Sci-Friday Technology

Meet the sire of all vehicular manslaughter fantasy games: Death Race (1976)

I suck at video games.  The one and only time I attempted to play Halo, I somehow managed to keep shooting myself and that was the end of that. Not only am I terrible, but I tend to miss the point all together. Sure I could collect these coins and kill that boss, but I could also shoot a hole in this wall and have a dance party instead! Needless to say, I rarely get invited to play video games, and by rarely, I mean never.

However, despite my lack of gaming skills, I still consider video games an iconic part of my growing up. I’ve experienced most everything from my parents’ Atari when I was little all the way up through whatever the hell my boyfriend plays now. In addition to the consoles growing and shrinking and the graphics evolving from crude triangles on a screen to something so detailed and realistic it could pass for a movie, the hype surrounding games has been a constant source of media scrutiny for as long as I can remember; specifically, the controversial violence involved.

The earliest controversial game I personally remember is Doom, but this saga goes back even farther than that. Way back in the 1970s, a game named Death Race was released and soon granted the prestigious title of original controversial video game. What started as a harmless game of reckless driving soon turned into the mass murders of gremlins, which as we all know, is generally frowned upon and not okay.  Shame on you, Death Race!

Death Race is played by driving your car around a single green screen, purposefully trying to run over “gremlins”. Simple enough, right? Here’s the twist. After you hit a gremlin, he shrieks, dies, and then turns into a grave marker. The more gremlins you kill, the more graves you have blocking your path, which, if you’ve reached the supreme level of “Gremlin Hunter” or “Expert Driver”, all those tombstones can become quite an obstacle. Time to let those driving skills shine where they matter most!

Perhaps the premise of the game was a little strange, but all in all, relatively harmless. Um, no.  Apparently, these gremlins resembled common day pedestrians way too much, and this caused quite the uproar. Also, a movie of the same name starring Sly Stone as a pedestrian-killing racer was released just before the video game. Either that, or people in the 70’s were really passionate when it came to gremlin rights. Regardless, parents protested, and news magazines and late night television couldn’t cover enough of it. Obviously, sales went up and Death Race became a big arcade hit.

Despite its compromising portrayal of gremlins, Death Race has thrived and grown over the years. You might know it today as the Grand Theft Auto series, which ironically, is the only game I have ever been semi okay at playing. Think of it! A world without GTA! Thanks to our arcade rat friends from Gen X, we’ll never have to.

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