Geek Trivia

Which Video Game First Inspired Widespread Controversy?

Death Race
Mortal Kombat
Grand Theft Auto
Which Laboratory Boasts The Most Nobel Prize Winners?

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 hasn’t always been a part of our cultural discourse.

Prior to 1976, however, there had never been a video game 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, Death Race is the great grandfather of every modern video game controversy.

The game was loosely based on the the 1975 cult film Death Race 2000. In the game up to two players can drive a car, acquiring points by running over “gremlins”. The simplistic graphics lacked any sort of nuance and the gremlins look 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 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 waning video game industry. 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 were released in the wake of the Death Race controversy (nearly as many as had been released in the prior two years combined). Video might have killed the radio star but, it would seem, a little vehicular manslaughter saved the arcade star.