified its place as an era with the 2017 release of the modern titan Fortnite: Battle Royale. This is the current aesthetic era: vibrant colors with an animation style inspired by comic books, and a haphazard mix of abilities and gadgets that blur the lines between fantasy and sci-fi.
General Stylings / Visual Genres
Comic book shooters rely on colorful and cartoon-ish visuals to help generate the dynamic combat they are often known for, as well as providing a radical shift away from the drab colors of Era 2. Many comic book shooters also blend and blur genre: incorporating fantasy and science fiction elements as they are called for, often without feeling the need to explain why they are there.
The vast majority of comic book shooters are player-vs-player, so enemy design is usually synonymous with player design. Games that do have NPC enemies — like Destiny & Destiny 2 — tend to lean in to the sci-fi: creating humans and aliens alike with fantastical suits and weapons, usually with waves of grunts periodically interrupted by larger enemies and the occasional bossfight.
There are two main ways comic book shooters treat their player characters: TF2 and Overwatch have rosters of different “classes” or “heroes” (respectively): premade characters with their own designs, personalities, and abilities. Choosing a character changes how the game plays, and one can change characters after every match. These characters are, well, characters in their own right: not blank slates like those of earlier eras, but people who often have fleshed-out backstories and abilities — like a comic book hero. On the other hand, we have Destiny and Fortnite: where the player designs their own character, all the way from their face to their outfit to their abilities and to their weapons. These player-made characters share many visual stylings with the characters of the other games, but are entirely customizable and, by definition, meant to be related to by the player who made them.
Primary Player Demographic
Gaming as a hobby is more popular now than it has ever been, and Fortnite especially has exploded into the mainstream, beyond even dedicated gaming communities. People of all ages play these games, with children forming a significant portion of players, and more people beyond the young white male are being let into these games. Slowly but surely women and people of color begin seeing themselves more and more in these games. Fortnite lets you make your player character look like whatever you want, and makes sure to include diverse characters in their marketing: Fortnite also has a 20% uptick of women who play it over the average shooter. Overwatch’s cast includes men and women from all over the world, and even a whole two canonically gay characters. This has lead to an expansion of the kinds of people who play mainstream shooters, beyond the old typical hard-core player.
Of course, there is still plenty of room for improvement (of all the people represented in Overwatch, there still isn’t a single black woman — not to mention the still-prevalent issue of designing nearly every female character to be sexually attractive) but steps have been made in the right direction, and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping. However, in the research done to find the figures for this article, it was impossible not to notice what numbers were missing. I could not find any articles or studies on the percentage of players who are people of color, nor could I find any on the percentage of LGBT players. This makes a fully comprehensive study of who played which eras of shooter over the years impossible, but it still tells us something: these are people who have been assumed to be unworthy of study, whether that be because they are assumed to be absent or insignificant. Moving forward, it will be important to make sure their contributions are recorded, and their influence felt. If we let them, who knows what they will bring to the table when the next era comes around?