It’s just a manly man thing: Doom (2016), sound and hegemonic masculinity

It may come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that 2016’s Doom offers players the opportunity to engage with a blistering power fantasy that pulls no punches. Literally. Doom, developed by id Software,tasks players with eradicating an invasion of demons from a research centre on Mars. The route to success is simple and singular: if you see something move, kill it. And, my god, Doom makes this task incredibly effortless and intoxicating. Have you ever felt the urge to rip a demon’s head in two down the middle? I sincerely hope not, but Doom brings this imaginatively brutal scenario—and many other ‘Glory Kills’—to life, all with the push of a button. If you’ve wanted to commit mass-demoncide without lingering shame or regret, this is absolutely the game for you.

As you’ve probably guessed, power is conferred onto Doom players through exercising violence. In my mind, it really is very difficult to discuss ideas of violence and power in videogames without discussing gender, race, and sexuality. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus my discussion primarily around gender. The argument I’m putting forward here is this: the construction of Doom’s power fantasy is very much built on positioning players (and their vessel, Doomguy) as a hyper-masculine figure. More specifically, I’ll be honing in on how sound and music is used in Doom to foster this masculinity.

Pinpointing a strict definition of what constitutes masculinity is a bit tricky considering that masculinity itself is a nebulous concept. However, one thing that is key to understanding masculinity is that it is not a singular entity; we should instead refer to, and think in, masculinities as plural. In the book Masculinities and Culture, John Beynon describes masculinities as multiple: they are diverse, fragmentary, and mobile. There is an array of masculinities that people perform and enact, such as traditional masculinity, complicit masculinity, hybrid masculinity… the list really goes on as far as you would like.

The spectrum of masculinities expands further when we acknowledge that masculinities are very much contextually bound, as what may read as a masculine trait in one culture may not read as such in a different culture. In other words, masculinities are not uniformly defined across the globe. Instead, they are defined by how power structures operate within local and regional spaces, between mainstream cultures and counter-cultural spaces. This idea also applies to virtual spaces as well as real-world ones. Because of this, I’m limiting my discussion of scope of masculinities to be contextually bound to Doom.

In order to do this successfully, I believe it is essential to acknowledge that discussions of masculinities in this game are influenced by masculinities configured in similar games. Additionally, we should also register that masculinities are negotiated through a two-step process: developers create a toolset which enables a range of masculinities to be performed, and players then interpret and deploy these tools to execute a performance of masculinity of their choosing. Both steps of this process are informed by cultural contexts. After all, games are not produced within a culture vacuum, nor do players interpret meaning in games without bringing in their own understanding of real and virtual spaces.

With that pretty lengthy theoretical pre-amble done with, let’s take a look at Doom and its configuration of masculinities. Let’s start by examining the genre in which Doom sits: the first-person shooter (FPS). These games are seen from the perspective of the player-avatar and involve combat using guns and other weaponry. Interestingly, the FPS genre gained popularity in the early 90’s following the release of the very first Doom game in 1993. So popular was the original Doom title that FPS games were often referred to as ‘Doom Clones’ in the late-90s. Due to the legacy of the Doom franchise, it is wholly unsurprising that the 2016 Doom game neatly fits into this FPS box.

FPS games’ configurations of masculinities are tied to their depiction of militaristic combat and war settings. Popular FPS titles that are positioned in such contexts include the Call of Duty series (whose settings include World War 2 and The Cold War), and the Halo series (which focuses on interstellar combat between humans and aliens). Doom eschews the gritty realism of titles like Call of Duty to position players as a one-man army, waging war against an onslaught of demons fresh from the pits of hell.

In FPS titles like these, players are encouraged to execute actions which conform to a particularly exalted form of masculinity coined by sociologist R. W. Connell known as ‘hegemonic masculinity’. According to Connell, hegemonic masculinity is positioned as being the highest form of masculinity within the context of the current Western gender order. The patterns maintaining hegemonic masculinity are realised through several complex systems of gender performance and negotiations. These systems are:

  • The subordination of other masculinities
  • The complicity of non-hegemonic masculinities in maintaining an exalted masculinity
  • The marginalisation of non-dominant masculinities by enforcing connections between gender and other structures such as class and race.

Obviously, this theory of hegemonic masculinity isn’t particularly helpful by itself as we need to understand which traits within gameplay are culturally exalted. One such study in the FPS game Call of Duty: Black Ops conducted by Gareth Healey identified that idealised masculine status can be obtained through demonstrating gaming expertise. Similarly, in their essay ‘At the Intersection of Difficulty and Masculinity: Crafting  the Play Ethic’, Nicholas A. Hanford argues that the established ideal gamer is not only male, but hardcore—these gamers earn social capital and credibility through expending time/effort in their games and developing mastery over games.

Therefore, combining the two ideas above, we can recognise that hegemonic masculinity in games like Doom is accrued through mastering the in-game combat and mowing down demons using chainsaws and deadly stuff. This idea is echoed by the marketing spiel on the back of the game’s case, which encourages players to ‘kill them all’, and of course, you can only kill everything by having some semblance of skill.

Head go boom

Doom’s cutscenes and mechanics strongly encourage an idealised masculinity that can be accrued only through killing everything in sight, using aggression, domination, and intimidation. Throughout Doom, Doomguy will aggressively punch, kick, tear, rip, disembowel, and decapitate enemies without question. At points, this aggression is ridiculously over the top and very much uncalled for, such as when Doomguy punches robots holding weapon upgrades instead of, you know, just grabbing the upgrade.

Being so aggressive ties into Doomguy’s quest for domination of the gameworld, which is achieved by cleansing each level of its demonic presence. Players are actively encouraged to dominate the landscape by filling a combat meter, which maxes out when players kill a certain number of enemies in each level.

Finally, the game intimidates players into accruing mastery (and therefore, hegemonic masculinity) by coercing players to play on higher difficulties. Instead of being presented with standard difficulty options like ‘easy’, ‘normal’, and ‘hard’, Doom’s players are given the choice of difficulty options that range from infantilising players (I’m too young to die) right up to emboldening them (ultra-nightmare). Playing on harder difficulties earns you bragging rights, and consequently, big masculine manly-man-man points.

Conversely, playing on a lower difficulty (like I did!) equates to a shame-inducing rejection of the idealised form of gameplay. Logically, this results in such players abandoning their quest for accruing hegemonic masculinity, and playing in a form more in line with alternative masculinities.

What is particularly intriguing about Doom is that its use of sound and music reinforces the need for players to align their playstyle with an idealised form of masculinity to succeed. It’s very easy to point to the heavy metal style of the game’s soundtrack composed by Mick Gordon as being the key factor in reinforcing players’ need to be aggressive during gameplay, as there’s a long-held cultural association between metal music and aggression (which may or may not actually hold water). As with many things relating to game music and sound, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The first way that music is used to subtly articulate an idealised masculinity within the context of Doom lies in the way that music is not used to craft a distinctive virtual geography with discrete locations. It is quite a common feature of games of varying genres to illustrate a geographic shift (such as moving from a town to a forest) through a change in music and creating a clear distinction between these discrete locations. One example of this is frequently found in RPGs like the main Pokémon games, in which a player’s journey through the game’s overworld is accompanied by looping background music that reliably changes whenever the avatar enters a new route, a new town, or enters battles. Through this reliable changing of music, players are encouraged to view the gameworld as consisting of many vibrant pieces and locations, each with different tones and characteristics. In my mind, this artificially makes the world feel larger than it actually is because new areas immediately feel unique and refreshing, even if they consist of the same graphical assets that earlier areas are built from.

Doom is a very different game to the Pokémon series—big shock, I know. Instead of using different styles of music to create a sense of how the virtual geography operates, Doom stubbornly uses the same genre of music all the way through the game regardless of space. Granted, the game does use different musical moods to distinguish between exploration and combat. However, this shift occurs regardless of the space in which players inhabit and so does not meaningfully signify a change in location.

I was surprised when my expectations in this regard were confounded by Doom. When moving from the Mars-based levels to the first one set in Hell, I’d expected to hear a significant musical difference. This anticipated change doesn’t occur. I interpret this musical consistency as the game communicating to players that they should not treat the new levels set in Hell any differently to the ones set on Mars. You still need to kill everything in sight to succeed, it’s just the walls are painted a different shade of red. As the style of gameplay is no different, and there’s nothing being communicated sonically to suggest that gameplay should be treated differently, then the playstyle route to accruing hegemonic masculinity is no different. Mars and hell are one and the same—a unified stadium filled with demons just awaiting to be put out of their misery.

As well as this, the use of sound to communicate (or not communicate) changes in play status can also reinforce a playstyle conforming to the hegemonic masculine ideal established throughout the game. Quite a few games revolving around gunplay sonically signal that a player’s health is low to encourage players to be more resourceful or careful so as to avoid death. In Doom, such a change doesn’t happen. When players run low on health, the game’s audiovisual outputs carry on as usual: the intense combat music continues churning away and the on-screen HUD (heads-up display) doesn’t change either.

The only audio cue players receive is a short beeping siren sound, alerting them to their low health. While this sound is pretty easy to differentiate from the backing track, it can be easily missed in the chaotic pew-pew-pew sounds of intense space combat. Hence, I would argue that while this warning sound is distinctive, it is unobtrusive—especially compared to other games featuring overt low-health warnings. One common example is to combine a visual cue to reinforce the audio cue, such as in Hitman or Uncharted, where a shift towards a monochrome palette is accompanied by a swirling of game audio (using filters or distortion). Such a comprehensive warning easily captures a gamer’s attention and encourages them to respond or fail.

The lack of such a change in Doom communicates to players that they should essentially maintain their aggression, even if it isn’t working in that current moment. In fact, I would argue that players are encouraged to be bold, rather than cautious. This is because players recover heath in Doom through aggressive glory kills, which can only be executed by making physical contact with enemies.

A lack of warning sounds in Doom also communicates the idea that the player is invincible, and that enemies pose no real threat even though, they very much do, because, well, bullets hurt. This makes sense when we combine this perceived invincibility with the earlier idea that the music doesn’t really change style based on the game’s environments. No matter where you are, regardless of how vulnerable you may be, you must push forwards and kill to survive. Doom players are encouraged to maintain their aggression in a bid to succeed, and hence, accrue and retain a sense of hegemonic masculinity through gameplay.

Playing in a style that defies these instructions provided by the music can cause players to play the game less competently, and so avoid accruing hegemonic masculinity. For instance, misreading the cue for low health and playing more cautiously is a sure-fire route to death in Doom. Additionally, treating the enemies from Hell and Mars differently (as in, not completely aggressively) is another method of playing the game in a way outside of the prescribed route to mastery. Akin to selecting a lower difficulty setting, playing Doom in either of the ways above does not net the player hegemonic masculinity, but will instead align the player with an alternative form of masculinity.

I found that while I clearly wasn’t mastering the game, I broadly understood what the game was asking of me—it’s just that my hands and brain weren’t quite communicating in the way I’d hoped. Because of this, I made a lot of mistakes despite trying to remain consistently aggressive in the face of danger. So, while I clearly understood the route to mastery (and therefore, acquiring hegemonic masculinity), I was not playing in a way that would actually accrue hegemonic masculinity. Due to my lack of skill but general understanding of the game, you could say that I was playing in a style akin to complicit masculinity. I believe in and understand the masterful methods of play, so by continuing to maintain that they exist, I am complicit in maintaining the existence of the hegemony. All thanks to my dumb fingers.

My dumb fingers still managed to pull off this!

As stated before, the actions, goals and settings of Doom very obviously position this game as a masculine experience and guide players towards accruing hegemonic masculinity. The way that music and sound are deployed in this game very much reinforce this idea.

When playing through the game, me and my partner initially thought this game was a lot to take in. It seemed that any projection of masculinity was over-exaggerated, and any opportunity to embellish aggression to the extreme is gleefully taken. We were particularly taken aback at the very start of the game by Doomguy punching an intercom device that was trying to communicate exposition concerning the game’s narrative, as this gesture confirmed our initial thought that Doom’s narrative is secondary to exhilarating gunplay. But to demonstrate this assertion by literally destroying the means of communication seemed excessive, bordering on camp.

This idea of the game being a form of masculinised camp permeated our experience, and by the end, we were convinced that Doom wasn’t necessarily reinforcing the idea of hegemonic masculinity within games, but was actually attempting to subvert it through ridiculous excess. But, as the credits rolled, we had a thought: what if the game was actually sincere? What if the game was genuinely attempting to craft an unflinchingly excessive, yet earnest, masculine power experience?

And, by looking at the way that music and sound chugs under the surface of Doom’s gameplay, I would have to say that the game is sincere in its portrayal of masculinity. The need for players to succeed through accruing hegemonic masculinity is not subverted in any way by the music. Instead, it is reinforced. Ignoring the messages encoded in the music encoded during gameplay is tantamount to admitting defeat.

Quite frankly, realising that Doom at its core is not a campy extravaganza somewhat dulled my experience of the game. Yes, it’s fun, but wouldn’t it be more interesting and juicier should the game actually subvert the very hegemonic norms the franchise helped establish almost thirty years ago?

Doom is available to play on Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Stadia. This version was played on a laptop running Windows, and Mick Gordon’s original soundtrack for the game can be found on Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music.

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