The American 1970s are associated with crime, violence, poverty, unemployment, political and social upheaval, bad clothes, and worse music. In the early 1980s, Lamm and her battle against arcades bridged the gap between the first truly controversial game in the '70s and the Brave New World of the early 1990s with Mortal Kombat. The games in this section not only unleashed pandemonium among the public and media, but they were also pulled from store shelves, they faced litigation, they were banned from entire countries, and they inspired the creation of ratings agencies and new laws. It's downhill from here, so why not start at the summit.
Publisher: Exidy, 1976
Midway through the 1970s, the first universally accepted controversial video game reared its head. Should we be surprised? Like many of the byproducts of this bygone era, the game was banned but not forgotten.
Death Race was an arcade game based on the movie Death Race 2000, which starred David Carradine as Frankenstein and Sylvester Stallone as Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo. The movie's tagline, "In the year 2000, hit and run driving is no longer a felony. It's the national sport!" rang true of the video game version as well. The objective of the lo-fi black and white game that looked like a slightly more advanced version of Pong was to earn points by running over as many "gremlins" as possible within a given time frame. If you successfully pulverized your prey, a cross would appear where the being was trumped. If you failed to kill passersby on the first run, you could reverse your vehicle and finish them off.
Death Race was so aggressively rejected by the public that shortly after its release, Exidy pulled the game off store shelves. Web lore claims only 500 copies of the game were made with only several known to exist by the late 1980s. At the time of this writing, an eBay search on Death Race turned up more than 100 versions of the DVD or VHS movie and surprisingly one offering for the game--an arcade machine in "decent" shape, needing "work," and listed at $157 with four days remaining in the auction.
While it's also widely acknowledged that Death Race was originally called Pedestrian, Steve L. Kent, author of The Ultimate History of Video Games, freelance writer, and speaker for Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl's (D-Wis.) annual Video Game Report Card event held in the Senate Judiciary Chambers, said the game was first titled Demolition Derby, a game Exidy created for Chicago Coin Machine Co. The company defaulted on payment to Exidy, so Exidy CEO Pete Kaufmann pulled the game and rereleased it later as Death Race. "What got everyone upset about Death Race was that you heard this little 'ahhhk' when the person got hit, and a little gravestone came up," Kent said. "That was big enough to make 60 Minutes."
Kent also spoke of a sign Kaufmann apparently kept on the back of his office door, bearing the number "8999." As the story goes, Exidy planned to sell about 1,000 Death Race machines, but when controversy struck, the number rose to 10,000--there's no such thing as bad press.
Death Race was to originally have featured humans, not gremlins, although they undoubtedly would have looked the same onscreen--like stick figures. Authors John Borland and Brad King wrote in their book Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic that Kaufmann explained the gremlin/human difference between the versions; however, his reasoning did not save Death Race's day. "The game quickly triggered national attention, garnering write-ups in the National Enquirer and other, more serious newspapers. It even prompted a segment on TV's 60 Minutes probing the psychology of video game players," the pair wrote.
Death Race screenshot image courtesy of The Dot Eaters: Videogame History 101