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Pondering the Scene: Why are Demos European?

Spring 2021

Sweden, April 1987. Just over a year has passed since the assassination of prime minister Olof Palme, a brutal and still unsolved handgun murder taking place in the heart of the nation's capital, Stockholm. Head of the ongoing police investigation, Hans Holmér, has just been forced to resign after cooking up increasingly incompetent and theatrical policing methods, lies and conspiracy theories.

Cold war activity in the Baltic region is at peak levels. The navy regularly carry out large scale submarine hunts within Swedish territorial waters and the air force routinely scramble JA-37 Viggen interceptors in response to both Soviet and NATO counterparts scouting just outside national airspace. To fill the ranks of the armed forces, military service is mandated by universal conscription of all men aged 18 and above. Those who refuse to partake are punished by jail.

Televerket, the state-owned telecomms monopoly, controls phone access to the surrounding world as well as within the country. Both long distance and local area calls are billed per minute, making the former a luxurious rarity and the latter something preferably carried out swiftly and efficiently in any fiscally sound household.

SVT, the state-owned television monopoly, and SR, the state-owned radio monopoly, control the airwaves. The former offers two channels, which is what most households make do with. Satellite dishes are still an expensive novelty - and an uncertain investment. Banning them is an idea seriously considered by prominent members of the Social Democrats, the party that has ruled Sweden in an almost unbroken electoral streak since World War II.

TV programming is controlled by technocrats and apparatchiks, loyally reinforcing the values of social democracy. This is especially noticeable in children's programming, where popular characters such as Mrs. Pepperpot are warped into bizarre Mao Zedong-quoting abominations and the bulk of foreign shows are bought from the Eastern Bloc. Disney cartoons are shown once a year, for one hour, on Christmas Eve. Movies, both at the cinema, on TV and on video, are thoroughly vetted and rigorously cut to pieces by Statens Biografbyrå, the oldest film censorship authority in the world.

Meanwhile, in the southern parts of the country, a group of teenagers form the cracking group Fairlight. Their stated purpose is to remove the copy protection from commercial games for the Commodore 64 home computer in order to spread them freely and compete for status and recognition with other similar groups. Their efforts lead to a decades long run as one of the most successful software piracy groups in the world, making them a household name to millions of gamers as well as the target of several FBI and Interpol investigations and raids. They also become known and loved for their pursuits in creating freely copyable digital art within the computer subculture known as the demoscene.

The Scene

What is the scene and what is a demo? It's hard to convey in so many words, though Wikipedia manages a somewhat successful attempt:

The demoscene is an international computer art subculture focused on producing demos: self-contained, sometimes extremely small, computer programs that produce audiovisual presentations. The purpose of a demo is to show off programming, visual art, and musical skills. Demos and other demoscene productions (graphics, music, videos, games) are shared at festivals known as demoparties, voted on by those who attend and released online.
- Wikipedia

The scene is so much more, of course. Like any subculture it's got a set of unwritten rules that's grown organically out of years of friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) competition. Like any subculture, it's got factions and cliques, it's forged long lasting bonds of friendship and it's both for fun and dead serious at the same time.

The history of the scene and the origins of demos is usually told as follows: When home computers appeared, they were expensive luxuries for early adopters. They weren't very useful unless you wanted to use a computer for the sake of using a computer - such as programming or tinkering with electronics. One thing they were good at, though, was entertainment. Computer games were expensive and after investing a large amount of money into a computer that was mostly seen as a toy for teenagers, said teenagers rarely had the money to pay for games. Instead, they removed the copy protection in order to be able to pirate them. This was called cracking the game.

Cracking required a certain skillset and the time and effort to explore and do battle with the copy protection scheme. In the spirit of a conqueror placing his nation's flag on newly annexed land, the game crackers added little messages that were displayed while the game was loading: proof that they had bragging rights. Since cracking was illegal, they rarely used their real names. An early message of this kind could for example be a simple "Cracked By Mr Z." The faster you managed to crack a game, the more status and recognition you earned not just within the group of crackers, but among other computer users as well. After all, you were the one who liberated the software and made it available to other strapped for cash kids.

Example screenshot of a Cracked By Mr Z. message

Other young programmers explored their machines in order to create animated graphics, similar to the kind seen in certain games. Sometimes they were also crackers, sometimes not - but they hung out in the same circles. After all, home computing was still a small pond and teenagers with similar interests are good at finding each other in social settings. Others still preferred to use their machines for drawing graphics or composing music.

At some point in time, all of this convened into something called a crack intro or cracktro: a small, non-interactive screen with moving graphics and music, announcing the game, the credits for the crack, the credits for the intro itself and often also with small messages, so called "greetings", to other people involved in the same pastime - the so called "scene."

Eventually, the intros grew into larger productions called demos and making them became a scene activity in and of itself. While game cracks had an inherent sense of competition about them, a way to compete with demos had to be invented. Early on, it was mostly about displaying as many sprites as possible or discovering new ways to tame the hardware, but soon elements of general aesthetics became equally important. The competition was formalized into a limited group of people - usually attendants of a demo party - voting for their favourite production after watching all demos entered into a competition on a big screen display.

The demographics of demo graphics

The scene as described above is a thoroughly European phenomenon. It's especially big in the Germanic-speaking countries and Finland, but there was and is plenty of scene activity in the Romance areas, too. Former eastern bloc nations fly their flag with pride as well and there was even a bit of activity in Turkey. Britain, though Germanic, is the exception from this rule: while there are some mighty fine productions coming from the isles, it corresponds poorly to the sheer number of people living there and their fondness of home computers. More on this anomaly later, though.

Another noteworthy oddity is the per-capita volume of sceners from the Nordic countries. They are the origin of a staggering amount of quality demo groups and productions, even though their combined population isn't even close to that of their continental neighbours. Three of the most successful demo parties of all time were held here: The Party in Denmark, The Gathering in Norway and Assembly in Finland. Together, they were visited by many thousands of people each year during the early 1990s and there, as well as in the demoscene annals known as "disk mags" (electronic magazines distributed on floppy disks), Nordic sceners habitually topped the charts.

The same goes for illegal activities. Though most demosceners today aren't involved in illegalities, the distance is sometimes not as big as one might believe. The two scenes are forever joined together by history, friendships, mutual interests - and group names. Swedish Fairlight and Triad, Norwegian Razor 1911, Finnish Byterapers and Danish Paradox are examples of successful and well-known cracker groups, some of which are still active both on the demoscene and in cracking and spreading PC and console games.

The scene still consists mostly of the same people as in the 1980s and 1990s. The influx of new talent slowed to a trickle some time after the turn of the millenium and though demos are nowadays judged mostly on their aesthetic qualities, the core of technical excellence and creative exploration in programming remain key concepts.

But why did the scene originate in Europe? And why didn't such a roaring success gain traction in other parts of the world? This question has been bugging me for a long time, and I finally feel ready to venture a semi-informed guess.

A tale of two hacker cultures

Apart from growing up during the end of the cold war and then in the geo- and sociopolitical turmoil its demise is still causing, my life has been very much influenced by two hacker cultures. The American one, by way of stories and lore, and of course the European one, in which I grew up.

While they share some common ground, such as the core concept of creative exploration of computers through clever code, they are also very different. The American one can trace its origins to the 1960s, growing out of universities such as MIT with its model railroad club and AI laboratory. It's intertwined with major corporations such as AT&T through UNIX and the soft- and hardware giants that grew out of it, such as Sun Microsystems.

Early illicit hacking in the US has a certain political tinge to it, a sort of mildly anarcho-libertarian twist rooted in mistrust of the deep state and a desire for free speech and spreading public knowledge about classified information. In this regard, Edward Snowden is a perfect modern echo of the original illicit US hacker ethos. But, by and large, the US hacker culture was centered around academia, UNIX, Lisp, NASA and the likes - and it was also helped by flat rate local phone calls which meant communication through BBS:es and similar systems could last longer without completely bankrupting the hacker calling from home.

This early formation of a hacker culture meant that when home computers arrived, the new users this resulted in already had a place to turn. There were various hobbyist user groups around, rules of conduct were in place and there was a pre-existing notion of what was considered cool and worthwhile to do with regards to hacking.

If asked to summarize this culture, or at least my perception of it, the Hacker Purity Test would be my base reference of choice. It's frequently arcane (even by my standards), it's about mainframes and minicomputers, it's focused on computer science type stuff and it mostly assumes hackers are grownups with university degrees and computer related jobs.

It was constructed in 1989, and yet mentions home computers ("micros") mostly as an afterthought, with a few references to CP/M, Apple's Finder and MS-DOS. There are 0 (zero) questions about border sprites on the C64, raster timing or even what DYCP stands for (Different Y Character Position, a common effect for scrolling text in intros). The Amiga, arguably the scene's most beloved computer, is referenced only through the mention of ARexx. When I first took the test in my innocent youth, I thought "Have you ever swapped out the swapper" was scene related - a swapper was a person who traded floppies with fresh scene productions through mail - but of course it's really not.

The US view on the European hacker culture was, at least initially, negative. Self-ascribed interpreter of US hacker culture Eric S Raymond still maintains The Hacker's Dictionary (originally The Jargon File). It's not too kind on early sceners, which it refers to as "warez d00dz":

Warez d00dz will never have a handle like “Pink Daisy” because warez d00dz are insecure. Only someone who is very secure with a good dose of self-esteem can stand up to the cries of fag and girlie-man. More likely you will find warez d00dz with handles like: Doctor Death, Deranged Lunatic, Hellraiser, Mad Prince, Dreamdevil, The Unknown, Renegade Chemist, Terminator, and Twin Turbo. They like to sound badass when they can hide behind their terminals.

There's some truth to this, and it also describes a lot of the early demoscene (Side note: "Renegade Chemist" is a wicked sick handle!). After all, herein lies the biggest difference between US and European hacker cultures:

The "mainstream" US hacker culture originated in a base of educated adults. Its illicit factions appeared in the fringes of a respected and accepted group of engineers, researchers and thinkers - but it hadn't spread to Europe, at least not in any significant numbers. In contrast, "mainstream" European hacker culture grew out of - and together with - a decidedly illicit group of teenagers, who are of course at a point in life when personal insecurities abound. It was a teenage subculture with a strict teenage pecking order.

There are certainly overlaps and some amount of cultural exchange. American "display hacks", for example, could be viewed as a kind of demos, but even the famous ones lack the combination of music, graphics and code that make a demo. Software piracy was a global activity and both getting original copies of games and spreading their cracks was something that led to transatlantic contacts and the popularization of phreaking on both sides of the pond - after all, international calls were still expensive regardless of whether you used AT&T or Televerket.

Nevertheless, the European hacker culture emerged as wholly unique, almost curiously uninfluenced by its American counterpart.

The whens and whys

The when is, in hindsight, a given: the advent of (relatively) affordable home computers. In particular ones such as the C64, with graphics and sound capabilities advanced enough to capture the attention of young minds thirsting for impressions and a way of escaping the uncertainties of a cold war waged a bit too close for comfort.

As hopefully conveyed by the introduction of this text, Scandinavia was suffering from severe media drought during the 1980s. Foreign impulses were few and far between, not just compared to what the Internet offers today but to what was offered in the same countries just a decade later. Entertainment was tightly controlled by a group of adults so far removed from youth culture that almost everything they did was embarrassing to the point of cringe. Pop culture buffs considered the chance of seeing or buying certain films, magazines and records as a completely valid reason to travel abroad at great expense.

Home computers, on the other hand, suffered from no such control. Games weren't censored and the boring adults paid little attention to the machines at first. This was a world into which the long arm of government control just didn't seem to reach, a world where the limits were only set by the machine and your skill at controlling it. And, of course, the price tags on the coveted games. There wasn't much politics or ideology involved in the European cracking endeavor - no "information wants to be free". The reason, I dare say, was crass but relatively harmless from a teenager's point of view: Wheee, free games!

Because creative people are creative, creative young computer users soon wanted to create something of their own, as opposed to just consuming that which others had made. At this point in time, it was completely feasible for one or two people to make a commercial quality game on their spare time, especially on one of the 8-bit platforms. Learning clever coding tricks by making demos was one way to gain the skills needed for this - though Scandinavia didn't have much of a software industry at this time, let alone a games industry.

Dreams of becoming a professional programmer (or coder, as they're affectionately called on the scene) inevitably involved either moving abroad or starting your own company, something which was not only very cumbersome in most Nordic countries at this time, but also viewed with no small amount of suspicion (You were supposed to go work at Volvo, Saab, Danfoss, Maersk or Nokia like any sane person). But it also just so happened that computers allowed those teens to create something that was entirely their own from the ground up - including the concept and purpose of what they made.

As opposed to movies, music or oil painting, the only tool needed for creation was the same device you used for consumption. No further investment was needed, no new space had to be allocated for it. And, most importantly, what you created could easily be written to a floppy disk and spread in flawless copies to as many presumptive fans - or rivals - as you wanted.

The British conundrum

As mentioned earlier, there was certainly a British scene - but it was nowhere near the size or popularity of its mainland counterpart. The reason for this is - I believe - the fact that Britain, like the US, has a rich domestic history of computers and computer manufacturing. Apart from being the home of both Babbage and Turing, people like Alan Sugar and Clive Sinclair managed to create very successful home computer platforms. There were certainly efforts in other countries as well at this time - including the Nordic ones - but those machines are mere curiosities compared to the Amstrad CPC and especially the ZX Spectrum.

This explains, in part, why both the US and UK weren't good breeding grounds for something as anarchic and illicit as the scene. Nations that produce several major hardware platforms will also produce a lot of software for those platforms, which not only means that there's an industry aching to hire young talent, but also that their IP laws will be stricter and more thoroughly enforced. Sweden, in contrast, had something called "buddy copying", where the law explicitly allowed computer programs to be shared and copied within a close circle of family and friends. I also specifically remember the second hand sale of my first Amiga computer: The new owner was a police officer who candidly asked for a couple of disks with pirated software as part of the deal.

Needless to say, the software industry lobby didn't have much clout in Scandinavia at this point in time and early Nordic pirates and crackers took relatively low risks compared to their US and UK colleagues.

Stop it, it really Hertz!

Another important factor stopping the spread of the demoscene was differing TV standards. Early home computers - and the programs that ran on them - were tightly timed to the speed of the monitor's cathode ray, or "raster beam". In the US, NTSC provided a steady 60 Hz refresh rate while Europeans had to make do with flickering 50 Hz PAL display. Demos written for PAL computers simply wouldn't work - or worked very poorly - on the same computer models in the US.

Addendum: The Nintendo Herring

In an e-mail sent to me after the original publication of this text, it was pointed out that the popularity of Nintendo's NES in the US might have hampered the growth of a scene. I originally didn't address this, because this text is mostly reasoning about those who in fact did own a computer. Commodore's own sales estimate is a total of 100,000 C64 units in Sweden, whereas Bergsala AB - "the Swedish Nintendo" - claims to have sold a staggering 800,000 NES units just during the first few months after its launch. More modest - and credible - estimates place the number at 420,000 units in Sweden in total, still outnumbering the C64 by 4:1. Consoles may have impacted the number of presumptive hackers, but many "scene countries" had a preference for the NES as well. More importantly, there was still a C64 user base of at least 2,000,000 people in the US (PBS show The Computer Chronicles claims 7 million in 1988) - surely enough to sustain a demoscene.

Conclusion

The US and European hacker cultures grew out of different settings during different times. There was some US-style illicit hacking in Europe and some European style illicit hacking in the US, but the Atlantic divide remains clear - especially with regards to the legal "mainstream" parts of the two cultures.

The demoscene stronghold in the Nordic countries and Germanic speaking areas of mainland Europe can, at least in part, be attributed to a lack of pre-existing hacker culture able to incorporate home computer users, weak domestic hardware and software industries, limited access to youth and pop culture and a population affluent enough to afford buying computers for teenagers.

Then again, does it really matter? I'm just happy, and lucky, to have witnessed it first hand. The scene was and still is something truly wonderful. In the words of Hunter S Thompson, "Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run... but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant..."

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