Trivia

Hard

Which Video Game First Inspired Widespread Controversy?

Grand Theft Auto
Death Race
Mortal Kombat
Doom
The arcade flyer artwork for Death Race.
Exidy/Mean Hamster Software/CollectorVision Games

Answer: Death Race

The topic of video game violence and the impact it has on children is such a commonplace news topic these days, it’s hard to imagine that hand-wringing over pixelized violence has been a part of our cultural discourse since the advent of video games themselves.

Prior to 1976, however, there had never been a video game that was violent or offensive enough to really catch the attention of the public. Never, that is, until the release of the arcade game Death Race. If we’re tracing back the family tree of video game controversy, then Death Race is the great-grandfather of every modern video game controversy.

Although the game appears to be inspired by the 1975 cult film Death Race 2000, game publisher Exidy denied any link to the film and claimed that the game was developed independently. In the game, up to two players can drive cars, acquiring points by running over “gremlins”. The simplistic graphics lacked any sort of nuance and the gremlins looked like little people. It didn’t help that the working title of Death Race had originally been Pedestrian. The title shift and the renaming of the pedestrians to “gremlins” seems to have been a last minute PR move—and a dubiously effective one at that.

As you can imagine, the public reaction to a game that rewarded children and teenagers for committing vehicular manslaughter was strongly negative. The game was condemned by the National Safety Council, 60 Minutes ran a piece on the psychological impact of video games on children, and it inspired the first-ever organized protest of a video game.

Ironically, the negative attention actually provided an infusion of cash into the company and the industry as a whole. People swarmed to arcades, even those without a rare copy of Death Race, and the industry responded by cranking out dozens of new titles. 53 arcade titles from 15 different companies were released in the wake of the Death Race controversy (nearly as many as had been released in the prior two years combined).

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