Presenting the Scene to the Public: Good or Bad?

By Adok/Hugi


The survey attached to the previous issue of Hugi contained the question: "Presenting the scene to the general public (mass media, SIGGRAPH, ...) - good or bad?" This article is my personal answer on this question. It elaborates on how aware the general public already is of the demo scene, reasons why sceners have tried to get publicity or why they have avoided it, and whether there is any need for more promotion of the Scene to the Real World.

Nature of the Scene

Let us first talk about the demo scene of the early to middle 1990s, for these were the days when the scene was (nearly) totally composed of highschool and university students, with few Sceners already working in the computer industry as professionals. When looking back what the scene was like ten years ago, we see more clearly what it is all about: The scene is a community of young people doing creative stuff with their computers; they are autodidacts who have acquired their artistic and programming skills only by means of books, toying around with the development tools, and exchanging hints with each other. Their programming and creating artwork is not for profit; it's something else that motivates sceners to produce: first, the satisfaction that comes along with being creative and creating something new; second, the pride you feel when showing your own works to other people; and third, the feeling that you belong to a small "elite" of young people who are far more skilled at computers than even some professional grown-ups who are working in the software development industry for money (at least in the early nineties).

I've already made an important implication: The demo scene of the 1990s was a kind of elitist community which not everybody was allowed to join. Basically only those who themselves created demos or related artworks were accepted. Exceptions were made for system operators of bulletin boards, mailswappers who spread releases and organizers (of demo groups or parties, for example), i.e. people who were not creative themselves but did something for the benefit of the scene. However, pure "bystanders" and people who only watched scene productions had no chance to become sceners. In addition, the quality of one's productions mattered; so the scene kept itself free of untalented people. Beginning coders and artists had a hard time gaining acceptance among established sceners - just like untalented people, they were often dismissed as lamers. Thus, the demo scene was a community composed of only talented, productive and (at least slightly) experienced young people.

In the old days, most young computer-users used to exchange disks with software at school-yards, and since the cracker and demo scenes were still closely related in the early 1990s, it sometimes happened that demo scene productions were exchanged along with cracked games. This is how most people who later became active sceners originally found out about the demo scene. Others discovered demos on local BBS's they were calling. Most people started out trying to code their own demos after seeing already existing ones, or at least to create gfx or music. They told their friends about the demo scene and started their own groups. If they managed to make something good and presented it at a demo party, then this was sufficient to be accepted as a part of the scene.

That's why the scene did not have to make an effort to advertise for itself in the mass media in order to recruit new members: New people were attracted to it anyway. On the other hand, how about presenting the productions of the scene to a broader audience? At first glance, it seems that sceners did not feel any urge to do so, and that it was enough if fellow sceners saw them: Sceners were apparently satisfied when like-minded people appreciated their works. Maybe that is one important feature of the demo scene: that it's a community of creators who, on the one hand, do compete with each other in compos, but who, on the other hand, also enjoy their competitors' works and show that they appreciate them.

But why exactly were demos not spread to the masses: Was it intentionally or only due to limited possibilities?

Publicity in the Past

Let's explore first what possibilities there were for spreading demos to the masses in the pre-Internet era.

Magazines: As a matter of fact, some commercial computer magazines, mainly computer game magazines, did have a few articles on the demo scene, and sometimes their cover disks contained demos. For example, issue 54 of the UK magazine PC Format, from March 1996, had a cover disk with "Demos from the Party 5". The editors' comment on them: "Nice amazing graphic routines written in the tightest code around. You'll be stunned!" The German PC game magazines from Joker Verlag had a demo corner. The same goes for some French magazines, e.g. PC Team for which Senser wrote. I also remember some more recent examples, such as the German PC game mag PC Power having hosted a demo-making competition. ("Are there still people who make demos like Second Reality?" they asked in one of their issues from the year 1997. Unfortunately, it seems like nobody has submitted any entries...) Also, the last commercial German Amiga mags that were published even though the Amiga platform was commercially dead used to contain demo corners; the corner of one mag, AMIGAplus, was edited by Ghandy and Zerox.

So we see that the demo scene was present in some print media; however, the majority of computer magazines did not write about it. It's not that easy to get a magazine to publish articles on the demo scene: it requires some effort, namely the effort to contact the editors and convince them that articles on the demo scene will be suitable for their magazine. Editors of commercial magazines are mainly interested in selling more copies so that they can demand more money for advertisements. Therefore one would have to bring arguments why publishing articles on the demo scene would make more people buy the mag. The primary reason why it's difficult to promote the demo scene in a commercial magazine is that the decision what to publish in the mag is with its editors. The only way to make sure that something is printed is submitting it as an advertisement, but that's expensive; as the scene is not about making money, the relation of the effort invested to the outcome is far too high.

In this context, I would like to point out an outstanding exception: the German magazine Computer Flohmarkt (CF) published by the Thomas-Eberle-Verlag. ("Flohmarkt" means "flea-market".) This was originally a mag that consisted of short "buy/sell" adverts submitted by its readers only. The fee you had to pay for these ads was pretty low. At some stage, sceners discovered the CF as a communication platform by including messages in their adverts. Finally the staff installed additional message-only sections in this magazine, resembling newsgroups. Submitting messages was free. Sceners continued using it for their communication, and they were joined by lots of "ordinary" people. Many people thus became aware of the scene and its productions. Active CF writers adopted some elements of the scene's culture, such as the use of nicknames and mailswapping.

The CF and the two other magazines released by the Thomas-Eberle-Verlag (inspired by the success of the message section), Brotkasten lite and PC-Heimwerker, were the only magazines the scene could freely use for promoting itself because they accepted submissions from its readers. However, the print-run of these magazines was low.

Television: TV would have been an ideal platform to promote demos, but it's even more difficult to get something broadcast on TV than to get something printed in a magazine. However, once MTV showed a demo on TV: State Of The Art by Spaceballs, for Amiga. - In recent days, TV programmes on the scene have become more frequent. More details will follow below.

Events: Public presentations at fairs have rarely ever happened because demos don't advertise commercial products so there's no reason to show them. Apart from a few exceptions, there have been almost no presentations at art events either since demos aren't recognized by non-computer artists (yet). The type of event at which demos have of course regularly been presented is the demo party. Among the visitors to demo parties, there are not only sceners. Any party is usually visited by some local people as well. However, there's the problem that these are often not welcome to sceners, since most of them are bored unless during competition time, and then some of them "abuse" the party network for playing games. In addition, there are some most annoying people who only perceive the demo party as a network gathering and do not show any interest in the scene at all, continuing to play games and loud music even during the compos. Therefore letting in non-sceners to demo parties bears some dangers.

On the other hand, if the aim of the organizers of a party was to draw more people's attention to the demo scene, he could have designed the party more like a demo-show than a sceners' meeting. But in order to attract a reasonable number of visitors in pre-Internet days, it would have been necessary to advertise in the mass media, which would have cost a lot of money. It's the same problem we've just been dealing with. Organizing an event primarily for sceners, however, had the benefit that you could easily attract them by spreading news in scene media such as BBS's, diskmags etc.

The conclusion of all of this is that there were ways to promote the scene to the masses even before the Internet became popular, but: organizing one's own events was expensive, and having others' (professionals') events and media advertise for oneself firstly required contacting them (which was also more difficult than today since most sceners were youngsters and thus weren't taken seriously by grown-up professionals), and secondly the ultimate decision whether to cover the scene was with the hosts, not with the sceners.

Did they want it at all?

But was the scene really keen on others (non-sceners) seeing their productions? There were a couple of arguments that spoke against it.

First of all, one has to keep in mind that the scene had its own set of values. Apart from qualities such as friendship, competitiveness, originality, quality, activity, productivity and judgment of people solely on the basis of their skills without respect to their national origin, one important feature of the scene was tolerance. Things that were considered taboos by the world of adults were accepted in the scene. Some demo scene works contained violence and, more importantly, nudity. Since adults excepted young people not even to watch productions with such contents, imagine how they would react at seeing young people creating such productions!

Second, the scene had its own (sub-)cultural customs. For example, think of "Scenglish". Sceners didn't want others to interfere with them or others to empose "superior" norms on them. After all, the scene was a kind of its world of its own. Just think of diskmags containing separate sections for the Scene and for the so-called Real World. In this context, I'd like to mention that the aesthetics of demo scene productions did not always match the general taste. Flickering screens or bumpy music like in the demo Detox by Satori may be enjoyed by lovers of the art, but most likely the general public will consider such things repulsive.

Third and last, like I've already written, the motivation for most sceners to create demos apparently was to show off their skills to fellow young, computer/art-literate amateurs, and to enjoy the competitions. This made up for the relatively small audience. Moreover, one has to mind that the early demo-makers didn't intend to produce pieces of art, but they rather focused on more technical aspects, to be precise code optimization, and the originality of their hard-coded effects. Until the middle 1990s, music and graphics were only minor components of demos!

Nonetheless, in a society that became increasingly more tolerant regarding cultural customs, these three points are no obstacles. As lots of popular music groups, which were well known and popular among the masses, themselves had strange aesthetics and broke taboos, the demo scene was in no way revolutionary in this respect.

Basically there were two factions in the scene: one that would like to get more public attention, and another one that wanted to keep the scene "underground" for some (childish?) reason. The effect was that the general awareness of the scene did increase, though it would have increased faster if every scener had been seeking more public attention.

What has changed since the mid 1990s

A lot changed for the scene and the general public's awareness of it when the Internet became popular in the middle 1990s. Now a large number of people in the whole world is able to easily access scene sites and download scene productions without restrictions - they only need to be informed about them, unless they accidentially bump into a scene site themselves. That's how the scene has got a larger audience and a lot of fans who are not actively involved in the making of demos themselves. The scene has especially gained many admirers among game-development companies, which is partly the merit of sites such as CFXweb that are targeted both at game developers and demo coders.

The popularity of demos among game developers also has another reason, of course: As sceners grew up, they had to get jobs to make a living, and so many of them started working in the games industry. In this way game programmers learned to appreciate (ex-)sceners' skills.

In the year 2000, the Demoscene Outreach Group was founded. Its founder, an American PhD student of computer science named Vincent Scheib, a.k.a. aancsiid, wanted to promote the scene to a larger audience by presenting it at SIGGRAPH, the annual meeting of the ACM Special Interest Group in Computer Graphics, which is attended by thousands of people from the industry and academic sites worldwide every year. In an interview published in Hugi #25, Vince explained his motivation for starting the DOG: "It was really founded out of frustration with people who should know about the scene, not knowing. I want anyone who loves short computer graphic animations to also know about demos."

The immediate result of aancsiid's efforts was that the demo scene was covered at SIGGRAPH in the years 2001 to 2003. Demos were shown in a separate section of the fair. Only in 2003, an intro actually took part in the regular Computer Arts Festival; it was "fr-019: poem to a horse" by farbrausch. Perhaps this will remain the only time as organizing efforts to accomplish this were enormous.

Since the SIGGRAPH visitors were mainly representants of the computer industry, the secondary effect of the DOG's efforts was that scene demos got even more known among them (among whom they hadn't been totally unknown anyway).

One concrete result was that Intel asked sceners to create demos for their own presentations at fairs.

Since professional game developers are now by and large aware of the demo scene, so are journalists who report about computer games. As a consequence, the demo scene has been covered more often in magazines, on radio channels and most notably on TV in the recent years. For instance, Bravo Screenfun, a German computer game magazine targeted at youngsters in their early teens, printed a report of a demo party. Demos were also shown on Japanese TV as well as on a special German TV channel (Giga TV) that usually deals exclusively with computer games: Every Tuesday, there was a special programme in which working demos and interviews with German sceners, e.g. Haujobb members, were broadcast.

Thus, many young teenagers have learned about computer demos. If you take a look at their reactions, you will see that they can be divided into three groups. First, there are people who don't appreciate demos because they don't understand them. They have posted letters to the staff in the Giga TV web bulletin board in which they asked them not to show demos any longer but to show more programmes about games instead. Second, there are people who have enjoyed watching demos and will most probably continue to do so. Some of them have also expressed interest in creating demos themselves, but it's questionable if they will ever manage to accomplish that either due to lack of talent or due to lack of diligence. And third, there are some people who are really serious about becoming demo-makers themselves and seem to have enough talents for it. It's these people who have given new life to the newsgroup hosted by Interestingly (and fortunately), the established sceners - and German sceners are notorious for being arrogant - don't dismiss them as lamers, but do give them serious hints. In short, television has helped the scene gain a lot of fans and some potential new members.

Future perspectives

What the demo scene still doesn't have is, on the one hand, recognization by other (conventional or modern) artistic communities and, on the other, real popularity among the masses, just like music groups have. But, does it really need that?

What are the benefits of being recognized or popular? The short-time benefit is to get the satisfactory impression that people appreciate one's achievements. In mid term, it's that we get "fresh blood", i.e. new, talented, motivated, active young people attracted to the scene. And in long term, there's the chance that we might appear in history books and thus we will be remembered by mankind virtually "for ever".

The demo scene already enjoys the first two benefits by today's mechanisms of outreach. For the third, the scene would need to get recognized by official art institutions such as art departments of universities. Alternatively, it might try to get its own people into such positions so that they could introduce the demo scene to their colleagues and make demos a topical issue of art history.

It seems like the demo scene might benefit of being recognized by people and institutions dealing with other types of art. On the other hand, would the scene profit from being as popular among the general public as e.g. pop musicians? Actually I believe this question is not even worth dealing with as demos will never become as popular anyway. The reason why certain types of music are so popular is that music is an extremely effective way of triggering all sorts of emotion in people. They do have an effect both on educated and on non-educated people. I don't think that demos are able to touch people in a comparable way. Of course the music of demos could, but music isn't all about the demo; and why should people watch the action on screen if the music alone attains the desired effect? Demo music might become popular, but it's unlikely that demos will. (You may object that modern pop-groups usually produce music-videos for their songs. However, the videos are only secondary to the music, while in demos the action on screen is at least equally important and in any cases even more important than the accompanying music. Also, mind that music-videos are far less popular than the actual songs! Most people know the songs but have never seen the related music-videos!)


In my opinion, the current ways how the demo scene presents itself to non-sceners are sufficient. It's good that the scene does present itself to other people related to computer arts and multimedia development because they deal with similar things and could therefore profit from each other.