Markku Reunanen: Studying yourself – Case Demoscene

A screenshot from the demo Fit-039: Boy by Fit.

Genuine personal interest is often a big factor when choosing the topics we wish to study, which can lead to situations where we ourselves and our close community become the subject of the research. In this blog post I discuss the setting, its pros and cons, pitfalls and possible solutions based on my own experiences with the demoscene – a community which I have studied for almost twenty years and participated in for more than thirty as a programmer (Reunanen 2017). When we look into the history of computing, it is evident how each generation tends to write their own history: former mainframe users study the early years of computing, 1980s’ whiz kids look into the history of home computers, and so on.

The demoscene is one of the oldest extant strands of digital culture, dating back to the mid-1980s and the home computer boom which brought machines like the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and MSX compatibles to homes all around the industrialized world. The scene has its roots in the computer game piracy of the time, but toward the 1990s it gradually became a disctinct community, which has been particularly active in Europe (Reunanen 2014). As per its name, the demoscene creates demos, works of art which showcase the artistic and programming skills of their creators (see Figure 1 for some examples). While originally an underground movement, the scene is now recognized in Finland, Germany, Poland, The Netherlands and Switzerland as intangible cultural heritage by the local UNESCO chapters.

Figure 1. Screenshots of demos: State of the Art (1992) by Spaceballs, Heaven 7 (2000) by Exceed and Nucleophile (2008) by Portal Process and TBC.

The initial relationship between a researcher and the subject of their study always exists, but by no means is it permanent. The possible settings and their implications have been discussed in depth in the field of (sub)cultural studies, providing useful terminology and perspectives here as well. Rhoda MacRae’s (2007) tripartite model defines the following researcher–community relationships:

  • Outsider-in – the researcher participates in and observes a social group, a common approach in ethnographic research.
  • Outsider-out – the researcher observes the group indirectly based on, for example, texts. This is the most distanced setting of the three.
  • Insider-in – the researcher already is or becomes an actual member of the community. The assimilation may ultimately be hindered by factors such as demographic distance.

For this blog post the third kind, insider-in, is the most relevant one. Coming from the scene myself it was rather easy to understand the slang, practices and motivations of others, so own involvement can indeed be beneficial. Just to discover and view a representative sample of demos – which there are tens of thousands – would have required considerable effort and time, so especially at the beginning an insider has the upper hand compared to an outsider. As Paul Hodkinson (2005) writes, own experiences can also constitute a useful comparison point when the researcher analyzes and validates their findings. However, he also rightfully notes how the “insider” position is neither binary nor self-efficient, as I came to realize myself when studing the 1980s game pirates who did not view me as one of them at all.

Some of the possible pitfalls when studying something very close to yourself are rather self-evident. For instance, there is a constant need to question your assumptions and existing knowledge, as they only represent a narrow perspective. Both Hodkinson (2005) and MacRae (2007) offer constant reflection as the solution to avoid bias. To put it in other words, the insider researcher has to be able to step back and take a fresh look at their subject. This is the main criterium that separates academic studies from other accounts, such as memoirs, colorful coffee table books and enthusiast histories of the demoscene, which are (and are allowed to be) based on personal views.

It was only through experience that I came to realize some of my own, less apparent biases. Decades of grassroots activity have left me with attitudes, favorite demos and creators, as well as enemies. There is a certain threshold to write about groups or productions you personally dislike and, in the similar vein, it is hard to leave out others that were personally important to yourself. One way to counter this issue is to distance or even completely remove oneself from the selection process, and leave it to the community itself, keeping in mind it has its canonical favorites too.

What a scientist should also be able to do is discussing the negative findings they encounter. The easy choice of simply focusing on the positive, in order to not offend anyone or make the community look bad in the eyes of outsiders, lacks honesty and degenerates into glorification. In the case of the demoscene, which has traditionally consisted of adolescent and young men, it is hardly a surprise that there has been plenty of unhealthy competition, elitism, insults and intolerance over the years – probably familiar traits to anyone who has studied later gamer or other online communities. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, as the increasing age of sceners seems to have brought about a positive change in the atmosphere, even if at the cost of certain detachment and less burning passion.

As the last topic, I would like to quickly reflect on the worth of academic study from the perspective of hobbyists themselves. What good is it to a demo enthusiast that someone wrote a paper on their scene? As researchers, we run a certain risk of canonizing an alive, colorful phenomenon, incorporating and trivializing it into something it is not, no matter how good our intentions were. That said, research can also bring due recognition to those whose creative works were not exhibited at high-brow galleries, and provide opportunities for self-reflection and identification in the form of seeing yourself as part of something bigger, a historical continuum and a community.

Author bio and contact:

Markku Reunanen, PhD, is a senior university lecturer at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Department of Art and Media. The University of Turku awarded him the title of docent in digital culture in 2020. His research interests range from the history of computing to videogames and digital (sub)culture. His PhD thesis from 2017 deals with the relationship of the demoscene and technology.

Picture credits: Ji Hyun Hong.


Hodkinson, P. (2005). ‘Insider Research’ in the Study of Youth Cultures. Journal of Youth Studies, 8(2), 131–49.

MacRae, R. (2007). ‘Insider’ and ‘Outsider’ Issues in Youth Research. In P. Hodkinson & W. Deicke (Eds.), Youth Cultures – Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes, (pp. 51–61). Routledge.

Reunanen, M. (2014). How Those Crackers Became Us Demosceners. WiderScreen, 17(1–2).

Reunanen, M. (2017). Times of Change in the Demoscene – A Creative Community and Its Relationship with Technology. Annales Universitatis Turkuensis, series B, 428. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Turku].