Critique of the Demoscene

This essay is a critical statement about the demoscene, in which my socialization more or less took place. I explain why I now think that the attitude of many scene members is unhealthy and why the demoscene in its current state is not the optimal place for a young talent to grow up - although it could be.

Written by Claus Volko
Vienna, Austria, Europe

Contact: cdvolko (at) gmail (dot) com

Many people know me better by my nickname Adok than by my real name. Adok is not just a nickname; it is also supposed to be a demoscene handle. You might be asking what the demoscene is. Well, it is a community of people who are into creative computing. It is probably one of the oldest communities of this kind that is still active, having emerged in the 1980's, when home computers became commercially available to the masses.

What has to be noted regarding me specifically is that I was born in 1983 and got my first computer, a Commodore 64, in 1989. I might have been somewhat of a child prodigy as I taught myself to program when I was eight years old, as a pure autodidact, having nobody in my family or among our acquaintances or friends who could have helped me. This social isolation was the reason why I eventually resorted to picking my friends among people who, along with myself, contributed to the PC-Heimwerker magazine, a German commercial computer magazine that was entirely made of articles submitted by its readers. So, I did not have "real", face-to-face contacts with these people, but rather communicated with them via snailmail, exchanging letters and disks with free software and programs written by ourselves. It was one of these penpals who introduced me to the demoscene.

I got involved with the demoscene when we obtained Internet access, in 1997. Then I started visiting demoscene channels on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) on a regular basis. A 14-year-old, I was considerably younger than most of these people, the average age being more than 20 years at that time. I was good at programming, yet I felt that active democoders were already too advanced in their technical skills for me to compete with them, and more, I actually was not so much into graphics programming anyway, I was more interested in algorithm design, creative problem solving and code optimization (which is still the three things I am most excited about when it comes to computer programming). When I participated in an x86 Assembler size optimizing contest organized by a demoscene magazine and surprisingly won first place (shared with another contestant; there were 23 contestants from all over Europe in total), I actually could have satisfied with myself, as I had proven that in the things that interested me, such as code optimization, I was apparently on par with the demosceners, or perhaps even better than some of them. I could have abandoned the demoscene and focused on the stuff I was interested in, communicating just with people who shared my passions. But instead of this, I started making a magazine about the demoscene myself and remained in contact with sceners from all over the planet. This eventually made me adopt some of their habits.

I would now say, in retrospect, that this was not a good thing for the following reasons:

1. Many demosceners are quite rude. They have bad manners, they shun outsiders and newcomers, treat them in a bad, arrogant way. I actually was treated by some of them at the beginning the same way, but I got accustomed to it and was relieved when people started treating me better as they appreciated the magazine I was making. I was too naive to realize that the fact that these people treated me badly when I was a newbie and had not done anything for the scene yet showed their true, namely bad character.

2. Although demosceners sometimes report of being bullied by other people because of being somewhat "different", they do just the same thing themselves. With time I realized that although you get some respect for making a good demoscene magazine, you are not considered equal to people who actually make demos (executable programs displaying graphical animations with music). Many sceners apparently do not realize that making the magazine is a service to them and do not appreciate when people like me sacrifice their scarce spare-time to serve others. In other words, much of what I did for others was in vain and I would have been better off if I had just cared about my own interests.

3. There are even some indications that demosceners who, for whatever reason, do not like me have harmed me in my professional career by denouncing me with a former employer of mine, although I have no proof for this. This makes me seriously doubt all my interactions with other people I have had before I graduated from university - apparently it would have been healthier if I had kept sitting in my own room and just doing things that pleased me.

4. As we can read in the book "Demoscene: The Art of Real-Time", the demoscene emerged from the crackers who originally removed copy protections from games just for fun. With time, however, cracking became a sport that was all about being the first in the world to crack a game and spread it via a bulletin-board system. If you came second, you were considered a loser. This attitude has more or less been adopted by the demoscene, which is all about showing off skills and appearing to be better than others. Such an attitude, in my humble opinion, does nothing but causing stress, which is a bad thing. Making demos, as a form of creative expression, should be a hobby - but it is not, if there is this spirit of competition. People submit their works to parties, where competitions ("compos") are held and then the public votes for their favourite demos, which in the end get prizes. Why has no party organizer ever had the idea of just showing the demos and then distributing the prize money among the creators evenly without voting?

All in all, I do think that it is good to have a community of people with similar interests, but the way the demoscene evolved is not a good thing. The big question is: Is this just the natural way of how communities of this kind evolve? Is this human nature? Or are the aforementioned characteristics specific to the demoscene? If this really is human nature, then it might, after all, be better for your own health to keep in your own room doing your stuff and communicating just with a few people whom you consider really likeable.

Claus Volko

Only a few minutes after writing this article, I posted the following to my blog:
Socialization through the demoscene
The demoscene is the community in which I have been socialized. There's no denying it. I have internalized their mindsets and values, lived by them and tried to proselytize outsiders in this sense. I don't know if that was a good thing. The fact is that in my time there were no other offers for young people who were as talented and precocious as I was and who even at a school that was considered to be extremely strict had no problems to consistently achieve top performance in all subjects except sport.
Even if some people recently claim that a scener is only someone who actively makes demos (which at the time I started in the scene was by no means part of the internal rules of the scene; that probably only changed when Internet made mail swapping obsolete!): I not only made the diskmag, but occasionally also intros, the first one at the age of twelve. The only reason why I focused on making the diskmag was that I was the number 1 worldwide - that's why I concentrated on it (as well as on the organization of programming competitions).
The next time someone writes that I am "different from all the other people he knows" and suspects that I have lived "very secluded", I know what I will answer: I will answer that I have by no means lived in seclusion, but have been socialized in a youth scene and that "we here" obviously have different rules than "them there".

Obviously I am still undecided whether it has been a good or a bad thing for my development as a human being that I have spent so much time among demosceners.