The Most Controversial Moments In Video Games: Part 2 - Sex and Violence in the Seventies

Controversial-Video-Games-Part-2Think video game scandals began in the nineties? Think again! Controversy is as old as gaming itself, as these 1970s coin-ops demonstrate with their "graphic" portrayal of sex and violence. Hold onto your butts, we're about to enter the age of Games Gone Wild!

Gotcha (Arcade, Atari - 1973)

Gotcha's premise was innocent enough. Two players would try to find each other in a constantly shifting maze, taking turns at catching and evading the opponent. There were no guns, no alien threats and it was all about the fun of playing the game together. It was a fairly quaint pastime... you might even say "chaste" (ba-dum chish!)

But it wasn't the content that caused a stir; it was the cabinet. Always game for a laugh, Atari staff just couldn't overlook the standard joystick design for its - shall we say? - overtly phallic aesthetics. Their shrewd observation highlighted the potential for great embarrassment, as arcade gamers would no doubt fall victim to crass remarks about twiddling their stick in public. What was Atari's response? Make 'em look like boobies!


Gotcha's inspired control system consisted of two fleshy pink rubber bulges in place of joysticks. In order to move the cursors you'd have to give them a right good squeeze. Atari might have gotten away with it too if it weren't for those pesky game flyers, which depicted a young woman in a short skirt being playfully grabbed from behind. The image alone could hardly be deemed offensive but the combination of this with the "hands on" controls made Gotcha look like some sort of mechanical groping simulator.

The scandal never truly came to pass as, ironically, Gotcha didn't catch on. Most family friendly arcade owners passed on "the boob game" and later, when it was released with a regular joystick control, the novelty was somehow gone. Programmed by Atari legend and Pong creator Al Alcorn and owning its status as the first maze chase game (a good seven years ahead of Pacman), it's surprising how often this title is overlooked in gaming history but it’s normally put down to its sub-par gameplay. With only four known cabinets in existence according to the International Arcade Museum, you're unlikely to get your hands on it any time soon.

(And no, none of those cabinets have boobs.)

Death Race (Arcade, Exidy - 1976)

It might not look like much compared to the likes of Carmageddon or GTA but Death Race was the first game to gain notoriety in mainstream media. Maybe the world just wasn't ready for the vehicular murder genre.

"It's fun chasing monsters" boasted the flyer and I'm sure we'd love to believe that the targets were indeed "gremlins" as stated in the instructions. Now, I'm not here to debate the ethics of gremlin killing (though I saw in a film once that a microwave will get the job done) but there's no escaping the fact that the onscreen stick figures could easily be mistaken for humans. To the average onlooker, Death Race was a game where the sole object was to run over pedestrians and turn them into little tombstones.

What made the "gremlin collisions" all the more horrific was the accompanying sound effect. Exidy were fairly advanced in the audio department, being among the first to use digitised sound samples. The "gremlin scream" heard on impact would have been shockingly realistic for the time, especially as it sounded more human than monstrous.


The intention behind Death Race is still up for debate - was it really a game about killing gremlins or was the implication of homicide made deliberately? Three factors support the latter, the first being the morbid (not to mention awesome!) cabinet artwork of two Grim Reapers racing cars around a cemetery as a vulture looks on, awaiting the carnage. Secondly, there’s the game’s source material. Though not an official tie-in, the title originates with the 1975 exploitation movie Death Race 2000. Starring David Carradine, the film is set in a dystopia where "hit and run" driving is not only legal but celebrated as a national sport.

Thirdly, let's take another example from Exidy's game library, namely the 1986 rail shooter Chiller. The player is cast as a sadistic serial killer going trigger-happy on their victims, shooting the flesh off their bones and the clothes off their back. Behold the full-colour pixellated nudity! Clearly the developers were not above the use of shock value.

“Sick + Morbid = Profit”

The old saying "no publicity is bad publicity" comes to mind when discussing these two games. While Gotcha was quietly put aside and forgotten about by the industry, the furore surrounding Death Race helped put Exidy on the map. Several local and national newspapers in the United States ran the story of the ‘Hit the Pedestrian’ game, the National Safety Council called it “sick and morbid” and there were even rumours that Exidy headquarters started receiving bomb threats from outraged citizens.

All of this helped boost Death Race cabinet sales by an estimated tenfold. Plus the game would never suffer the indignity of a Jason Statham remake.

Check out Part 1 of The Most Controversial Moments In Video Games, a closer look at Night Trap and Mortal Kombat's darker sides.

Last Updated ( 09 January 2014 )  

Lindsay Robertson

Lindsay is freelance writer, librarian and all-round pop culture junkie. She considers herself a Game Historian (like that’s even a thing!), enjoys debunking controversies and particularly loves any game where girls kick ass. Being Scottish, she can usually be found at the bar.

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